In the early Seventies, I saw a photograph of Hagar the Horrible cartoonist Dik Browne in Parade Magazine. I knew who Dik Browne was because, even at this young age, I was completely absorbed in the world of comics and determined that cartooning was going to be my future occupation. Browne was photographed at his drawing board, as all cartoonists are, grinding out another series of comic strip panels (or at least pretending to) while beaming at the camera. This already looked like the Good Life to me, sitting on your butt, drawing cartoon junk all day, but there was one detail in the photo that really convinced me that this guy had hit the lotto. Browne had a can of soda by his table.
To my immature mind, this could only mean one thing: Dik Browne had his own Coke machine, and he could select a soda from it anytime he wanted. I’m not sure why I didn’t understand that cans of soda could simply be purchased from the store and kept in the fridge, other than my parents never bought cola in cans. My mother only bought large, 2 liter Cokes – still in glass bottles in those days – and this was rationed between juice, milk, or whatever else growing boys were supposed to drink back when mothers still understood that a steady diet of soda wasn’t particularly nutritious. The only time I had access to cans of cola was via the refrigerated, coin-op Coke machine (they are always called Coke machines in the South, regardless of the actual brand of soda inside). And if I saw them elsewhere, say, in a cooler on a fishing boat, I assumed they originally came from a machine. For all I knew, that’s where cans of soda were born, inside one of those glorious, humming, illuminated dispensaries.
And even though I didn’t have a Dik Browne level of fortune at that age, I still had access to a Coke machine. It was right at the end of my street, in the laundry room of a tiny, brick apartment complex. And the asking price was only twenty-five cents. Trouble was I rarely had a quarter and wasn’t too sharp when it came to figuring out how to get one.
There were very few things on my tiny mind in those preschool days; my sugar craving, cartoons…that was about it. My parents were becoming concerned that I wasn’t embracing the sporting life with the same gusto as other little boys (i.e. – they worried I was gay) because I spent all my time in my room drawing Batman. Their attempts to lure me outside usually involved some purchase from the sporting goods department; a baseball glove, a football, or some other outdoor equipment I hadn’t asked for. That Christmas I received, unsolicited and with much fanfare, my first bicycle, a stubby little orange and yellow kiddie bike, complete with handlebar streamers and training wheels. My father made it clear right away that the training wheels would be coming off as soon as I got the hang of pedaling the bike, but this made no sense to me. I may not have understood where cans of soda came from, but I wasn’t completely dim when it came to basic physics. I knew that a vehicle with four wheels stood up on its own, but a bike with only two wheels fell over in a mass of blood and broken teeth (and no bike helmets in those days, kids). I wasn’t enthusiastic about the bike anyway, but I was even less interested in the flaming deathtrap my father promised that the bike would soon become.
Not to mention that losing the training wheels would mean more effort on my part to learn how to keep the bike upright. And I could see that this extra exertion was going to be yet another hitch in my plan to live a life of slothful cartooning. (This laziness on my part was not a new development. When I was baby, my mother took me to the pediatrician out of alarm that there might be something wrong with my feet. Whenever she would pick me up by the arms to try teach me to walk, I would pick my feet off the floor and refuse to have anything to do with it. This shouldn’t have been a mystery to anyone. I had people around to carry me wherever I wanted to go, my own indentured servants to whisk me from room to room or bring me whatever I wanted. Why in the hell would I want to learn how to walk?)
But that Christmas morning, after being reminded a few times that my splendid, brand-new bicycle existed, I finally took the hint and began riding it up and down the street. Boring. The other neighborhood kids seemed excited about their Big Wheels and banana seat choppers, but not me. I had a perfectly good GI Joe at home, fresh out of the box. Plus it was cold outside and I looked like a dweeb, pedaling that midget bike up and down the block. So you can understand why, when one of the unkempt kids from the apartment complex down the road wanted to buy my bicycle from me, I said yes right away. His offer? Twenty-five cents! Not only could I ditch the Dorkmobile, but I’d have a quarter to slip into the neighborhood Coke machine, the giant, magical sugar wizard that kept refreshing, carbonated beverages crisper and colder than the North Pole itself. Deal!
After listening to me brag about what a great deal I got on the crummy Christmas present, my father retrieved the bike from the neighbor kid, and soon after, removed the training wheels and insisted I learn to pilot the damned thing in a reasonably adult manner. He was determined I was not going to become some sort of soda-sipping, wallflower sissy boy who drew pictures all day. But the moral of this story is that I was victorious in refusing to learn my lesson. Today I have no respect for the value of a dollar, I sit on my ass for a living, I drink all my sodas in cans, and I only drive vehicles with four wheels. Screw you, Mom and Dad.
Years after my soda-obsessed childhood had evolved into drug-addled teenhood I saw a Penny Marshal film called Big, which had a scene I could relate to. In that movie, Tom Hanks plays a kid who finds himself magically transformed into an adult overnight. Through a series of Hollywoodian flukes, he finds himself gainfully employed and living in the big city, the mind of a child with all the perks of adulthood. One of the first luxuries he purchases for his penthouse apartment is a Coke machine. And he brags to his friends that it’s rigged up to dispense cans of soda just by pushing the button. No quarters required.