Sugar Lush

     Certain ideas just seem to come out of nowhere when I first wake up in the morning. I rise from the depths of slumber, rubbing my swollen eyelids, and suddenly think to myself, “Is Kitty Carlisle still alive?” And then I can’t get on with my day until I’ve Googled.

     Other times a random song is inexplicably delivered unto me at this early hour. For years this was “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” a song I haven’t heard since it was first released, yet can sing from start to finish (just ask next time you see me). Other first thoughts of the day might include “How does Uri Geller eat soup?,” the phrase “elongated stucco buckles,” or a deep longing to visit the set of “Family Affair.” These thoughts are like a last-second jump shot from the subconscious, hitting my waking mind just before the buzzer.

     And on this particular day a few months back, the random thought that occurred to me upon waking was, “I want an Icee.” I focused on this impulse a bit, letting it clarify in my mind, and realized that no, I needed an Icee. And I needed it today.

     An Icee, for the culturally deprived, is a frozen beverage consisting of crushed ice, syrup, and a blast of CO2 carbonation. It’s dispensed in neon colors from a refrigerated Icee machine by disgruntled, third-shift clerks at Stop ‘n Go, Quick Stop, Fast Fuel, or many other convenience stores with names that encourage your hasty exit. Shoplifting frequently in just such convenience stores throughout my childhood, it’s fair to say I was raised on Icees. They were the traditional victory drinks after a successful Little League game, a handy method of pacifying whiny tykes during a long car ride, and the logical result of having “found” 68 cents on your sister’s bedside table.

     I lay in bed that morning, remembering this artificially-flavored concoction fondly. I wanted another hit. But it had been a long time since I had even thought of Icees. Did they even exist anymore? Panic set in. It wasn’t that I couldn’t live without slurping an Icee again, but I wasn’t sure I could live in a world where Icees were no longer available. The integrity of America itself was riding on this. What were all those missile defense programs and firefights in Southeast Asia for if not to keep the flow of Icee on tap? What represents the purity of the American dream more than the liberal distribution of corn syrup and red dye #2? I had to know that Icees were still out there, that America was still strong.

     To my delight, I discovered the mom and pop store down the road was advertising Icees, so I went in to investigate. What I found there was an Icee-brand “slushie,” a generic vat of crushed ice floating in snow cone syrup, with no carbonation. This was not an Icee. But it occurred to me that perhaps that was all that was left of the once-noble Icee brand. Maybe the kids of today would have no connection with the true legacy of the Icee and all that it represented. They would think this syrupy gunk was what I’ve been rhapsodizing all these years, just like they get confused about the real “Clash of the Titans.”

     This may seem like a lot of fuss over a trashy junk food item, but you know as well as I do that junk culture is what binds our generation together. We do not connect through shared remembrance of traditional foods cooked by native grandmothers or ceremonial dances of springtime. Our shared cultural heritage is Speed Buggy. Our nostalgia for home and hearth includes Pop Rocks, Space Invaders, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Smurfs, and Shasta. We grew up in a branded culture, and we reestablish contact with our youth by sorting through the debris of antique consumption. Tell me you don’t get giddy just thinking about Bubblicious.

     The trouble is that junk ain’t what it used to be. Like other pathetic Gen Xers, I get excited about the seasonal reappearance of Frankenberry on the store shelves, and impulsively purchase a box. But tasting the cereal again, hoping to be magically transformed to the breakfast table of yesteryear, I find something is vaguely wrong with the experience. The taste isn’t the same. The corn syrup kick I’m expecting feels bland. It’s an artificial version of the artificial flavor we remember. It wants to be Frankenberry, but like the monster for which it’s named, it had been resurrected from the dead and rebuilt too many times. The same goes for McDonald’s fries, Mountain Dew, or an REO Speedwagon reunion tour. We can’t even depend on garbage to be the garbage we knew and loved.

     I suppose it’s a pretty sad commentary on our culture that we place such emotional value on Skittles and Big Macs, but such is our TV-addled conditioning. In fact, this is no soapbox I’m ranting from, but a Beanie Babies collector’s case. I’ve learned over the years to accept these nostalgic attachments to Big Boy and Captain Crunch as very real. For some of us, Aunt Jemima was the only family member who provided unconditional love (she only once politely suggested I attend military school, then never brought it up again). We can’t depend on our drunken parents, we should feel secure in our Fruit Roll-Ups.

     And so maybe you can understand my quest for the Icee, and my great relief when I finally discovered that the beverage was still widely available (Burger King and Target stores, for those who share my juvenile craving). Better yet, the drink was exactly as I remembered it: fizzy, revoltingly sweet, and inducing a brain freeze which temporarily blinded me. It brought back a flood of childhood memories: Wetting my pants in kindergarten, setting fire to the couch, getting stung by a swarm of angry bees – all of them “Icee moments.” I felt great relief in knowing that the Icee brand was still alive, and still providing the direct link to the comforting garbage consumption of our collective, brainless youth. Because this is something we all have within us, this internal reservoir of feel-good pop culture nostalgia.

     Which is why you’ve had “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” in your head this whole time.

- A.H.


Esri Rose said...

I, too, wet my pants in kindergarten. Respect.

Shano said...

I don't know why but I think about the closets on Family Affair about every day. What a nice apartment they had. And I never even saw the show when it was on. It was over before I was born but my cousin had the Mrs.Beasley doll so when a rerun appeared we would watch it as if the real live Mrs. Beasley was speaking to us personally. I've never compared them to confirm this but, in one of the later seasons of Mad Men, Don Draper's apartment gets remodeled and it ends up looking a lot like Family Affair. Most likely intentional as there is probably no one more crippled by nostalgia than Mad Men's showrunner.

Ashley Holt said...

Where I really want to hang out is in Family Affair's artificial park.

KGMcAbee said...

The REAL Clash of the Titans! So true...

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