Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Soda Jerk

I have several fond childhood memories of visiting my father’s factory at 718 Broadway in Manhattan. First was the train ride from Brooklyn on the BMT subway line to the 8th Street station. While our mother sat on a cane seat, my brother, sister and I would stand at the front of the first car, just to the left of the engineer. We’d pretend to be guiding the train through the darkness of the tunnel.

After the near one hour commute, we’d be ready for lunch. We’d eat in the automat on Broadway, across the street from the subway exit. My memory of the food is incomplete, other than learning to eat Salisbury steak (a fancy name for chop meat) there. The real treat, however, was not the automat’s food but rather the intriguing system of portion delivery. Most food sat behind hinged glass windows, unlocked only after you’d deposit the requisite change and turned the beveled brass and porcelain knob to crank open the hatch. Even more entertaining were the coffee and hot chocolate dispensers. For a nickel, a cup of either frothing, steamy brew would gush out from the mouth of a lion’s head.

As much fun as the automat was, once we arrived at our father’s “place,” for that is what our parents called his lingerie factory, we couldn’t wait for the moment we could quench our thirst with a six-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola. Dad had a fire-engine red Coke machine. Except when he treated them late in the afternoon, his workers paid a dime for each Coke, pushing down a grey lever to pump the next bottle up to the take-out slot. We’d pester him and our mother for a Coke until he finally relented and unlocked the door to the Coke machine. To “pay” for the soda, he’d have us refill the tubes that held each bottle and snaked their way around the inside of the machine.

At home we always had soda. But it never tasted as good as the ones we drank at the “place.”

I was reminded of my lifelong dedication (Gilda calls it an addiction) to Coca-Cola by an article in this morning’s NY Times, The Battle over Taxing Soda ( For the record, I’m in favor of a tax on sugar-laced drinks, be they sodas, energy concoctions or artificial juices.

Again for the record, I wouldn’t have to pay a penny more for my current Coke fix. You see, after more than 40 years of imbibing “real” Coke, my blood sugar levels trickled in near diabetic levels. I switched to Diet Coke, and to Crystal Light when I wanted a non-carbonated sweet tasting drink (Gilda can’t understand why plain water, or maybe club soda, is not sufficient for me. She just doesn’t get it, but anyone out there who also has a sweet tooth does.)

Our kids never drank Coke, even though I had it right in front of them every meal. Gilda just told them, “Daddy has an addiction.” They didn’t get cavities as I did as a child, though Dan did have one year when four cavities showed up. (Turned out one of his teachers rewarded him with M&Ms for good work. Well, we always said he was a smart boy.)

Too much sugar is a national plague. If a soda tax will help contain our enlarging population and its rush toward Type 2 Diabetes, we would do well to see this as a necessary incursion of government into our private lives, much the same way we tax cigarettes or require people to wear seat belts. The argument that individuals should be allowed to do as they please fails to appreciate that everyone suffers from our obesity epidemic. Insurance rates are higher for all of us. On a more mundane level, it’s not comfortable sitting next to someone oozing onto your space in a movie theater or airplane.

Diet sodas, sugar free drinks and candies have come a long way in the last 20 years. They may not yet taste the same as the real thing, but they won’t kill you or at the very least curtail your life style or make you a burden on society.