Acid has burned the shape of a trident into the cement floor. A white etching on the gray warehouse floor. One leaky pallet of Coca-Cola products waiting for disposal. The smell is rancid. Gnats circle. As I am standing on the receiving dock at the Sam’s Club where I work, it occurs to me that Coke products pretty much connect us all. Just like linking anyone in Hollywood to Kevin Bacon, I never need more than six degrees to link myself to Coke. Follow the paths—they all lead to Coke. Coke is everywhere. It is related to everything, especially in the South, definitely in Atlanta, and, truly, all over the world. After all, Coke is the most widely distributed product on the planet.
I’m a Southern girl, born in the City of Coke: Atlanta. If Coke were a person, could I exist without being in a relationship with it? Coke, as it just so happens, is the thread that connects so many parts of my life—and I rarely drink it. I live in the middle of Cokedom. Coke is like religion here; people here assume that if you order a “soda,” you want a Coke.
Asa Candler founded The Coca-Cola Company. He purchased the formula for Coke from its inventor, John Pemberton, for $550. Discovered accidentally in 1886, it was originally promoted as a product to “relieve exhaustion.” Aggressive marketing was the basis of the product’s success, and Candler invested in banks, churches, hospitals, commercial buildings, and universities. Parks are named after him. A true Atlanta legend.
Any trip to downtown Atlanta via I-75 should include a stop at The Varsity, the original location of the world’s largest outlet for single-serve Coca-Cola. Word is, The Varsity sells more single servings of Coca-Cola than any other standalone restaurant in the world. The Varsity is an icon. Loud. You can smell the grease on your clothes hours after you have finished your meal. Visitors always want to have a meal at The Varsity when they are here. Family members feel hurt when you go without them. Approach the counter. Be ready. “Whatta ya have?” Two naked steaks, an order of fries, and a Diet Coke.
Just a few blocks from The Varsity is the home office of my husband’s employer, New South Construction. New South is an Atlanta-based company that was started in 1990 by Doug Davidson. Doug’s first client was Delta. His second was Coca-Cola. Twenty-five years and counting for the two companies. I’m sure some fraction of our household income can be traced back to a Coke project done by New South.
Coke is also connected to my degree program, Reinhardt University’s Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, home of the James Dickey Review. James Dickey was a poet and a novelist. Before he was a poet, and before Deliverance, he was an advertising executive. James Dickey wrote jingles for The Coca-Cola Company.
The Samuel C. Dobbs building at Reinhardt University was named after a Coke executive. Samuel Candler Dobbs, Asa Candler’s cousin, was the President and Chairman of The Coca-Cola Company from 1919-1922. He donated money to the school for the building. Before that, soft drinks weren’t allowed on campus. After that, they were.
A recent addition to the Dobbs building was also funded by donors. The Woodruff Foundation, which honors Coca-Cola President Robert Winship Woodruff, donated $1.5 million. Reinhardt University recently hosted poetry and prose readings in the Dobbs building-—the building that Coke built. Someone read a poem by James Dickey.
Our MFA cohort spent a day of the summer residency in Atlanta visiting Westview Cemetery. This was my first visit to Westview. Jeff was our tour guide, and his enthusiasm was infectious. The property includes the cemetery, a mausoleum, and even an abbey. Hundred-year-old trees. Over 9 miles of road—582 acres. The gatehouse is one of Atlanta’s oldest standing structures. Part of the property was once slated for inclusion in a proposal for a National Park site. Battles were fought on the property during the Civil War. Buried there is our town’s who’s who. Names of Haverty, Hartsfield, Shaw, High, Grady. It was sweltering in the Atlanta July heat, and I had been drinking water all day. My attention span was faltering because I really need to pee. Then, I heard it: Asa Candler is buried there.
The Coca-Cola Company runs fundraising programs, which I have coordinated for several years for the Woodstock High School marching band. Participation is strong, and folks are more than willing to buy the soft drinks. The non-profit organization makes a little money, and Coca-Cola infiltrates again. The shipping crates make great magazine holders on the fireplace. Booster club concessions everywhere offer Coke products, because everyone wants a Coke and a smile! We have created a culture that implies product superiority by our demand for the product. Concessionaires everywhere offer Coke products because someone negotiated an exclusive contract where no other brand can be offered. A monopoly for sure.
Diet Coke is a staple in our home, but I wasn’t born into it. We were a Pepsi family for a time. My husband’s tour during Operation Desert Storm changed that. Coke products were easier to come by over there. One of the souvenirs my husband brought home from Saudi Arabia was a can of Diet Coke—the labeling in Arabic, but easily identifiable. We often joke that my husband needs to be hooked up to a Diet Coke IV drip. His addiction to the caffeine in Diet Coke is getting worse; he has gone from one can a day to multiple cans. One year for Christmas, everyone in the family gave him a case of Diet Coke. He was only somewhat amused. We can be out of food of any kind at our house, but we never, ever, run out of Diet Coke. He starts jonesing early in the day for the wake-me-up can. Are we sure Coca-Cola removed that little trace of cocaine? Is there still a secret ingredient we don’t know about?
Today is another day at work at Sam’s Club. Members purchase Coke products in bulk-sized cases. At lunch, I walk to the snack bar for a Coke slushee. There’s a red light flashing over the machine that freezes the syrup with the ice. Red means no—no slushee today. That’s probably a good thing, but a bummer since it’s really hot outside. But I know I won’t have to wait long before I meet up with Coke later, somewhere.
Maria Klouda‘s work has been published in The Blue Mountain Review, Sanctuary, and Family Life Publications. She is the copy-editor and social media manager for The James Dickey Review, and the previous owner, publisher, and editor of Edible Metro & Mountains. Born in Atlanta, Klouda now calls Canton, GA home and has deep roots in the new South. She has a BBA in Marketing, an MBA, and is currently writing her way to an MFA in Creative Writing from the Etowah Valley MFA program at Reinhardt University, where she also serves as the program’s graduate assistant. You can learn more about Maria here.
(Photo credit: Flickr.)