See, I certainly didn't intend to achieve nirvana
that afternoon. No; this was merely to be an errand
, one of those things we have to do
on a hot, hot Saturday in New York City
. A friend I've known forever (well, since we were two, I suppose) was getting married. His lovely fiancee and he lived in Outer Brooklyn (to us Manhattanite
s) which meant they'd found a place just up the street to rent the tuxes for the wedding party. I, myself, ended up in said party. So the Saturday before the wedding, off I went to get my rotund
After the ritualistic poking with the tape measure was complete (along with the bonus Selection Of Rental Cufflinks and the ever-popular What Pant Size Are We Today?) I headed back out into the muggy Brooklyn air, determined to have some sort of lunch despite the heat. Across the street (practically) was a completely typical pizza parlor, complete with pies congealing under the front glass counter and booths along the wall. I ordered a couple of slices and a Coke; they were generous enough to give me two slices off the fresh pie coming out of the oven, and the counterman handed me a sweating waxed paper cup full (exactly two millimeters below the rim) with soda. I took them back towards the booth I'd selected, and as I slid the paper plate of 'za onto the table, took a careful sip of C...
imagine if you can there is a place which is neither hot nor cold but pleasantly cool where the air dances past your skin at precisely the speed required to wick away sweat and body heat leaving you exactly the right temperature and there you sit so in order to alleviate the sameness in this paradise you bring forth to yourself on your mossy boulder a glass of ice cold pure and effervescent nectar of the Gods which you have stolen in a longtime adventure tale as awesome as any epic but which for the moment matters not because you raise the glass to your lips and allow the slightly thick liquid light inside to briefly touch your lips because more than that might stop your heart but you can't help yourself and you pour down a slug of the painfully chilled pleasure
Holy living mother-of-God blessed shit on a shingle of Jesus H. Christopher tap-dancing Christ's popsicle stick.
I turned and went back to the glass counter at the front of the store, back to the front part of it where the end facing the street was taken up by the Old Skool(tm) Coca-Cola fountain. The counterman, an Italian gent in his late fifties, perhaps, looked up from where he was polishing the steel splashguard of the machine with a rag. I carefully, watching what I was doing, set the cup down on the counter precisely midway between the edges, placed both hands palm down on the counter on either side of it, and only then raised my eyes to his in worshipful query.
"Good God, man, please tell me what this is."
His smile was a beautiful work of art that had, quite obviously, been waiting all day for Someone To Notice.
"It's-a Coca-Cola, sir." He actually said 'it's-a.' I recall it clearly.
"No, it's not." I shook my head emphatically. "I am really, really sure that this is some illegal substance."
"What-a make you say that?" The smile had morphed into a grin as he spread his arms and placed his hands on the counter opposite mine.
"This cannot be Coca-Cola."
"How old you?"
"Yah. You used to modern stuff call Coke. No way, Jose. This the real thing."
He chuckled and reached out to affectionately pat the machine that sat patiently on the counter, red and white logos gleaming as brightly as the steelwork. "This re-e-eal Coke Machine."
I didn't reply, just managed to make an amazingly eloquent inquiry entirely with my eyebrows. He relented.
"Son, you get Coke now in can, in plastic bottle, even in glass bottle, but not Coke. Coke made to be mix in machine, but more important, by person. You know phrase 'soda jerk'?" I nodded. "Yah. Soda jerk. He responsible for clean, for maintain machine; for order supplies, and..." (here he lowered his voice slightly, almost unconsciously, speaking for us alone) "...and for mix."
I picked up my paper gourd of heaven and took a long draught. The Coke was cold enough to hurt my teeth; the carbonation was perfect - enough to tingle and tell you about it, not enough to make you think about it making your epiglottis flutter later as it escaped. The stuff was only partially sweet; mostly it was these strange, dark, mysterious flavors that were reminiscent of a field of sugar cane, overlaid with Secret Formulae and the promise of Madison Avenue. I could almost taste the missing place where the original sharp acrid taste of coca leaf was missing, replaced with the lesser bite of caffeine and chemistry. I put it back down on the counter, perhaps half full. The other man immediately picked it up and pressed it against the metal arm of the dispenser; the familiar rushing whitenoise of the machine cut off with the decisive valve click and he handed it back to me, full again. I slugged again. It was even better.
"The mix, you say." I put it back down on the counter, still observing the flavors change from foreground to aftertaste, dissimilar but still wondrous.
"Yah. The mix. It all in mix. They give you book, now, with 'proper set' in book. Numbers, pah. Can no tell you mix. You got to get mix from Coke Man, and is one problem now, you know? Ain't no Coke Man, no more, to come out and check and tell you. They all gone. None left but truck driver come with syrup, parts. So no-one know the mix."
I held my hand over the counter. "I'm ::REDACTED::. I'm very, very happy to meet you."
He took my hand, shook it seriously. "I Vito Martelli. It nice to meet you, too. You like Coke always?"
"Yeah. I can't stand Pepsi. Friends think I'm weird. How did you learn the mix?"
"My Daddy, he had restaurant in Fifties, Sixties, maybe three blocks from here. He came here after the War, and he always talked about Coca-Cola as first thing he like about America. He knew the mix. He made me practice. Would give me tests; screw up machine, hand me soda, not say nothing. If I don't tell him right away is wrong, he make me clean whole machine two, three times." Vito Martelli cleaned the spotless top of one of the dispensers with his rag, which didn't look too dirty itself. "I love Coke too. I spend maybe fifteen hours a week adjusting this machine. I pay more, because it an older model which they don't make parts for anymore. I keep it because it has good adjust for the mix and is easier to keep hoses clean on this one. The local Coke guys know me, they make sure they come here first. I get syrup in old-style big containers. I start saving containers in case they all move to paper carton, so I can refill 'em. Got half basement full." He laughed. So did I.
"Is good to meet someone who like Coke like me, like my Daddy. You come by anytime, you get fill on Coke, okay?"
"Mr. Martelli, I will do just exactly that. Thank you very much for being here." We shook hands again. He refilled my Coke, I took my plate from the booth and walked out into the hot New York City sunshine. It didn't matter anymore; I had relief, and the heat only tickled my neck, now. It took me six blocks to finish that Coke, and I didn't have another until I brought the tux back the next weekend. After that, I found myself in New York infrequently, and an hour out into Brooklyn even less frequently once my friend moved. I've still made it back a couple times, though, and Mr. Martelli won't take a dime from me for his Cokes, so I make sure to have lunch there every time. It's always one of the best meals of my month.
The pizza's terrible.
A true story. If you look hard enough, you'll find Mr. Martelli's coke machine. But I'm not telling you where it is; that'd ruin the whole thing. Nor is his name actually Vito Martelli. Seek, O pilgrim, and ye shall find!