Remember that advertisement? Coke adds life!
One day in college, I experienced something so amazing centered on a can of Coca Cola, that it changed my entire outlook on life.
I was completely broke. I don’t mean like some college kids claim to be broke – I mean 100% busted. I wasn’t living in the dorms, I had no meal plan, and I had no money. My parents were in financial dire straits as well – the result of my Dad losing his business a few years earlier. So they were in no position to help at all.
Don’t get me wrong, I had some income from a part time job and my service in the Massachusetts Army National Guard. But one particular Wednesday morning, I literally had no money in my wallet, no money in the bank (my savings were completely exhausted). Furthermore, I had no prospects to get any money until either my National Guard check arrived in the mail or Friday/payday rolled around.
What I did have was a car. It wasn’t much of a car, a 1974 Malibu Wagon that I bought for 50 bucks. It was kind of a long commute, about thirty to forty minutes from my house to class every day – but it was still the most cost effective plan I could come up with. It was after all, the days of 99 cents a gallon for gas.
Bright and early that Tuesday I had started up the wagon and headed off to class. I rolled onto campus at 7:45 – plenty of time to make my 8 AM class. There was only one problem – the car was just about out of gas. When I say I rolled onto campus, I am not far from literal truth.
It was a cold day on the University of Massachusetts campus, and as I walked across the quad en route to my first class the wind nipped at my ears. Even worse was what my own mind kept whispering in my ears “how are you going to get home? You have no gas and absolutely no money.”
I made it through my morning classes struggling to listen to lectures. My fellow students, oblivious to my problem weren’t going to be a help either. At best, by this point in my college experience I had a few acquaintances in my classes. But I didn’t have many friends and I certainly would not run into anyone that I could hit up for 10 bucks. My pride was not going to allow that sort of belittling begging moment: “Hey, I know this is weird, but I don’t have a penny to my name and I have virtually no gas to get home either. You wouldn’t happen to have a ten-spot I could borrow do you?”
My last class of the day wasn’t until 3pm, so I had some time to work on the problem. The question was – where was I going to come up with enough money for gas to get home? Make it home, Cheetham and you know that your National Guard check will be waiting for you. Just make it home. But where was I going to find five dollars for gas?
I trekked back across campus to the Chevy. It sat in the parking lot, it’s nearly empty gas tank mocking me. But maybe there was hope inside that car. Hadn’t there been many times that school year when change had fallen out of my pocket? Quarters, dimes, nickels – they were no doubt under seats; floor mats, in the glove box, and maybe even in the back!
I picked up my pace with an almost optimistic bounce. I said a prayer as I opened the driver’s side door, “Please God, just five dollars. Maybe, four dollars, God. I think I could make it home with four dollars – but seriously, God nothing less than $3.50.”
I reached under the driver’s seat – and found a sock and a Milky Way wrapper. I threw them in the back seat and reached under again. Here we go! I pulled out a quarter, a nickel and two pennies. I moved on to the other seats and the floor mats. My hands were clawing. Despite my frantic searching, the car was yielding very little cash. When I was done, I sat in the front seat and counted all of the money I was able to find – seventy-two cents. That was it.
Again, these were the days of cheap gas, but I had enough money for three quarters of a gallon of gas. That wasn’t getting me home. Angrily, I put the seventy-two cents in my front pocket. “You have to be kidding me, God. Not even a buck?” Downcast and feeling rejected I walked back to the academic building with three hours to kill.
Around two o’clock I realized something else – I was incredibly hungry. It is one of the worst feelings I have ever had in my entire life. Here I was, with no money, I hadn’t eaten all day and I was seriously considering how I was either going to find a way to sleep in the library by hiding in the poetry section (no one goes there) or gut it out sleeping in that ice cold wagon.
There really was no one to call, and in those days before cell phones, why would I drop a precious quarter calling to whine to someone who was in no position to help me anyhow?
No – it was the poetry section for me. I’d simply hide from the library staff as they closed up for the night and then I would curl up with T.S. Elliot, Robert Frost, and Anne Sexton. They (actually the central heating system) would keep me warm. If the library staff caught me huddled near Chaucer? I guess then I was gutting it out in the car.
I was resolved to my fate as I sat in the lounge of the academic building waiting for my three o’clock class. I fantasized about picking pockets of the students walking by. I was tortured with the thought of going up to a complete stranger and asking for money. Never!
In the lounge area it began to get dark as the sun got low in the sky. Why was I so darned hungry? It had only been about nineteen hours since I last ate something. For crying out loud, people had gone weeks without eating and survived. I was sitting in a heated building on a university campus and I was starving.
Looming across the room from me was a Coca Cola Machine. Its bright red glow beckoned me – “come closer.” The hum of its compressor spoke to me, “Fifty cents for an ice cold can of Coke. Come on kid. You’re already sleeping in the car tonight, at least have a Coke.”
I think when you are completely broke and hopeless, spending fifty of your last seventy-two cents on sugary cola makes a lot of sense. It did to me anyhow. The situation wasn’t going to get any worse was it? I might as well suck back a cold soda before that next class.
So I walked over and dropped a quarter, two dimes, and a nickel into the glowing red temptress. I pressed the button for Coca Cola Classic and after a series of clunks as the can pin-balled its way through the innards of the machine, out rolled an icy-cold can of Coke. I picked it up with a sigh and walked back to the couch where I had taken up residence.
I cracked open the can, relishing the familiar clicking and ripping of aluminum. I smiled and took an incredibly large swig.
My God! It was the worst thing I had ever tasted. It was like salty, disgusting water. Somehow, I had opened a bum can of Coke. I fought the urge to spit out the wretched liquid.
This wasn’t possible, was it? I looked inside the can – it was full alright, but not with cola. And then I noticed something just inside the rim – something cylindrical. What is that in there? I poked at it with my pinkie and out popped a spring-loaded plastic tube. There was a small roll of paper inside it.
At this point, I have to let you in a key part of this story. Watch this:
I pulled out the plastic tube in complete disbelief. It looked like there was cash inside of it. I worked the bill out of the tube and unrolled it. Alexander Hamilton stared back at me, smiling. Okay, he wasn’t smiling but I was.
Ten Bucks! Are you kidding me?
I proceeded to hoot and holler quite a bit. I literally jumped up and down a few times, as some students walking by looked at me like I was insane. They gave me that “take it easy, buddy” look.
They didn’t understand – a miracle had just taken place!
I went immediately to buy a sandwich and a coffee. I still had six dollars and change. I could not get over my good fortune.
I’ve told that story many times in the 20+ years since it happened. How do you explain such an event? You really can’t, just as I can’t ever explain the series of consecutive miracles it took for me to even make it through college.
Now that I am older, and no longer a desperate college kid, I look back on that day and I have trouble remembering the fear and desperation. It really was an awful feeling – to be completely broke. But I can’t remember that very well. All I can remember is how it turned out perfectly.
As I said, that day literally changed my outlook on life. The bottom line for me was and is that if you keep grinding, eventually good things will happen. And even when you have nothing, you are hanging on to the end of your rope, and you are trying to figure out where you may sleep for the night – there is still hope. Because, you never know what will pop out of a Coke can.
That’s what I learned that day as a young man. But as a man in my forties, reflecting on some of the amazing things I’ve encountered in life, I am drawn to that little prayer I said as I walked to my car. “Please God – just five bucks. I’ll settle for four.”
And God answered, “How does ten dollars sound Cheetham? I’m on your side.”