You may remember 2016 as the year the Cubs and Trump won, or the year Prince and Bowie died. But for me, this is the year they briefly relaunched Crystal Pepsi.
When I was a teenager, I loved Crystal Pepsi. But then they decided to stop making it, mostly because it had been a huge commercial failure. I moved onto to other things. And yet, every once and again, I’d be reminded of what was missing from the world. A hip, Van Halen-ish transparent cola beverage from yesteryear that hadn’t been cool enough to keep around. It was the Nixon of soda brands: unloved but never quite dead. With the exception of a few doom-preppers in the Dakotas who hoarded the stuff, I feel fairly confident in saying that Crystal Pepsi was absent from everybody’s life.
Imagine my surprise when earlier this year, the magicians at Pepsi-Cola announced they were bringing the drink back to life. It was a small white flower of hope in 2016’s constant blizzard-hell of celebrity deaths and hummus recalls.
Was I going to act superior and pretend I didn’t care? Hell, no. I cared. I cared big-time. How much did I care? If I’d had children I’m pretty sure I would have sold them to Viacom for the chance to pursue this throwback taste opportunity. Sampling past flavors is one step closer to time traveling, which is one step closer to my ultimate goal of never dying.
I literally, un-ironically marked the day Crystal Pepsi was returning to mankind. I’m dead serious. Just now, writing this essay, I went to my Google Calendar and searched for the date. Sure enough, the entry for Monday August 8 reads “Crystal Pepsi Returns.” There are countless heroes whose births and deaths I don’t recall in any way, shape, or form. Norman Borlaug saved billions with his genetically engineered miracle wheat. You know who doesn’t celebrate his birthday? Me. I’ve got Crystal Pepsi concerns to make time for.
Of course, there was a complication: after years of mainlining corn syrup in all its forms, I had given up on the stuff back in 2009. When it came down to a decision between A) the excess calories of normal Coke, or B) the possibly dementia-inducing neurotoxins of diet soda, without hesitation, I chose the latter.
Nevertheless, I was sure this would be no impediment to my enjoyment of this nostalgia-laden sweet pop; if any soda could bridge the gap between my sugar-guzzling and diet-soda days, Crystal Pepsi was that drink.
I had another advantage: at the time of Crystal Pepsi’s return, I was in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Believe me, if there is any place on earth for celebrating a corporate tie-in, it’s the Metroplex, the city where they filmed Robocop. Living there, I thought Crystal Pepsi would be easy to locate and buy in bulk.
But like a kindergartener trying to explain the principles of jihad, I was just plain wrong. I called my local Kroger, sure of my righteousness. I was an American consumer, which is heaven’s favorite brand of human. For all the manager on the other end of the telephone knew, I owned several dozen gun businesses. Clearly, I was not a man to be trifled with.
I asked if they had the vital potion I sought. Instead of bursting out “Yes! Yes! The hour of deliverance is at hand!” the guy replied, “Uh … I think so? I’ll need to check.”
It occurred to me—was it possible that this wasn’t nearly as big a deal to other people?
The manager returned: “Hey, yeah, uh, I don’t think we have that, maybe … you wanna try other stores?”
Other stores? Did Stalin try other systems of government besides Communism? Did this guy think I was made of solid gold and free time?
“Okay, thanks,” I said. I hung up, in emotional free fall even though I was sitting in my office chair. Was this quest the later seasons of Glee? Because I was having a hard time watching this series of events unfold. Would I miss the major beverage event of 2016 and have to comfort myself with Crystal Pepsi’s poor relation, bargain gin?
I determined to press on. The guy’s words to “try other stores” seemed to be a hint that maybe I should, perhaps, try other stores. Eventually, I called the Dollar General in Aubrey, Texas.
“Hey,” the woman on the other end said.
“Hi,” I said, “do you have Crystal Pepsi in stock?”
“Let me check,” she said. A brief interlude followed. “Yeah, we’ve got some. People have been buying it all day.”
A tire fire exploded in my heart. It was possible. The dream was not dead. Just as important: I was not the only nostalgic lunatic, but one of many similar monsters. What a relief!
“So do you have a twelve pack?” I said, “A six pack?”
“Naw,” she replied. “We’ve got sixteen-ounce bottles.”
“That’s great. That’s great. Just … great. Could you … could you save those for me?”
“Save those for you?” she said, her inflection raising at the end, either to imply a question or challenge me.
“Yes,” I said, “like behind the counter?”
“Oh, sure, sure, hon. I get off work at six. If you can get there before that time, I can sell ‘em to you.”
The store was approximately twenty-seven minutes away. As I drove to the Aubrey Dollar General through a grey drizzle which never quite became a rain, I had some time to reflect on my adventure. Had I come to this strange path by my own hand, or by the will of a larger destiny? Was this the best use of my tightly-scheduled time? My God, I had been a finalist for Lubbock High School’s All-Westerner Boy. Now, here I was, on an hour-long round trip for a corn-syrup product that had lasted for about five minutes in the Nineties. Moloch’s beard, this was an odd turn of events.
Like a man who has hunted and tasted dolphin, I tried not to think about these larger questions; I turned up the Mad Max: Fury Road soundtrack as I broke the speed limit going east on US Route 380 over Paloma Creek. “Nothing wrong here,” I muttered to myself. Soon I would be in clear-soda flavor country; all sins would be forgiven.
I pulled my vehicle into the Dollar General parking lot. The sky: bleak. My mood: on the knife’s edge. The country around us: green. A collection of small stores, storage units, and truck service outlets bracketed us. Across the highway there was a shopping center with a vape store and a pre-school. A short bus was parked in my field of vision. Strange country.
I entered the store, saw a pool of water on the floor. Yellow caution sign. “We had a spill here,” one of the cashiers drawled.
I had no idea what protocol to use. What was the appropriate behavior, when initiating the hand-off of a resource you had asked the manager to hide on your behalf? I decided for the direct approach.
“Hi, I’m Jason — I believe you have some Crystal Pepsi for me?”
The pleasant middle-aged woman knew me at once. “Oh yeah! Right here!”
She handed me the vital goods. I accepted them with a grateful heart. It was as if the Clinton Administration had materialized in my hand. I paid, and sped back home.
I finished dinner several hours later. Two bottles of Crystal Pepsi sat in the fridge, untouched. I paused my movie.
The hour had arrived. I went to the kitchen, and got myself a clear glass tumbler, about five inches high, thin-walled. I removed a tiny tray from the freezer. One twist and ice chunks fell onto the tiled counter surface. Each was half the size of a grown man’s thumb. Those went into the glass. I walked into the TV room and sat in the armchair, facing north.
The pale-brown coffee table came up to right above my knee. There was a coaster there. It had a Renoir still-life printed on it. I put the glass down.
Then, sitting at that table in the house on Woodland Street in Denton, Texas. I opened the little bottle of Crystal Pepsi, and poured myself a drink. It fizzed. Just as remembered.
I paused. I lifted the cup to my lips.
And then I drank it.
And then ….
And then …
And … it was too sugary.
So I gave it to my diabetic roommate, and called it a day.
I’m not fooled by your advertising campaign. I see through you, Crystal Pepsi. That’s the point, isn’t it?
And maybe—just maybe—isn’t it possible … you saw through me too?
No. The answer is no. Good day, sir.
Eventually, Jason Rhode will consume all things. For now, he is selective.