It would be safe to say that I recognized myself in a piece the New York Times published this week about the travails of a Diet Coke addict. “I Was Powerless Over Diet Coke ,” the story proclaimed, and I thought, Hell, yeah! In the story, Abby Ellin describes her almost 40-year diet soda habit, one in which she “drank at least three to four 12-ounce cans nearly every day” and “avoided certain airlines because they served Pepsi.”
You see me, Abby Ellin! A can or glass of Diet Coke is always near at hand, in lieu of a morning coffee but then also, let’s face it, throughout the day. I pack it in a cooler on road trips and avoid restaurants that serve, like, fancy artisanal sodas. On a recent visit to the University of North Carolina’s student union, I discovered that my alma mater is now a Pepsi school. “First they botched the Nikole Hannah-Jones hire, and now this,” I said to my wife, who nodded grimly. “How are we supposed to send our kids here now?”
Ellin and I disagree on some important points, however. She insists on her Diet Coke in cans, eschewing other delivery devices, whereas I will take my Diet Coke any way I can get it, though I do maintain a ranked list of preferences:
9. Diet Coke Mini
8. Diet Coke from a trough in a barnyard
7. Diet Coke poured in a glass from a 2-liter bottle
6. Diet Coke drunk directly from the 2-liter bottle while no one is looking
5. Diet Coke tallboy
4. Diet Coke in a plastic 20- or 12-ouncer
3. Diet Coke in a can
2. Fountain Diet Coke
1. Fountain Diet Coke from McDonald’s
(I’ve long suspected that McDonald’s does something to its Diet Coke to make it even better than regular Diet Coke. Perhaps they brix—mix water and soda syrup—at something greater than the industry-standard 5:1 ratio, or maybe McDonald’s straws are just bigger, delivering more carbonation to the back of your tongue. I dunno, but ask any true Diet Cokehead: McDonald’s DC is the ultimate.)
As a child, I thought of Diet Coke as a mom drink: After all, every mom I knew drank it. (The beverage has retained that connotation for years and has even leaned into it in ad campaigns.) But when I met my wife in college, she introduced me to her beverage of choice, and soon we were junkies together. We drank Diet Coke through grad school, made sure it was well-stocked at our wedding, painfully restricted our intake through two pregnancies, and only survived two sleepless infancies by the grace of DC. Kind relatives stock their fridges before we arrive. When we traveled around the world, our budget included a line item estimating Diet Coke expenses in various far-flung locales. (We underbudgeted, as it turned out.)
Our kids, teenagers now, shake their heads at our Diet Coke habits. The elder has already planned out her college essay: 1,500 words on how she struggled through a childhood ruled by desperate parents addicted to drugs, only revealing at the end that it’s Diet Coke she’s referring to. “If you actually write that essay,” I told her, “I can guarantee that any school that lets you in is really cool.”
When we renovated our kitchen in 2013, I took the fanciful step of ordering a home soda fountain from a company called Willtec in California—really, I think, just a guy in California who builds them in his basement. (Update, Aug, 13: The guy, Craig, emailed me and pointed out, “my 56,000 square foot factory is not my basement.” Noted!) Eight years later, that Diet Coke machine is still running, delivering joy into our lives morning, noon, and night. (Well, we’ve been trying to drink less at night.) I get CO2 tanks from our local party store; I order 5-gallon bag-in-boxes of Diet Coke syrup from restaurant-supply companies. At this point, I have definitely saved hundreds if not thousands of dollars on Diet Coke, bringing the high margins of the movie-theater soda machine into my own family’s budget. Hold on, I’m gonna pour myself another ice-cold glass right now. Shhhhhppppt, says my Diet Coke machine. Ahhhhhhh, says I, as the bubbles hit my brain.
The main difference between Abby Ellin and me is that Abby Ellin is trying to quit Diet Coke because of mysterious pains in her abdomen. I salute Ellin and the other people in her article who are also trying to quit Diet Coke. To be cursed by fate to have Diet Coke suddenly taste bad and make you feel bad! I can’t imagine what that would be like. It would be horrible! I don’t know what I would do.
Happily, I do not face that dilemma. Diet Coke still tastes delicious and delivers drugs to my brain that improve my day. It’s just one of thousands of man-made chemicals that are slowly poisoning me and you and everyone on Earth, altering our bodies in ways that will horrify the aliens who eventually sift through the ruins of human society. “They put what in their oceans?” the aliens will say, shaking their alien heads. “They injected botulism into their faces?” And then they’ll arrive at my skeleton, clutching a rusted can of Diet Coke. “This one looks like he’s smiling,” the aliens will observe.