Friday, June 18, 2004

Just for the modernity of it

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About a week ago, my dental hygienist, Ruth, did her usual splendid job cleaning my teeth. She handles a mallet and chisel with a surgeon's grace, and she's seen farther down my gullet than anyone I've ever met. I always skip from her office with a sparklingly tidy mouth, but guilty that I ate too many sugary sweets.

So how did I repay Ruth's latest kindness? After my cleaning, I immediately bought a bottle of Coca-Cola's new cavity-causing taste sensation, Coke C2.

For people who haven't tried it yet, Coke C2 is the latest product in the Coke line (pardon the pun). It has half the calories and half the sugar of regular Coke, but all of the goopy, caffeinated integrity we've come to expect from the Coca-Cola Co. Coke C2 is for people who want to cut calories but find Diet Coke's lingering Windex aftertaste unsatisfying.

The official Coke C2 Web site,, has much higher expectations for the beverage:

"It's not about what you can't have," a cryptic message on the site reads. "It's about getting what you want. And having what you need."

You can't fault Coke for setting the bar too low. It's nice to know that there is indeed a formula for complete physical, spiritual and emotional fulfillment, and that now it's available with only 12 grams of carbs.

Another page describes the meaning of the name C2. All along, I thought it was just a catchy moniker. Not so:

"Ultimately, it is a reflection of Coke C2's sense of modernity and optimism together with the authenticity and realness of Coca-Cola." Sounds delicious!

Elsewhere on the Web site, another helpful message informs visitors that they are now liberated from soft drink slavery, that Coke C2 has loosed the shackles of soda tyranny from humanity's collective ankles:

"Coca-Cola C2 gives you something special--the freedom to drink what you want." That is, assuming what you want is Coca-Cola C2.

All this talk of freedom and getting what you want is undercut by the soda's advertising campaign on the Web site, which uses the Rolling Stones song "You Can't Always Get What You Want." But Coke is desperately trying to convince people that, with C2, you can always get what you want. No word yet on whether Coca-Cola is seeking to remove an apostrophe and T from the song digitally.

Researching Coke's history got me thinking back to when I was but a wee slip of a lad, in 1985. Reagan was president, pop group Duran Duran was giving my sister nearly fatal heart palpitations, and Coca-Cola was tinkering with its ages-old formula.

Coca-Cola had long since removed the small bit of cocaine in the formula that gave the soda its name. Since cocaine was so popular in the 1980s (see also: "Miami Vice"), the company figured they should put the cocaine back in--sort of give that idea a whirl. And thus the infamous flop called New Coke was born.

I don't know if that's true, but I'm sure it's cooler than the real reason.

Any-hoo, I remember as a kid seeing New Coke on shelves at the old Almac's grocery store on President Avenue for about 40 seconds before somebody had the good sense to build a bonfire and heave all the bottles onto it. People hated New Coke, from its too-sweet taste to the smug way it just called itself "New Coke," sidling up to lifelong Coke drinkers like it was their new best buddy. Coca-Cola quickly abandoned New Coke and gave us Coca-Cola Classic.

In fact, Coke has a whole page on its Web site where Coke fans can share horror stories of how bad New Coke was. Here is one very deranged person's story:

"When Coca-Cola decided to change the formula to New Coke and not offer 'classic Coke' anymore, I purchased enough Coca-Cola from the store to be able to have at least two cans of Coke a day for three years. (That's all I could afford or I would have bought more.) Thank goodness you brought it back." And then, in a development that frankly frosts me to the bone: "I still have some old Coke left in my Coca-Cola room."

So not only did this guy once buy 2,190 cans of Coke; as of press time, he still owns 19-year-old soda pop. Even more frighteningly, he has a "Coca-Cola room."

Long story short, I recently bought a bottle of Coke C2, so I could test it. I wanted to see if Coca-Cola was in the midst of another New Coke disaster.

Besides being nothing less than self-described rapture in a bottle, it ain't half-bad. I could definitely taste the modernity and optimism.

It's a little thinner and less syrupy than regular Coke, but they don't really taste that different.

In fact, I gave 10 people in the Herald News newsroom a blind taste test with a cup of C2 and a cup of regular Coke, to see if they could tell the difference. Seven out of 10 flunked the test.

People were split, however, on which one tasted better. "They both taste like crap" was a popular answer. Some liked C2. Other people preferred the old Coke, and began hoarding it immediately.

Me, I prefer Coke C2. I like the lighter taste, and Ruth likes that it has less sugar.

There's one final test I have yet to see through. On the Coke Web site, I found recipes. Incredibly, someone sent in a recipe for beef brisket made with tomato sauce, carrots, ginger, and a 2-liter bottle of Coke. You bake the brisket with the soda as a kind of ... um, how to put this ... gravy.

"Place in a 350-degree oven for 3 1/2 to 4 hours," the recipe states, "occasionally spooning sauce over the meat. If necessary, add a little more Coca-Cola or water to keep the meat covered."

I haven't discovered if this recipe works with Coke C2, or if the lack of sugar doesn't flavor the meat as well. If it works, it should put a modern, optimistic spin on brisket, but with the authenticity and realness of Coke, giving people the kind of brisket they want and the freedom to have the kind of brisket they need.

Or something.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Caution: French stereotypes ahead

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I drive a sensible, affordable, fuel-efficient vehicle. It's not a babe magnet or anything, but it gets almost 38 miles per gallon.

I fill up Quigley the Toyota -- that's its name -- about every two and a half weeks. Sometimes I do it sooner, when I miss the bewitching scent of gasoline fumes.

The other day, my wife and I were tooling around in it, kibitzing about the high price of gas like we just came from a clearance sale on kibitz.

"I wish I could ride a bike to work," my wife said.

"It won't work," I said. "The Saudi royal family is trying to corner the market on feet."

My wife drives a car even smaller and more fuel-efficient than mine is. You drive it by pulling it back until it clicks, then letting it go.

Lest you think that because our cars are gas-sippers there's no room inside, rest assured that we do not have to pack ourselves in oil and sit overlapping each other sardinishly. Riding with us that day were three oversized loads of freshly cleaned laundry, five bags of stuff we bought at the mall, four books I keep forgetting to bring inside, about 10 CD cases and various and sundry car tools, with plenty of room left over for about 17 clowns.

In front of us in traffic was a Hummer H2, an SUV adapted from the military Humvee. If all the SUV models had an arm-wrestling contest, the H2 would win. It starts at $51,000. It weighs 6,400 pounds, is 6 feet, 6 inches tall and almost 16 feet long from bumper to bumper. Its best feature is its ability to stop bullets. Under the best conditions, it'll get about 11 or 12 miles per gallon.

There was one person in the Hummer, and the rest of it looked empty. I looked around for bullets to stop, but found very few.

I don't drive an SUV, and I probably will never do so. Some horsepower-crazed SUV owner is probably going to run me over for saying this, but I think they're too expensive, impractical and inefficient, and hardly anybody honestly needs them. If you go off-road or carry tons of gear, then you're fine. But people who drive SUVs alone on pavement and haul around the occasional Happy Meal buy SUVs because they're chicken, frankly -- either scared of being in an accident with not enough metal around them to absorb the shock, or scared of not looking cool enough to the neighbors.

And their fear of accidents is misplaced. A New Yorker article a few months ago on the SUV industry showed that, because many SUVs are designed off truck platforms instead of car platforms, they're cheap to put together and much more dangerous than people realize. And filling one up with gas supports all the hostile, oil-producing countries in OPEC, so it's like sending checks directly to al-Qaida.

I'm not a nature kook -- I just don't want more than I need. By the same reasoning, when I buy a toaster, I get a machine that toasts bread -- its ability also to roast turkeys and steam mussels is unimportant.

So why would I want a car that's meant to drive over dirt roads if I never drive on dirt roads? Most people don't. We're pretty good about paving dirt roads in America. And I don't need to carry a lot of junk because almost everything, including groceries, can be delivered if it's too big.

We don't have kids, but when we do, we won't get an SUV then, either. Why would we need more room? Kids are primarily identified by their smallness.

Besides, I crunched the numbers from the manufacturers' information -- the Hummer H2 and my dinky midget-car have nearly identical front head room (40 inches), rear head room (38 inches) and front leg room (41 inches). My Toyota actually has more rear leg room than an H2 -- 35 inches to 27.

This week, Reuters news service reported that Paris is trying to ban SUVs from its narrow, accordion-choked streets. Yes, I know -- that is just like the French, but they might be onto something here.

"You have to wonder why people want to drive around in SUVs," Paris Deputy Mayor Denis Baupin was quoted as saying. "It's made for a family on vacation and usually they only have one person in them."

Even SUV enthusiasts would have to feel a little bit bad for Paris. Most European cities are filled with motor scooters and cars the size of wet-dry vacs. Unleashing an SUV into that crowd is like stuffing an elephant into a fish tank.

The story mentions that Paris couldn't legally ban SUVs outright, but doesn't say how the city would circumvent this issue. To that end, I have an idea, patent-pending and available to the Paris government at a reasonable price. Here's how I imagine the commercial:


Scene: A narrow lane in Paris. We hear a soft accordion playing in the background. The commercial is actually shot in the Flint and the guy on the accordion is actually my dad with a kazoo, but that's all I could afford.

There are two scooters parked along the sidewalk, and remnants of a third (along with remnants of the owner) are crushed under a Ford Excursion belching smoke from its tailllpipe.

Two POLICE OFFICERS enter. One of them is my wife wearing a false mustache, and the other is a mime.

OFFICER 1: Zut alors, Benny! Don't these Fronch drivers comprend pas that SUV are verboten in gay Paree?

OFFICER 2: [pretends he is stuck in a box]

OFFICER 1: Benny -- le fromage!

(Officer 2 produces a tire jack. Quick as a flash, they remove the Ford's tires and replace them with them with four 18-inch wheels of cheese. The axles begin to bend from the strain.)

OFFICER 1: Voila! Maintenant, les wheels, zey are immobilized, them. No go vroom-vroom, it! And ze air pollution from les fromages, she smells formidable!

OFFICER 2: [pretends he is walking in a high wind]

NARRATOR: Le Fromage-Boot. Available in Camembert, Gouda, et Swiss. C'est si bon!

(My dog wanders into frame and begins to nibble the tires.)


Saturday, June 05, 2004

Please enclose one train

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The following is an open letter to Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney:

Dear Chuckles,

Allow me to spend a few minutes of your time getting some things off my chest. I know you're probably busy heading off to the salon and running the state, in that order, but this won't take long.

This week, as you may not remember, several local legislators, a bunch of transportation officials, two mayors, one lieutenant governor and a partridge in a pear tree all met with you about connecting Fall River and New Bedford to the commuter rail system. According to reports, you were unfamiliar with the project and less than interested in it hearing about it.

Just so you know, this is it:

We want to be connected to the commuter rail. Find a way to pay for it.

There -- was that so hard to understand?

It's not an unreasonable request. I'm not asking you to cover the streets in gold leaf. I don't want you to shine my shoes. Just get the ball rolling on this train thing, Mitt.

What kind of a name is Mitt, anyway? Is that short for something? Mittle? Mittworth? Mitthew? Or is it just Mitt, like the baseball glove?

Any-hoo, getting back to the train. There are more than 200,000 people living in this area. Many of them work here, but some of them are interested in finding jobs elsewhere, like in Boston. But they still want to live here, where the housing prices are cheaper. If they took a train, they could commute very easily without a car.

That might mean that people from this low-income area might get high-income jobs and bring the money back home. That would be spectacular for the local economy.

Without a train, people who live here but want the kind of work you find in Boston have three choices: (1) to find a mediocre job around here; (2) to find a better-paying job elsewhere and drive there every day; or (3) to move away from this area.

That's ugly, Mitt.

There are students, too, who want to go to schools in Boston but can't afford to live there.

You may not understand. The words "can't afford" means they don't have the money.

I was one of those students. I went to college in Boston. I wanted to take the train there. Even back then, there were rumors that the commuter rail would come to Fall River.

That was, like, 400 years ago, and still no train. What's up with that, dude?

I ended up moving to Boston, which was nice but extremely expensive. It would have been nicer if I could've come home on weekends by a cozy train instead of by bus. Buses are bumpy and more expensive than the train. Most of the time I had to stand or be crowded in among too many people. Buses only hold a couple dozen people. Trains hold many more and are kind of comfortable.

I'm using math here, Mitt.

More than once, I had to sit on the steps leading into the bus. I got either a nice view of the driver's feet on the pedals, or the highway. I had my duffel bag on my lap the whole way from Boston to Fall River.

I'm not sure if you ever had to do that in your life, Mitt, coming as you do from wealth. Have you ever had to sit and stare at a highway for an hour?

It sucks, Mitt.

It really sucks.

Sitting in a Bonanza motor coach jam-packed with commuters probably isn't your bag, Mittsy. It would muss your hair.

Speaking of which: Do you condition? A little Herbal Essences twice a week? Every time I see a photo of you, your coif is impeccably styled. How much time do you spend per day combing and shaping your hair so you look like you just walked off the cover of a J. Crew catalog? Are you a metrosexual, or do you just look fancy?

Also, I have a running bet with my wife. I say those patches of distinguished country-club gray on your temples are a dye job. My wife says they're real. So who buys the Chinese food?

Getting back to the train issue: My local legislators decided this week that enough is enough, and they would try to get around you. Seeing as how you aren't doing your job. Lawmakers from southeastern Massachusetts decided they'd block construction of the Sagamore Rotary flyover unless you commit to bringing the rail to southeastern Massachusetts.

You bared your perfectly capped teeth, Mitt. According to the Associated Press, you called it "blackmail." You said that Cape Cod is "the biggest tourism magnet in the state."

The Cape's nice. I've been on the Sagamore Rotary plenty of times, and I remember driving around and around in circles for hours, trying to figure out which way leads to the goddam beach. It's a pain, particularly when I found out that almost every direction leads to the beach.

But people live in this state, Mittsy, year-round. People want to live in this city and have lots of options to work elsewhere.

Bottom line, Mitt: You may be a blueblood twit, but you're our duly elected blueblood twit and we're stuck with you. You work for the entire state, not just the rich parts. I'm your boss. You work for me and everybody else who votes.

If you don't like it, Utah's that way.

But it would be really nice if you could get on this train thing. I'd like you to have a plan to pay for it on southeastern Massachusetts' collective desk ASAP.

I promise you won't have to make the trip to Fall River to crack a champagne bottle over the first train. I understand if you'll be getting a pedicure or whatever you do on your time off.

All the best,

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