Just so you’ll know: this doesn’t end with me doing the right thing. Why else would it stick with me for forty years? Who has the time, space, or inclination to remember one’s moral successes? Don’t, however, go into this expecting a thrilling tale. Complicit inaction is rarely thrilling, especially when there’s not a great deal at stake in the first place, as was the case here. But the same could be said for life in general—rarely thrilling, rarely much at stake. There are occasional moments, however, when we sense the ethical gravity of things a bit more than usual, moments when we feel our responsibilities to others a bit more keenly, even when the decisions we end up making don’t affect all that much. Perhaps we feel these things most when we know we’re doing our best to deny the choices available to us. The denying is what has stuck with me.
There were five of us eighth graders—the jock, the prep, the dork, the fat one, and the skinny one—and we ran the soda fountain during fourth-period lunch at our middle school. For thirty cents, we would fill an eight-ounce wax paper cup with ice and your choice of soft drink—Coke, Dr. Pepper, Sprite, or Barq’s Root Beer. Or, if you were feeling bold, an equal squirting of all four, which was known as a Suicide. An additional quarter got you a bag of Bugles, Funyons, or Munchos. This was September, 1982. Ronald Reagan had been shot the year before, and more recently, Israel had invaded Lebanon, but none of us cared about any of that; we were too busy playing Defender on our Atari 2600s, listening to records (Men at Work, Billy Squier) bought with our allowance money, and thinking about newly sprouted pubic hair—our own and that which curled in the panties around us.
I was the skinny one. In the social hierarchy of the Coke Boys, as we were called, I was in the middle, below the jock and the prep but above the fat one and the dork. Because the jock and the prep bullied the fat one and the dork (mostly verbally), I did my best to stay neutral, especially since I knew I had more in common with the latter two than the former, and also because I knew it wouldn’t take much of a nudge from the latter (the former) to permanently join the ranks of the former (the latter). And I didn’t want that. I knew all too well how the latter (the former [the latter]) treated the former (the latter): badly. A favorite stunt involved the jock and a partner (usually the fat one) surprising the dork with an unannounced ride on a broomstick harshly raised between his legs.
I don’t know how or why or by whom we five were chosen—we were an odd mix (a bit like the Suicide)—but chosen we were, and we five were the envy of every boy in grades six through eight. (Girls were not considered for the position, probably without any thought even given to the exclusion.) Nobody else in the entire school was granted such outrageous privileges: we were allowed to leave third period early in order to prepare for the first wave of lunch students; we were excused from having a fourth-period class altogether because we were in the cafeteria for all four lunches, A, B, C, and D; and we were allowed to be late to fifth period because of clean-up. And then, to top it off, we got to drink as much soda as we wanted for free, an almost incomprehensible perk.
Though a rare occurrence, nothing confirms the truth of Lord Acton’s famous apothegm more absolutely than when thirteen-year-olds gain power; like with Bobby when he won a bet on The Brady Bunch and got to make his older brother, Greg, do his bidding for a week, corruption comes quickly. We claimed to need to leave third period even earlier in order to replace the empty syrup tanks. We claimed to need to miss even more of fifth period in order to clean out the ice machine. These requests were granted. And just as long as we never left too noticeable a dent in the day’s take when we returned the cash box to the principal’s office, some of us doled out free drinks to our friends and the girls we most wanted to impress and like us. Feeling like little Lord Actons ourselves, we stood at our station at the front of the cafeteria and received visitors as they exited the lines with their trays of rectangle pizza, mushed burgers wrapped in foil, and cold and oil-dark french fries. Before they found a seat near their friends, we determined what they would receive from us and how. Very little ice and lots of soda? Very little soda and lots of ice? A Coke when they ordered a Coke? A Barq’s when they ordered a Coke? Full price? Half-price? Gratis? It just depended on our moods.
One claim was not a lie: we actually did need to clean out the ice machine regularly. It was a big, hulking thing—about five feet tall and three feet wide, with a hinged door in the center that you lifted up to access the ice, which tended to come out as semi-soft, grayish slurry rather than as clinking, clear cubes. Since we were located right next to where the lunch ladies prepared the day’s food, we saw plenty of roaches, and some, probably drawn to the machine’s warm motor and damp insides, not to mention the syrup of the soda, would find themselves stranded on the icy tundra and freeze to death. And though small roaches would’ve been equally unhygienic, these were Texas tree roaches. They were big, the size of a grown man’s middle finger; they required genuine effort to crush them sufficiently. And though this wasn’t an issue when they were dead, they were disconcertingly fast and also known to fly, sometimes right into your face. In other words, they were the grossest of all roaches. So at least once a week, we needed to scoop the machine clean and let it replenish itself overnight.
After D Lunch passed through but before we started cleaning up, we usually played a drinking game, one that, at least for some of us, probably foretold rounds of beer pong and keg stands in college. This game involved filling an iceless cup to the lip with soda and then downing it as fast as possible. With our digital watches, we timed each other with the scrutiny of laboratory scientists. To guarantee fairness, multiple timers were engaged. Eventually, each soda had its own record and record holder, right down to a tenth of a second. All burned like hell going down; tears sprouted in our eyes. Eventually (and inevitably), we also began timing the lengthy belches that always hilariously followed. The dork held several records of both sorts, which redeemed him temporarily in the eyes of the jock and the prep. Sometimes coolness and manliness demonstrated themselves in odd ways.
* * *
We had agreed early on that while one of us went to lunch, one person would man the cash box, one would be in charge of filling cups with ice, one would fill the iced cups with the requested soda, and one would toss bags of chips. When the lunching person returned, we would then rotate. This system mostly maintained itself, but when it broke down, it always broke down for the same reason. Shifts in our corporate ladder occasionally happened—sometimes the fat one dropped below the dork (after record-breaking drinking/belching contests, for instance), and sometimes the prep dropped below me—but one thing never changed: the jock always stayed on top, and he did whatever he wanted, with no repercussions. If he wanted to take two lunches, he took two lunches. If he wanted to man the cash box the entire time, that’s what he did. When, however, he started occasionally shoveling quarters into his pockets to play Zaxxon at 7-11 for free after school, I did caution him, gently, that he should be careful, but I wasn’t about to report him to the principal—not because I didn’t care about the school’s profit from this venture shrinking (which I didn’t; they were getting our labor for free, after all), but because I feared the reprisal, which could be dropping permanently below the dork or getting my ass kicked. Besides, the jock was my friend.
Of the five of us, I was the only one who was friends with all the others (and had been before our anointing), but the friendship I valued the most was the one I had with the jock. Why? I would have denied this as the reason at the time, but it was obviously because I benefited from being liked by him. Not only was I the skinny one among us five, I was one of the skinniest guys in the eighth grade, and I lived in genuine terror of being challenged to a fight—a fairly common occurrence at our school, both between and after classes. Fairly easily, I could work myself into a teenaged version of an anxiety attack if I started to believe, usually for no reason at all, that a classmate might be coming for me. The jock’s friendship served as an invisible shield that moved with me throughout the day. As far as how he benefited: in addition to being the skinny one, I was also the smart one; his association with me boosted his reputation among the teachers. Thanks to our camaraderie, he tended not to draw quite as much negative attention from them as he might have otherwise.
Even though he liked stealing from the cash box, the jock’s favorite station was the ice machine. In order to speed the line through, we tried to always have a stockpile of cups already scooped with ice and ready to fill with soda, especially at the beginning crush of each of the four lunches. The jock had no problem doing this; in fact, he was the most adamant of the five of us about always having cups ready to go. This was because he specially prepared cups for certain people—people, for whatever reason, he didn’t like. These cups came with spit in the ice. This spit was never just a tepid spattering, either; this was a phlegmy oyster noisily drawn up from the depths. But for those whom he really had it out for, he did something else. Because nobody had the time or the appetite to eat all the ice after draining their drink, he liked to put the biggest of the dead roaches at the bottom of particular people’s cups. And because he trusted me, his friend, more than the other three, he usually waited to disperse these special cups when I was the one stationed at the fountain. When _____, who always smelled as if he used semen as soap, stepped up and asked for a Dr. Pepper, for instance, the jock would hand me a cup and say Here you go, and I’d know. And I’d do nothing but fill it and hand it over.
The jock did this—and I did this—countless times until the school year ended in June. It became a part of the regular routine, usually involving the same unlucky kids time after time, and I hated myself for going along, for being too much of a coward to even protest, much less outright refuse or truly stand up to him. I couldn’t bear to lose my standing or my shield. Instead, as I weakly handed out the contaminated drinks, I imagined soda flowing past either legs and antennae or through a loogie—in both cases, carrying millions of filthy particles into the unsuspecting mouths of my schoolmates—all the while telling myself over to over to relax, that it was funny. Lighten up.
I stayed friends with the jock through college, but I haven’t seen or spoken to him in a decade. He grew up to be a responsible husband and father, and, by all accounts and evidence, a good person. I’d like to think that memories of his younger self disturb him as he’s trying to fall asleep at night, but who knows another’s mind? In the panorama of his life, he might not even remember any of this. But I do. On the moral axis, there are worse things I have done, I’m sure, through both action and inaction. Nobody died from their tainted drinks. Nobody probably even got sick, despite saliva transmitting colds, the flu, mono, and strep, and the World Health Organization noting that roaches are the “proven or suspected carriers of the organisms” causing such things as dysentery, cholera, leprosy, and typhoid fever. Regardless, few moments linger with me like this one, I suppose because of how disgusting—and mean—it all was, and because of how easily I could have made an effort to stop it. And maybe also because of all the times I’ve probably rationalized disappointing actions or inactions since, long after losing youth as an excuse.
But instead, I, too, said, “Here you go.”
Photo credit: Igor Ovsyannykov via Pixabay