I worked at this restaurant a few years ago that never really tried too hard to live up to the standards of good hygiene as outlined by the New York City Department of Health. We were running out of pre-World War II building, and yeah, you’ve got to expect to put up with a certain base level of filth as a New York City resident, but some corners of the place represented more of an insect sanctuary than an actual business where people paid money to be served food.
But whatever, the money was decent enough that I was able to shove the grossness mostly to the side of my mind. And there were some perks to working there, like free ice cream, free soda. I’ve always loved drinking free soda from a soda fountain. It’s actually been a dream of mine, to someday have my own personal soda fountain.
Working at this restaurant was the closest I’d ever come to having that dream realized. Regardless of the bad moods of certain customers, or the craziness of the coked-out kitchen staff during an especially chaotic dinner service, I’d always be able to sneak away for ten seconds or so to fill up a Dixie cup with a splash of Mountain Dew or root beer or orange soda. (I never touched Pepsi, not even once. I’m a Coke man through and through.) That’s all I ever needed, not a whole glass, but just enough for a satisfying mouthful.
The problem with bottled soda is that you have to drink the whole serving in one reasonably timed-out sitting. Who has the stomach for that much sugar? Unless you have access to a soda fountain, you’re not really able to get just a sip of soda, with the perfect amount of carbonation, at just the right temperature, whenever you feel like it.
I thought I was living the dream, but after a few weeks, people started looking at me funny whenever I went in for a drink. “Don’t you guys like soda?” I’d ask nobody in particular, wondering if my coworkers were super health-conscious, or maybe diabetic. I just couldn’t figure out why, apart from serving it to the guests, I was the only one making any use out of our soda fountain.
Eventually another waiter pulled me aside. He said, “Hey Rob, you must really like soda.” And I said, “Of course I like soda, who doesn’t?” But he continued, “No, it’s just that, you must really, really like soda to be drinking so much out of that machine. Don’t you ever think about why nobody else touches it?”
And yeah, like I had already said, I did wonder why nobody else was indulging in what I had considered one of the only benefits of being a full-time waiter at a mediocre Manhattan tourist-trap. “I just figured that, I don’t know, you guys are all watching your weight?”
“Please,” he went on, “And you never notice the busboys dumping all of that bleach down the drain in the morning?” Yeah, now that he mentioned it, I guess I was at least partially aware of the bleach. But up until that moment, I’d never questioned it. “They put the bleach down because the pipes are all moldy and clogged up. The plumbing here is a mess, but management refuses replace the system. You ever catch a whiff of that barnacle smell when the ice bucket gets low?”
But it got worse. “Come here,” he brought me over to my precious, precious soda fountain and winced as he lifted up the cover behind the Seven-Up label. Right underneath the surface of what looked like such an inviting piece of machinery was one of the grossest things I’d ever seen: dozens upon dozens of cockroaches, little medium-sized ones, frightened by the sudden exposure to light, running around in ribbons of brown as they made a desperate attempt to slink back into the shadows.
“The syrup leaks. This machine is a piece of shit. There are roaches everywhere.”
And yeah, that did it for me. I can only hope that most other restaurants and fast-food places have to have better standards of cleanliness, but I’m not going to lie, it’s still a little hard to drink fountain soda. It’s one of my all-time happiest pleasures that’s been forever ruined by that one motion, my coworker lifting back the curtain to reveal the disgusting innards of a poorly kept soda machine. I’ve tried to put it out of my mind, to get past the mental image permanently etched in my brain. But it’s useless. I’ll never be able to really enjoy a cold glass of fountain soda again. Do yourself a favor, and just stay away.