Some say America is all about the free market system. That was thought up by Adam Smith, who said that people who sell things ought to be able to change them to meet what they think is public demand. That way, everyone gets what most of us want. Smith called all this being led by the "invisible hand" of the marketplace.
Lately, as surely everyone knows by now, the invisible hand, after conducting taste tests, has added sugar to and otherwise altered the nectar of one of free enterprise's finest flowers, Coca-Cola. Which makes Gay Mullins, a burly former medical researcher and real estate speculator, want to bite the invisible hand that feeds him.
"How can they do this?" he rages. "They were guarding a sacred trust! Coca-Cola has tied this drink to the very fabric of America—apple pie, baseball, the Statue of Liberty. And now they replace it with a new formula, and they tell us just to forget it. They have taken away my freedom of choice. It's un-American!"
Mullins, 57, is sitting in his storefront office in Seattle's Yesler Hotel, headquarters of his two-week-old organization, Old Cola Drinkers of America. He is surrounded by about 10 volunteers who are fielding calls from 1,200 fellow Americans a day who want to learn more about or support his goal of somehow getting Coca-Cola to take the extra stuff back out of its product and make it like it was. An additional 3,000 people hear a recording on the organization's hot line daily. In its short life the group has produced what it calls a "war kit" consisting of bumper stickers ("Coke was it"), a newsletter, buttons, petitions and an exhortatory record ("...Please don't change the taste of Coke. Why ya wanta fix it? It ain't broke"). It has also begun petition drives in all 50 states and Canada. The right to petition for redress of grievances is, of course, another of the things that America is all about.
"I feel injured," Mullins roars on. "I feel hurt. I've gone through some terrific anxiety. I now have, uh [pause for inspiration], post-cola syndrome!"
Is this guy serious? Well, yes, mostly. As Mullins talks, a small smile occasionally flits across his face, the sort you see on professional wrestlers maintaining that, yes, tonight's opponent really is a sworn, mortal enemy. On the other hand, the three weeks of time and the $30,000 of his personal funds he has so far contributed to the cause is no joke. Nor is the amount that he threatens to put into a class-action lawsuit (the free judiciary being another American pillar) to force the corporation to switch back, or at least reveal Coke's old formula so somebody else can make it. From the rest of the country, Mullins and his comrades have received only $1,200. Most of that was in $5 donations, which suggests that patriotic Americans haven't really been trying. But Mullins knows that he is far from alone. To link arms with—or maybe rival—him, there are other loyalists called the Coca-Cola Addicts of America, based in Aurora, Colo.
These days, in fact, Mullins tends to see his whole life through a bubbly, cola-colored prism. Raised in the '30s, he remembers when the beverage cost "a nickel, a dime, a quarter." Mullins was stationed in the Caribbean just after World War II, and what he recalls best seems to be the Cuba Libres (rum and Cokes) that were "the height of sophistication" at the time. After that were years of work that ended with a research appointment in bioengineering at the University of Washington, family building (he is now a widower) and finally the present—a dismal time in which, he says, "I am unable to have what I had in my youth."
Should his Coke quest fail—and the company at this point shows no sign whatever of buckling under his pressure—Mullins still intends to recover part of his youthful Caribbean idyll: He is thinking of moving to Costa Rica, where he has heard "gray hair is a prestige item, there's no generation gap, rents are cheap and it's warm." If it doesn't turn out just that way, you can bet they'll hear the squawking all the way back in Seattle. But that would be a future battle. For now, he is a man in the wilderness, seeking the pause that refreshes. "This new stuff, it's unbelievably wimpy," cries Mullins, urging his troops on. "I want them to give me back my Coca-Cola!"
What we are dealing with here is a question of what America is all about.