The Soda Fountain

My first real job was at a movie theater. This movie theater, to be exact. I was an usher. Red polyester vest to match my red pervasive acne. Most of the time, I tore tickets in half, cleaned theaters between shows and directed people to the restrooms.

The other half of the time, I was behind the concessions counter with the girls, schlepping popcorn and soda. I went a long time absolutely hating popcorn. Popcorn was everywhere. I smelled like popcorn. Bits of popcorn clung to my clothing. And one day, I realized I had tracked popcorn into my car and into my house. It’s OK, I’m much better now. I can look at popcorn without shuddering.

The ushers were all guys, and the concession stand was an all-girl affair. I don’t know why the theater manager, whom we called Matt Mayonnaise, made that distinction. I’d like to think he was sooper-smart and had calculated that people would much rather buy their popcorn from a sun-kissed, blond 16-year-old girl than a guy that looked like he rarely washed his hands. I’d like to think that, but it’s probably not the truth.

So, it was boys in the front picking up trash, and girls behind the counter selling popcorn. When it got busy, the guys jumped behind the counter to help out.

Which brings me to the soda fountains. There were three of them. Three fountains with three ingredients — water, syrup and carbon dioxide. Water came straight from the tap. Syrup came out of a bag-in-a-box contraption, with the boxes housed in what was essentially a walk-in closet, located behind a heavy steel fire door right off the concession stand. This room was a riot of brown hoses and stacks and stacks of syrup boxes.

Changing a syrup box was easy — just twist a hose off, and twist a hose on.

Carbon dioxide, though, was fed to the fountains from giant steel tanks. Picture a scuba tank’s big angry brother. Thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch, with big brass fittings.

The girls wouldn’t go near the tanks. Changing out an empty tank required a monkey wrench. Not difficult, but I’m no handyman, and neither is your typical 16-year-old girl. But they were much cuter than me, so when theater-goers started complaining that the sodas were flat, one of the guys had to cowboy up and change the tank.

Here’s where the story gets good.

One night, it’s mind-bogglingly busy. This was the summer of 1986, and we had Top Gun and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off playing for months. The call goes out. Flat soda! Change the tank! I grab the monkey wrench and leap into action.

This change doesn’t go over easy. In hindsight, I must have cross-threaded the hose to the tank nozzle; I don’t quite remember. But the tank was changed out, and I ran off to sell more popcorn.

Feels like 30 minutes goes by before the tank empties again — more people coming back, complaining of flat Diet Coke. Weird. A tank should last for hours and hours. Maybe I mistakenly plugged in an empty tank instead of a fresh one. Once more, into the breach.

The closet door shuts behind me. The room is ice cold. Huh?

There’s a foot-long icicle hanging from the tank fitting.

My public school science curriculum has the answer. I’ve plugged in a full tank, but I didn’t properly seal it. A tiny jet of carbon dioxide was leaking through the cross-threaded shank of the nozzle. Cold, cold gas makes for a cold brass nozzle, which forms an icicle from the humid air of this damp, fetid and syrup-sticky closet.

I take the monkey wrench, bang off the ice and turn off the tank. Then I start unscrewing the nozzle.

And suddenly, everything is … purple. Wow. Feel woozy. Can’t catch my breath. And I’m tripping balls. Have you ever wondered why they call it a monkey wrench? I mean, it doesn’t look like a monkey…

“Dude?” says the little voice in my head. One of several little voices at this point, actually.

“Yeah?” I say.

“The carbon dioxide tank was leaking for about 30 minutes in a tiny, unventilated room.”


“Know what’s in a carbon dioxide tank?”

“Umm, carbon …”



“Maybe you should, you know, escape?”

“That sounds like a good idea.”

I came to, slumped on the floor, back against a wall. I don’t really know how long I had been passed out. Probably just a fraction of a second. Just long enough to fall down and wake up.

I opened the door to the smell of fresh air. And popcorn.