Soda fan bids cans adieu

@@img1 The Prince of Beverages

It is a staple of the post-World War II middle-aged American male mindset to complain that his mother threw away his baseball cards. From “where has it gone, my Joe DiMaggio?” to “Ma! Johnny Bench!” right up to the kid in suburban St. Louis whose Albert Pujols rookie card just five minutes ago got scooped up with the wrong pile of papers, it’s a lament that echoes across the decades.

The Prince of Beverages didn’t have that problem. Save for one cache that was lost in an “I told you to clean your room but you didn’t listen” patrol when I was eleven (and even then, Mom told me she figured I’d be bright enough to grab them off the top of the trash), I guarded my cards like my last name was Topps. Nobody threw out my cards. Ever. Not even me.

This is relevant, beverage lovers, because my wife and I are in the process of moving. By the time you read this, impatient movers will be tapping their feet, checking their watch and charging me overtime because it is taking me forever to pack my life’s belongings. I’d be a lot closer to done if I hadn’t devoted a weekend to dusting off my baseball card shoeboxes and transferring their long-neglected contents to corrugated cartons. Carefully, I sorted my Cleveland Indians. From 1988, I found five Rich Yetts. I filed each Rich Yett carefully with the other 1988 Indians somewhere between the 1987 and 1989 Indians.

And I gotta tell ya, I’m not a Cleveland Indians fan and I have no idea who Rich Yett is or was. But I couldn’t discard one of him, let alone all of him.
That’s the kind of collector-accumulator would be a better word-I am.

Yet (or Yett) I have my limits. I didn’t know I did until I was faced with emptying out the attic and reacquainting myself with my soda cans.

My mother wanted to throw away my soda cans. Or at least my soda can.
Twenty-eight years ago this week I bought a can of Coke, drank it, rinsed the empty and placed it on my shelf. It ended up in the wastebasket. I fished it out and replaced it on my shelf. Mom, I’m collecting soda cans.

Blame Mr. Manz. My seventh-grade social studies teacher, who was a little light on core curriculum, ran out the clock that June by giving us word search puzzles of his own creation. One assignment was find the beer brands. People, he said, collect beer cans. (I guess that’s social studies.) Nobody in my family drank beer, but I was intrigued. When school let out, I decided to give it a shot my own way.

I needed scale. The Coke can wasn’t going to stick if I couldn’t add to the shelf. Brand new “lemony light” Pepsi Light (“they put the flavor in and they took the calories out”) was can No. 2. Todd Feltman’s family had a barbecue and I asked if I could save the C&C and the TaB. And that’s how it started. My mother didn’t seem convinced, but weary of the messy-room battle, she left the soda can collection alone.

If only I had. You can collect a set of baseball cards because only so many are produced. Soda cans are like grains of sand. There’s no finite number. You can’t be a completist, but you can try. We went on vacation, I bought a can. A diet version of something came out, I bought a can. Company changed a label, I bought a can. More, more, more, how do you like it? The cans took over the shelves.

Junior high, high school, college, real life.the cans just kept coming. I often split hairs:

“I have the grape, do I need the orange?”

“Waldbaum’s? That’s a supermarket, not a soda brand.”

“Does iced tea count?”

Mind you, this was all before I began covering the beverage business as a reporter. But when I found out they had magazines devoted to this stuff, it seemed a natural fit. In my cover letter to my first editor, I told him he should hire me because I collect soda cans-not for the deposits, but for all they represent. He hired me anyway.

Make your living in beverages and the can benefits speak for themselves.
“Would you mind if I took a sample home? I collect them.” Nobody minded. Nobody stopped me. Nobody cared. I seemed to be the only who saw this as some sort of holy pursuit.

My lovely wife thought it was cute. For a while. In our first apartment, she consented to let me display them in the kitchen. I lined the perimeter of the walls with cans. Twice. (Thank you Fun Tak.)

We moved 12 years ago. She expressed a preference for a less can-intensive environment where we wound up and have been until now. I pouted but agreed. The cans went to the attic. No biggie, since where I worked had “beverage” in the title. I could display plenty of my cans-a satellite collection-there. And when that became untenable, I had a couple of boxes available in which I could toss new arrivals at home. “Don’t recycle that Pepsi Edge-I’m saving it.”

The soda can collection came home to roost on the last Saturday in June of 2004. The bags and the boxes all faced me. Surrounded me. Enveloped me. Packing was getting intense.

And I gave up. The soda can collection as all-encompassing entity ceased to exist.

[Moment of silence.]

We’re moving to a place that’s theoretically bigger than where we’ve been since 1992, but as sentimental pack rats, no space is ever big enough. Don’t get me wrong. The cans did not get crushed without me feeling dinged. I went through all, I don’t know, 600 of them, and felt the way you’re supposed to when you hear a song from the summer you were 18 or the week you got your first new car. “Hey, I remember that Hires Root Beer.”

It went that way for the first half-hour. Then I began to wonder where many of these cans came from. I couldn’t remember acquiring this one or that one and the next dozen after that. They were all a blur of journeymen brands, not unlike all those cards of guys I never heard of who I couldn’t throw away. The cans now seemed like a Yettish fetish, and I can only deal with so many of those. Grasping the sheer numbers convinced me my collection had become a mindless pursuit of volume, which soft drink professionals will tell you isn’t particularly profitable.

Speaking of which, one of the reasons my baseball cards escaped the fate of so many others’ is that by the 1970s, word had gotten around that baseball cards had value. I didn’t have a Honus Wagner, but who was to say my Ken Boswells wouldn’t appreciate? Indeed, for every first-year Mike Schmidt I saved, there were literally a dozen Craig Kusicks. But “they might be valuable someday”
covered it.

Soda cans, save for the nickel or dime depending on the state where you live, are worth nothing. They provided valuable refreshment upon consumption and they are terrific exercises in graphic design, and in small doses are things of beauty. But you’d have to be nuts to save as many as I did for so long. As I contemplated this blob of metal, I heard the sage voice of Edith Sage, our neighbor from when I was growing up, in one of her many arguments with her husband that carried across their driveway and through our windows:

“Ben, you’re certifiable!”

I’m not quitting cold turkey (or hot soda). I plucked out maybe 60 cans to serve as my permanent collection, most from my innocent youth, some others for their enduring pop culture appeal (how can you throw out 7UP Gold?). They’ll find a prominent place in the Princes’ new castle. But I think I can live without my own aluminum mine.

And after we unpack, maybe I’ll do something about a few of those Rich Yetts.

Greg W. Prince ( has covered the beverage business as a reporter and editor for more than 15 years.