Definitely haunted. All photos by Jon Manning.
As about 45 percent of us know, ghosts are definitely real and casually walk among us. Some have a post-life agenda of stealing our socks or manifesting as apparitions on burned toast; others prefer to spend their time banging around abandoned children’s hospitals for Syfy Channel reality shows. But there’s one ghost who has taken an industrious approach, choosing to operate a creepy Coca-Cola machine on an innocuous corner in Seattle’s Capitol Hill. Like an endless Encyclopedia Brown story, the machine has been an ongoing source of curiosity and fear from locals for decades due to its weird location, outdated appearance, and reputation for being continuously and strangely stocked by a seemingly non-existent operator. It brings to mind the famous line from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory that gave entire generations of children the heebie jeebies: “Nobody ever goes in, and nobody ever comes out.”
With its sun-bleached buttons and charmingly antiquated Mountain Dew logo, the Mystery Coke Machine has been spitting out sodas on the corner of John and Broadway for upwards of 15 years, but no one seems to know exactly for how long—or who re-stocks, maintains, or collects money from the thing. It’s as though it fell out of a wormhole and landed free-standing onto this lonely corner. From the get-go, its 70s appearance evoked a sense of cheery yet ominous nostalgia, as if Matthew McConaughey’s character from Dazed and Confused would fit right in with it, leaning against its side while he’s busy winking at you. Prior to encountering it, you may not consider how unusual and even intimidating a vending machine looks standing alone on a sidewalk. It’s almost as though it’s forever waiting for something, or someone in particular, to show up.
Unlike its contemporaries that are characteristically flanked with buttons down their right-hand-side, its offerings are presented in horizontal rows at eye level. And here comes the creepy kicker: it has the standard offerings—cola, root beer, “Dew”—but also a whimsical, circusy-looking, fear-of-clowns-conjuring “? Mystery ?” button that results in a random selection. And that doesn’t mean a random selection from the other drink choices; it means beverages so random that you couldn’t even think of them if you were playing Scattegories. Upon recently bestowing the machine with three dollars, I received a Mountain Dew White Out, a raspberry-flavored Nestea Brisk, a Hawaiian Punch, and a Grape Fanta. It has also been rumored to birth Vanilla Cokes, Black Cherry Frescas, and Sunkist Cherry Limeade, among many other libationary oddities.
Seeking answers, I looked to Broadway Locksmith, the establishment nearest to the machine. Merely a patch of grass and a handicap ramp away, I felt certain that they must have seen someone enacting some evidence of responsibility over the MCM, but they either genuinely have no clue or are feigning ignorance. “I’ve honestly never seen anyone open it,” offers Mickey, the locksmith business’s earnest-sounding general manager. “Do people get soda out of it frequently?” I ask him “Oh yeah, all the time. All day long,” he said. “ And yet in a decade-and-a-half, you’ve never seen anyone tampering with it or refilling it?” I asked. “Nope,” he shrugged, “He must come in the middle of the night on a weekend or something.” Or, as our theory states, the soda emissary could be a restless, undead spirit able to transcend the laws of space-time in order to supply an endless assortment of carbonated drinks.
Unconvinced that Mickey and his locksmith mignions had nothing to do with the machine, I pressed him for knowledge. “Are you sure that you’re not the one who collects money out of it?” “No, ma’am,” he insisted. “I think they run on the same power as our address, but that’s it.” Mickey also claims that people often gather around the machine to stare at it with frightened wonder, or put entire rolls of quarters into its bowels in hopes of decoding its mystery-button logic. Where can you even get Brisk iced tea in a can anymore? Supposing that the operator of this mystifying appliance is a flesh-and-blood human being, it’s truly admirable that he or she could evade the eye of the masses for decades.
Or perhaps the operator of the machine isn’t the ghost, but the machine itself. Where can we go anymore to receive something spontaneous and unexpected, rather than painfully customized, curated, tailor-marketed, and tech’d to death? Coke’s newest vending machine model, dubbed “The Coca-Cola Freestyle,” claims to offer more than 100 quote-unquote made-to-order beverage choices, ranging from Caffeine-Free Diet Coke to Seagram’s Cherry Ginger Ale to Powerade Zero Fruit Punch, even boasting an integrative app that allows you to find the nearest location, save your digital suicides, and check in to earn “badges.” But all of this for soda personalization? Does this seem preferable to stumbling upon an aged vending machine on an unexpected curb and letting the powers that be choose your beverage fate? Surely, there is something to be said for the spirit of a good old-fashioned gamble—at least if the people of Seattle have anything to say about it, as they prostrate to the boxy idol with their loose change year upon passing year. Like a forgotten love song on the radio, an aluminum vial of Hawaiian Punch could never carry quite the same weight unless bestowed upon you by chance.
But one notable amendment is that the price of the sodas in the mystery machine recently rose from 55 to 75 cents.
Looks like even ghosts aren’t exempt from inflation.