Cavalier CSS-64 coin-operated soda machine (The Seeburg Corporation)

I wasn't allowed to drink soda when I was a kid, so I found soda machines particularly alluring. One type of machine that I especially liked featured a narrow, transparent door that the customer opened to access the soda bottles. This door, which I often gazed through, longingly, assumed near-mythic status in my mind -- it was the portal to the world of soda, the gateway to the forbidden land of soft drinks. It was, in short, the Magic Door, and I soon began referring to such machines by this name.

My parents lifted the soda ban when I got older, but by then Magic Door machines were on the wane, being replaced by more modern designs. Every now and then, though, I'd see one of the older models and presto, I was seven years old again -- only now I could have all the soda I wanted. I'd always make a point to purchase a bottle from the machine on such occasions, even if I wasn't particularly thirsty -- I figured I had a lot of lost soda time to make up for. Eventually, however, the Magic Door design became extinct.

You can therefore imagine my excitement when I was mucking around at a flea market a few years ago and came upon a functional Magic Door machine (or rather, a Cavalier CSS-64, which is its official and rather unwieldy name). A few hundred dollars and some heavy lifting later, it was nestled in a nook of my kitchen. By checking the serial number against the manufacturer's records, I learned that it was "born" in 1967. Some friends suggested that I stock it with beer, but that was out of the question -- the Magic Door was too intimately associated with my youth to dispense adult beverages. I've therefore kept it stocked with an assortment of sodas, and can now relive the excitement these drinks once held for me simply by walking into the kitchen, putting a quarter in the slot, and opening the door. The bottles pull out of the machine with an extremely satisfying "Ka-chunk!," the remaining bottles then reposition themselves inside the machine with that great glass-on-glass sound, and the machine's built-in bottle opener drops the caps into the cap depository with a nice little "Clink." It all amounts to a definitively ritualistic experience.

Owning the machine has also made me realize how few sodas are still sold in glass bottles (especially in the New York area, where I live). It's often a struggle to find enough flavors to fill the machine's eight rows, so I now look for new brands and flavors whenever I'm traveling, and have even convinced a few out-of-town friends to mail soda to me. Moreover, because the bottles lie on their sides within the machine and are distinguished from one another by their caps, I've also become hyper-attuned to the classically inconspicuous subtleties of bottle cap design. For example, Boylan Beverages -- a small New Jersey bottler -- used to use flavor-specific caps that said, "Black Cherry," "Ginger Ale," and so on. But they recently cut costs by switching to a single generic cap design for all their flavors, which rendered their sodas useless for the purposes of my machine. With this type of problem in mind, I now instinctively scrutinize bottle caps for flavor specificity, legibility, and so on whenever I'm in a beverage outlet.

As for my Magic Door machine, it continues to work remarkably well. Its manufacturer, the Cavalier Division of the Seeburg Corporation of Chatanooga, Tennessee, began making Coke machines in 1935 and continues to make them today. But of course the machines they make now aren't nearly as cool as mine. The woman who answered the phone when I called their offices seemed to recognize this. "A CSS-64?" she said, a hint of respect and envy intermingling in her tone. "Ooh, you got one of the good ones."