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Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018 12:20 am

Keeping Tabs

Unusual occurrences in Macoupin County

Tab is an unmitigated bargain at the Macoupin County courthouse.
Photo by Bruce Rushton
You never know what you’ll find in a courthouse.

I was reminded of this during a visit last week to the Macoupin County courthouse in Carlinville. It was, according to legend and the internet, the largest county courthouse outside New York when it opened in 1870, bigger than the state Capitol then in use and more expensive to boot, which raised no small amount of consternation and suspicion amongst county residents who had to pay for it. Forty years passed before construction bonds were retired. Talk about justice at any price.

None of this was on my mind when I arrived for an afternoon of sifting through documents. I had better than a dozen files to peruse, and so, after rattling off case numbers to a clerk as if at an OTB window, I took a seat in the hallway while she fetched the paperwork. There was a soda machine nearby. I was thirsty.

Starting from the top, I looked down through the selections. Coca Cola. Sprite. Et cetera. Then I got to the bottom two buttons: Tab. And, again, Tab. At just a quarter for a can – 50 cents less than the other stuff – it was a bargain beverage. You can’t get soda that cheap at the supermarket.

But Tab? Who knew they made it anymore? Turns out they do, but just barely, and it has a certain following, even with zero advertising – you can’t even find it on the web page of the Coca-Cola company, which has been making the once-ubiquitous diet soda since 1963. Panic hit Tabaholics this fall when a major bottler that distributes in 14 states stopped producing the stuff in favor of more popular elixirs, and there certainly are more popular beverages than Tab. Production has been falling by about 100,000 cases a year, according to Duane Stanford, executive editor of Beverage Digest, with 1.5 million cases sold last year, according to the fine folks at Coca-Cola, who say that Tab accounted for less than .03 percent of sales in 2017. By comparison, 1.5 billion cases of Coke and 650 million cases of Diet Coke were created in 2017. Asking prices for 12-packs on eBay run from $18 to $35, although a Texas outfit called Soda Emporium offers it for $12.99, plus shipping, with a limit of four half-cases.

I couldn’t get my quarter in the machine fast enough.

The can was pink, as always. The start was peppery, with citrus notes ensuing and a hint of cinnamon on the finish. In short, just as I remembered, and it had been a very long time.

My grandmother loved Tab almost as much as she did Raleigh cigarettes, and she smoked enough of them that she could have bought a casket with her hoarded coupons – redeemable for sundry merchandise, they came in every pack. She was 85 when she suddenly took ill and died after a four-day battle with lung cancer, during which she was mostly, and mercifully, unconscious. That was 10 years ago.

Everyone’s grandmother is the best grandmother in the world, but mine really was. She gave me Where The Wild Things Are when I was learning to read and my first car, her own 1977 Mazda GLC, with a stick shift, when I graduated from college. In grade school, she took me and my sister to sing Christmas carols for patients at the hospital where she worked as a nurse. I couldn’t figure out why unseen people were howling behind closed doors until years later, when I learned that Western State Hospital was a mental institution.

She was once married to a man who said he liked Canada because there were no black people there, but she never absorbed a molecule of his prejudice. When I was growing up, her closest friends were a gay man and an African-American woman. I don’t recall much of Chick except her smile, and that my grandmother always told me to call her Mrs. Henderson, even though she never did. It was my grandmother’s idea to enlist Bud as chauffeur for my ninth grade dance, and he made sure he had a proper hat when he arrived to drive me and my date around town in his immaculate blue Buick convertible with a white top.

Thanksgiving was my grandmother’s favorite holiday, and so I always think of her this time of year, when she would get up early to cook, a notable achievement for a woman who worked the swing shift and liked it that way. She believed in plenty of sage and would no sooner cook stuffing outside the bird than vote for a Republican. The neck, she claimed, was the best part of the turkey, and every year she fretted about looming gravy disasters that never happened.

Yes, it’s funny, sometimes, what you find in a courthouse. If I were a better journalist, I’d get to the bottom of this Tab mystery in Macoupin County. Why does it cost less than the other sodas? Why is there so much of it? Are kickbacks involved? But, maybe, there’s more karma here than mystery, because this year, there’ll be Tab on the table, next to the turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Contact Bruce Rushton at


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