“Would you like to try some Black Mamba Venom?” a chipper young woman asked me as I crossed a major college campus one recent morning.
Yes, yes I would. It was a Tuesday, after all.
I was hoping she would hand over a dusty vial with a petrified snake hooked on the lip like a cocktail umbrella. Disappointingly, this bottle came less from Indiana Jones’ cabinet than from Ironman’s jockstrap, an aluminum half-liter bullet with a giant, angry snake eye glittering above the gothic lettering: VENOM.
Closer inspection revealed it to be the relaunch of an energy drink by Dr.Pepper/Seven Up, cannily targeting a college campus during finals. Like a good Alice, I read the label first: “When you want to stay razor sharp with the energy to strike first and leave your mark, you need the vicious venom of a Black Mamba.”
I did want to stay razor sharp. I pictured a Russian tactical master scowling at me across a chess board as I glanced up from my Celebrity Life & Style, whipped my rook somewhere devastating and mumbled, “Check, Oleg.” But I was on my way to teaching, not a chess tournament, and I was not so sure about “striking first and leaving my mark.” That specifically gets teachers fired.
There is a reason that energy brands seek to associate their ethos of aggression with extreme sports stars, like the Red Bull-sponsored “Air Force” whose athletes will, for example, get in a fluorescent batsuit and jump off the roof of a Hyatt—feats for which, one can understand, a good night’s sleep and some ratatouille might not cut it. But the folks behind these caffeine-pumped and supplement-rife brews obviously want to get them into the hands of everyday people, not just those brave few that razor-scooter out of a whale’s blowhole for a living. So here I was at 9 a.m. dressed, per usual, like an aging midcentury coal miner, and I had somehow seemed like a worthy candidate for Black Mamba Venom.
In the following weeks, as I launched into a brief, syrupy, ill-advised taurine- and glucuronolactone-fueled investigation of energy drinks, I repeatedly had to ask two things: 1) Will you please come over and babysit me until my heart stops beating visibly through my sternum? And 2) Who needs this violent quality of energy? “When you want the energy to succeed where only the leanest and meanest survive, you need the penetrating Venom of a Mojave Rattler”—do only the leanest and meanest survive, say, a Tuesday? Measuring up the prose of energy drinks against daily life will lead to all sorts of absurdities:
“Julia, can I get you a coffee?”
“No, I have a ton of editing to do, I need the venom of a Death Adder which has the power to strike back.”
“How about an espresso then?”
“I will bite you in your neck if you do not leave me immediately to the challenges of my intense life.”
“Look, we all have a lot of work to do.”
“You may have a lot of work to do. I have a lot of work to penetrate with my face, inject with poison, and kill.”
“Is that your heart visibly beating through your sternum?”
“Yes, it is. Jealous?”
I can’t gage the nuances of their chemical effects but a stroll down the energy drink aisle—and remarkably, at my supermarket there is a dedicated one—offers an index of suggestions on how to live life intensely. With the launch of the camouflage-covered Monster Assault Energy, even war has been marshalled as the spirit of liquid uppers. And, in what must be deliberate counterdistinction to the prevailing avatars of bulls, warriors, monsters, and homocidal reptiles, a host of new elixirs aim to soften the image of extreme “performance,” from all-natural, zen-labeled Guru to 1 in 3 Trinity, a Christian lifestyle energy drink fused with both “fruit of the spirit” and 1000 mg of taurine. Then there is Live, which donates half its proceeds to youth and environmental charities. After all, it’s one thing to donate money to a youth program, but it’s another to buzz on some killer pantothenic acid and kick a youth program straight in the tender bits with the steel-toed boot of your generous donation.