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Whatever Happened to Capitol Hill's Mystery Coke Machine?

Jul 10, 2023

ByAllison WilliamsAugust 28, 2023

Image: Another Believer/Flickr CC

Once upon a time, like half a decade ago, Capitol Hill used to be weird. Like a woman in a jester costume skipping through the neighborhood on the regular. A short-lived death-and-haunts boutique called the Nevertold Casket Company. And on a stretch of sidewalk on John Street, the Mystery Coke Machine.

The retro dispenser appeared sometime in the late 1990s, according to the Seattle Times. The soda logos betrayed its age with an old Coke swish and a retro Pepsi circle. But eventually all six selection buttons were replaced with the word "mystery," and for 75 cents (later a dollar, still cheap) passersby got a surprise soda. Usually something odd or discontinued, like a Sierra Mist.

Though the power for the sidewalk machine was supplied by Broadway Locksmith, the workers there claimed to have no knowledge of its true owner—or who was restocking it. Like exotic pet birds and secret underground dance clubs, it was just another quirk in Seattle's most eclectic neighborhood.

The soda machine once stood in front of a locksmith on Capitol Hill.

Image: Courtesy SDOT

Just off Broadway, the block of John Street it called home underwent a flurry of upheaval in the 2010s as buildings came down and the Capitol Hill Light Rail station grew in its place. And the Mystery Coke Machine did survive the slickification of its view, staying in operation through 2018, but then the adjacent bus stop underwent street work and sidewalk repaving. The machine vanished without much of a trace.

There was a Facebook page for the missing machine, posting first in June 2018 that it was "going for a walk." Now boasting 34,000 followers, the account has posted fun doctored photos of the graffiti'd machine on a Washington State Ferry, in the bear enclosure of Woodland Park Zoo, at Machu Picchu. (The Seattle Times even had to point out that the pic under the Space Needle was "a hoax.") Capitol Hill Seattle covered an investigation into its possible time travel, as if the machine were a secret TARDIS. The latest Facebook post, in 2022, has the caption "Doctor said he can probably fix me"—but ye olde soda dispenser looks pretty beat.

At Broadway Locksmith, whose exterior boasts several signs noting their security cameras (and at least seven different notices discouraging the leaving of dog poop on the property) a worker named Mickey says he hasn't heard of the soda machine since it disappeared. That block of John Street is on the verge of changing again, with a revised signal from SDOT meant to organize one of the busiest intersections on the Hill.

Though these stomping grounds are busier than ever, there is technically still enough physical space on the sidewalk for the old machine. But is Capitol Hill still weird enough for a persistent enigma that isn't corporate-sponsored? Something grounded in nothing but whimsy and total disregard for the soda tax? That, like the final resting spot of the Mystery Coke Machine, is ultimately unknown.