The story of the dumbest thing I ever did in college started when my friend handed me several hundred dollars in cash, asked me to drive to the nearest convenience store, and to buy the place out of Four Loko. It was fall 2010, and college campuses were abuzz with rumors that the government was going to ban the sale of energy drinks that contained alcohol, or maybe alcoholic beverages that contained caffeine, we weren't really all that sure. But no matter the specifics, it seemed imperative that my friend—we'll call him Steve—have me buy so much still-caffeinated Four Loko that it made the trunk of my already-dying Volvo scrape the ground.
The idea was that if Four Loko, that wonderful, terrible metal tube of bright orange alcoholic juice bubbling with the potential energy of bad decisions, was made illegal, an underground market for its sale would flourish. My friend had been monitoring the news for weeks, hoping to figure out exactly when the public hysteria over the beverage would translate into some sort of policy change. And on this night, for whatever reason, it seemed that the other shoe was going to finally drop. We celebrated Steve’s imminent windfall by splitting a can and looking up rap songs about Four Loko on YouTube. (This, by the way, is my favorite rap sub-genre, and this is my favorite example of said sub-genre.)
The story of the dumbest thing I ever did in college ended that Thanksgiving, when Steve was arrested for selling Four Loko to an undercover cop. He'd been selling it on Craigslist, which he quickly learned was the sort of thing that law enforcement tends to frown upon. Soon enough, he was sitting in the back of a squad car, giving directions to a third friend's place, where the rest of his stash lay waiting in the attic. Over the next 30 minutes, Steve and his arresting officers popped the top of every Loko he had left and poured them into a storm drain, a rainbow of profit running together to form a river of brown.
When I’m old and decrepit, my adult grandchildren looking at me, unable to think of anything but the inevitable day they'll have to upload what's left of my mind to The Cloud, they will attempt to stave off these terrible visions by asking me what it was like to be young when I was young. With what little strength I still have left, I will smile, and I will tell them about Four Loko.
In college, you party because you are, for perhaps the first time in your life, truly alive. You are no longer ruled by your parents, so you party because those totalitarian old people raised you to act responsibly, and partying is not responsible. You have no experience, but partying will give you experience of a sort, memories that will feel meaningful and transgressive in their immediate aftermath but which will in time come to seem risky and regrettable. To party is to slip into a second skin, belonging to someone who is witty and dynamic, confident, fearless, incapable of making a bad decision. You ignore those who say you are a mumbling, reckless idiot because you are a superhero and they are just jealous they can't keep up whenever you take to the skies. You are beholden to nothing and no one—not even, if you party hard enough, yourself. This impulse—to let loose, to get out of your own head, to willfully enact chemical imbalances in pursuit of transcendence—has been present in humanity since time immemorial, and it will remain long after we are all dead.
But for a brief and shining moment in the mid-to-late-2000s, this impulse had a name, and that name was Four Loko. For three dollars, you bought more than a highly alcoholic, moderately caffeinated beverage that tasted like stomped-up Jolly Ranchers mixed with Drano and methamphetamine—you effectively purchased a license to act insane. When my dad was a kid, he saw an ad for some P.F. Flyers athletic shoes which boasted that the wearer would be able to "run faster and jump higher." He saved up his allowance money for weeks, all in the service of buying the sneakers that would let him perform at a new level. And what happened the day he finally bought them and decided to test them out by leapfrogging over the glass table in his parents' living room? He crashed right through it and had to get a bunch of stitches.
At its peak, Four Loko was the alcoholic beverage equivalent of P.F. Flyers. That is, if the shoes had actually worked. Again, we’re talking about a drink that cost three dollars and had a word that translated to "crazy" in its name. (Or perhaps the name was an on-purpose-not-on-purpose reference to Loki, the Norse trickster god who, according to the estimable Norse Mythology Dot Org, once resolved an intra-Norse-dietel dispute by “[tying] one end of a rope to the beard of a goat and the other end to his testicles,” which is an extremely Four Loko thing to do.) If it wasn’t for the fact that it gave you a hangover while you were drinking it, it would have been perfect.
Everyone who was in or around college from 2007 to the Great Decaffeination of 2010 has at least one Four Loko anecdote. These stories are folklore for a highly specific generation, tall tales that, when jumbled together, explain the collective anxieties of an impossibly turnt time.
Two thousand ten in particular was a year of uprisings, natural disasters, and an airplane crash that killed the Polish president. Greece's economy fell into a tailspin. WikiLeaks released the Chelsea Manning cables. Some of our greatest cultural luminaries—Louise Bourgeois, Howard Zinn, Ronnie James Dio, that politician who called the internet a series of tubes—died. The Tea Party was born. Lady Gaga put out two nine-minute music videos and showed up to the VMAs wearing a dress made out of raw meat. The only recourse in such truly bonkers times was to drink something that would make you act as insane as the world around you.
Four Loko stories tend to come in a few flavors: Loko-induced property damage, Loko-induced public indecency, Loko-induced hospitalizations, and Loko-induced friendly-wrestling-that-quickly-devolved-into-all-out brawling. Four Loko once told a friend of mine's brain to tell his body to jump onto the hood of a Mercedes and smash its windshield with a skateboard. Somebody once told me they knew a guy who drank a couple Lokos at a basement punk show and moshed so hard that he accidentally made the house cave in. Recently, a moderately popular rapper who shall remain nameless relayed to me a rumor he'd heard about some scientists at a university in Chicago who gave some Four Loko to a monkey. Reader, the monkey died.
The thing about the monkey, as far as I can tell, is not true. (Phew!) I looked good and hard on the internet for the findings of such a study and found nothing. But, as with most good conspiracy theories, the story about the scientists and the monkey speaks to a larger truth: there were a lot of academic papers written about Four Loko. The most interesting one I found was written by Shepard Siegel, a Canadian psychologist with an extremely-short-but-extremely-impressive Wikipedia page, who suggested that the secret to Four Loko's potency was not its added stimulants but instead its unusual stimuli. As he wrote:
"It is likely that Four Loko-type drinks are especially effective as intoxicants because they provide alcohol in an unusual context. It has been known for many years that drug tolerance partially results from association between drug-paired stimuli and the drug effect. When these stimuli are altered, the drug-experienced individual does not display the expected tolerance to the drug—rather, an enhanced (i.e., nontolerant) response is seen.
In other words, Four Loko tasted like shit, and its shit-like taste was so uniquely unnatural that your body did not have a cue to steel itself against the alcohol's effects. And so, caffeine or no caffeine, one Four Loko was enough to get you drunk, but by the time you felt it kick in, you were probably drinking another, and if you finished the second Four Loko, well, the Four Loko would finish you.
On November 17, 2010, Phusion Projects, the makers of Four Loko (and, more recently, Not Your Father's Root Beer and Not Your Father's Mountain Ale), formally removed caffeine from the drink's recipe. Soon thereafter, they sent the remainder of their now-unsellable stock off to be converted to ethanol. And though Four Loko might now lack the ingredient that fueled the panic it caused, the drink still serves as media shorthand for "ostensibly normal people acting nuts." Just this past September, a 13-year-old in North Carolina made national news for drinking a Four Loko, stealing his parents' car, and leading police on a high-speed car chase. A few days prior, a Florida man performed oral sex on his girlfriend at a public beach. When the cops came, the couple was charged for having an open container of Four Loko—an incident that quickly morphed into this New York Post headline: "Couple Busted During Four Loko-Fueled Sex on Beach."
But to simply sit back and say, "Ah, yes, Four Loko made the good people do the bad things" is to opt for the easy way out. It requires willfully overlooking larger problems that don't have simple solutions. It distracts from America's widespread normalization of binge drinking, the fact that having a legal drinking age of 21 cloisters college drinkers into dorm rooms and house parties, and the media's role in providing free marketing for Four Loko through all of its scare-mongering headlines. Shit, I'm doing it too, aren't I?
It took me much longer than it should have to finish writing this essay, in part because I decided that, in order to do Four Loko justice, I would actually need to drink one. This proved more difficult than one might expect. For one, Four Loko is fucking disgusting, and it took quite some time to become comfortable with the idea of willingly ingesting one—even if, in a prior life, I never thought twice about it. I then needed to find an occasion during which I'd probably be drinking anyways, because now that I'm closer to 30 than 20, getting even moderately tipsy makes me feel like somebody's shoving spikes into my temples the next day. Plus, I wanted to drink Four Loko with one of my college friends, in order to see if drinking one would somehow magically make us revert back to our college selves. This would take a special occasion.
Before he got busted, Steve had been selling his Lokos to our friends, and as it turned out, one of those friends still had a small collection of them gathering dust on top of her fridge. We made plans to split one at a wedding between the ceremony and the reception. But on the day of the nuptials, the Four Loko mysteriously did not make it from my friend's house to the church, perhaps because the only idea worse than drinking a six-year-old Four Loko is drinking a six-year-old Four Loko in the parking lot of a banquet hall in the Raleigh-Durham metro area.
Enter the Insane Clown Posse. Fortuitously enough, I had plans to attend an ICP show the very next week in Brooklyn with Steve, the very same friend who I'd bought Loko for years ago. (He's fine now, thanks for asking.) Soon enough, our plans to see ICP morphed into walking around drinking Four Loko out of bodega cups and then seeing ICP.
By drinking Four Loko, we had given ourselves permission to regress and become the rambunctious college boys we once were. Ultimately, neither of us took the Loko up on the opportunity. We got excited and started yelling a few minutes before we probably would have if we had been drinking something that wasn't Four Loko before a concert that wasn't an Insane Clown Posse concert. The wildest thing I ended up doing all night came after the show, when I impulse-bought a copy of the New York Post while buying Gatorade in a feeble attempt to combat what would end up being a multi-day Loko hangover.
There was one moment, however, when drinking Four Loko indeed felt as downright dangerous as it once had. While walking along the sidewalk, sipping our decaffeinated Four Loko out of our plastic cups, Steve and I heard the wail of a police siren growing louder and louder. We froze. This was it: karma was coming back to bite us in the ass. We looked at each other, and for a moment, we felt like helpless children, powerless in the grip of the Demon Loko. We should have never done this. We’d made a terrible mistake.
But the cop zoomed straight past us, and we were adults again. As dangerous as Four Loko might have once been, and perhaps still is, it still can’t hold a caffeine-infused candle to the world around it.