The air of the convenience store smells of baked bread, grilled onions, and a microcosm of human experience. The Dairy Mart, a one stop shop that holds milk for ransom at a bargain basement price of 6 bucks a gallon, a place folks sometimes gather to share a warm breakfast sandwich and a quart of buttermilk, is bustling. It is a gathering place where people from all walks of life come to be extorted for the price of convenience. Construction workers, along with the CEO of Timmy’s Transmission service, often enjoy lunch here, which may or may not include a stromboli that isn’t authentic Italian cuisine, but it is rather tasty… in a convenient American sort of way… while some may come to enjoy a tasty steak and cheese. And we are using the term “steak” here with a bit of latitude.
It’s Sunday evening, yet there is a steady stream of customers strolling in and out of the doors, pulling in and out of the parking lot, pumping gas and getting Hostess Cupcakes.
And I, dressed in a dark purple shirt that would make Barney proud, and a black pair of jeans that signaled to all I am a proud Dairy Mart employee, am dealing with people in a jovial fashion. Talking, counting, opening the register, taking care of the customers, both in the store and pumping gas, is my specialty; it’s what I do. The fluorescent lights cast an unflattering glow on my 21 year old face. Some rather sore looking zits adorn my chin, and what some might describe as an evil eye that provides me with double vision allowing me the advantage of making sure all are behaving as they should in our proud establishment. We can’t have teenagers stealing cases of beer now, can we?
Part of the gig includes making small talk with customers, both familiar and unfamiliar, while moving them out of the store as quickly as possible.
“Snagging some Beast again tonight, eh?” I am currently chatting up one of my professors who teaches a couple of theatre classes I’m taking at WVU. “Beast” is what we affectionately refer to as Milwaukee’s Best beer. If this is the best Milwaukee has to offer, they are in a bit of trouble. “Beast” is pretty terrible.
The Prof. always comes in on Sunday nights to get stocked up for the week. Or he drinks it all on Sunday night. He has a ponytail and a pinky fingernail that is long and painted black. He might also be into cocaine. He is a child of the 70’s… And he uses the word “Fuck” in new and inventive ways.
“Yeah, Man. Gotta stock up for the week.” Or the night.
“Alright… Enjoy! See you tomorrow.”
“Yep.” And with that, the prof has left the building. Peace out, Prof.
The line moves on…
And has grown to 4 or 5 deep… which is really where this story ought to begin.
I notice a motorcycle drive up to the gas pumps. The rider dismounts the horse (crotch rocket), picks up the gas pump, and waits for authorization. He has a wife beater on with a pair of mesh shorts. I don’t know much about hogs, crotch rockets, or steel horses but do know enough that you are a dumbass if you are riding around in that particular clothing choice. He looks like he’s ready to lose at 3 on 3 basketball… not ride off into the sunset on his Suzuki. The pump is authorized without a second glance. A motorcycle holds, maybe, a pint of gas, so it isn’t really on my radar.
Meanwhile, the line is growing. Customers are all in on the overpriced grocery items. Here, they pay for convenience, and it’s a Sunday night. Overpriced lunch meat and bread, 3 dollar 16 ounce Coke bottles, and Hostess health foods are making their way into the plastic “Thank You!” bags, eventually headed for the packed lunches of school children and working folk across the North Central West Virginia corridor.
“How’s it going, Buddy?”
“Hey, Buddy! How’s the wife? Haven’t seen her in here in awhile.”
Buddy is the name of all the customers. It’s affable. And I don’t care enough to learn their names.
“Long time no see, Buddy! I’ll be over to take some of that Colt 45 off your hands!” I hate malt liquor. It’s like swallowing a marble.
“You get a new tattoo, Buddy? Keepin’ it classy!” Nothing says classy like a naked tattoo of Pam Anderson on your forearm. Good choice.
“That’ll be $2.52. Cigarettes are going to price you out, Buddy!” And, perhaps, kill you.
There is an art to being a convenience store clerk. It’s nothing like the movie Clerks. I never played hockey down the store aisle. One time, however, my boss did make an anatomically correct birthday cake in the shape of a naked woman to celebrate my birthday. It tasted pretty good.
And, once, we played a game of baseball with a spatula and balled up aluminum foil.
A clerk’s job is to make a customer feel welcome, smile, maybe laugh, while ringing up items and getting the customer out of the store as quickly as possible. There is, after all, a reason the customer is paying $7.00 for a quart of half and half; it is a convenience. And that convenience is speed.
“Buddy! Enjoy the evening… or what’s left of it!” That milk is near the expiration date… better look closer next time.
I’m still ringing up customers and enjoying the gig. It’s performance art. Shifts last upwards of 8 hours, and most of that time is spent behind the cash register ringing people up. My feet are sore, and I’m looking forward to getting back to the apartment, kicking ‘er back on the couch, and, perhaps, listening to some music before hitting the hay. Or out to party where later we will stop by the store to say hi to my buddy Jimmy and moon the surveillance cameras.
It’s really up in the air at this point.
The motorcyclist has finished pumping his gas and is headed inside the store, proudly wearing a wife beater and mesh shorts.
And his helmet. He doesn’t take off the helmet.
The performance continues… and the line ebbs and flows.
The steel horse rider, helmet on his head, is at the end of the line. He is barely noticed; the focus is always on the customer right in front of the register. All other customers are secondary. The line, the audience, is in my corner. They know me; I know them. We have a unique, two to three second relationship. Not unlike a high school romance.
Finally, Deathrider, can no longer be bothered to wait. He has waited 30 seconds. That is far too long to wait in a line. This is, after all, a convenience store. And the lack of convenience, evidently, is astounding and infuriating.
His horse calls to him. It wants to be ridden. He feels the pull of the open road. And the pull is strong.
Pushing audience members out of the way, Deathrider shoulders and elbows himself to the front of the line.
Suddenly, I’m face to face with my own reflection, because he has yet to raise the bug shield on his helmet. Evidently there is a swarm of bees, locusts, gnats, or grasshoppers heading our way. He slams four quarters onto the stainless steel counter and offers a look as cold as the stainless steel holding the quarters that were once his. At least that’s what I imagine. Really, I’m staring at my own reflection in his helmet. And, for a moment, I am still impressed by my look.
There is a brief stare down. With myself, really, because of the helmet…
I’d like to say I grabbed the rider by his shoulders and pulled him across the counter with one hand while using the other hand to rip his helmet from his head. I’d like to say that I explained to him that common decency dictated he wait in line like the other customers in the store.
Lines are a part of the civilized world in which we live. I mean… what if this dude were on his way to Disney World? Can you imagine the carnage he would inflict on all the kids lined up to ride “It’s a Small World?”
I’d like to say that happened…
Instead, the stare down continues…
Deathrider stomps out of the store, shoving past an old guy standing next to the door on his way out. I stare out the giant window after him, forgetting, for a moment, about the customers in the line.
A tumbleweed blows across the parking lot.
There is an awkward silence in the store. People hold overpriced crackers and canned meat in their hands. And doughnuts.
I smile, sensing an opportunity…
I press the intercom button.
“And sir… you have a nice day.” Such kind words; simply wishing a man good fortune on his way out into the cold world is the least a simple convenience store clerk can do.
The man turns around and waves his middle finger in the air. “Fuck you, you asshole!”
Deathrider straddles his crotch rocket and leaves half his tire on the pavement as he peels out of the parking lot.
Smiling I turn back to the audience and shrug my shoulders. “I was simply wishing him a good day.” Laughs and mild applause replace the awkward silence that once engulfed the normally bustling store.
The jovial conversation continues…
And I go back to ringing up, and chatting up, the customers.
Five minutes later, an old guy with tan, leathery skin and a cigar walks into the store with 40 scratch off tickets. And a rather large parrot on his left shoulder.
“Hey, Buddy. You know there’s a parrot on your shoulder?”