August 9, 2004
They come for cigarettes, forties and pork rinds. They come for little foil pocket packs of condoms, for that single one-night stand of safe sex. They come for bottles of coke and juice and water, or maybe a slick plastic wrapped porn mag, masturbation material. Most of them just come for gas.
Wearing a mesh trucker cap and a ratty t-shirt, a twenty something shaggy haired white guy asks for Marlboro Lights. A slicked back well dressed black man gets Kool Menthols and a pack of cheap cigars. A red faced mom with a slimy kid in the car seat will get give in and get Camel Regulars after a short internal struggle.
It’s about convenience, speed, a short drive and junk food. My name is Ackmar Pratesh, and I work in the Stop N Shop on 9th and Holmes.
They pay with wadded dirty balls of singles and grime-crusted dimes fished out from under their passenger seat. Or from under the couch or that tin dish collecting dust on the nightstand. They pay with plastic. A swipe, sign, smile and they’re gone. Convenience.
On Saturdays the stock truck comes at five AM. The pre-morning drone of traffic slowly devours the mist as the truck pulls up. I’m wearing my nylon pullover with embroidered BP Logo. The driver lowers two pallets of chips, drinks, cigarettes and beer onto the makeshift loading dock, then leaves with barely a word. Cokes come in red plastic grids that stack like blocks on top of each other. Convenient. Carton cigarettes even sport the surgeon generals warning on the brown cardboard shipping boxes. That’s part of the convenience too – your own personalized clip of government sponsored medical advice.
In my country, towns spread out from the bazaar in the center. People come to the street to shop, to haggle and barter over prices with dark leather-skinned merchants. To pour over the vast spread of nuts, fruits, spices, fresh fish, butchered meat, imported and stolen electronics, pirated DVDs and used books. In my country, traveling to the bazaar is an event, a time to educate sons and daughters on prices, cooking, language, traditions and necessity. In my country, convenience has not yet become a religion.
They pull up in gleaming black SUVs, using a single hand to swipe the card, punch the button and insert the nozzle. Their other hand never leaves the cellphone plastered to their ear. Convenience. They screech up in dirt streaked pickups, shuffle in for two cases of Budweiser for the afternoon barbecue. Or tailgate. Or fishing trip. Convenience. Stop N Shop. Pump N Go. Kwik Mart. Convenience.
On Tuesday night, the moon finally peers from the lazy smog clouds gleaming with a greasy glow. But it is the sharp nauseas burning light of the BP sign that illumines the hooded stranger. He loiters by pump ten, hands in pockets, eyes downcast.
I restock the depleted Hustler mags, letting the enticing plastic faces evoke lust through their plastic wrap. I rip open a Colt 45 pack, a Miller Lite box, Nacho Cheese Pringles cans, green Trojan ribbed condoms. Arranged in rows and stacks, bundled together, separated, awaiting a quick purchase. Stop N Shop. Convenience.
In my country you buy a weeks worth of food during a trip to the bazaar. Beans and flatbread for tomorrow. Curry powder and cut chicken for Saturday. A five kilo bag of rice. Small leather sacks filled with powders and crushed leaves, red spice, brown cloves, hefty bags of dates and nuts. In my country the merchant is an uncle, a distant relative, a friend. Stories are swapped and money is exchanged, and every week the relationship grows. Vinod, the butcher, father of two girls, studying correspondence from the internet cafe. Amesh, master of spices, from a small village in Bangladesh. Nimesh, dealer of electronics and Hollywood blockbuster films, our connection to America and to the west. Cousins, sisters, mothers, grandfathers shouting, chatting, crying in the open air.
The hooded stranger walks towards the front door, dragging a distorted twenty-foot shadow behind him. Hands still in pockets, eyes still downcast, he seems to float over the concrete. Alone.
In the mornings, illegal Mexican migrant workers line up outside, awaiting a contractor to come pick them up. Short and tall, young and strong, old and weathered, all sweating in the rising sun. Lined up for purchase. Stop N Shop. Convenience.
Chips, chewing gum, Sobe iced tea with ginseng and 900 vitamins, energy drinks, Mr. Coffee filter dripped into a styrofoam cup. Forty oz. fountain drinks too sticky and sweet from too much thick syrup. Lined up, bundled in plastic wrap, stamped with a price, awaiting your purchase, ready to bag up and ship out. Take off, gas tank and belly full.
All these single lives, drifting through, grabbing junk from the Stop N Shop on the corner of 9th and Holmes. Drive up, stock up, stay silent, in your own world. Don’t say a word. Cash it, charge it, fiddle with change. A transaction, quick and efficient, and you’re through the door and on your way. Convenience.
Hooded sweatshirt slips through the door. He’s black with a scraggly beard and bloodshot eyes. Drifting, wafting the aroma of stale malt liquor and dried vomit. Maybe blood. Alone.
Drifter shuffles through the aisles, letting a single finger hover over the items. Wrigley’s spearmint gum, Cheetos, snack mix, beef jerky. Lined up like little Mexicans. Single serving chunks of convenience.
In my country, disputes sometimes arise under the striped merchant tents. An unfair price or a bad day. In my country the din of haggling and business sometimes is elevated to hateful shouts. A knife is drawn, lunging and fearful screams amidst the fresh fish, cashews, plantains and cheap DVDs. In my country, we are not free from violence. But as my father used to say ‘Hot blood is cooled by many hearts.’
Every few months like clockwork, the national lottery skyrockets over 200 million. The electronic lotto machine does not rest, and I leave preprinted stacks of tickets ten deep behind the counter. Some burn their whole paycheck on five hundred tickets. Yuppie dads get ten dollars worth with a nervous grin on their faces. High school girlfriends get a Dasani and a ticket each. Lottery tickets. Tickets to a new life. A slip of paper with a logo, six numbers and fine print. They all want to cash in, strike it rich. Hit the big one. Convenient doses of life improvement. Stop N Shop. Ring, ding and you’re out of here. Convenience.
Loneliness looks up from his dark world and stares at me. From under that loose gray hood. His hand fidgets with something in his pocket. He ignores the magazine rack, Penthouse pets and mudslinging politicians. He ignores the crunchy, cheesy junkfood, the perfect sized glossy plastic packs of lipid laced snacks. Past the gallons of beer. His gun is already out when he reaches the counter, black dull metal barrel leveling at my chest.
Convenience stores have one of the highest armed robbery rates in the country. Clerks operate behind bulletproof glass, under the watchful eye of a closed circuit security camera. But even with precautions, it’s still store policy to give in to demands, hand over the cash not yet secured in the safe, and deftly press the silent alarm. Fifty percent of convenience store robbers are apprehended from security camera footage.
In my country, would-be robbers are surrounded by the crushing mobs, the schoolchildren throwing sharp stones, their black veiled mothers, and fellow merchants. Would-be robbers are run out of the bazaar with a bruised ego and a bump on the head. In my country, the bazaar is empty at night.
Solitude speaks from yellowed teeth and cracked gums, forked tongue rasping: “Empty the drawer, aba-daba, I ain’t got all night.” My movements are slow, but hopefully the police are on the way. The little red button was pressed the moment the gun left his shirt.
Depression sucks on his lips, drips of sweat sliding down his filthy face. His steady arm never wavers, my heart locked on target. As the bills peel out of the cash drawer, I can remember their source. A torn twenty for Black and Milds and two pints of Bass Ale. A rumpled five for a bag of ice and a two-liter of Pepsi. Those crisp singles for a super sized Trojan and a little bottle of Yellow Jackets.
These records of transaction, our limited, short lived relationships. My side of the bargain. Tickets of convenience.
Disenfranchised eyes the cash, counting numbers in his head, plotting his escape. I deal the money under the bulletproof glass like the winning poker hand, and Desperation gobbles it down. I catch his bloodshot eyes for a long second, those swirling wells of red pain. He clenches his stubbled, dirty jaw, but does not look away. Then slowly, firmly I form the habitual words. “Thank you, come again.” It’s out of my lips before irony hits me.
And then our time is done. The transaction completed. Stop N Shop. Get your potato chips, your cold beer, your bottled water, your ice, condoms, porno mags, newspapers and cigarettes. Convenience. Get your armed robbery. Fill up on all your vices and violent tendencies. Convenience. The American dream.
Back in my country, my father sold cashew nuts in the Bahri Bazaar in Karachi, Pakistan. He was stabbed to death by a tourist high on an opium binge. The day after his fiftieth birthday. Our neighborhood wept, and almost a hundred customers came to the funeral, to mourn. My father’s friends.
I left for America a week later.
The police show up in an hour, grab the security tape, let me fill out a report. They buy a newspaper and two cups of coffee. A smile, wave and my cash drawer is now the proud holder of two dollars and forty-three cents. Records of our time together. Tickets of convenience. Transactions of the past, shared time.
Tomorrow in a smog sunrise the construction workers and landscapers will line up, nursing hangovers, maybe bruises and sore muscles. Lined up for sale, beaming in the sun. Convenience.
And if you forget to grab breakfast, or your Explorer is groaning on E, or feel the nicotine shakes coming on, I’m at 9th and Holmes. My name is Ackmar Pratesh, proudly wearing my blue collared BP shirt. And when we part ways, tickets of our time together stacked neatly in the register, I will smile and wave.
And it will be genuine.