In life, as I have mentioned, you make decisions that at the time seem logical, and sound, only to find out that they were really poor, misguided ones. As I also know I mentioned, one of the stupidest I have ever made was to leave New York City in the mid-’80s. That was a biggie; New York is like some sort of gelatinous mass that closes up after you and never lets you back in – it is like you were never there; it does fine without you.
But that wasn’t the first time I made that stupid mistake; oh no, I had done that years before in 1978, after graduating college. Proving that you can be stupid many times over in a relatively short period of time, instead of continuing my education, going for another degree that would ensure a prosperous career, I chose to seek out a new beginning (number 215 if anyone’s counting). I was lazy, not wanting any student debt (I had a scholarship to Fordham) so took my brother up on his offer to go live with him in Virginia and see if life was better there. He, his wife and two adorable children were living in Colonial Heights. So off I went on Amtrak, leaving a sobbing Mother and a baffled Father behind.
Don was working for Pepsi at the time, and through his connections was able to get me a job interview with the Southland Corporation, with the intent of getting into the Manager Training program. Now if you don’t recognize the name Southland, you certainly will recognize what the company ran – the very popular (at the time), 7 Eleven convenience stores. But while management positions were certainly available, one of the practices of the company was to bring everyone up through the ranks. Yes, that meant working in an actual 7 Eleven. And yes, that also meant wearing one of those ridiculous paper orange and white hats, and the equally stupid orange and white jacket that all employees wore. I started to feel my first doubts.
But I went to training classes and learned the business; everyone was very friendly and helpful and seemed pleased to have me there; I even made some friends. In time I graduated from 7 Eleven University and was ready to be assigned to a store.
The one they chose for me was in Dinwiddie County, which at the time was in the middle of nowhere, so I had to get a used car (a whole other story there for another time) to drive the miles from the house to the store. And better and better, after shadowing employees for a week or two, I was given the midnight to 8 AM shift, as most of the stores were open twenty-four hours.
Hey, I wanted something different right? A new life?? Well, this was about as different as you could get from Greenwich Village and my job selling ballet shoes to Broadway performers at Capezio’s.
When I do stupid, I do stupid.
But it was Virginia, cradle of the Civil War which I was an avid student of, and I was spending time with my brother which was good…..but that orange and white hat…..Geez.
Each store had a video camera that scanned the store floor, back and forth, back and forth continuously all day and night, its images broadcasted to a monitor in a back room no one paid any attention to. As I stood behind the counter, ringing up Big Gulps and overcooked hot dogs, I would watch it, counting how many seconds it took to be back looking at me. After a couple of days of study, I had it down pretty well: after it left the cashier station, it took almost a minute and ten seconds before it came back my way. So I used that information to my advantage. I was the only one in the store (who else would they give that shift to except the new guy?), so when that camera swerved and I was safely out of viewing range, I would grab a pack of Funny Bones from the nearby rack, tear it open and shove both cakes in my mouth!! I didn’t have much money (what a surprise!) so couldn’t afford meals of my own, so those minutes were precious. I got so good I could take down two packs in my allotted time, and of course, there was always the kneel down to tie your shoelace routine.
The place was poorly run; the Manager didn’t ever think about how he kept running out of Drakes Cakes with no cash to show for their disappearance! Maybe he considered it just the cost of doing business, and he knew everyone had their own favorite treat to devour when they weren’t on camera.
The store also had a couple of gas pumps out front and for the time, a new system of ordering gas where when the customer drove up; the employee inside would hit a button on a console and ask how much of what kind of gas they wanted. The customer would then hit a button on a little black box attached to a nearby pole and respond; the employee would then release the gas to the appropriate pump. Like I said at the time downright revolutionary!!
But being in the middle of nowhere, and it being a new system, people sometimes got confused. Like the time an older fellow got out of his used beat up pick up truck and squinted into the glare of the overhead lights. I hit my button and asked:
“Can I help you? What kind of gas and how much please?”
Well that poor old feller was a bit startled by hearing a voice come out of a gas pump, and not noticing the little black box with the “Speak” button on it, he picked up the nozzle from one of the tanks, turned it to his face and started talking back into it!!
I tried a few times to correct him while stifling my laughter:
“No sir, not there… please don’t point that at your face…sir overhead…the box with the button…sir please.”
I wasn’t in New York anymore, that was for sure.
But there were highlights…besides the free Funny Bones, there were lots of pretty girls intrigued with a good looking guy (well I was then) from the big city…I played that up big and it worked every time! And I got a lot of reading done during my shift as the population of Dinwiddie County wasn’t huge, so the store didn’t get a lot of traffic at night; maybe a State Trooper looking for a cup of coffee, or some guy coming home from shift work who needed a stale ham sandwich.
And then there was the beer. You see the 7 Elevens there sold beer. There was a huge refrigerator case filled with six packs of Bud and Miller (the preferred beer of the region), but you see it was illegal to sell beer in the state of Virginia after Midnight, so we had these big chains with padlocks, that we would run through the fridge door handles so that no one could open them. I had the keys to the locks. What could go wrong right?
The first time I worked the night shift alone, the manager showed me where he kept a shotgun under the cashier counter.
“Anyone tries breaking into the beer, this’ll stop them”
He must have noticed my wide eyes and look of disbelief.
“You ever fire one of these before?” he asked.
I shook my head; no I hadn’t.
“You ever fire anything?”
Another shake of my head. He started to look disgusted.
“Ya mean to tell me you never been hunting?”
This time I spoke up:
“I don’t believe in killing innocent defense-less animals”
Well, that about did it. He just shook his head, but to his credit, he continued with his lesson.
“Well this is loaded; you just pick it up, cock it and pull the trigger.”
He shook his head again as he left, probably hoping I would accidentally blow my sissy head off. But the thought of shooting someone to defend some six packs of Miller seemed insane to me. I mean really, a Miller?? Maybe a Gaffel Kolsch…..
Well, you knew it had to happen right? One night not too long after, I was busy eating my Funny Bones and sipping my Big Gulp when around 2 AM two guys came in, a bit unsteady on their feet and head straight for the beer case. Damn, I thought, here we go. Immediately I hit the call button under the counter which signaled the closest State Police car that there might be a problem at the store. The two guys were trying to open the door to the beer, and not getting the idea of the chains rattling every time they did. They both started cursing, finally realizing the door wasn’t opening. They weren’t going to get in without the keys to the locks. And I had the keys. And a shotgun. Their attention finally turned to me in my bright Orange and White outfit.
“Hey you, we want some beer man.”
In my official 7-Eleven voice I answered:
“Sorry Guys; we stop selling at Midnight; State Law.”
“What the fuck you mean you stop selling beer??”
Lord; another genius.
“It’s the law,” I said “Sorry”.
They looked at each other, and the second guy just shrugged. Good I thought, just go would you, and where was that State cop??
But of course Genius starts walking towards me.
“You got the keys?”
When in doubt, lie.
“What me? No way! You think they would give me the keys to the beer? Only the manager has them.”
And at that moment I wish he did. Number Two starts for the door, but Genius isn’t about to leave and I guess I couldn’t blame him – I could have used a cold one right about then myself.
“You’re lying,” Genius said and I started to get afraid.
“You think they would leave the keys with a peon like me?”
Keep working it, I told myself but I think I confused him with peon.
“I don’t care what you are, gimme the goddamn keys!”
Looking back on it, I was amazed I didn’t just open the beer case myself and share a few with these guys. But no, I was a loyal employee of the Southland Corporation. I just shook my head –was that the sound of a car pulling up in the driveway? Genius started for the counter again, now thoroughly pissed off, besides being shit-faced.
“You guys just go,” I said, “I don’t want any trouble here.”
I dropped my hand below the counter.
“Whatcha going do? Shoot me? Yer too Chicken Shit!”
Well, I sure had to agree with him there but somehow managed to say:
And that at least stopped him for a moment. I actually did put my hand on the shotgun but that was as far as I was going to go but I hoped he didn’t know that.
“Well, maybe I’ll shoot you.” Genius said.
Now that put a different light on the situation; didn’t think he might have a gun too! And as I had never used a firearm before I knew who would be on the losing end of a shootout.
And then I heard the bells that jingled when the front door opened.
“Any problem here boys?”
The Trooper must have been six two at least; his right hand rested on his oversized holster. Genius smiled a sloppy grin, said:
“No sir, just having a friendly talk is all”
The Trooper looked my way, saw a frightened kid from the city, and answered:
“Well, that’s nice that is. Let’s just keep it friendly – you boys here to buy something?”
Number Two, visibly shaken piped up:
“Pack of smokes.”
“Well, why don’t you just do that and be on your way?”
Clearly, even Genius didn’t want to take on a State cop; a scared kid behind the counter yea, but a State cop, no way.
And that was the end of it; no real harm done except to my dreams of a new life in Virginia. You can imagine my career at Southland didn’t advance much further. As a matter of fact, I didn’t last another two weeks. I turned in my paper hat and orange smock and never looked back.
There were no 7-Elevens in Manhattan at the time, but later in the mid-eighties, I went into one in Pennsylvania. The young guy behind the counter must have wondered why I was smiling so much as I made my purchase. The place was the same, overhead cameras and all; the same stupid uniform, the same Big Gulps, the same overcooked hot dogs. But that wasn’t why I was smiling; before leaving I noticed the display rack of snacks on the counter, and while there were plenty of Ring-Dings, Hostess Cupcakes, and cookies, there was only one Funny Bone package left on the shelf.
When I got back into the car, Leslie asked why I was smiling, after all, I had just gone to buy some ice at the local 7-Eleven.
She didn’t realize for a few moments, I had taken a trip back in time.