The Price of Convenience
Engaged in the exchange of the almighty dollar for the almighty product, so immersed was I in the honorable tradition of trade, his words found no purchase within my ears. Excuse me?
“I like your little hat,” indicating the fedora which, out of reverence, I’d placed on the counter.
“Thanks. My mom gave it to me.”
“I like it.”
“She’s got good taste.” And I was out the door.
My hasty departure may have ruined an earth-shattering meeting of the minds, the greatest gift commerce bestowed upon us. Ancient bazaars, collecting travelers from the four corners of the world, once served as centers of ideas and inspiration. Tales from from away lands, the blending of tongues, the aroma of foreign spices, arts of another place all mingled along the edges of the money exchange. And from these dusty trading posts grew markets, the community center where farmers would chat about weather and yields and gossip would flow like wine. The heart and soul of humanity was born as people haggled for a better price, but now it’s all Twinkies. And compliments about my hat.
Why is it a little hat? My head is not small, the hat fits fine. And why the hell am I being complimented by some guy wearing a do-rag at J’s corner convenience store? Are there no girls who patronize the place, who would clutch at the magazine rack and fan themselves when they see how awesome my damn hat it?
Up to my gills with drink in the wake of a wedding, desperate for a veggie burger to salvage what remains of my mind. A waitress on her smoke break likes my hastily tailored and ill-fitting suit. Thanks, it cost five dollars. The waitress tells me which section is hers, to sit there and that she’ll be right in. The hostess gives me a table on the far side of the empty diner near the bathrooms where no one would be tempted to compliment me. My five dollar suit and excellent command of the English language does not go home with the waitress. The waitress does not go home with a couple extra bucks tip.
Mr. Yong also likes my hat, a fact pried by forces unseen from his typical stoicism. His place, like all the local junk-food emporiums, is a humble, weathered bungalow dumped in gravel and weeds. The lights are kept low to help the unwary customer overlook expiration dates on packaged egg-salad sandwiches and nitrate infused coldcuts. Cheap wine, beers without complicated labels and sugary drinks for the kids are well stocked. Cereal and instant noodles ride the edge of otherwise empty shelves. Packages are faded by time and coated in a film of dust impervious to the most dedicated proprietor. The last compass and pencil set in the western world costs two bucks.
Curiosity in the age of technology caught me conducting research, hopeful that eager beaver Yelp! devotees were reaping infamy for acts of reasoned reflection and keen insight. Sadly, the 21st century has yet to discover Yong’s and to remark on their incredible collection of individually wrapped toilet paper rolls, but a couple of news items did pop up. During the week of Thanksgiving last the store had been robbed twice, the second time so violently that Mr. Yong was found beaten unconscious. Since carrying this burden of knowledge I’ve caught myself staring at his pained gait, his contorted frame ruined by years of squeezing out the American Dream two nickels at a time, his plastic fork in a can of SPAM, at the deep black bruise beneath a yellowing thumbnail. I always say hello, I always thank him very much, but only my hat forced his voice beyond vague murmurs.
Curiosity in the age of technology tainted my impressions of the cookie-cutter quickie mart blocks from Yong’s. This squat shack shares space with a barbershop whose efforts at advertising end with a handwritten sandwich board. Neither enterprise draws the masses. Nothing but drug-dealing scum, according to Google. A bad place in a bad neighborhood.
Years of teenaged tomfoolery and rocknroll were spent within a five block radius of warehouses and garages. Going to a show meant stopping at the only gas station in town that stocked liquor behind the counter. Brand name cigarettes were always a bargain. Everything had Mexican tax stamps and no one asked for ID. Gas was cheap but few passing drivers cared to brave the assorted scum lurking around stolen shopping carts and yelling in invented languages. An industrious twelve-year-old could pick up a fifth and a pack of smokes, chicken tenders and potato wedges, cop a balloon of heroin, rent a hooker and get stabbed in the throat by a lunatic in one place. Then go see Hickey or Fuckface play.
Nothing lasts forever. The gas station got busted and new owners took over, running their store on the straight and narrow. Bands broke up. People running the warehouses and garages were evicted or overdosed or arrested or all three. There will never be such an epicenter of sustained excitement again. They were different times. They were better times.
Food Villa is the most impressive player in the local snacks and beer scene, despite not operating on the black market. At first glance it’s a cornucopia of off-brand discount goods and produce gleaned from the back of trucks in parking lots. Brown limes. Limp lettuce. Wormy apples. Black bananas. In reality Food Villa sidesteps groceries entirely and offers stiff competition through their ability to stock even more top-shelf crap, incense sticks, framed portraits of eagles soaring over American flags, than any immediate rival. The plastic folding table for pensioners to sit and pick lottery numbers gives it a nice homey feel.
The husband and wife running the place keep their small brood behind the counter. Their kids spend afternoons doing homework when they’re not distracted by the daytime drinkers and harried mothers passing foodstamps over the counter for another family meal of Mac & Cheese with a side of pork rinds.
New Seasons, a Portland supermarket chain not immediately discernible from Whole Foods, opened a store in the neighborhood. The community could now buy fresh produce, organic goods and healthy alternatives to vacuum sealed preservatives. Families sick of Snickers and 40oz must have rejoiced. But responsible corporate governance comes at a cost. To offset support of small farmers, fair-trade groups and the clerk bagging groceries, every loaf of bread and pound of rutabagas is priced at a premium. I can’t afford to shop at New Seasons.
Once a week I ride my bike to the cheaper supermarket in my old neighborhood. Once a week I ride my bike to the small grocery with a decent bulk bins section and eggplants that are always fucked when I cut them open. Walking around near my house I see families gathered on the lawn, and hear a mother calling out to one of her kids, money waving in her hand. Go on down to Yong’s and get us some food.