Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Corner Store

I'm going to try to not complicate this story too much.

It's actually a pretty simple one- one that I don't even really know why I feel the need to share.  But here I am nonetheless.

There is a small convenience store on Melrose Avenue, around the corner from my place.  Melrose Avenue has no shortage of convenience stores, especially in the one-mile stretch between Fairfax Ave and La Brea (Blvd/St/Ave/whatever) where I live.  It sits directly across from Fairfax High School and is somewhat cleverly named "Detention Cafe."

The design is borderline eye-catching and unsettlingly tacky, especially considering it is stuck between a more mildly designed coffee shop and a graffiti-spackled hipster shoe store.  It appears to me to be aimed at catching the attention of the hyperactive, hormone-riddled teenagers from across the street before school, after school, on their lunch breaks and any other possible free moment.  Wise, I always think.  After all, when I was in high school we used to demand my mom or one of the other carpool moms stop at the convenience store on the way home from school so we could grab some chips and a coke (in the South, we don't say "soda" or the obnoxious "pop"... we just call everything coke).  So I get why a business owner would want to target a school-full of endlessly hungry students.

However, during the summer and on holidays and after 6 pm any day of the week, Detention Cafe always seemed to be a ghost town.  I would often drive by on my way to or from home and notice the proprietor standing outside, hands on hips, looking down Melrose from side-to-side... as if to see where all the people went.  One night on a late-night snack run with a friend, I passed Detention Cafe on the way to the gas station a few blocks west.  There, in front of the store, was the owner.  He eagerly made eye-contact with us in the hopes we would be his final customers before closing up shop.  Not realizing that, I continued on to the gas station where I purchased my chips and a soda.  On my way back home, I passed Detention again as this nice man was closing up his shop.  In one moment I watched him glance at my snacks and then ever-so-briefly back up to me where I swear I noticed disappointment creep across his face.  Disappointment that, despite making the most genuine of eye contact with me, I had passed his store over for the corporate giant down the road.

It was then and there, in that very moment, that I decided I would change.  Always being one to root for the underdog, I resolved to direct my snack runs to Detention Cafe and Detention Cafe only.  Why not?  I would be contributing to one man's American dream, acquiring my snacks and actually saving some money all at the same time... so everyone wins!

And so I did.  I made numerous runs whenever my snack cravings got the better of me.  There were even a few times when I did not even really want anything, but I was bored and I decided "Ah what the hell...go to Detention."

I felt like a saint.  Every time I walked into the store, the man's eyes lit up and he welcomed me with a very sincere "Hello, how are you today sir?"  Upon check-out, I was always met with a "Will there be anything else for you?" followed by a kindly "Have a wonderful day!" It almost made me want to dance home.  Here I was, doing good for my fellow man, one bag of Doritos at a time.  We had ourselves a nice little rapport going on.


One day.  Picture it: summer, 2012.   A long hot stretch of weather had borne down upon us for the better part of a month and some writing assignments had occupied most of my day.  Having consumed a small lunch and finding myself with mid-afternoon hunger pangs, I made a quick run to Detention Cafe.  My mind was elsewhere...  most likely on the myriad of projects waiting for me back home.

I walked in and was immediately bombarded.  The man, who was of some Asian descent (is it racist to guess it was Pakistani even though I have no reason to point to that particular ethnicity?), raced from behind his counter at the back of the store.

"Oh hello sir!  How are you today?"
"Fine thank you.  How are you?"
"Oh I'm great! Thank you.  What can I do for you today?"
"I'm just grabbing a bag of chips."
"Great!  You know we have sodas on sale for $1.00 today."
"Oh no thanks, just chips today."
"But they're so cheap!"
"That's a great deal, but I'm not really looking to buy one."
"Oh but you should take advantage of it.  It won't be like this everyday."
"Well thank you, but no thanks."
"How about some ice cream? We have 5 different flavors today, 2 scoops for $1.50!"
"No thank you, just grabbing some chips."
(hastily grabbing the nearest bag now to avoid any further pitches from this nice but perhaps overly-eager man)
"It's so hot out there though!"
"Yes it is, but I'm just looking for some chips."
(tossing the bag of chips on to the counter and reaching for my wallet)
"Did you see our candy case?  The candy bars are all just 75 cents today.  Would you be interested in a couple?"
"No thank you."
(He takes a deep breath and sulks behind the counter to ring my chips up.  The transaction takes place in an awkward silence. I turn to leave, then...)
"I tell you what, I give you 2 sodas for $1.00!  You can't beat that anywhere these days!"
(Turning around, maybe too quickly to be perceived as not annoyed, I said:)
"I'm sorry, but no.  I'm happy with these chips.  Thank you but there won't be anything else."

You would have thought I'd punched him in the stomach.  He swallowed, his usually bright smile completely vanished from his visage, and he weakly managed:

"Have a nice day."

I walked out as quickly as I could.  As you can imagine, the thought of returning to Detention Cafe was a very awkward one.  How could I?  I didn't want to be harassed every time I went into his store.  Why would someone pester a customer who was already IN the store so much about buying goods he had no desire to purchase?  This is a convenience store, not a car lot.

On the one hand, I felt bad.  This damn economy is bad enough, I can only imagine running a small convenience store on Melrose Avenue surrounded by corporate and other more advantageously-located competition.  And in the summer, when all but a few of your main customer base are gone...  However, I felt strange enough to not go back.  Months went by, school came back into session, and I got to the point where I no longer felt the need to walk on the other side of the avenue when heading past Detention Cafe to the gas station a few blocks west.

Fast forward: today, Februrary 13, 2012.  Another busy day.  Fueled by coffee since 9 am, I had spent all day in front of my computer doing a number of tasks, then spent 5 hours preparing my taxes.  Bleary eyed and knowing that, despite my immense hunger, I would need to head to the gym at some point soon, I made the decision to go on a snack run.  Not having the motivation to walk the extra 3 blocks to the gas station, I took a chance: to hell with the past, let's give Detention Cafe another chance.

As I walked up to the neon pink and orange storefront, I saw a number of people inside.  Not just high schoolers (though there were a few) but a couple of adults too.  Additionally, I saw that there had been some changes inside.  I would not venture so far as to call them "renovations" but the term "upgrade" certainly felt appropriate.  It seemed Detention Cafe was doing well!  In that moment, my apprehension alleviated and I confidently chose my soda and chips.

Walking up to the counter, I noticed it was not the pleasant yet somewhat desperate owner that I was accustomed to seeing behind the counter.  Instead, it was a middle-aged woman, also of some Middle-Eastern descent.  She smiled pleasantly, asked me about my day, if I was staying warm in the February chill and politely gave me my soda, chips and change.

My smile faded when it hit me.  The man no longer owns Detention Cafe.

He had to sell, or some such similar sad event.  My mind's eye recalled memories of the man with his honest, only-trying-to-run-a-simple-store look and genuine happiness when you chose his humble store over all the others.  I remembered the sight of him out front, alone, hands on his hips, waiting for a customer.  I remember the look of disappointment when I walked past him with snacks from somewhere else.  And I felt responsible.  Not guilty, but that perhaps I could have helped.  Perhaps my purchasing a soda (or even 2 for $1.00) that day might have given him an extra bit of confidence to continue on in his pursuit of his dream.  Boy, did I feel like a shit.  It was all my fault.  All I had to do was buy one coke and I could have saved this man from...

"Honey, have you seen that crate of Dr. Pepper?"

Suddenly, The Man poked his head from the store room in the back and called to the woman behind the counter.  It was him!  He was still here!!!  He hadn't sold! He hadn't quit!  He was here!  He WAS doing well!

"Oh hello!"  He smiled and waved at me, once again the genuine happiness flushed right back into his face.  "Long time, no see!"

"Hi there!"  I practically sang back at him.  "Yes, I'm sorry.  It's been a while."

He smiled.  I smiled.  His wife smiled.

"No problem.  Good to see you!"

"You too.  Have a nice night!"

I turned and practically skipped out the door.  I reached the door frame just in time to hear:

"We're going to start making sandwiches next month!  Come have lunch with us!"

I stopped, laughed to myself, smiled at them both and said:

"You got it."