Like all teenagers who have faced age-discrimination, I spent a fair amount of time in high school "shopping" at sketchy convenience stores attempting to purchase alcohol without a valid driver's license. Here's the obvious thought behind this tactic: if the store is in such a bad neighborhood that it's actually dangerous to work the register, the store owner probably does not have many choices when it comes to hiring. For example, an establishment I frequently purchased beer from as a teenager was overseen by a man who was missing almost all of his front teeth and mumbled incoherently under his breath.
However, no convenience store comes close to the level of sketch as my current neighborhood corner store. Truly, every time I go there I feel my body go into flight or fight mode.
The area that I live in is urban and definitely 'transitional' so a ton of vagrants hang out around this store. They are there for several reasons. One, there's a bus stop. Two it's ideal for panhandling because lots of people have just used the ATM inside. Three, there is a windowless, suspect bar across the street with a sign that boasts: "OPEN 7 AM DAILY!" I don't know what goes on inside that bar, but I have seen people stumble out at 3 in the afternoon and stare at the sun like they aren't sure what it is. One of my neighbors remarked that she had been there once. When I asked her to elaborate on her evening inside the mystery joint she quietly said, "I don't want to talk about it." Needless to say I'm dying to check it out.
Each time I go to this store I am approached by at least three homeless men. This one guy consistently pretends that his car "ran outta gas just three blocks away" and asks if I have any money. It's alway awkward because he knows I know he's lying. I can tell that he recognizes me and is fully aware that he approached me with this same dilemma multiple times the previous week. Most of the time the guys are honest and ask me if I'll help them buy a beer. Sometimes I oblige. These sorts of requests aren't all that frightening because the folks seem lucid and respect my personal space. However, on more than a few occasions I have been forced to deal with a schizophrenic screamer who thinks I'm his dead mother, a long lost pet chicken, or the Antichrist. This really tests my deflection/redirection skills and I have noticed that after such a conflict occurs the resident bums clinging to sanity give me a "job well done" head nod.
Oh here's one of my favorites: there's a man who practices some form of kick boxing outside in the parking lot most afternoons. Like the unfortunate toddler he goes barefoot. Unlike the toddler he wears an excessive amount of clothes: sweatshirt + t-shirt + insulated vest + Texas-In-August = insanity. I watched him "practice" one day while I filled up my car with gasoline. I realized that he must have chosen this location because he can watch himself in the windows which are covered with advertisements (from the inside) so it's like a gigantic mirror. Judging by his appearance I think he might be into meth. I asked the clerk (who is surprisingly friendly and normal- I blame the recession) about the kick-boxing dude. His response, "girl, don't even get me started on that one."
I know what you're thinking- why wouldn't you just drive a little further to a respectable grocery store when odds and ends, beer, or gas are needed? My answer to you, "because that's not convenient." But that's also only part of the reason.
Much like watching a scary movie on television, the adventure that is shopping at this particular convenience store makes me feel alive. As I step out of my car and stare down the cholo using the pay phone while his pit bull stands anxiously beside him, adrenaline begins to coarse through my veins. My senses sharpen as one of the bums begins shouting at me and I start to panic, but breathe a sigh of relief when I realize he's screaming at someone across the street. Entering the store I am inconspicuously eyed by patrons who are most likely attempting to steal something. As two men covered in prison tattoos begin to argue I feel the muscles in my body tense and then relax when the squabble turns out to be friendly sparring.
These ebbs and flows of energy are strangely familiar- nostalgic even. Why does it feel so normal for me to be stressed out at a convenience store? Why am I at ease with being uneasy?
While standing in line I glance over my shoulder. A group of teenagers are nervously deciding between Purple Passion and Mad Dog 20/20. Suddenly, it all makes sense.