March 1997
s m u g
mystery date
by Michael Craig

Midnight At The Oasis

If you keep a night schedule like I do, it is important to line up food reserves for those late hours. Try as I might to remember the schedules of the local fast food emporiums, the inevitable occurs: all are closed when I've dined on nothing all day but loathing and failure.

Then, and only then, am I forced to venture in search of the neglected Fifth food group: late-night convenience store food. I have to be careful. Some things are worth dying for - freedom, VHS copies of "Get A Life" episodes, a chance to meet Walter Mondale and Heidi Fleiss in the same day - but eating nacho chips covered in "cheese food" that smells like it was laced with kerosene is not one of them.

The closest place to my house is a Mini-Mart. Where I grew up, in Michigan, they call convenience stores "party stores." Here's a tip: don't party in Michigan. 7-11 is also big there, as well as most other places. 7-11 is a dangerous place. Thieves think the chain stores have more money, and they also have uniform procedures for dealing with robbery which includes (thank God from the thief's perspective) giving up the money. You walk into a Mini-Mart and your clerk may be packing more heat than a busload of rappers. In my current home in Chicago, the most common store is called "White Hen." The marketing geniuses who came up with that one must have figured "white" had positive connotations of some sort, but why "hen"? Does a barnyard animal really inspire confidence in weary, dope-addled consumers? I avoid those places like the plague but I can't say the local Mini-Mart is one bit better.

Although it is possible to find benign items at Mini-Mart - a small "health food" display offers an envelope containing two Tylenol for $2.99 - I know I can't afford to be picky. At these prices, I can't afford anything, but especially not pickiness, not as I enter the Land of Nutritional Atrocities.

Naked City

Unless the counter jockey is a relative of the owner, I never bother learning his name. He will be gone before the corned beef at the deli counter. More than once, I've seen the cashier grab a handful of beef jerky, tear off his work smock, jam the Pamela Anderson issue of "Playboy" in his back pocket, and head for Mexico.

Convenience store owners know most of their employees won't be around long enough to pick up a paycheck, let alone forge customer relationships vital for repeat business. Even though they normally try to use phony courtesy to soften the blows of selling expired cookies at monopoly prices, all bets are off on the graveyard shift. The late crew is generally not required to wear name identification, other than visible tattoos. Where robbers are omnipresent, store owners actually relish the idea of finding employees who have the ability to scare customers.

The Donut With a Thousand Fingerprints

An innocent-looking but potentially hazardous part of the convenience store is the rack of baked goods. For one thing, I don't see any ovens or other baking apparatus in the Mini-Mart. This stuff showed up in the same prison laundry truck that unloaded the deli meats, and who knows when that happened.

On a good day, an item fished out of the baked-goods case is greasy, stale, and contains nothing remotely considered nutritional. At midnight, where everyone in the joint is wearing sunglasses, it's not even a good day.

In general, stay away from any food in a case where the public has access. The Mini-Mart's baked goods case is not exactly hospital-level sterile. When and if John Q. Public washed his hands is anybody's guess.

Freshness is not exactly a priority on the baked goods rack. If it's there at midnight, I bet it saw yesterday's sun rise. And remember the old slogan of "thrifty" convenience-store operators: yesterday's doughnut is tomorrow's bagel.

Waste-not, want-not is the motto of the Mini-Mart's owner, where margins are even thinner than the toilet paper. Considering that most food items are at least supposed to have a short shelf-life, the dumpsters at Mini-Marts are amazingly small.

Meat John Doe

But man cannot live by bread alone. I cannot over-emphasize the importance of my next advice: AT A CONVENIENCE STORE, AVOID ANY PRODUCT PURPORTING TO BE MEAT. This means automatically stay the hell away from the canned meats. Just because the expiration date drummed into the underside of the can is sometime in the next millennium doesn't mean it's fresh. Statistics show that over 85% of all canned meat products are sold between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. North of the Mason-Dixon line, that figure soars to 95%. It you must eat these items, for god's sake drain the liquid from the can. That ain't gravy, Davy.

The picture of a Dagwood Bumstead-style deli sandwich looked good, but I can't eat a picture. A visual survey of the discolored, mottled meats making up the deli selection snapped me back to my senses. The deli counter may appear to have all the trappings of a decent place, much like its grocery store counterpart, but that's what they want me to think.

Hot dogs? Bad during the day, worse at night. While those wieners spin hour after hour under the hot lights, why do they keep glistening? Unless you trust the culinary skills of the guy behind the counter, who wouldn't know a stick of butter from a stick of deodorant, it's best to stay away from this atrocity altogether. I ask the clerk if the hot dogs are all beef. He doesn't speak a word of English, but he knows enough to roll his eyes and giggle.

You Can Judge a Book By It's Cover

I had everything I needed to find a tasty snack: patience, good judgment, and exact change. The key was to find something - I didn't care if it was baby food or turkey stuffing - in a pristine container. This means absolutely staying away from any home-packaged or unpackaged items. I avoided sampling, for numerous good reasons, the "hobo chili" simmering in the rusty pot precariously balanced on a hot plate. By what freak of nature does the stuff bubble in the middle of the pot, but form a crust along the outer edges?

I picked out a bag of M&Ms. Reputable manufacturer, recognizable packaging. I scanned the package for dents or tears. There were none. Exhausted , I stumbled back to my car to take home the trophy that would be my midnight snack.

Does it always have to be this way? On the way out, an image flashed through my mind: I was once in a convenience store staffed by helpful, clean clerks. A delicious assortment of hot and cold foods was available at the deli counter. Fresh fruits and vegetables filled the aisles.

Then I realized I was draped over the hood of my car. An impatient thief ran me down on the way out, banging my head against the hood and stealing my Doritos. Still, it was a lovely dream, and I rub the scar to this day, thinking of how wonderful such a place would be.

Michael Craig, c/o

back to the junk drawer

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