I admit, I’m rather a connoisseur of convenience stores.  I’m not really sure how it happened but I love a big, brightly lit truck-stop or gas-station/restaurant/coffee-shop/shopping mall/tourist trap.  Gas stations were all pretty boring back when they were, you know, places where you mainly purchased gas.

I still remember sitting in the car as my parents drove over the tube that rang the bell, which notified a guy in oily work-clothes to come and pump your gas and wipe down your windows.  It was easy.  But if you wanted sustenance, well it was a soda or snack-dispensing machine. And if you needed a restroom, well you took your life in your own hands.  (Although I suspect we had some dang good immunity.)

Over the years of course, those stations transformed into enormous places that sell all kinds of things.  Commercial wonders of the highway.  From chocolate to radio communications systems and everything in between.  (And that’s just the legal stuff; never mind what’s available in the parking lot.)

It seems to me that the truck stop was the first to do it right.  As an adult, there were a few I stopped at routinely on the trip between Huntington and Morgantown, WV when I was going to medical school.  I especially loves stopping on cold, snowy nights. People would gather, watch the snow blow, sip coffee and collude.  They would check weather, eat a little more and try to decide whether or not it was safe to press on through the deadly beauty of Appalachian Winter nights.

There was another in Southern Indiana, not far north of Louisville.  Jan and I would stop there going back and forth between Huntington, WV and Indianapolis when I was in my emergency medicine residency. Always well lit, always a pleasant place to pause, stretch, relieve oneself and snack.

These days the trend has grown.  Bright entrepreneurs realized that modern human beings with cars (not just truck drivers) wanted to buy more than gasoline. And that they did it at all hours of the day and night. My sense is that several decades ago, most people settled down overnight.  As a guy who works nights in an ER (even if that isn’t a wholly representative cross section of society) I can say that there are many more these days who both work nights and who in a very real sense, live nights.  For reasons good and nefarious.  They need someplace to go.  Besides the ER, I mean.

The ‘truck stop’ model now applies to enormous gas stations like QT, Sphinx and others which are (for a low-brow, traveling for work guy like me) are gastronomic wonders.  Entire walls of fresh coffee, every soda imaginable, all kinds of snacks including (as if) salads, cheeses, cold cuts and all the rest.  Hot dogs roll non-stop.  You can often order fresh foods, pizza and ice-cream treats.  Not to mention lottery tickets, tobacco products (not for me thanks but I get it), OTC medications and assorted other wonders of modern convenience and comfort.  Oh, and you can always get gasoline.

There are also fascinating people.  One of my least favorite things about quick-stops and gas stations is when it isn’t a mega-complex but a smaller shop.  And that guy is in line ahead of me when I’m in a hurry, about to start a shift.  He’s the guy in cargo shorts and sandals no matter what the weather is outside.  ‘I need, uh, let me see.  8 of those scratch-off cards.  Also, I want those menthols with the purple rim.  A carton.  You’re out?  OK, then the ones next to them.  And can I get, oh, five cans of Skoal.  You only have three?  I guess.  I don’t know why my card won’t work.  Dang, let me try again…’ This goes on for a while.  But there’s always the equivalent lurking.

Sometimes, outside, tragic homeless individuals sit with signs.  It’s a good place I reckon.  It’s easy to buy them food.  It’s easy for them to find what they need with only a little bit of money. I feel a bit of guilt going in, knowing that there’s little there beyond my reach.  Knowing so much is beyond theirs.

My favorite people there are the ones coming and going for work.  This usually happens in the morning.  Construction crews, line-men, police-officers, medics, men and women on the way to National Guard duty.  Recent immigrants building lives with hard work.  Women and men going to businesses or schools, taking children to classes.  Everybody grabbing a little sustenance.  Everybody working hard to get by, to press through fatigue and the chaos of morning traffic to do what they need to do.  It’s honestly America at its best.

But in some ways, so are those enormous gas stations.  Some of them have signs in the restrooms offering help to trafficking victims.  There are cameras everywhere.  Police officers frequent them. I feel good about my wife and daughter stopping in such places.  It would take a bold individual to feel comfortable committing a crime in a place so heavily traveled and so well-documented.  Ultimately, these places are so ubiquitous that it makes no sense to ever stop in a rest-area at night.  Unless one is filming a documentary on dangerous places or actually wants to buy or sell drugs or sex.  I say this as a guy who used to sleep at rest-stops.  (Well, in my car.)

I will never stop loving enormous gas stations and truck stops.  I hope that I always appreciate them for what they are.  Places of commerce, places of human thriving and places that represent so well the crazy gifts of modern capitalism and the way it responds to our needs and desires.

I do hope that guy can learn to get his card to work.  I’m going to be late for work!




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