Friday, September 26, 2014

It's Not a Convenience; It's a Way of Life

Not the most beautiful thing to live near, but handy.

Each day, there is the realization that something is missing. Nothing is as it was, yet life must go on.

My world has been turned upside-down lately and the adjustments are slow, the emptiness lingering. I wake up daily with a yearning for something I cannot have at that moment if I need it -- panty hose, Pepsi, toilet paper, a Slurpee.

I have now gone two whole weeks without a convenience store in my neighborhood. The 7-Eleven down the street closed and in its place is an empty shell.

People live with far less, this I know. Why, there are unfortunate children in the suburbs who probably never got the chance to have a Big Gulp. Or, there are unfortunate people who live so close to fabulous 24-hour grocery stores that they never got the chance to pay way too much for toilet paper at midnight.

Of coure, I never planned my meals around what I could buy at a 7-Eleven. Sometimes the cats might be stuck with whatever was for sale there, but not me. Yet having the option 24 hours a day affected how I shopped.

This is a trait I inherited from my parents. When I was growing up in Mount Horeb, Wis., therer were two grocery stores that were open until 9 p.m. but just 5 p.m. on Saturday or Sunday. You bought what you needed ahead of time, or else you starved. You had to plan, you had no choice.

Somewhere along the line, however, it changed. The gas station next to my parents' house turned into a quasi-convenience store. Not much in the way of food was offered, but the pop was priced reasonably and the gallons of milk were only a few cents more than they were at Kalscheur's Fine Foods.

In a family of eight, those gallons of milk disappeared quickly. To buy them ahead of time meant the entire refrigerator was full of milk, not food. That wasn't practical.

So suddenly the gas station became our source of milk. Pepsi was never consumed with a meal, but my family managed to slam a good amount nonetheless. We also had tons of relatives who were often over for holidays or Sunday meals. Business boomed at the little station to the east of us, much to the delight of a high school friend whose father owned the place.

"The only reason my parents can afford to send me to college," my friend joked, "is that this is where the Burnses buy their Pepsi."

Sadly fo rmy friend's family, it was not to be. The big gun -- a real convenience store -- opened on the other side of my parents' home. Apparently, they knew that being next to my parents would likely ensure convenience-store success.

My parents stayed loyal to the little shop, but the big old Kwik Trip won out in the end. However, my family's shopping was changed yet again by the new, improved version of a convenience store to the west of them.

This one was open on holidays. This was an amazing concept in a small town, meaning that yes, Mom could buy the big old Butterball turkey when it was on sale and keep it in the fridge long enough because we wouldn't have to buy milk until Thanksgiving Day. The Kwik Trip gave us our freedom, not to mention something to do besides eat on the holiday because we could actualy rent a video, too.

So I learned that fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants shopping long ago and perfected it by living just yards from a 7-Eleven. If I had a party, I got my ice at the 7-Eleven and never ad to worry about running out of potato chips, beer or pop. Before I went into a movie, I'd stock up on my Everlasting Gobstoppers. When my cats howled because I forgot they didn't have any food, I could wander up and get them some Tender Vittles. I could run my tank down to empty knowing I could always coast to the corner.

Only once did the convenience store let me down. I had a cookout, and it was time for dessert.

Just go to the 7-Eleven, I said, and get some stuff for S'mores. My friends returned with makeshift ingredients that tasted OK, but weren't quite perfect. It's hard to handle S'mores made out of Teddy Grahams.

I'm going home to visit my family soon and they'll understand my loss. My mom will send me to the Kwik Trip for a gallon of milk and I'll be reminded. I'll stay with my sister, too, and tell her this sad tale as she gets her morning coffee.

She'll understand for sure as she buys that cup of coffee. After all, this convenience-store business is a family way of life.

She lives across the street from a place called PDQ.

This post first appeared as an essay in the Des Moines Register on Oct. 24, 1997.