24 Hrs in Swirl World
Thursday November 19, 2015 5:52pm
And so I’ve come to RaceTrac tonight as an experiment, or possibly a dare, or maybe even a practical joke at the expense of myself and the world. The premise is simple: I’ll spend the next 24hrs inside this building. I can only eat RaceTrac food, which might not have been a problem for high school me, but for the 2015 version of me, it means I ate a big salad before I came here and took a couple of probiotics just for good measure. All I’ve brought with me is an extremely cheap laptop, a pen/notebook, and a book to read in case the eyestrain from my computer gets too bad.
I haven’t brought any headphones because I’m looking for as much of a full-immersion experience as possible. I’m seated at a counter with six attached barstools facing a floor-to-ceiling window that looks out onto the main parking lot.
I was supposed to be here at 5pm, but the van wouldn’t start because Brigette left the lights on after driving through the fog earlier that morning, and when she got back home with the car we learned that the car battery sits in a weird sideways position that makes it nearly impossible to access the positive cable, so we called her sister to come over and jumpstart the van.
My first purchase is a large cup of coffee. $1.49 and there’s a self-serve container of whole milk on ice at the customer counter. You aren’t going to get that at Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, or any of the local places in town. The coffee itself isn’t great, but it’s better than what you get at, say, IHOP. Years of service industry work make me cringe when I have to break a $20 on the small purchase, but the clerk, probably also acting on instinct, tells me not to worry about it. When she makes a joke about how money doesn’t grow on trees, I tell her no but it is made out of trees. An old joke, but she laughs.
RaceTrac is one of the largest gas station/convenience store chains in the US southeast, and the one they built a couple of years ago here in Athens, Georgia is a 6000 ft. megalith of snacks. It resembles your typical 7-11 the way Madison Square Garden resembles your high school gymnasium. Here’s a recent press release (feel free to use ‘stacked-stone exterior’ in your next poem):
The RT6K (RaceTrac 6,000) is like nothing seen before in convenience retailing. It marries operational ease with aesthetic elements intended to enhance the communities in which we operate. Our stacked-stone exterior, for example, is more reminiscent of a fast-casual eatery than our heritage RaceTracs. The natural light and bright colors used inside make for a warm and inviting retail experience.
The indoor and outdoor seating areas offered by the RT6K invite guests to stay and make RaceTrac their “third place” destination. And then there are the enhanced product offerings, including Swirl World, our proprietary, 24-hour frozen yogurt concept.
RaceTrac has big-screen HD televisions mounted all over the place. There’s one above the walk-in beer cooler, three behind the registers, and then there’s the TV in Swirl World, which cycles through various froyo cartoon ads, saturated in pinks & baby blues like some kind of 1980’s Miami candy, until everything stops. A dancing musical note appears on the screen and the words ‘BOOM’ and ‘CHI’ begin pulsing. A pink spiral starts to pinwheel—it’s either coming at you or sucking you in, depending on how your brain processes two-dimensional suggestions of depth—and then a polar bear appears (a person wearing a polar bear costume, to be accurate) wearing a blue t-shirt and pink shorts held up by white suspenders. The shorts look like they were made out of a velour-type fabric that could, in a previous life, have been curtains on your grandmother’s wall. The bear dances in slow motion, twirling a single extended index finger above his head as he moves in circles, celebrating an unseen victory. ‘SWIRL IT!’ then jumps out in big blue letters, spins into the spiral and disappears. As I’m writing this, RaceTrac radio is playing U2’s ‘Mysterious Ways,’ making it look like the bear (who despite my best research, doesn’t seem to have a name) is dancing to U2’s failed mid 90’s attempt to get funky—funky in the sense that the Stone Roses could be considered funky—only adding to the hypersurreal, drenched-in-absurdity, feeling you get watching the whole thing.
After he’s finished dancing, the bear moves off to the side and nods approvingly with his hands on his hips while facts about frozen yogurt’s nutritional value flash on the screen.
There are 10 flavors and 41 toppings in Swirl World.
The sun’s gone down now, and I see a ghostly reflection of myself along with the store’s interior whenever I look up at the window. There’s a guy at the larger of the two tables in Swirl World wearing a US Navy baseball cap with the name of a ship on it (too far away to make it out). His lips move as he reads whatever’s on his cellphone and he sits with his legs spread and feet pointing out at 10 and 2. I’m hoping he stays there a while because along with the challenges re: food/sleep, there’s also the possibility that RaceTrac doesn’t want me spending 24hrs here and at some point I might get asked to leave. I’ll motorcycle jump that canyon when I get to it, but I’m not looking to turn this article into some kind of Bloom-like odyssey through Athens in the middle of the night.
The guy in Swirl World gets up to leave and I can see there’s a prosthetic limb where the lower part of his right leg used to be. His lips are no longer moving.
The steady flood of customers has started to turn into a trickle, though the lot’s still full and all 16 gas pumps are jumping.
Athens is the home of the University of Georgia, and the university is best known as the place where the college football team lives. The Bulldogs have their final home game on Saturday, and though it’s been a disappointing season, and the game’s more or less an afterthought, the town’s still going to be a goddamn mess 48hrs from now and it’s already filling up with traffic. Athens’ population usually hovers around 100,000 or so but that number easily triples whenever there’s a home game—hell, the stadium alone holds nearly a hundred thousand people. The tailgating starts in the morning and leads to romanesque levels of debauchery by nighttime. 35,000 students live here, most of them in fraternities/sororities, and so most mornings downtown already smells like a urinal, but after a football game it smells like a urinal that someone vomited into and left lots of broken glass and garbage laying around for someone else to pick up.
I’m starting to get hungry.
Arched pictures of apples/lettuce/oranges hang from the ceiling and obscure the fluorescent lights, in order to create an atmosphere that is more inviting and less soul-destroying.
There’s a Georgia Lottery vending machine to my right. The only people who have played it so far are a couple of UGA students, a man in his late 40’s who got into a black Chrysler, and a mom with two teenage daughters offering advice on which tickets to get.
I don’t want to underplay the healthy eating options here—in addition to your standard deli sandwiches you can get hummus w/pretzel chips, plastic containers of semi-fresh fruits, yogurt, Lunchables, etc. You could, in theory, spend 24hrs here w/o destroying your colon, though you’d have to work hard to do it, and I’d end up feeling I wasn’t getting the true RaceTrac experience. Besides, I don’t like yogurt, frozen or otherwise, and I’m not super into fruit, so I get a bag of Sun Chips. It’s also good to know that RaceTrac has soda water available at the fountain and they only charge 25-cents for it.
After nearly 4hrs here, it’s safe to say there’s no such thing as a typical RaceTrac customer. Part of that is the wide-spanning demographics you get living in a college town, but part of that is also because (duh) there’s no such thing as a typical person. Which only shows the pointlessness in designing customer service scripts to try and ensure ‘good customer service,’ especially when companies seem to be trapped in a kind of rhetorical arms race. Good customer service isn’t good enough these days. Instead, they promise ‘the highest level’ of customer service, ‘a WOW experience’ (WOW’s acronymic for something, I’m sure), ‘exceptional,’ or even the more ambiguous ‘memorable.’ But if everyone’s different then treating them like they’re the same is, no matter how nice you are about it, poor customer service, especially since it’s impossible, by definition, to treat everyone like they’re exceptional. And if you consider the vast number who struggle with depression & anxiety—and based on pharmaceutical intake alone that number is very high indeed—hyperfriendly customer service full of intense smiles likely makes customers uncomfortable, which is likely to make them go somewhere else, which is the exact opposite of the understood result of good customer service. Put another way, if human interaction fills most of us with dread, and all you have to do is look at the number of people at your local supermarket who’d rather use the self-checkout line to see that it does, then it stands to reason that a more passive approach to customer service might be more effective than the current model.
My first bathroom visit. The men’s room door says ‘Guys.,’ not men, and there is a period at the end of Guys. Then in small print underneath it says you can leave the seat up if you want—nothing about leaving wet paper towels in the urinal, but someone’s taken the liberty of doing that anyway. The ‘Gals.’ room promises that the seat will always be down, which is a strict violation of the customer service rule I learned working at the Marriott: ‘underpromise and overdeliver.’ I have to imagine plenty of girls have thrown up in a RaceTrac toilet and didn’t bother putting the seat down.
Lots of college students now. Most girls are wearing sweatpants or pajama bottoms and the boys have on baseball caps, most of them backward. They purchase froyo or microwaved food, but never both. People here tend to complain about how loud students are but I think it might be their lack of inhibitions that upset people the most. Or maybe the falseness of their false confidence (or false consciousness), but come on, the alternative would be people going around silent & lifeless and what’s more counter-revolutionary than that? They do tend to laugh a lot at things that aren’t funny though.
But this girl shouting about how her dad took her to Vegas for her 21st birthday where she played slots and drank free wine the entire time isn’t doing her demographic any favors.
It seems like every couple hours the wireless disconnects. Last time it happened, I rebooted my computer and eventually got it to reconnect, but it doesn’t seem to be happening this time and I’m not going to ask anyone about it because I don’t want to crack the conversation door any further open than necessary. Part of the reason I thought 5pm would be a good time to come in is because it wouldn’t seem weird to the 2nd shifters if I was still here when they left, and the graveyard folks are probably used to people hanging out for long periods of time as long as they aren’t suspicious or weird (I’ve tried to dress as harmless-looking as possible). And then the morning will be busy enough that I’ll just fade into the background. Because if I get kicked out of here or asked to leave, this experiment is, if not fucked, then at least derailed into something else. And while earlier I was pretty sure I could talk myself out of any potential conflicts, my brain’s starting to turn to wet sludge and the only thing coming out of my mouth would be inscrutable mumbles, which is no way to convince anyone of anything, let alone that they should allow you to hang out in their convenience store all night.
The internet finally came back up. I just had to turn off my wi-fi for a while and turn it back on again.
RaceTrac charges $.44 per ounce, but if you can buy a pre-packed 32 oz carton of frozen yogurt for $3.99 , why would 32oz of self-serve cost over $14? I’ve sent them an e-mail. (As I send this in two weeks later, I still haven’t heard from them).
2nd shift’s almost over. Time for restocking & front-facing. Clean the store and initial those checklists. Take a smoke break if you’ve been waiting for one. Drain the water out of the drinks-on-ice coolers, the ones shaped like a large can—there’s a plastic tap at the bottom that you twist to the side.
It’s getting late enough now that people park crookedly, taking up two or three spots, because they’re just running in and can’t be bothered to line it up right. The store’s changed over to 3rd shift and my hands are starting to get cold from sitting so close to the windows, which function as kind of frost radiators, forcing me to put my hands in the pockets of my sweatshirt when I can’t think of anything to type.
No idea why there’s a K missing from the end of the store’s name. If anything, places down here tend to add extra K’s to their name, not subtract them, e.g. Kitty’s Kountry Kitchen, a not so subtle coding re: the store’s desired customer base.
Someone in Athens must have had an xmas-themed party tonight. The place is suddenly crawling w/girls dressed like elves and dudes wearing Santa hats. One guy is dressed up as a reindeer in a head to toe sweatsuit thing w/lit xmas lights draped over his shoulders. Otherwise a lot of red sweaters and green t-shirts, and Thanksgiving’s still a week away. I guess I’m lucky they aren’t playing xmas music in here yet.
I’d forgotten about that numb tingle you get on the back of your neck and shoulders, a kind of warm weight when your body starts to get overtired, along with a slight hum in your ears, like someone’s misadjusted the eQ in your auditory system. But it’s good to be back in this world again, even if it’s triggering more memories than inspiration at the moment.
I spent 3yrs working the graveyard shift at a 7-11 back near where I grew up in El Cajon, Ca. And because this took place during my early 20’s it played a huge part in shaping my view of myself and the world around me. And I think I’m here tonight (this morning, I guess) partly because that time in my life feels so far away now. Being in a convenience store at 3am was an enormous part of my identity, one of the few things back then that wasn’t broken or damaged or terrified. I had people threaten to kill me when my shift was over, usually about once a month, because I smarted off to them or didn’t laugh at their dumb joke or wouldn’t spot them the 25 cents they needed for beer. And yeah, the first couple of times that happens you get a little nervous, until you eventually realize that nobody’s going to come back at 6 in the morning to kill you. It’s just too much trouble.
And yes, you know your life’s fucked up when the place you feel safest is behind the counter of a 7-11 at three in the morning.
Nothing but stragglers at this point. Feels like time is speeding up even as the night slows down. People taking forever to decide what they want. There’s two people on shift here so it’s not so bad, but I used to work alone, and as long as customers were in the store I couldn’t go in the back and stock the cooler or take out the trash or eat, and so every minute they spent wandering aimlessly around the store, or pounding the bottom of their slurpee cup on the counter to make room for more slurpee, or stirring their coffee then adding more creamer then stirring their coffee then tasting then adding more sugar then stirring their coffee etc., all of those things drove me into such paroxysms of internalized rage that I’d go in the cooler after they finally left and pound the empty boxes into cardboard dust until I was sweating and gasping and honestly I kind of think psychiatric visits should be free & available to all those who need them but esp. those who work in the service industry.
More coffee, this time the largest (24oz, I think). And for food I’m having a package of Bimbo Mini Mantecadas—the last word roughly translates as ‘butter mountains,’ which seems about right, they’re essentially poundcakes. I used to eat these for breakfast most mornings when I lived in Mexico.
The pillars in front of the RaceTrac look a lot like the chimneys you see inside a Cracker Barrel.
Ambulance drivers & EMT’s are the Wal-Mart workers of the medical world.
From the TV above the walk-in beer cooler here are RaceTrac’s ‘Beer Fun Facts’:
- Belgium, a country the size of Ohio, has about 100 breweries offering over 500 types of beers.
- The study of beer and beer making is known as ZYTHOLOGY.
- American beer is made mostly by rice, unlike the beers of other countries.
- Beer is the second most popular beverage in the world, coming in behind tea.
- The pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock because of beer.
- The oldest written recipes ever discovered by human beings are for making beer!
I think they mean US beer is made from rice, not by rice, though I have to admit that would make the fact more fun. And #4 keeps getting skipped for some reason.
I wish there was a Fun Fact #8 that said It is totally legal to drink beer inside the RaceTrac.
Halfway finished with this coffee, and I feel like I’m in an aquarium.
When I was still in high school, my mom was a 7-11 store manager. This meant multiple Super Big Gulp coupon books for me at xmastime and extended periods of no parental supervision. It also meant that when I dropped out of junior college two months in and needed a second job my mom told me a 7-11 near San Diego State University was hiring—this would be my first 7-11 stint. I am just now remembering, for probably the first time in 20 years, a college girl who lived in one of the apartments behind the store inviting me to come over when I finished my shift and I have no idea why I didn’t go. It’s very possible that I was simply scared. I’d never talked to someone in college before.
A couple of years later, after working at a factory in South Georgia, I came back home and was unable to find my mom, which meant I had no immediate place to stay (Mom turned up a few years later—she’d been living in a nearby homeless shelter, which, like the Ga. experience, is a story for another time). I spent the next several months sleeping on friends’ couches, or in my car, or in the roofspace above a Dairy Queen (I’d smartly made a copy of all their keys a week before I got fired), desperately trying to find a job that would give me enough hours so I could afford a place to live. One day I saw a sign in a 7-11 window looking for full-time help and filled out a job application, and then my friend whose phone number I’d given them managed to track me down and tell me they’d called about an interview, and he let me call them back and stay the night at his house and take a shower in the morning and I put on my best sweater and I got the job and I kept it for the next three years because while it didn’t pay much above minimum wage—I got an extra 75 cents/hr for working graveyard shift—it was enough that I could afford a small room with a private entrance in this jesus freak’s backyard (so jesus freaky he used to drive his truck covered in religious & right-wing signs/bumper stickers to the mall every day and park it there in order to spread the Word). Within the year I moved to Tecate, Mexico, about a half-hour southeast from my 7-11 (Siete-Once, for our Spanish-speaking friends), where the favorable exchange rate meant I now had enough money to buy things that weren’t from the thrift store.
I wasn’t working there while I tried to figure out what I was doing with my life. I was working because I knew my existence depended on that paycheck. And as pathetic as this sounds, I felt grateful to be there because I was still reeling from the terrible realization that the world was nothing but chaos & instability, and that money, even in the smallest amounts, can be the difference between survival & death when there is no one who will take care of you.
I think this chair might be cutting off the circulation in my legs.
There’s only taxi drivers and cops coming in at this point, the occasional shuffling stoned 20-somethings looking for snacks. Maybe someone every 10 minutes. Pizza delivery drivers. The most frequently purchased items are cigarettes, scratch tickets, and coffee. The clerks on duty seem to know 90% of the people who come in, which feels about right, and they don’t seem to care whether I’m here or not.
Feel like there isn’t much danger around here. Maybe because the store’s on a main highway and so brightly lit. Maybe because so many cop cars are coming and going. The police have pulled someone over in the Custom Sound parking lot across the street. I wish I had brought my toothbrush. Or at least some mouthwash. The vibe is a lot more chill than when I worked. Back then I blared weird or aggressive music through my tiny boombox (it had a sticker that read ‘Guns Don’t Kill People. Rock Records Kill People.’) and made sure not to smile or make eye contact for any longer than necessary, because any vulnerability could be interpreted as a sign of weakness and any aggressiveness could be taken as an invitation to fight. I tried to be a blank slate, vaguely threatening with an emphasis on the vague.
Starting to feel slightly nauseous, from either too much coffee or too much sugar or possibly both. Or maybe just not enough food. A lot of this night is about surviving. About pushing through.
Newspaper delivery came at 3:19AM. Used to be the high point of my night. There’s something surreal about seeing the box score of the baseball game you listened to on the radio as you got to bed—or at least there was before the internet.
If you stare straight ahead for long periods of time without thinking, time can pass surprisingly quick. Even the cars seem languid and liquid and driven by clouds.
Still drinking my coffee, long gone cold. Trying to keep my register visits to a minimum because they invite conversation and I don’t trust myself at this point not to come across as a weirdo. So even though I’m hungry I think I can hold off until they put out the breakfast sandwiches.
The three TVs on the wall behind the registers offer the most variety of information. Sometimes it’s just seductively lit coffee beans falling in slow motion, but sometimes the screens display a message across all three screens.
Surprisingly Delicious Meals
I’d probably rethink that adverb.
Endless Options, One Hometown. Thanks Atlanta!
Nearly all Athenians would be surprised to find out they live in Atlanta, a city most of us despise, what with all the traffic & sprawl.
Making Life Simpler And More Enjoyable For 79 Years
@RaceTrac – Get Social With Us!
And so on. There are also testimonials from seemingly real life employees about how great it is to work here. To be fair, anytime I’ve come in the mood’s been upbeat & positive, and that’s really hard to get people to fake. Although it should be noted that the IT FEELS LIKE HOME quote is the only one that’s unattributed.
Turns out there’s a help wanted ad on Craigslist right now for this very store. Starting pay up to $9/hr, which isn’t bad for Georgia, where the minimum wage is still federally mandated—this is after all in a section of the country that fought a war, in part, so they could pay their workforce $0/hr. And while $9 isn’t a living wage, the US economy continues its grim slide into service job after service job and anything above the minimum has to be seen as a kind of bonus. Or to put it more charitably, RaceTrac could probably pay less and still find people to work here.
So maybe those testimonials are more genuine than you think.
In the years since I worked at 7-11, whenever I’ve needed quick money, I’ve been able to walk into a convenience store—in Arizona it was an AM-PM mini-market, in Athens it was a Golden Pantry—and get hired pretty much on the spot. Because if you show up for your shift and leave the store clean & well-stocked for the next shift, you will be very appreciated and your co-workers will forgive you nearly anything.
I had a lot more fun working at the AM-PM in Arizona than I did working at 7-11. For one thing, I knew the job was temporary, just a way to earn some extra $$$ so I could move cross-country, and I got to do all the things I was too scared to do back when I worked at 7-11. For one thing, I invented ‘cursing night.’ Every customer interaction had to include a curse word. So if someone came in and asked for $10 on pump 2, I’d respond ‘Ten dollars on motherfucking pump 2.’ Or if they asked where the beer was (people do this), I’d say ‘that shit’s over there on the right.’ I wasn’t abusive or anything, and I did make an exception for the sweet old lady who came in asking for directions b/c even then I was starting to consider lofty ideas like ‘Does the way I deal with people add to the pain in the world and actually end up creating the very things that make me so angry all the time?’ (Short answer: yes).
The easiest way to clean hot dog grills: turn them off, wait an hour, then turn them back on and rotate 180 degrees before stopping and wipe away the stalagmites of congealed lard. Easiest way to clean coffee pots: fill w/slurpee & ice cubes, let sit for an hour, swish around and rinse under hot water. These are my methods, not RaceTrac’s.
I have to keep adjusting my belt to keep it from cutting into my belly. Thought I saw a bug crawling across the counter out of the corner of my eye but when I looked over there was nothing. There’s a spiritual abyss you fall into when you stay up all night that lasts from about 2-4am. Everything gets massively heavy & disoriented, but if you’re able to push through until dawn there’s a slight lightening effect that makes you feel like you’re waking up. It’s a lie of course—like when you’re at a stoplight and the car next to you starts rolling backwards so you slam hard on your brakes b/c you think you’re moving forward, the ‘waking up’ feeling is an illusion created by relative motion and just because you feel less tired doesn’t mean you’re now awake. But you still feel cracked-out and jagged, like you’re observing yourself from a great distance and other voices seem dubbed, as if no one’s mouth is moving in sync with their words.
Biscuits, finally biscuits, and if you’re going to eat them try to get them when they’re fresh. The sausage & egg ones aren’t bad, but the cheese is an intensely-processed shade of orange that’s gone well past Velveeta and into candy corn territory, the kind of cheese that sticks to your teeth and won’t wash away with water. However, they are only 2 for $3, and the Southern Style Chicken Biscuit (southern style meaning ‘Chick-fil-a style’ in these parts) isn’t all that bad.
Actually, all you need to know about these biscuits is that the cheese ingredients list includes salt, as in they added salt to the already-salty cheddar, and that the sausage/egg/cheese biscuit though slightly smaller than your avg. fast food biscuit, contains 77 grams of fat. In two biscuits, I just consumed 64% of my fat RDA. This is easily the low point of eating here.
But at least I’m not hungry anymore.
I never got robbed working at a convenience store. I did have people steal beer, but we weren’t supposed to jump over the counter and so I never did (during my training, the manager told me that 7-11 wasn’t worth dying for, which seems like a sad thing to have to tell someone). Once I was hanging out with a friend at these guys’ house and they went on a beer run. When they got back I asked if they wanted me to kick in anything but they just laughed and said ‘Naw bro, we just snagged it from that 7-11 up the road.’ Which happened to be my 7-11. I still drank the beer.
When I finally quit 7-11, I didn’t give any notice. I’d been asking to drop down to 4 days a week so I could apply for other jobs, but I kept getting scheduled for 5 because someone had just quit, or they needed to get someone trained. Anyway, after a few months of this, another schedule appeared w/me working 5 shifts and I quit right there on the spot, pointing out (accurately) that I bet they’d find someone to work my shift that night. And they did.
Living in Tecate meant I’d been able to set aside some money, but despite my worst fears, it only took me a couple of weeks to get a job. I ended up working in the hotel part of this fancy country club (they called it a lodge instead of a hotel). During my first month I got robbed at gunpoint.
Working at a golf course. One of the most white-collar jobs in that no-collar town. Go figure.
Surfacing. And with another 24oz coffee and the sun coming up, I’m finally hitting my second wind—or possibly third.
I’m remembering now the thing I liked best about working graveyard shift. Each night was like this descent into the ugliness of mankind—selfishness & abuse from the drunks and the soon-to-be drunks, tweakers strung out and babbling over w/potential violence, every other customer carrying the implied violence of night. And then there’d be silence. I remember sweeping the parking lot and how the dustpan hitting against the ground would echo off the surrounding buildings & hills, my boombox on the deli counter sounding muffled & emaciated from behind the closed doors. You could hear cars off in the distance long before you saw their headlights, and there was a 2hr interval or so of internal calm—everyone is sleeping and so no one can hurt you.
Then people would start to trickle in. Friendlier people, people on their way to work and grateful that you had fresh coffee for them. They were the only smiles I saw most days, and in a small way it felt like being reborn. From the darkness into the light, over and over again like I was being taught a lesson. Yes, people can be cruel & murderous, but they can also be sweet. Be patient. Stay alive. Or else you’ll miss it.
A few years later I was living in Boston, and Colby, who I barely knew then and barely know now, drunkenly came up to me and told me how much he admired me for being in college at my age (approx 5 yrs older than him) and how cool it was that I had worked at places like 7-11 and fucking lived man (I’m paraphrasing—I’m sure I was also drinking). I told him there was probably a 7-11 somewhere in Boston hiring right this very second and I’d be happy to write him a recommendation, but of course he didn’t take me up on the offer and why not since it was obvious I was being a dick.
It may have been less obvious that I had no idea how to respond to something like that.
Another time I made a joke about my white trash background and Caroline scolded me, insisting ‘the only person who sees you that way is yourself.’ Which was true, except it wasn’t, except it was, except it wasn’t.
I was working at the Marriott while I was in school, parking cars and carrying luggage, and one day this guy I worked with, Tom, brought up a car for a lady who it turned out worked at the La Jolla Marriott—about 15 miles, and many income tax brackets, away from El Cajon. Tom tells her I’m from that part of California too and when she asks me where I tell her El Cajon. Without another word, she gets in her car and drives off .
Tom laughed. ‘Jesus, Scott. Where did you grow up, anyway? The look on that lady’s face.’
My drawl, the slow laconic I had of speaking—especially before I moved away—instantly pegged me as someone from east county. And just because people in Boston couldn’t tell I was from there, or what it signified, that didn’t mean I wasn’t from there or that being from there didn’t mean something. Especially to me.
Because when people try to make you feel ashamed or embarrassed about things you have no control over, you may eventually start to take a perverse pride in it. Not only does it become part of your identity, it becomes one of the things you emphasize when you engage with the world—this applies to rednecks & conservatives & christians as much as it applies to more marginalized communities. And for a 28-year-old from El Cajon, Ca. studying poetry at a liberal arts college in Boston, I’d never felt more white trash in my life. Or, as the first person in my immediate family to get a college degree, I’d never felt less. It’s hard to explain.
It’s been 17 years since I left El Cajon, and I’ve only ever gone back to visit. And living now in Athens, Georgia, well let’s just say that nobody here mistakes me for white trash. My life in convenience stores, in homelessness, in loneliness, happened many lives ago. And yet the years I spent behind that counter at 2am explaining to someone that it didn’t matter what time their watch said it was, I still couldn’t sell them beer, those experiences took place during such a pivotal time in my life—I evolved from being an emotional cripple to at least being able to crawl—that I still keep returning to it. It’s me. But it isn’t me.
The coldness has now spread to my toes and I’m wishing I’d worn an extra pair of socks.
Ever since I started college, I’ve always made sure to have a purpose in my life, some goal I was working towards—usually a book I was writing, or an album my band was working on, an upcoming tour, etc. And I think one of the reasons I’ve always tried to stay busy is b/c I learned at an early age that the alternative means endless contemplation of one’s impending death, compacted by the emptiness of everyday life—the full horror show of psychic existence. Say what you want to about misplaced ambition, but it gives you a reason to get out of bed each morning. And as unhealthy compulsions go, you can certainly do a lot worse.
There’s a horror at the heart of American working life, the horror that you will end up doing this mundane uninspiring thing over and over again until you die, and you will never once find fulfillment, just occasional fleeting moments where you manage to distract yourself from the emptiness, and somewhere still inside you there is always a voice screaming that you need to get out, that you’re dying inside or possibly already dead.
In my case, that voice got outshouted for a long time by another voice screaming that it was better to stay right where I was b/c at least here I was safe. And when the Situationists sloganed that we had traded the possibility we might starve to death for the certainty we would die of boredom, I’m not sure they understood just how frightening it is to be broke and hungry.
And while there are many definitions surrounding the word ‘privilege,’ I think having enough financial security that the decisions you make in your life that aren’t rooted in the fear of starvation is as good a definition as any.
RaceTrac’s now in the full swing of an ordinary day, which means the external part of this journey is only going to get less interesting. Actually, even the overnight was underwhelming—no hint of any danger or even discomfort. And maybe some of that’s the difference between Jamul, Ca. and Athens, Ga. Or maybe it’s the small sample size of one night. Or maybe I’m just getting older and don’t go looking for psychosocial adventures the way I used to. Maybe it’s not the environment that’s less fucked up & depraved than it was back then, maybe it’s me.
But nothing eventful is going to happen, not now. The daylight belongs to people with a routine. These days you only seem to find chaos & surprise in the overnight hours, rarely even then.
The hot dogs are out as we make the switch from breakfast meat to lunchtime meat. I think I can hold off for an hour or so, then follow the hot dogs up with a late afternoon sandwich (real bread! real meat! real tomatoes!).
I’m way past coherent thought and just clicking frantically on the internet looking for something to distract me so I can stay awake through the rest of the day. Once I eat some lunch I’ll be doing better.
Going to the bathroom every 45min now, as much for the face-washing as anything else. My face in the mirror resembles a skull. It’s not just a trick of the fluorescent lighting, I seem to have actually aged 10 years in a single night. Or maybe the mirror contains magical properties and I’m looking at a future emaciated self. For the first time, I understand how the word ‘bony’ could be used to describe someone’s eyes, though ‘parched’ would probably be more accurate.
My gums are raw & inflamed, and there’s a tightness there that suggests they’re going to bleed profusely the next time I brush.
Hot dog time. The cost is either 2/$2.50 or 2/$2.49 depending on which sign is accurate. More soda water and another bag of chips, this time Tom’s sour cream & onion. RaceTrac has five roller grills on an enormous table, and in trying to list all the different varieties of rolling meat, I have to keep walking back & forth from the grills to my computer b/c at this point I can’t remember anything, but it’d probably be sketchy as fuck if I stood over the hot dogs w/a pen & paper and started taking notes.
- Hot Dog (smallest size is ¼ lb)
- Country Sausage LInk
- Jalapeno & Cheddar Smoked Sausage
- Spicy German Sausage
- Cheesy Buffalo Chicken
- Monterey Jack Chicken
- Beef & Bean Taquito
- Chicken & Cheese Taquito
- Cheesy Pepper Jack Taquito
- Chicken & Waffle Taquito
- Some tamale-looking thing, unlabelled
- Some corn dog-looking thing, also unlabelled, stickless and with both ends exposed
Think I’m going to make it, but I’m definitely running on fumes. Everything’s a blur sensory-wise and feels like it may or may not have already happened. Like didn’t I hear this song earlier. If nobody notices me am I actually here. If a writer falls asleep in a convenience store does anyone hear him.
I had this friend who sang in a band back home—we’ll go ahead and call him George Clooney—and one night I was showing him 7-11’s collection of driver’s licenses that had been left behind or confiscated or whatever. George asked if he could have the one that belonged to a Mexican guy who was 20 years older than him, and not being able to think of a reason not to, I gave it to him. Flash forward a couple of months and George Clooney’s playing a show in downtown El Cajon (I wasn’t there, I was working) when he decides that he’ll run down the street and buy some porn magazines while his guitarist plays a particularly long guitar solo. So when the counter guy at the adult store, called F Street for reasons it’s probably best not to think about, asks George for his ID he gives him the Mexican guy’s license as a joke, and the guy at F Street, who you can’t really blame for not having a sense of humor about this kind of stuff, calls the cops. They show up and hassle George around a bit, but they eventually let him go, minus the magazines. Anyway, during this whole time—about 20min or so—the band continues to play w/o their lead singer, taking the solo, and thus the song, off into some truly unexpected places. As I remember it, when George told his bandmates what happened, they were not amused.
I want to tell this story to the people working here. I want to talk to them so badly, to tell them all my stories and hear their stories—different stories—told back to me. I want to ask them if they like working here, what’s the strangest thing they’ve seen, who was the rudest customer, but they’d probably just think I was weird. Or if they’re anything like I was, they’d think I was an asshole. Or they’d make up some outrageous lie. Or they’d just shrug and stare at me until I felt uncomfortable enough to walk away.
In the end I don’t talk to anyone, though I have no idea whether I’m doing it for their benefit or my own.
I think if I ever decide to write that book about my parents this would be a good way to do it. Knock that shit out lickety-split. Although the fact that I’m using terms like lickety-split b/c I’m not able to think of a better phrase suggests I might be full-blown delusional at this point, even my hallucinations appearing clichéd.
Everything around me feels like an illusion, as if all the signs and the colors and the candy are only there to trick me. Endless choices—wait what did that one screen say earlier, one of the ones behind the counter? (scrolls up) Endless Options. Jesus. I think I just unconsciously quoted RaceTrac.
Except I see the idea of ‘endless choices’ as a disingenuous lie that needed to be attacked; they see it as a marketing device, a lie to be propped up. And sometimes it feels like this neoliberal capitalistic nightmare we’re living in—where the marketplace is the sole measure of value and anyone who wishes it wasn’t gets dismissed as either a naive dreamer or a hypocrite—will never end. I’ve spent my entire life watching it devour & spread. Everything becoming more uniform, everyone becoming more conformed, all these meaningless beige buildings designed not to offend. Individuality as something you express with your next purchase. Even the slightest variation from what’s already popular is bad for your brand. The options at RaceTrac aren’t endless. I can’t buy a car. I can’t even buy a falafel. The whole thing is—
Hey look, the bear is dancing again. The multi-colored cartoon candy toppings falling on that cartoon cup of frozen yogurt represent…something. And I feel like if I could figure out what it represented I’d be able to understand some fundamental thing about our culture (no yogurt pun intended). There’s something familiar about this feeling, a type of abstraction I’ve been chasing all my life in an effort to make it concrete and easily understood. I’m only able to grasp it when I’m exhausted & speeding, but then I can’t find the words to articulate it. And when I’m sobered & centered I can find all kinds of words but I can’t locate the feeling.
In a state of euphoric sleeplessness I can feel the secrets of the universe, but turning it into words breaks the spell.
It goes something like this: reality is a layering of everything—if you combine everyone’s existence, shuffle them all into each other like a deck of transparent cards and then view it from above, what you see is the answer and the answer is us.
Wait, what was the question again?
I feel drunk on all the colors & noise, these spectral distractions that come with a pricetag.
Protest is futile. The only available option is to shop somewhere else, at someplace less shiny, and what’s the point of that. Choose to buy rice instead of pizza, or flowers instead of guns. Go buy love instead of war. Once there was a Woolworth’s and now there is a Wal-Mart and the marketplace can assimilate any form of rebellion you throw at it.
My mouth tastes like an army of slugs crawled inside it and died. The sun’s coming directly through the window now and I’ve had to move over to one of the round tables in Swirl World to keep from being blinded and/or cooked like a bug. Even though it’s starting to warm up outside, my fingers are still somehow freezing.
The ham & swiss sandwich I’m eating is packed with so much ham—eight slices—that it’s hard to bite through all of it. Plus it’s the gray kind of ham, nearly indistinguishable from turkey and not any less salty than the hot dogs I just ate. The tomatoes require more bites than a tomato should.
But still, much like a cold glass of milk in the middle of a bender, the sandwich, in its resemblance to actual food grown from the earth, makes me feel all kinds of better even if the bread has these seedlike pieces of wheat that wedge in between my teeth and send sharp shooting pains into my gums as I eat.
I just want this to be over. The sooner the better, and like Jimmy Buffett’s exile in Margaritaville everything about this situation is my own damn fault.
I think the lesson of all this is if you do anything long enough it eventually becomes boring.
I can’t remember the last time I spent 24hrs straight in the same place, not even my house. And while I don’t buy into all that shrinking-attention-span-horror-show talk going around these days, the Put Down That Phone preaching, I have a deeper affection for this place, a psychological intimacy, that I didn’t have before tonight. And I’ve taken a day of my life that in all likelihood would’ve gone unremembered years from now, buried under the stacking of memories, and I’ve made that day significant. I will never see this RaceTrac the same way again, or any RaceTrac for that matter.
bubble giraffe burp twirling keys and getting it together, like I was going to go fast or slow, and cadences of our voice is like fingerprints, the DNA of spoken thought, a lid placed on a trashcan always makes the same sound: a kind of low rumble: a settling of plastic: Carly Simon, simple simon, probably not sister to paul, singing you’re so vein you probably think this song is about heroin, don’t you don’t you don’t you.
Got my keyboard keys mixed up just now so I typed the 4 in 4pm as $ instead of bolding it like I’d intended. Doesn’t even make sense b/c Control-b makes bold so why was I hitting shift-4.
I’m going to do it though. One more hour to go. The sun’s already going down. It’s late enough in fall that you can start to describe the sunlight as watery, weak, or wan, and other words that start with w. And though I feel jagged & raw, I also feel slightly euphoric. Or maybe it’s delirium. Or maybe I’m dead. Is it even possible to breathe nothing but RaceTrac air for this long and still stay alive? How long before you get froyo lung and start coughing up pink dust.
Does the Swirl World bear do funerals?
Songs Played On The RaceTrac PA With More Cool Factor Than You’d Expect*:
David Bowie – “Young Americans”
New Order – “Age of Consent”
Joe Jackson – “Is She Really Going Out WIth Him?”, “Stepping Out”
Genesis – “Land of Confusion” (don’t kneejerk on the Genesis hatred; this song is weirdly political, dark & passionate for them and takes on all kinds of layers of multi-significance when you’re watching that bear dance)
Kinks – “Tired Of Waiting For You”, “Victoria”
Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”
Talking Heads – “Nothing But Flowers”, “Wild Wild Life”
The Byrds – “Eight Miles High”
Terence Trent D’Arby – “Sign Your Name”
Split Enz – “I Got You”
Michael Penn – “No Myth”
R.E.M. – “Harborcoat” (no idea if this is specific to the Athens location)
Bangles – “Going Down To Liverpool”
Aztec Camera – “Oblivious”
Badfinger – “Come And Get It”
The Cure – “Close To Me” (the fact that this list is trending towards 80’s alternative says more about RaceTrac’s limited taste than my own, I think, I hope)
Them – “Here Comes The Night”
Archie Bell – “Tighten Up”
* Not to say I recognized every single song, esp. the country ones. Also, sometimes the music can be hard to hear over the humming machines, conversations, and cash registers, b/c just like with your digital music, the volumes of RaceTrac songs tend to vary.
Songs Played On The RaceTrac PA So Horrible I Wished I’d Brought Headphones*
Pharrell – “Happy” (played twice)
Billy Idol – “Mony Mony”
Eagles – “Take It Easy”, “Lyin’ Eyes” (it’s a cliche to hate the Eagles at this point—cue the Lebowski quotes—and while part 1 of the Eagles documentary, that is to say the first 2 ½ hrs, was so well made that I actually came away with a whole new appreciation for the band, they still suck and this may be their worst moment)
War – “Spill The Wine”, “Low Rider”
38 Special – “Hold On Loosely”, “My Heart Needs A Second Chance” (this one’s pretty obscure, but it’s more awful than obscure)
Foreigner – “Jukebox Hero”
Roy Orbison – “Pretty Woman” (was fine the first time they played it, not so much a couple of hrs later when they played it again)
Bad Company – “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”
Eric Clapton – “After Midnight”
Sugar Ray – “When It’s Over”
Doobie Bros – “Rockin’ Down The Highway”
Steve Miller Band – “Come On And Dance”
Jimmy Buffett – “Cheeseburger In Paradise”
Heart – “Barracuda”
Linda Ronstadt – “Living in the USA”
*willing to bet $$$ that every one of these songs has a YouTube commenter saying today’s crap can’t compare to real music like this.
Songs Played On The RaceTrac PA So Obscure I Was Dumbfounded To Hear Them In Public In 2015
Hooters – “Day By Day”
The Band – “Rag Mama Rag”
The Grateful Dead – “Song I Can’t Recognize” (or find on the internet, gospel-ish with a chorus that sounds like ‘Tell me can you feel it / Love is everywhere’)
John Mellencamp – “Rumbleseat”, “Rain On The Scarecrow”
Marshall Crenshaw – “Rocking Around in NYC”
Lemonheads – “It’s About Time”
Jim Croce – “Workin’ At The Carwash Blues”
Michael Penn – “This and That”
The Motels – “Take The L Out Of Lover And It’s Over” (played twice)
It almost feels like I could just stay here forever. But in some ways I’ve spent my whole life here, and even after I walk out this door I’ll still be sitting in a chair thinking & searching and never really getting anywhere, alone except for my own ghostly reflection watching me get older as my face turns ever more brittle & slack. And the only certainty is that long after I’m dead the Doobie Brothers will still be played in public—probably even after all of us are dead—and isn’t that the kind of fucked up requiem that our species, so in love with convenience & algorithms, with mediocrity & pleasant distractions, so deeply deserves.
I guess technically I need to stay here for another 52 minutes in order to make up for getting here late, but it wasn’t my fault the van had a dead battery. Besides it’ll be dark soon and I don’t trust myself to drive home safely in the dark. The fact of the matter is we’re already living in Swirl World, all of us, and each new day is just another 24hrs in Swirl World.
Because RaceTrac doesn’t just resemble 21st century America, it is 21st century America—overlit, under constant surveillance, and everyone makes under $10/hr except for the managers. The employees’ spirits are lifted by the great lie that there is always room for advancement. All you have to do is work hard and always remember to smile. Here in Swirl World, we are all of us overfed, and we are all undernourished. Everything is for sale, and none of it has any real value, least of all you.