O c t o b e r   2 0 0 5

Guest Writer

Everyone knows what I'm talking about
Convenience store
by Amy Nuttbrock

mil Yankov is a large, graying Bulgarian man with avid eyes and a lineman's esprit de corps. He and his cheerful, mustachioed son, Daniel, own JT's Market, a convenience store around the corner from where I work.

"We opened this place up after the earthquake of '89, when everyone else was taping up their windows and nailing their doors back on," Emil said with a far off, daydreamy look. "We sold a lot of whiskey back then."

Ever since, JT's has sold a lot more than liquor. They've got magazines, candy bars, sunless tanning spray, six packs of Red Bull, airplane pillows, desk fans and toys that move around or make noise when you press a button or pull a string.

They sell things that people might need on an emergency basis: tampons, batteries, stamps, socks, condoms, aspirin, cigarettes, hydrocortisone cream and deodorant. They sell household cleaners and toiletries; small, totable pieces of furniture; and microwaveable lunches in frozen cardboard boxes.

There's also a deli in the back with a magnetic menu featuring huge sandwiches on kaiser rolls, egg salad, Greek salad and chicken salad. Large refrigerated cases display the daily specials: spaghetti with meatballs, vegetable casserole, meatloaf. There are always deviled eggs. Emil is the house cook. If anyone lingers too long on the menu, he leans forward, rests his meaty arms on the counter and whispers, "You'll have the BLT. No one makes it like I do." All the sandwiches are $3.25.

"I grew up in here," said Daniel, tugging at the collar of his patterned sweater and pushing up his Buddy Holly glasses. "Dad put me to work when I was 11, hosing off the sidewalk in the morning."

A month ago there was a cardboard placard in JT's window: We quit.

I inquired within. Emil was twiddling the dial on a portable radio behind the cash-register counter.

"The rent's gone up," he huffed, "we're moving up to 15th and Church. It's a residential neighborhood. All the kids will want to buy the cherry-flavored cigars."

A bum sat on a milk crate outside the store, alternately rattling a coffee cup and reading the weekly entertainment rag. He had a routine: "Gimme a quarter and I'll tell you your horoscope." He wore a pink knit cap and a marshmallow vest. He had a blue hoop through one ear.

"What's your sign?" he mumbled to a brisk woman with an oversized handbag.

I've been going to JT's for over a year, sometimes five times a week.

When I'm bored or restless at work, trying to avoid a telephone call, I'll stick my head out of my office and say, "Need anything from downstairs?"

Everyone knows what I'm talking about. Hands wave, heads stick out of doorways.

"Can you get me some stamps?

"Here, let me give you money."

"I've got a few things I need."

"Oh crap, maybe I should just come with you."

If I leave the office at the same time as our effusive, grand-gesturing receptionist, who invariably starts going on about her pill-popping boyfriend troubles, I'll grind the conversation to a halt so that I won't get stuck riding the subway with her. I'll wag my thumb in the direction of the convenience store.

"Hey, I'll catch you tomorrow," I say. "I need to grab something in here."

Inside, Emil passes me a cellophane-wrapped caramel.

When I'm hung over, I'm at JT's first thing in the morning, buying travel packets of aspirin and purple containers of Gatorade. Daniel is on to me.

"Messed up again, aye?" He laughs and shakes his head in a noncommittal, shame-on-you gesture. "When you gonna invite me to one of your parties?"

I give him a wink.

"Now we'll have to go to Walgreens," said my boss, Mary, upon hearing of JT's close-out. She grew up as an original hippie in rural Connecticut, where her dad was a local shop owner. She's always had a thing for local merchants, hands-off government and Carole King. She took a deep breath and puffed out her chest like a bird, then let the air out loudly.

"And it's too late, baby, now it's too late, though we really did try to make it ..." she sang.

Jeannette, an assistant, twirled around in her chair. She wore an orange scarf wrapped twice around her neck.

"Emil always remembered my birthday," she whimpered funereally. "He gave me a signed card with a lotto ticket every year. My mom doesn't even do that."

John, the office temp, fed pages into the buzzing fax machine. He had a brown leather wristband and a quiet, furtive way of asserting his thoughts.

"It's all chain stores going up now," he said. "Those guys at JT's are cool fucking dudes." Everyone nodded in agreement, then dispersed.

All month long, JT's Market slowly faded out. The deli cases were cleaned and left vacant and humming. The magnetic letters for the menu were removed. The contents of the shelves thinned out. Collapsed cardboard boxes leaned against walls. Daniel kept forgetting where he'd left the half-used roll of paper towels and the window cleaner.

"This town can't get rid of us," Emil bellowed, like a football coach. "You'll come and see us uptown, right?"

On the store's last day, Daniel and Emil were giving stuff away. They gave peanut butter cups and ballpoint pens to Mary; Chapstick and lotto tickets to Jeannette; wind-up toys and candlesticks to John. They gave me a stack of teen entertainment magazines and a bag of caramels. The portable radio played light, springy '50s songs. A fan whirred from a high shelf.

Our office pitched in to buy them a going-away present: two tickets to a baseball game. When I handed over the envelope, Emil flashed a big, gappy grin, then threw back his head and laughed.

"Thanks, thanks, thanks."

Meanwhile, Daniel swept the front step and reorganized the stacks of newspapers and free rental guides. He made a conspiratorial whispering sound, then cupped his mustache with his left hand.

"He's a football fan. He won't tell you that, though. Me? I've always liked the Giants."

The bum with the knit cap peeled a banana from his seat on the milk crate. He tilted his head upward and squinted at the sun.

"Ever seen a real banana tree?" he asked no one in particular.

"Only in cartoons," I said.

"Got a cigarette?"

He tossed the peel through the drain grate.

I shrugged, stuffed the stack of magazines under my arm and headed back to the office.

E-mail Amy at amynuttbrock@hotmail, and see more of her work in our archives.

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