Let me set the scene: It’s a pre-pandemic Friday night and you’re waiting to meet up with your friends to go out for the night. There’s that end-of-the-week freedom in the air, egging you on to treat yourself and celebrate getting through the slog of another five days of interning/rehearsals/classes/projects. But you’re in that vacuum of time and space, those few hours where others haven’t reached their sweet relief yet, and any communal hanging has to wait until the agreed upon time. You’re forced to reckon with your body’s readiness to already be on the dance floor, and time’s unbendable will. So, you do your best to kill it while keeping the vibes alive, looking for fuel to keep you going. Dinner is done, so hanging out at the school café or loitering at a local chain is a no go, and you don’t wanna lose yourself walking in a park, accidentally finding yourself miles away when rendezvous time arrives. Instead, you wander over to the next best thing. A place practically made for in-between time where restlessness can be subdued with cheap retail therapy and carbs. The closest 7-Eleven.
Inside you wander the narrow aisles surveying the selection of salty and sweet snacks, noticing the staggering number of variations on childhood classics. So many types of Cheez-its, Combos and Rice Krispy Treats you didn’t even know existed. How many ways can you say, “really spicy”? How many different things can you cram into each other like a turducken to make it something new? They do what they intend to, though, and get you craving a little crunch and a lotta salt. You grab whatever bag is screaming the loudest, or is pushing whichever nostalgic button asking to be hit that day.
With bag of salt in hand it seems only right to balance it out with some factory-engineered sweetness. While any product of Reese’s is usually the go-to in candy land, it won’t do the job of balancing because it is such a perfect mix of salty and sweet in itself. Any chocolatey, nutty, caramel-y things won’t do for that same reason (if it’s ever worth getting). It’s a time to indulge in the delight of something gummy. Worms or bears will do, though the classic Haribo worm is preferred. You grab a bag, thinking of the day you’ll be back at an ice cream shack ordering a sundae with gummy worms for an excuse to have them again despite the cold bed of ice cream making them tough to chew. They are the essence of childlike joy and foodstuffs for purely pleasure’s sake. Appropriate for humid summer afternoons and impromptu hauls from a corner store.
Something creamy and cold seems like a logical addition to round it all out. Unfortunately, the freezer section in this particular location is rather small, and the Ben and Jerry’s selection is slim, with more space given instead to low-cal “ice creams” or generic brands filled with air and lacking flavor. That’s fine. It was more of a whim anyway. And while not creamy, the cold craving can be met with the most essential of 7-Eleven offerings.
You turn your attention to the Slurpee machine, fingers crossed that there is literally any flavor other than Coca-Cola. In a stroke of luck, not only are there fruity flavors, but the best of all – blue raspberry – is spinning in its extraterrestrial icy blue goodness. There’s just something about the blue-ness added to the tart raspberry flavor, whether it be in a lollipop or sour patch kids, that is better than if it was plain raspberry. Is it probably the same, just blue because it needs to be distinguished from cherry? Sure. But that’s not the point when you’re in a 7-Eleven. You draw down the handle and fill a small cup and check out at the register, passing the suspicious looking hot dogs and taquitos baking under the hot lamp. The same ones that were there whenever the last time you were? Quite possible. After a blessedly quick and impersonal interaction at the checkout, free of judgement about your selection or payment method (stacks of carefully organized and exact change. Including pennies.) you head out with your haul having killed some time browsing the aisles of Americana.
When I think of a standard 7-Eleven experience for me, that’s it. For the entire time I was in college (up until my final pandemic-era months) I lived a few short blocks away from a small 7-Eleven, which was also just down the street from the performing arts building. I had never been in 7-Elevens much before then, just once on National Slurpee day with a couple of friends the summer before college. But like so many Americans, convenience stores and the products they typically stocked were staples in life. Especially having traveled a large chunk of the U.S. by car as a kid, a lot of time was spent in small side-of-the-road pitstops or those connected to a gas station in town looking for a bathroom and a snack for the road. While there are many such stores out there, only one is the platonic ideal showcased in screen and song.
Recently, in a sharp departure from my typical longings for the culinary feats accomplished by small bakeries and quality restaurants of pre-pandemic life, I found myself wistful for wandering around a 7-Eleven. It wasn’t a craving for gummy worms or a blue raspberry Slurpee that hit me (though both sound pretty good right now, not gonna lie) but a craving for the aimless freedom of ambling about the aisles. The odd comfort of being surrounded by the unnecessarily prolific fruits of Big American Snack Food, in all their affordable glory. Like window shopping but in a place where you could actually afford the $3 most things would be to actually get, a low price to let yourself live on a whim so rarely available, especially in NYC. The relief of walking in without being acknowledged by the cashier or any other customer. No one is there for the warm, serendipitous interactions or five star service. They’re there for some junk food, or cheap coffee, or a spiked seltzer. After a long day or a particularly frustrating class, making the pilgrimage with a couple of friends, some would be magnetically drawn to their own standard orders, others just trying to sift through their anger and frustration to figure out just what food will do the trick to quell the negative energy. Even the Sundays I would stop in to use the blessedly charge-free ATM to grab some cash in order to get my weekly groceries and a bagel. I was craving that place that stood for the small in-between bits of everyday life.
While there were a couple of 7-Elevens in my hometown, Merrimack is not what one would characterize as walkable. And as none of them were particularly near my house or school, I would have to actively want to go to a 7-Eleven specifically and make the drive to find myself there. Given that the only thing that made this kind of specific craving occur in high school was an obsession with the show Heathers, it never happened. Even before 7-Eleven met my cheap snack and idle browsing needs, though, I had Frank’s Place. Directly down the hill from the high school in a small plaza that also held a CVS, Karate studio, Dominos, Italian restaurant, Salon, and a couple other small businesses that I never had need to notice, it was one of the few places that actually was walkable, and the only option for kids without a car to grab dinner in between after school activities and evening performances or competitions. And while some of the older kids with cars would use them to their advantage to drive to the Wendy’s or Burger King, a good number would still go to Frank’s, just via car rather than trekking up and down the hill. It wasn’t that the deli sandwiches, cold custards, bags of rolls, or soda selection was so much better than fast-food fries. It was tradition.
Frank’s was split into three sections, essentially – the deli, the convenience store, and a small section of tables where you could eat. Some people would get a hot or cold sandwich, but as they took time we generally didn’t have on breaks, most people opted for a grab-and-go option, and by that I mean some assortment of snacks. Frank’s was the first place I remember having Combos, and proceeded to regularly get them for the rest of that marching band season (Cheddar Cheese or Pizzeria Pretzel. NOT a regular cracker. Why bother?). It was where we picked up Arizona Iced teas and energy drinks that a group of kids already too hyper for their own good did not need. Almost always a pack of sour patch kids, injecting straight sugar and further unnecessary energy, especially when dropped into a mountain dew because… Why not, I guess? Teen Logic. Artsy Teen Logic. But it was fun, and left us hyped on sugar and caffeine clean till the end of whatever football game, concert, or show we had to do that evening.
These convenience store trips of both high school and college were some of the most memorable and uncomplicated times of high school and college despite being pit stops between the classically salient activities of the time. And as I took my own stroll down memory lane, I got curious about other people’s near and dear 7-Eleven memories, or similar convenience store nostalgias. Food is already a powerful stimulator of memory, facilitator of connection, and window into other ways of being. The food habits at the ubiquitous corner stores of the world, I imagined, would be even more poignant.
So, I put a call out on The Social Media for your 7-Eleven, or other convenience store anecdotes. And I was overjoyed with the stories people shared! Not only was it comforting to see the shared fond memories for these institutions, but it was delightful to read about the different reasons why. For example, one friend who grew up in Hong Kong wrote:
“So in Hong Kong 7-11s are absolutely superior. You could even file your taxes there. After school, my friends and I would usually go there to grab lo mein- they also had freshly cooked food and stuff- and there was ALWAYS this little sweet old lady who would be cooking. Despite all the ups and downs of high school, SHE was the constant and sometimes I still think about her and hope she’s okay”
I have heard tales of the different offerings in 7-11s overseas, which more sophisticated snacks and full meals not being kept suspiciously alive via heat lamp, but getting taxes done there was a new one. But her mention of the lady she would regularly interact with there was a relationship so familiar to me. Convenience stores are so often the place where we have those people. The regular characters in our life that we do not know but whose wellbeing we care for. Who we worry about when they disappear but have no means to check up on.
Another friend wrote to me of their memories of a more local store, saying:
“In my case, the corner store was “Red” Roberts, on the corner of Pine Street and Flynn Ave, in Burlington VT. It was coincidentally on my way to and from elementary school. The time period? My third-grade year of 1972-73, back when you could actually get candy for a penny.
The one-story, long, white building with its large front display windows and tiny high side windows is no longer there, having been recently replaced with a contemporary three-story condominium building. But that low unassuming structure looms large in my childhood.
In those days there was no lunch program at my school, so kids brought lunches from home, along with four the cents needed to buy an eight-ounce square box of milk at school. Engaging my new-found financial “freedom,” I schemed that my milk money could be put to better use after school at Red’s.
In a school week, it would take until Wednesday to have enough to buy a ten-cent candy bar. If I delayed my gratification until Thursday, I would have enough to buy the bigger 15-cent bar, the Marathon. Chocolate-coated and braided, the Marathon lived up to its name. It was my ill-gotten adventure in chewy, cavity-generating delight, encased in a bold red wrapper. Come Friday afternoon the remaining five cents would buy some penny candy.
The trick of course was to eat it all before I got home which was about four blocks away. Don’t remember exactly what I did with the wrappers, though it wouldn’t have been a stretch to toss it into someone’s burn barrel on the way.
Mom was none-the-wiser about how my milk money had been spent. Did she ever figure it out? I don’t know, and I still haven’t told her.”
Firstly, I felt a deep connection to the meticulous saving of cents for a corner store treat (see earlier mention of paying at the counter in all change… This often consisted of more pennies than I would care to admit). But secondly, now that I know of the Marathon Bar, I am upset that it no longer exists. Chocolate-covered caramel in a pretty braid? In an orange package with a very cool font? I am picking it up right now in my convenience store mind-palace journey.
Another friend captured the special place in the heart earned by the simple joys held there, writing:
“Personally, I loved 7-11 as a kid because my family would always stop at it and get Slurpees on the way to the beach. We rarely splurged on stuff like that so I loved it…”
But what captured the mood of 7-11, and any convenience store one finds dear, best of all was a memory shared by a friend:
“I grew up in Cleveland a block and a half from a 7-11, which itself was next to a Dairy Queen. By the early 1990s, the cooler kids on the block had taken to calling 7-11, “The Sev.” One summer, when I was 11, my parents left me and my 13 year old brother home alone most days, because my mom was in grad school and my dad was working. Nary a day passed when we didn’t stop at Dairy Queen and The Sev for snacks, soda and the like. It was the first time I was encouraged to participate in the transactions of shopping and feeding myself, and when I walked into The Sev for a Cherry Coke, I felt like a grown up. One day in mid August, after a particularly grueling game of kickball at our friend Marcus’s huge back yard, we rode to The Sev on our bikes, and as we turned into the parking lot on our bikes–my brother, a few other friends and me–in a state of collective horror we saw the sign. E-Z Shoppe. Nothing had changed as far as the inventory or the staff, but The Sev was just … gone. We wandered the aisles confused. I questioned why they needed to abbreviate Easy, but then added the -pe to end of Shop as though that would somehow endear them to us. School started a week later and on our walks home we’d still stop in. For a while, the cooler kids simply called it “E-Z,” but I always called E-Z Shoppe. I didn’t want that familiarity. The next summer my brother went on to high school sports. I went to tennis and theatre camp. Marcus moved away. Years later, I flew home from NYC for Christmas, and as my dad turned into our neighborhood, I noticed the E-Z Shoppe sign was gone. They’d installed a full gas station in the parking lot. And when I looked at the store that had always been there, it’s sign said 7-11. It was 20 years later, but The Sev and I had both come home. We had a few good years until the Dairy Queen became The Cone Zone. But The Sev endures. Long may it’s banners wave.”
Has this brought any memories back that you’d like to share? A go-to 7-Eleven order? A favorite/despised Slurpee flavor? I would love to read about any and all! Drop them in the comments below!