There was an Arco Mini Mart on the northeast corner of Brooklyn and NE 41st in the University District that was owned by a man named Wayne Eddy, though he went by Ed. I worked there in my third year of college. Ed had inherited the place from his dad, who had had it as a “service station” while Ed was growing up. As a kid, he had hung around the greasy service bays, which were now gone, replaced by the cleanly lit shelves and mopped tiles of the Mini Mart’s interior. Ed did not hide his displeasure at having been stuck with the shop. He regarded it as a hindrance to the real business of his life, which was digging around in filled-in outhouses for colored glass medicine bottles and collecting used records and other goodies. Ed would get ahold of old maps that showed where outhouses had been at the turn of the last century, then go and ask the present landowners if he could turn a spadeful or two of earth there. Back before there was garbage collection people commonly threw bottles down the privy hole when they were done with them. The best ones, ones that had no seams and were richly colored in blue or green or amber, could fetch a pretty penny. Ed paid us well (for the mid-80s) to take care of the store and not bother him, while he ran around looking for his treasures.
The Mini Mart had a lot of regular customers. There were people who breezed through just to fill up their tanks, people who’d seen the sign from the I-5 bridge and found their way down from 45th, but in large part the customers were college kids from the neighborhood loading up on beer and chips and denizens, young and old, of the adjacent apartment buildings — such as the doughty old brick Levere directly across Brooklyn to the west — coming in to indulge a sweet tooth or grab the paper. Sometimes they came in just to talk with me. I was stuck there from 4pm to midnight three evenings a week and 6pm to 2 in the morning for two more.
There was Nancy S., a sad, worn woman (though not old enough to be as worn as she looked) who came in almost nightly for a big jug of wine and whose invitation to dinner at the restaurant of the nearby Meany Hotel I accepted because at that age I didn’t know a nice way to say, “Are you out of your mind? You’re scaring me.” When she was more drunk than usual, she came into the store and insisted something about JFK that I couldn’t interpret through her sobbing.
There was also the lawyer, or the man studying to be a lawyer. His name was Brooks, I think. He always came in wearing a dapper tan trench coat on his way home, never smiled, seemed distracted, but was polite and always bought one tall Budweiser. I got on a bus this past spring, nearly a quarter century later, and he was driving it. He didn’t recognize me. I didn’t ask what had happened to his law career. Another Budweiser customer was the whistler. He was a friendly, talkative, white-haired old guy who had a tooth missing such that his esses all whistled. He would stand at the counter telling me something, and I would not hear any of it because my ears were only hearing the shrill tweets of his voiceless alveolar fricatives.
There was the candyman, a giant, unwashed, unspeaking fellow with a tangle of grey beard who came in once in a blue moon and wandered around the store fetching candy and bringing it to the counter until it made a monstrous pile. It was frightening the first time he came in on my shift, but I got used to it. He never said anything, and he never hurt anyone. There was a strange kind of random thoroughness to his search. He could have just gone along the boxes of candy systematically and taken half of each box. But instead, he would look around as if trying to remember something, then his eye would fall upon the M&Ms, and he’d shuffle over and grab as many bags as his thick hand could hold, and dump them on the counter, then a look would come across his face as though the pile didn’t look quite right, and he’d look around again, grab a fistful of Twix or maybe a couple of Choco-Bliss cakes or Hostess fruit pies. Then he’d go back for the Clark bars and the Almond Joy, then more M&Ms. On and on, for about a quarter of an hour. He put a cramp in my style because I was so good at ringing up people’s orders in my head before they got to the counter that usually I had change ready in my hand before they ever pulled out a bill, and I also knew exactly what I’d switch out if they paid with some other bill. I knew the likelihoods and probabilities, and often I knew what a particular customer would pay with. The big bearded candyman, though, never responded to my question “is that everything for you?” except with a grunt. I learned to just sit back and wait. He would mumble and point at the pile when he was done, which was never a moment that I could anticipate because there was no sense in his purchase pattern. He always paid cash and walked out with two full-size grocery bags (this was before plastic, children) brimming over with dental ruination.
There was a young woman who lived in the Levere and brought me a plate of linguine once. And there were two women who lived in the apartments nextdoor to the north whose names elude me at the moment [later edit: Wendy was one of them]. They teased me a lot. There was Eddie B. who warrants a post of his own but suffice to say that he loitered around the store until he became a friend of mine, then swept off her feet a young woman I had a big crush on, then broke her heart. He played the pinball and video games with some skill. Once while he was playing the pinball machine my friend Holly Brown came in to kill some time sitting on a stool I had put out for just such occasions. I remember her idly watching Eddie across the store leaning on the flippers, and saying “wow, he really bonked it!”
And finally, there were the poets, Robert Antonelli and Michael Snow. Robert was a short, dark-haired hood in his twenties who wore black leather or green canvas army jackets, and was an incorrigible liar. He would tell people that he worked for the CIA and that he was packing heat (a gun). His conversation was on the uncouth side. Still, as his local clerk I was automatically entitled to his staunchest loyalties, and he more than once heckled customers whom he considered had been rude to me, and after they’d gone would shake his head and express regret that he was under strict orders not to use force against people if it could be helped. I liked Robert. He was full of crap, but I liked him. His sidekick Michael was an older guy who wore tee shirts and baggy jeans and the old-fashioned canvas sneakers — boat shoes, I think they were called — that actually are in fashion again now. Michael was soft-spoken, kind of wide-eyed in a way, sort of a big kid who hadn’t realized that he’d aged. A young guy named Todd hung out with them occasonally. Todd was what was called a punk in those days. He dressed completely in black, with heavy black boots, and a black leather jacket with hundreds of bright metal studs on it. He wore black eyeliner. The only thing that wasn’t black on Todd was his hair, which was spiked up in a mohawk of festive pink. Todd was smart and he was gentle as a lamb, though when he wasn’t hanging out with Robert and Michael he hung out with a tribe of similarly noirish young people who, over the course of the year or so that they loitered in front of it, managed to destroy the entire brick facade of a bank building on the Ave simply by idly picking at it with their fingers. The three of these fellows strolling into my store made the oddest company you ever saw.
Robert and Michael would bring me poems. I was a captive audience for them as for everyone else in the neighborhood. As the young woman in the Levere felt compelled to bring me pasta, so Robert and Michael brought me their own latest creations. I wasn’t really sure Robert wrote everything that he claimed he did, simply because I knew he lied compulsively. He once brought me a poem typed on nice thick bond paper, a poem that he said he’d written, which I thought was so good and so compelling, and so…I don’t know, articulate and literate…that I couldn’t believe he had written it. It seemed to employ subtleties of communication in a way this guy never would. Maybe I do him an injustice. I hope so. I have the page to this very day, and to this day I have my doubts that this hot-headed fabricator and show-off could have written it. It’s called:
The nieghborhood dogs have abandoned
the full moon which is lodged in the night
like a mottled old bone. Already
I’ve kept awake too late. Out front
the lawn’s frozen into a pane
of silver blades the paperboy will break
within the hour. And then the postman.
He’s just awake, thinking of his steamy kitchen
of butter and syrup. He’s unaware
of the letter he’s to deliver, how
you kept up all night composing
the last words I’ll ever hear from you.
Michael was more prolific. He would shuffle in just before closing on a Friday night at 1:30 a.m. — after a while I could tell my regulars by the sound their shoes made or the way their bodies moved in the doorway without even looking up from whatever magazine I was reading — and pull from his back pocket a folded piece of yellow legal paper on which he had copied down his latest work for me to read. One he brought me was about the wind rising after the last waltz at a country dance, knocking over a metal folding chair. In that poem he described a mandolin as “half a wooden pear”. I still have it somewhere. If I find it I’ll post it.
I don’t know what ever happened to any of those guys. I saved up my money and went to Europe the next year (1985) and when I came back to work at the Mini Mart they were gone, all three. But Michael wrote a little poem that I have never forgotten. It is one of my absolute favorite poems in all the world because of the way its pictures unfold in my mind, and because the title is almost longer than the poem itself, and because its last line is brilliant. Michael brought it to me on a postcard. It is one of the few poems he’d had printed, with a nice font and some colored background, and he wanted me to have one of these limited “editions”. The reason I have told you all of the above is because I wanted you to be as close to the mental state I was in when I first read this poem, because I’m going to share it with you now.
FOR THE WOMAN WHO LAUGHED AT THE STORY OF HOW FAR MY HOME RUN BALL TRAVELLED
In your dream
you see a fat, white bee
striped, with stitched wings
crashing through a window
on the moon