Wednesday, May 23, 2007

how did the mini mart come to be?

How did the mini mart come to be? And how could this transfusion of hospital lighting and flooring into a general store be thought attractive to consumers? One must look closely at the shelves for clues. One must look at the most common mini mart location for other clues. What does one find when meandering the aisles? Besides the hospital lighting, one finds a smell in the air. It too is institutional, though not, thankfully, of the same sort as the hospital. The smell is sweet, a waxy sweetness, a leaden sweetness, an odor of old chocolate reminiscent of the factory: institutional sweetness, overlaid with the blaring sickly sweetness of floor cleaner. The smell of chocolate is of chocolate preserved, packaged, sealed in plastic somewhere far away, chemicalized to last a long time. The air is full of stale snickers. Is the smell really “stale”? Or is it just that factory smell? In any case, the smell leads one off elsewhere, somewhere far away and a good while ago. It is not fresh, in any case.

I have ridden Greyhound since 1990, so I have done research in my own simple way, late nights and groggy mornings, and my skin has been permeated with that welter of scents, and my eyes, that lighting. My hobby is to hunt out things I have never seen before. I had not thought of it as a hobby until now – I’ll call it a consistent curiosity, a little game: can I find anything in here that betrays where I am? Anything that slips through a crack in the corporate surface? The clerk is fatalistically grim or outrageously friendly. There are a lot of ways to face a busload of travellers entering like a defeated horde whose last comfort at 4:30 am is Ring Dings.

There are regional differences, but few: rather more jerky in the West, rather more pickles in the East. But as to specific location, the mini mart is a flourescent-lit cipher, a blank. The mini mart is a claim to perfection, hermetic perfection. I take it as a challenge: I bet you can’t guess where you are by looking at the interior of this place, can ya? Truck stops are another story, truckers have their own gripes and fantasies that form an alternative geography. I mean your run of the mill mini mart attached to a gas station.

One’s eye runs over the racks of Hostess products, Sno Balls and Cherry Pies, over the ranks of Baby Ruth and Butterfinger, over the breath mint meant to blast one’s mouth with cooling bleach in sparkly boxes. One moves from the sugar and fat section to the salt and fat section, the Funyuns, the Doritoes (now with Homestyle MSG flavor), the Pringles, an industrial invention if there ever was one. All, all, are without a source. There are addresses on the packages, but those addresses are most likely customer service centers, not the plant itself, and even if you were to find the plant, you will find it as blank and poker-faced as the mini mart itself: a big white Walmart-like building without the shopping carts in an “industrial campus” somewhere outside Urbana, Illinois. Yes, these candies come from a location, but there is no origin: Baby Ruths are all the same, they are a copy – literally without any original. Can one imagine an original Baby Ruth somewhere in a climate controlled plexiglass case, hushed as a gallery, the bar nibbled on one side by the corporate founder, gazed at reverently by the board before every meeting? Of course not. They copy each other, they follow a recipe, a formula, a marketing abstraction meant for endless reproduction. And the producer of each bar is a machine following the strictest regimen of similarity. The origin of the Baby Ruth, properly speaking, is the corporate plan, which itself betrays no source in place or time. I am not saying that industrial sweets come literally from nowhere, but that they are created in such a way as to erase any hint of a place of origin. They aspire to placelessness. The “idea” invoked in the name is the barest abstraction – in contrast to the sensuous temptation of the product description a cascade of richs, thicks, and creamys.

In this sense mini mart fare is largely of this earlier wave of industrial edibles that proclaimed a staunch nowhereness in total uniformity. Now, there is a backlash in the spread of products that evoke imaginary origins, “Sumatran Gold Coffee” being a typical example. Some of these fantasy products linked in imagination to a place, have found their way into mini marts. But, like Ring Dings, Starbucks’ coffee’s origin is a marketing concept, not a cultural specificity linked to a place.

I usually am able to ferret out one or two local products, sheepishly trying to act normal and blend in with the others, trying to pass as industrial: a “pecan candy” hand-wrapped in plastic and red ribbon. I found that in a Texas mini mart. Its real name appeared nowhere. It was a candy from Mexico. It hid its origins as best it could, but I saw through its amateur, meaning non-mechanical, wrapping, and bare-bones labelling. No “extreme krunch” or “Killer Karamel” gimmickry. Industrial production skews our thinking to the point that anything non- or semi-industrial appears laughable, suspect. I find a non-mainstream brand of soda, say, “Uncle Joe’s Sarsparilla,” and I laugh with that inbred scorn, but I am also laughing with admiration at the pluck of anything local that manages to survive; that hokey bags of chips with slogans like “Too Hot fer the Devil Himself!!” with a dancing devil, can make their way to their way to the shelves and sit next to Doritoes. My eyes, trained in environments of the strictest uniformity, are sensitized in this way to difference – like a person raised in a soundless environment, I can detect the tiniest sound.

If mini-marts squelch any whiff of origin and place, this must also preclude any sort of destination. The mini-mart is an extension of the highway. The fantasy of the highway in American culture is to be nowhere – not to arrive, but to leave, to find oneself lost; the image of the tiny car on a ribbon of desert road permeates everything from credit card ads to buddy flicks. The freedom is to be nowhere.

Mini-marts grew out of gas stations, servicing the highways, especially those high-volume “service areas” where efficiency and uniformity rules all. After all, one can still find small town gas stations where aisles are narrow and linoleum tile is cracked. But the mini-mart holds sway, spreading out from the highways into all of America until they are part of the corporate formula itself: Sunoco’s Quik-Shop, Mobil’s StopNGo. We dream of nowhereness. Lucky for Sunoco, this craving overlaps easily with their high-volume, highly functional dream of profit in uniformity.

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