Pop Culture
Jul 09, 2010, 08:32AM

Familiar Anonymity

Here at Splice, we have a special bond with our local chain store employees.

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The office where I work is on Falls Rd., across from the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute (a high school) and down the block from a fast food/convenience/drug store strip. The sidewalks on our side of the street are thin and crumbling, and you’ve got to watch the cars that whiz up the road. Foot traffic is insignificant, although I frequently spot groups of people in medical scrubs, a clan whose origin still eludes me. It’s a big, wide-open space, with no tall buildings or structures in sight. Most of the time, it feels pretty empty and quiet.

Without a car or a bike, lunch is usually limited to the joints down the block. From left to right, there’s a 7-Eleven, Dunkin Donuts/Baskin Robbins, Papa Johns, and Arlon’s, a generic sub/burger shop. In visiting this strip every day, I’ve quickly come to recognize the regulars and who works where and at what hours. Every morning at around 11 a.m., one of the cashiers at 7-Eleven smokes a cigarette by the trashcan out front, looking alternately at cars or the ground. The 7-Eleven crew is the grumpiest of all the strip’s employees, and the store’s fluorescent sterility stands in stark contrast to a weird sort of morbid atmosphere.

Dunkin Donuts has been my go-to lunch spot for the past several weeks, although I still only recognize two regular employees. The manager reminds me of Chris Katan; he calls everyone “buddy” and never stays put, always moving around the store, performing a wide array of tasks (taking orders, making food, cleaning tables, mopping, working at the Baskin Robbins section). There are usually two or three additional employees but the manager seems to take care of everything himself. The service here is really slow, but generally everyone is pretty nice and unassuming.

It’s a strange place—not only have I been mistaken for a girl twice (once by a cashier and once by a customer who proceeded to ask “Is the syrup sweet?”), but I’ve also been given a fair amount of free food. One time, around 11 p.m., I walked in and ordered a Boston Cream donut, gave the guy a buck, and got my change and my dollar back, and an extra donut. So essentially I was paid to eat twice the amount of donuts that I ordered. He knew exactly what he was doing, smiling at me the whole time. I’ve heard stories and have seen evidence of bags of donuts being given away right before closing, but I haven’t been so lucky. One extra donut was enough anyway.

I rarely venture past Dunkin Donuts; I went to Arlon’s once and forgot what I got. I’m not sure I’ve ever been inside Papa Johns. A CVS pharmacy right by the strip is my only other semi-regular stop, a store that also seems to only have two or three employees at a time. One in particular, an older woman, treats everyone like her own grandchildren, and I feel a weird sort of caring hospitality whenever I’m in there. The other day I overheard her talking to a customer, discussing a group of people who have “a special place in hell” reserved for them. Whoever she was talking about, this was shocking; my image of this woman as a magnanimous grandmother was shattered. It was like seeing a teacher outside of school; uncomfortable and disorienting to the senses, something that’s not supposed to happen.

I’ve got a weird sort of familiarity at these places now. They all recognize me, but I still feel fairly anonymous. Being a regular at a store is a strange thing, and I’m never sure where the line of comfort is drawn. I wonder what Chris Katan will think of my lunch order, or if CVS Grandma will secretly judge me based on what I buy. And as I continue to frequent the strip, the more this odd familiarity grows. I get to visit these characters every day, and interact with them, and learn more about them. It could be a lot worse.

  • Would love to hear how your opinions and observations of these characters change over the summer. Good thought provoking article. Not everything has to be about politics or Lady Gaga.

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  • Hey Nicky, you've made something out of seemingly nothing and made it interesting. I can see your characters and the scenes and you've aso captured the summer lassitude of Baltimore as I recall from several summer visits there. I agree with the Texan above, I'd enjoy another installment of observations before the summer's gone.

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  • More stories about Baltimore, please. This was a pleasure to read.

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  • You are getting a serious head start on your Freshman Fifteen. Have Mom pack you a salad and a turkey sandwich.

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