The Shop-n-Go on Hammock Road set the standard. All other convenience stores are measured against its specifically soothing scent. I can close my eyes and recall it even now, more than forty years later. It is hard to discern exactly what comprised it. A tinge of bleached mop water, menthol cigarette smoke through the air-conditioner filter, withered hot dogs rolling endlessly, lingering tendrils of Opium, Poison, and Drakar Noir. Deeper into the scent there is cardboard, sweat, gasoline, Circus Peanuts, even cash emulsifying into something delicious and enticing.
At first, before puberty, it was a far-flung distant peak to conquer, a Saturday morning excursion requiring some planning. Count up your change, clip your Army canteen to your belt loop, throw a leg over the Mag Scrambler and away you go, one full mile way. Once I got there I would be in no hurry to leave, eating Boston Baked Beans and mastering the esoteric disciplines of Tron, greatest of all arcade games.
The Cumberland Farms on U.S. Highway 19 in Homosassa Springs, near the north end of Sugarmill Woods subdivision, served as a way station from my earliest days of independence driving between Mom and Walt’s home on Anna Maria Island, and Tallahassee. It was situated near half-way in the 300 mile trip, with a turning lane into the pumps. Biscuit sandwiches were always fresh, and the smell of Fabuloso in the bathroom strong enough to get you high. I would tell strangers in the parking lot, “This is the nicest store in Florida, you’re in for a treat.” I had that much confidence in the staff and whomever sat atop the Cumberland Farms franchise. I drove down there once on a rescue mission, to intercede when Walter and his assistant, Sergio, broke down in the old Winnebago. By the time I got there they were hardly in distress. The suffocating July heat had me wincing when I got out of the car. Not those guys, accustomed to the Yucatecan summers they were sitting in the shade, eating grapes and cheese off a paper plate.
The Homosassa Cumberland Farms fell into decline. My last stop there was shocking. It was dingy and fetid. One manic fluorescent bulb flickering in the ceiling. The leathery cashier fared no better, acrid ammonia misting from her pores. I worried for her, and I didn’t want to ever come back. At some point I noticed the sign changed. It’s now USA MART.
I moved to Portland, OR in the mid-nineties, which was an incredible time to be alive. Six of us struck out from Montana, lead by the un-shrinking confidence and vision of Herman Jolly. Mad Cowboy Disease, his melancholy solo masterpiece, was powered by Plaid Pantry coffee and Copenhagen. Now that Cousin Todd is gone, these songs are as close as I can get to the secure feeling I always had in his company, goddamned genius gentleman that he was.
Some of us were there to pursue dreams of making a life with art at the center. I guess I was pursuing a dream of helping friends pursue dreams of a life with art in the center. We split into two households, not half a mile between us. Across from the purple house I lived in, was a 24 hour Plaid Pantry.
The Plaid, as it looked from our front stoop. Pretty convenient.
The Plaid Pantry experience was utilitarian. I don’t remember the staff, or any notable hot menu items. I mainly remember Hamm’s, the beer with a cartoon bear mascot.
We crossed 30th Ave back and forth like tin ducks re-stocking the fridge. I do think they sold pancake mix, my other staple. Portland was a big city to me at the time. The biggest place I’d ever lived. My entire universe ran from that Plaid Pantry to Little Baja, where most of us worked up on Burnside. The Pacific Northwest’s largest importer of piñatas and terracotta, and don’t you ever forget it. “Gotta Lotta Terra Cotta”, yeah, that was me.