Scribbling.

The Secret Lives of Convenience Store Clerks

In Improbable Mutterings on January 28, 2011 at 1:46 pm

"Want to live the high life, baby?"

My favourite neighbourhood convenience store in Toronto is clean, well-stocked, and diverse in its offerings. In atmosphere, if not in appearance, it reminds me of a 21st-century “general store,” the kind you only find in small towns or in the sepia photographs of colonial periods. It’s a retailer, laundromat and internet cafe all at once, and so attracts a fascinating range of people. It’s always busy, and the staff is friendly and helpful.

And one of its clerks is apparently in love with my girlfriend.

Being a clerk at the corner of College and Clinton streets – the heart of Little Italy – must provide some interesting opportunities for people-watching. I imagine that the weekends are a particularly lively time for these employees. You get to see droves of dolled-up people, from “Woo” girls, to preening macho-types trying to impress each other by popping their collars (yep, they still do that), to confused tourists asking “Which place makes the best pizza?” Weekenders buying cigarettes, gum to cover up the cigarette breath, mixes for their smuggled drinks, and snacks for the pot-fuelled munchies. Locals dodge warily around these colourful interlopers, clutching toilet paper and peanut butter to their chest. Suffice it to say, the store gets a lot of traffic.

Convenience stores in downtown Toronto (in my area at least) seem overwhelmingly dominated by Koreans. Our local favourite is no different. Like so many independent retailers of Asian ownership in this area, this one is a heady mix of efficiency and eccentricity. Alongside plastic plants and t-shirts for sale, its front window displays a variety of strange toys, boxes yellowed with age, sometimes wildly out of place. When was the last time you bought a blow-up George W. Bush punching balloon while picking up a carton of milk? Or saw a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot above The Economist on the magazine shelf and thought, “This would be PERFECT for my kid’s birthday!”

Whatever you can say about the bizarre panoply of offerings, I have usually found Korean-run convenience store clerks and staff to be unfailingly polite. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re “outgoing,” but they always smile, always do the right things, and will address any complaint you might have. I don’t know much about Korean culture, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find better shopkeepers in the city.

But as I have mentioned, one of the regular clerks at our store is enamoured with my girlfriend. The fellow has identified me as “the competition,” and in harmless but entertaining ways is trying to woo Alice from behind the counter.

I’m not saying that this cashier is in only in love with Alice. What I am saying is that whenever we are in the store together, he appears to be very much in love with her.

It’s possible that that he senses some affinity between himself and Alice, believing her to be Korean. This is not an isolated case. Toronto’s vaunted ethnic diversity is such that misunderstandings take place even amongst those ethnicities that I, as a WASP, have trouble distinguishing between. Alice is Chinese Canadian. And yet, according to some logic which completely eludes me, she reportedly has “Korean” features. Whenever she is in a Korean neighbourhood, Korean men flirt with her in their native tongue, eliciting confusion on her part and amusement on mine. When we go out for Korean BBQ, male servers will wink and drop sly phrases that are completely lost on the both of us. Shopping at a clothing or grocery store will generate more-than-casual appraisals. It’s all very friendly, but undoubtedly confusing for her.

Our clerk is no different. Unlike his fellow Korean flirters, however, this chap takes things a step further by giving us some unexpected life advice. On one occasion, he attempted to show me up in front of Alice by insinuating that I wasn’t providing for her. “Would you like to buy a lottery ticket?” he asked. I responded saying I wasn’t the gambling type. “You should probably look into some of these scratch-and-win tickets, then. They’re cheap and they pay out well.” I reiterated my reluctance to throw my money away on such items—they were still gambling, despite the seemingly lower stakes. He continued undeterred. “Are you really going to let your girlfriend miss out on the chance to live the high life?”

You get the idea.

Another occasion, when I was not present, he asked her, “Are you married?” When she replied in the negative, but that she was in a committed relationship, he responded by saying, “Oh, I see. Well, does he make you happy?” As if a question like that would, under normal circumstances, cause the subject to furrow their brow, and say “My god, no he doesn’t!” Tempestuous romance ensues!

Not once have I taken offence to his brazen advances; indeed, Alice and I both rather enjoy the repartee. She gets this regularly, particularly from Chinatown butchers and fishmongers (no joke)—but there, the flirtations are more diffuse, the gut reactions of a working guy to a pretty girl. Our favourite clerk is different in that he pointedly knows Alice is with another guy. I imagine this comes up a lot, for him. And I’m curious as to why he puts himself into such a position of disappointment, time after time.

The thing is…what if it does work on some people?

What kind of existence do these clerks really lead? The high traffic in my beloved neighbourhood business must be in some way exemplary of convenience store interactions in general. Every encounter, no matter how seemingly pleasant, will be entirely fleeting.

But I wonder: does the frequency of customers focus the mind of these behind-the-counter gurus? Do they become focused, laser-beam like, on the minutiae of human interaction? If they put their minds to it, a convenience store clerk could become a hyper-efficient pick-up machine!

I’m not suggesting for a moment that it would be a good idea for the convenience store clerk to flirt with his or her customers, but if they did, surely they’d have some interesting insights into peoples’ behaviour. Maybe they’re able to sum up at a glance somebody’s mood, or income levels, or how many drinks they’ve had.

On the other hand, what if they’re stuck in a horrible Sisyphus-like existence, similar to what we see in Kevin Smith’s famous movie. Any positive progress they might make with any one individual would be immediately negated with the handing-over of the change. Do they pause for a few seconds before relinquishing the handful of coins, drawing out the conversation as long as they can?

So, when our unnamed store clerk flirts with Alice, is he doing so as part of a routine? Is he “practicing”? Or is he, rather, crying out for help, for escape from this flip-book fast day?

I don’t envy his existence. It must be a tough and tedious day, sitting behind that counter. Maybe I should try and set him up with one of my single friends. I’ll suggest an opening line for her: “My ex-boyfriend couldn’t provide for me—I need someone who can help me lead the high life. Do you know anyone who can make that happen?”

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