For quite some time now, I’ve been having a recurring dream. I guess. The dream itself isn’t the same, but it always has the same sort of ending – I’m walking at night in my childhood neighborhood and enter a convenience store.
All very mundane! But I’ll still write about it because it’s stupid “project Monday” and my notes say “write about Dream Mart, the Thanksgiving Hippies, baking bread, and how much I really really hate the holidays.”
From 79 through 92, the house fell down around us, as did our lives. To the neighbors, we were pariahs. Unmowed lawn, fallen tree limbs, paint peeling, gutters collapsed, windows broken. What was once a big white mansion had become the House of Usher.
Of course, I opted to spend as much time outside as I could. Our neighborhood bordered Rock Creek Park – plenty of opportunities to be distracted. A band of woods that stretched for miles into DC, filthy creek water to splash in, storm drains and sewers to explore. I’m no doubt immune to all strains of hepatitis at this point.
When not splashing around in filth, torturing forest-dwelling hobos, or being chased by rabid beavers, I’d hang out in “Old Town Kensington.” I think there are some extraneous “e’s” that I should add to that because being founded in the 1800’s justifies faux-Elizabethan spelling. It was also called Antique Alley, because the “Old Town” section is actually just a few blocks of Victorian homes where wealthy Washingtonians once retired for the summers, and a stretch of old shop fronts that have been converted into overpriced “antique” stores, assuming antiques are made by the Chinese equivalent of Ikea.
That’s unfair. If you’re an old lady who wants to dress like a Dickens character, then there are plenty of smelly dresses and costume jewelry to be had.
In recent years, the “Antique Alley” (or “Row” as it came to be called before going full on Olde Towne) storefronts have evolved to allow for a weird health spa, a bakery, and other actually useful businesses – including competing used bookstores. One that’s the least welcoming place on Earth and another that’s run by a woman who acts like she’s constantly stuck in the final moments of her life where, crossing a dark road at 3am, a giant truck suddenly appeared with spotlights glaring down on her and the airhorn blasting away.
I did not hangout at the antique shops, though. My childhood destination was a couple blocks away – the 7-11 backed up against the railroad tracks. A particular delight in high school as it was the only beacon of life in the early AM. 7-11 never closed those doors, night or day, rain or shine. And it’s the template for the “dream mart” that I keep visiting in my subconscious.
It’s now the snooty “Kensington Mart” which keeps regular business hours and isn’t nearly as interesting. No surprise that the company closed the store – there was no real business there at night, and there are two other 7-11 stores within a few miles. This one was buried down in a residential area, about a mile past shuttered antique shops and Victorian homes with big yards. It was the sort of 7-11 that you only go to because you live next door, or you know it’s there and won’t be crowded.
So roll on 3am, and it was your 7-11. No cars in sight, no people, and a neighborhood that was deathly still after the witching hour. A walk or a bike ride to 7-11 in the early morning hours had an ethereal, post-apocalyptic quality. A passing car would be cause for alarm. Whenever I hiked down Kensington Parkway and saw activity, I’d fade into the shadows. Whoever was out driving that park-side road in the dead of night couldn’t be trusted.
From out of the darkness the 7-11 façade was a shining star, the only life in a lifeless suburb. Usually staffed by just one night clerk, there was no telling what you would find when you crossed the unreal threshold. Once, the clerk was asleep atop the Slurpee machine and, no matter what I did, couldn’t be roused. I left my money on the counter. Once, a clerk was wearing a bed sheet as a cape and racing around the aisles with a broom handle sword. Some clerks would hide, and appear behind you with a ghostly grace. One clerk was having sex…or…something in the cooler behind the shelves of drinks.
There were no rules for the graveyard shift at 7-11 and, every time I snuck out of the house and walked down there, I felt almost like I was intruding on the private lives of these people. I was out and about and observing them at a time when I should have been tucked away like every other suburbanite. No good can come of being awake, outside, and looking to buy a copy of Heavy Metal and a hot dog at 3am.
In my dreams, I am all ages. Sometimes I’m a kid, sometimes not. But they all end with, or somehow incorporate, a walk down Kensington Parkway in the middle of the night, the houses lining the road quiet, traffic nonexistent, even the endless hum of the Beltway absent, or, at least, subdued. I walk and walk, leaving the road and moving through woods and the little neighborhood-built park across the street from 7-11, and I emerge onto the road again and see the shuttered storefronts, the dark shops, all pushed deep into shadow by the glowing storefront of 7-11. The blue-white promise of snacks and distraction. Empty inside, except for a clerk waiting happily at the counter. In my dreams, the clerk is more like Lloyd the Bartender from The Shining. He’s watching me as I approach the store, smiling, welcoming. What can I do for you today, Mr. Torrance? A hot dog? A Slurpee? A candy bar? A can of Jolt Cola?
Hair of the dog that bit me, Lloyd! Make it a box of Mike & Ikes and a Dr. Pepper!
It’s a welcoming feeling, though. There’s a sense of coming home, coupled with a feeling of completion. A long, leisurely, quiet walk that ends with a reward. I always wake up before I go inside, but I know what follows. I’ll pick my meat by-product and sugar poisons and then go outside, perch on a picnic table, and in the night’s silence I’ll be alone with my thoughts. I’ll hammer out my worries and flail against my doubts. A break from the anger and pain at home, the embarrassment and frustrations of school. In the early AM, in a secluded enclave that hides behind locked doors and windows once the sun sets, there was always a feeling of peace. No people, and no threat of people. Just me, and a store clerk who’s gone completely mad.