Despite my fitness goals, I often succumb to the allure and false salvation of gas station coffee. Though Starbucks and Pete’s have an obvious chokehold on the nation’s young entrepreneurs, software writers, thinkers, and artistic wannabes, myself and America’s other simpletons are still taking our morning fix at the Arco station, and for a much better price. The Arco coffee experience is the social antithesis of the activities which resonate at those snobbish establishments from the northwest. The Arco coffee experience is more pure, more exciting, and though sometimes combative, profoundly ritualistic.
At the convenience store your coffee dollar is much stronger, but your choices are more limited. You can’t be swayed by long partitions of beveled glass cases boasting a drab rainbow of glossy black and brown beans. At Arco you won’t breathe the potent aroma of freshly roasted beans, hand picked by dedicated Bolivian villagers and packed out of the high jungle on dangerous roads by wobbly burros. Hell, at the Arco it probably isn’t even real coffee. There are no shakers of Viennese cinnamon, nor little round tables hosting repressed bookworms with Whitman in one hand and a crumbly scone in the other as their WiFi hums through their Macbook.
At the Arco station, little creamers in tiny cupettes are at the heart of the thing. Actually it’s more of a synthetic cream-like substitute; a non-dairy product which holds up well in the extreme heat of the convenience store coffee thermoses. I don’t actually count the calories from these creamers as – being made of plastic solids and plutonium, they are probably never digested and just cycle through my system endlessly trying to exit through my pours.
The coffee thermoses at the Arco are designed to keep coffee at temperatures of nearly 2,364 degrees. This temperature is just right for most, but some crusty contractors and bourbon-bound salesmen are often seen heating it up a bit more in the microwave oven for good measure. The little creamers are more syrupy than creamy, and are sometimes difficult to open. They come in a variety of flavors including; Mocha, Swiss Chocolate, Irish Hazelnut and the trademarked Amaretto and Kahlua. The best ones, the Amaretto an the Kahlua, are always in short supply.
In most Arco locations there exists a coffee assembly station on stainless steel counters which are also host to the Sara Lee muffin carousel. It is sometimes crowded at the counter, and always competitive during the heat of the morning rush. People become aggressive as they position for a clear space on the counter, and the last of the Kahlua creamers. Today, a groggy business man with messy morning hair, bad breath and an untied necktie attempted to brush me back by stabbing at my hand with a red stirrer stick. I stood my ground though because to do so shows dominance in the arena, and people will be less likely to cut in as I take my time emptying 8 or 9 of the 1 oz. creamers into my 20 oz. foam cup.
After the creamer is loaded into the cup, I face the difficult decision of selecting my artificial sweetening component; Nutra Sweet or Saccharine. The scientific community and my mother tell me that with Nutra Sweet I run the risk of extensive memory loss, and with Saccharine I run the risk of cancer. I most often choose to blend the two in equal balance – operating under the assumption that if the Saccharine causes me cancer, the Nutra Sweet will help me forget about it. Sugar is available too, but nobody uses it for reasons of health – after all, this is California.
There is a comfort zone for me at the Arco station right here in Bonsall which have never found at a Starbucks or Pete’s. I run into the same faces every morning, and though we may sometimes battle it out at the stainless steel counter, we always acknowledge one another’s presence and share a dose of small talk with the former meth addict ex-stripper who’s bruised and tattooed arms run the cash register.
Everyone says good morning to one another, and everyone is sincere about it. Should I reach for my 24e oz. coffee cup in vain, I know just where to look to replenish the supply; experience has even taught me how many cups will fit into the dispenser. I show my respect for the whole process by always taking care to use the damp towel left on the counter to wipe off the sticky residue which builds from the spills of cream and sweetener. The girl behind the register will always nod in acknowledgement when seeing me do so. “Just doing my part” I say.
Soon I will be in my car clipping home again, with a bounce in my step and smile on my face. Like all people, I long to be accepted – to be one of the beautiful at Starbucks. But I know I will never fit in there, and am not willing to pay their price even if I could. If not loved, I am at least known at the Arco station. From this I learn that having a place in life is good; accepting it is beautiful. Be well.