Suspicion and discontent

Only a few weeks after the ugly, populist right revealed itself, a certain bunker mentality has already surfaced at key locations within the geography of the city.  Where there was warmth, one feels coolness in the air, a little less eye contact, briefer conversations, a sharper tone.  We’ve been burned badly, those of us who practice tolerance and inclusiveness and bend our lives towards mutual sustainability, but this is no time for recriminations or succumbing to the temptation to snip at one another.

We must expand our tolerance even further, and recognize that true inclusiveness really means everybody.  At the same time, there is a subtle upswing in other places too.  Just around the corner from Stardust lies three convenience stores, ostensibly gas pump backdrops.  It’s time to get to know the coffee choices around here, and expand my horizons a bit.

The mood in these colorful, brightly lit stores is upbeat, and it shows how the two different streams of society intermingle within very small spaces of one another.  In the 7-eleven, Rhonda and Lexi posed for the camera, shoulder to shoulder with big grins on their faces. When asked who made the coffee, Rhonda announced “I did!”  Convenience store coffee is good.

Around the corner, Elizabeth briefed me on her complicated coffee system at the National Food Mart. When I asked her for a picture, she shrugged.  “Yeah, sure,” and broke into a sweet, disarming smile.  Lotto, beer, and cigarettes figure big in these places; our small weaknesses are their small profit. For the workers in these stores, there’s a coming-out, a sense of “yeah, well, we’re cool now,” a new position being cautiously assumed.

Is it the surprise, the swift triumph of the unhip, that has suddenly put a bounce in their step?  The uniform-clad cashiers of our vices are happier, a little more hopeful, in these heady days after the election.

It is Stardust which now feels dour and tragic. Avoidance of eye contact was once a game practiced at 7-eleven; now it is practiced at Stardust.  At one time, the scene at Stardust was open, with shouts of greeting and smiles.  A boisterous and diverse crowd kept a gentle, Haight-Asbury vibe going.  It was improvisational, a do-it-yourself kind of culture. John, the retired engineer, mixed with hippie chicks, artists, writers and techies in for a cup and a jam.  DJs and photographers met to plan out a photo shoot.  Salesmen sat with their laptops, looking at their sales leads for the day.  In the evening, kids did their geometry homework; old couples sat and drank wine.  The feel of a public house was rich and was ripe.

This openness is what I love about Stardust, it has a sense of shared ownership and a mutual agreeableness that we are all in it together.  It suits me, as I move in a wide range between laborers and one percenters.  In these days of looking backward at how things went wrong, a veil of grimness seems to separate us now.  Stardust is lately tinged just a bit with the atmosphere of all convenience stores.  It is tinted with the grimness of losers.

This grimness of losers was once the province of convenience store workers, hanging their heads, ringing up gas sales, condoms, smokes.  They knew their place, and it was pretty far down the class system.  Condemned to shapeless, garish uniforms, convenience store workers were the losers, especially in the hip and cool neighborhood of Audubon Park.  Everyone on Corrine Drive outranked the convenience store worker.  The only caste lower than convenience store clerk was possibly convenience store night clerk.

Life at the bottom of the social pyramid was bad enough, but especially the Audubon Park social pyramid, what with its ultra-cool scene of independent record stores, custom beer taps, movie production guys, East End Market, for christ’s sake–a hipster convenience store in drag–and, naturally, it was all anchored by  Stardust Video and Coffee.  For the convenience store clerk in this neighborhood, a special hell was your lot.  High school diploma, if you’re lucky, making nine oh five an hour selling stupid stuff to pretty liberal arts school students, techies wearing glasses that cost six months of your wages, bourgeois bohemians.  It rankled.  You suck.

Back at Stardust, the post-election mortification has given way to the next phase of loser-mentality:  recrimination.  Now, for the first time ever, I’ve been the recipient of green-shaming:  “Where’s your cup today, Richard?” after I asked for a coffee and committed the green sin of not bringing in my own reusable mug (the top wouldn’t come off that morning so I left it at home).  This never used to happen at Stardust, where they are usually happy to sell you a disposable cup.  The barista, however, got a little dig in that morning, fingering me as the Other.

I do not have to prove to anyone that I am not the Other.  That charge just won’t stick.  It’s a symptom of being a loser, possibly, to accuse:  fingerpoint at someone, label them as Other, and sulk.  During my day, I sit at a desk and think about those all around me in a modern, white-collar office, and how good we all have it:  still, for many, the sense that it just isn’t good enough caused people to send a signal in the voting booth.

People are tired of being the unhip, the uncool; people who are green-shamed are tired of it.  Enough is enough.   So this bunker mentality has taken over at Stardust, and places like it as well.  The wagons are circled, and anyone who isn’t inside the ring is the Other. Greener than thou, my sister and brother; we know who we are and we know who you are.

This is not the road to inclusiveness, and perhaps the “in-crowd” at Stardust never was very inclusive to begin with.  If you want to see real people of color, go into the unhip convenience stores all around.  African-American, Asian-American, and Latina-American.  Inclusiveness means a society where all of our people, even the convenience store clerks, are included.

At Stardust, one could easily convince oneself of being in surroundings of openness and diversity.  This bubble of comfort sadly diverged from reality.  Outside the bubble, the Lexis and  Rhondas and Elizabeths have finally gotten a break.  The bubble they were decidedly NOT inside of has burst.

So I’m taking a break from the hip and the cool, and creating my own hip and cool with people in 7-eleven, National Food Mart, and Shell.  I frequent these places often, for they have things that I need:  gas, air, vacuum, batteries, aspirin. Stardust offers nothing practical like that anyway.  I’ve already introduced myself to a few of the clerks, and found them to be very nice.  I haven’t been subjected to green-shaming, and probably won’t be.  They’re professional, they make it snappy, and they smile.  I’m enjoying getting out of my comfort zone and creating a zone of inclusivity that’s larger.

It is weak and incorrect to circle the wagons and point fingers at The Other and continue this divisiveness that has caused such a big warfare in our hardened, weary society.  It is the sure road to further isolation and loss.  The secret is that there really are no losers and winners, and to act like there are just makes more.  Instead, acting like we are all people with lives, with our own aspirations and fears, is a more interesting road to travel.  This is not about populist politics or presidents; rather, it is about the need to re-invent the concept of a society where everyone wins.