Argyle Convenient Store sits on a prominent corner atop a hill in Washington D.C.’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. Across the street is a yoga center — with the cute title, “Past Tense” — a liquor store that displays a broken bottle from the August earthquake, a dry cleaner, and an alley that serves as a hideaway for drunks. From this position, where three roads converge and pedestrians are at times stranded on a traffic island at their confluence, the view down the gentle slope is one of the best in DC. At the horizon are the steeples and domes of various historic churches and basilicas, the flags of various countries riding high atop their embassy buildings, and the distant black shapes of planes arcing away from Reagan Airport across the Potomac River. On days when a wind picks up and the clouds rush across the sky, the activity is captivating.
Argyle Convenient Store is true to its name. For many residents of this DC neighborhood, Argyle serves as a suitable substitute for on-demand items — soap, toilet paper, tortilla chips, beer, etc. — that do not justify a 15-minute walk to the Giant — another suitable name for the chain grocer that serves the greater Columbia Heights area for most comestibles. This past week I found myself in Argyle’s three-aisled corner store five times, with each trip necessitated to complement an earlier purchase: there was a can of coke to be paired with some fried rice; a bag of tortilla chips to serve as a bed for a bag of shredded Mexican cheese; a candle to enhance the mood of viewing an adorable indie film; an oversized can of beans, so wide and massive that it necessitated its own bag; and my most recent trip, on Sunday morning, to avoid wiping my ass with floral-patterned Bounty paper towels, I purchased a family pack of Charmin toilet paper.
Sunday morning is a peaceful time to visit Argyle, as the store is empty and the chip carousel has been refreshed with all options available. The day is new, my stomach empty, and all items in the store look appealing. Toilet paper is a common enough purchase not to agonize over the accompanying items on the bill. But like purchasing condoms, anything presented at the counter presumes a greater consonance. This was in my mind I as I entered the store.
I walked to the toilet paper, located at the back of the store by the ATM and rodent control apparati, grabbed a family bag of double rolls and wandered the aisles in search of something snackable. Argyle is much like a grocery store in a third world country. There is almost every canned food available but not much competition. If you want pasta, you get spaghetti. If you want pasta sauce, you get traditional red sauce. This seemingly communist enterprise eliminates indecision for anything that could be considered a meal. Luckily for me, and just like in third world grocers, 85 percent of the food in the store is either freezer-bound or courtesy of Frito-Lay. If a fifteen-year-old boy who stayed in his basement most weekend nights were asked to start a grocery store, Argyle Convenient Store would be close to his chips, cookies, soda, frozen pizza, and Gatorade dream. Argyle has beer too, which changes things.
At times, usually past ten o’clock, the store keeps some interesting company — and yes, “interesting” is a euphemism for drunk. And not some fun, munchie-craving drunk, but more of the “fall asleep on top of the ice cream sandwich freezer with a recently opened tall boy of Icehouse” kind of drunk. On multiple occasions, I have watched a man scream at the New York Times front page and fall out the door simultaneously. And yet, the owners, a man who displays himself on Budweiser banners holding beer and flashing a thumbs up by various DC memorials and a woman who wears early-90s college apparel — think Dennis Erickson’s University of Miami football teams ‑ are surprisingly forgiving and collegial with this part of their clientele. It doesn’t take much to bring a man outside your store when his body is already stretched across the entranceway, so perhaps they are adept dead-lifters.
This morning, there’s a guy in his twenties piling Vitamin Waters into the cradle of his arms and a woman examining different bags of cookies by the front counter. Being in small confines while others shop is always unnerving, as the decision making process feels observed and analyzed. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes in the chip aisle at a convenience store has felt the assumed gaze of the attendant and other shoppers as chips are taken in hand, put back; personal mood, time of day, and flavor are analyzed for compatibility, with this cycle repeating until the whole selection process becomes so unpleasant that ultimately selecting a bag of chips is now a process of survival and a restoration of trust on the part of the consumer. Today is no different. While holding the toilet paper bag by two hooked fingers under the plastic packaging, I consider the merits of Salt n’ Vinegar chips versus Carolina BBQ. Both are UTZ brand potato chips and rank as consensus “top chips” depending on mood and stomach vacancy. SnVs are generally a complimentary chip, while Carolina BBQs are more of a main course chip, something that one could justify as a complete meal with appropriate servings of BBQ dust and evaporated vinegar. Thankfully, a clear head brought decisiveness and Carolina BBQ was deemed an appropriate chip to consume at 10am on a Sunday.
The counter at Argyle is above chest height, so that any item purchased emerges from under the plane of the counter and involuntarily feels like throwing a saddle on a tall horse. This is especially applicable to larger items like toilet paper, beer, and oversized cans of beans. Nine rolls of toilet paper and chips before noon — though I’m not sure the earliest, culturally-agreed-upon time to eat a chip is — are my provisions. Regardless, when my items are displayed, the woman, wearing a purple and gold University of Washington t-shirt that looks like it was designed by a man who is taking another stab at cursive, eyes the items, snickers a little, and tells me a story about a baby girl found in the wreckage of a tornado. She has the radio tuned to the news but it all sounds like buzzes and whistles. She continues on about how the baby’s name is Angel, and we both agree that “religious-types” will make this something more than it should be. Most Sundays, this woman is working, and her views on Republicans, local sports teams, and now, the Bible Belt, are many and passionate. Not being one to cut someone off, I have spent more time lingering at the counter than at other stores, specifically The Giant, the aforementioned chain grocer, where the automatons in purple polo shirts asking me “Did you find everything OK?” are at times shocked when I do not reply with “yes” and play my part as complacent shopper. The sadness of large chain grocery stores and the accompanying mandated greetings has been vivisected by better writers so I’ll leave it there.
Argyle Convenient Store closes at 1am, opens five hours later, and serves a community that needs chips at 10am on a Sunday, soft toilet paper in a pinch, and beer at, apparently, any hour of the day. As I walked out the store that Sunday, there was a man walking around the corner who took a look at my toilet paper and saluted, and I’m glad he did.
- Pat Mohr