Looking Forward, With Better Cheer


Among many urbanites, a certain bunker mentality has already surfaced at key locations within the geography of the city.  Here in Orlando, places like the Stardust Video and Coffee where once there was warmth, one feels coolness in the air, a little less eye contact, briefer conversations, a sharper tone. For many who practice tolerance and inclusiveness, and bend our lives towards mutual sustainability, this was a temporary setback.  But this is no time for recriminations or succumbing to the temptation to snip at one another.  It is a time to look forward, with better cheer.

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.

Lotto, beer, and cigarettes figure big in these places; our small weaknesses are also their small profit. The mood in these colorful, brightly lit stores is upbeat, and it shows how the two different streams of society intermingle within very small distances.  

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 surprisingly good here.  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.  

For the workers in these stores, there's a coming-out, a sense of "yeah, well, we're cool too," a new posture being tried.  Is it the surprise, the swift triumph of the unhip, that has suddenly put a bounce in their step?  The cashiers of our vices are happier, a little more hopeful, these days, a little less grim and underclass.

It is now the formerly hip Stardust which now feels dour and tragic. Avoidance of eye contact was once a game practiced at the convenience store; now it is practiced at this cluttered countertop.  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, a 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 while older couples sat and drank wine.  An ancient, timeless public house feel 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 very wide range between laborers, the very wealthy, plumbers and professors.  

In these days of looking backward, a veil of grimness seems to separate the hip and the cool for now.  Stardust is lately tinged just a bit with the atmosphere of all convenience stores.  It is tinted with the grimness of outcasts.

This grimness of outcasts 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 bottom, especially in the chic 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 liberal arts school students, techies wearing glasses that cost six months of your wages, bourgeois bohemians. It rankled. You sucked.

Back at Stardust, the post-election mortification has given way to the next phase of outsider-mentality:  recrimination.  Now, for the first time ever, I hear green-shaming: "Where's your cup today?" after a patron asked for a coffee and committed the green sin of not bringing in his own reusable mug. 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 that I am not the Other.  That charge just won't stick.  It's a symptom of feeling like an outcast, possibly, to accuse someone, label them as Other, and sulk.  During my day, I 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 things just weren’t good enough probably caused people to send a signal in the voting booth.   

Perhaps here’s a lesson to this election, which has unnerved liberals and hipsters to their core. You cannot turn many, if not most, Americans into “the Other.” This is not the road to inclusiveness; 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 comfortable surroundings of openness and diversity.  This bubble of comfort sadly diverged from reality.  Outside the bubble, the Lexis and Rhondas and Elizabeths have gotten a break.  They were decidedly NOT in this bubble.  It has finally burst.

So what? 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, and aspirin. Stardust offers nothing practical like that anyway.  I've already introduced myself to a few of the other 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.

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.  This 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 our own aspirations and difficulties is a harder, but far 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.

Richard Reep is an architect with VOA Associates, Inc. who has designed award-winning urban mixed-use and hospitality projects. His work has been featured domestically and internationally for the last thirty years. An Adjunct Professor for the Environmental and Growth Studies Department at Rollins College, he teaches urban design and sustainable development; he is also president of the Orlando Foundation for Architecture. Reep resides in Winter Park, Florida with his family.

Photo by Doxvoom - Own work, CC BY 2.5, Link