Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Small World - The Morrison House Hotel Short Fiction Contest

Our writer's group was contacted recently by a young woman at the Morrison House Hotel, a small boutique hotel in Old Town Alexandria. She was looking for submissions for a short story contest. The entries were to mention the hotel somewhere, winners would be published in a book that will be distributed throughout the hotel. A few people in our group entered. Below is my entry - I wrote a new story with two characters from other stories. Enjoy. Or don't.

Small World

by Michael Klein

Thaddeus Jackson, Jr. was more accustomed to amusing himself quietly than most nine year olds. He invented games, contests, and even little plays, most of which ran their course entirely in his head. He used these events not only to overcome the crushing boredom his life had become of late, but also to distract him from that other emotion he felt pulse at him from time to time – the sense of dread that something was very, very wrong with his life.

He particularly felt the dread when the topic of his mother came up. And when he was alone with his father. These two situations were inter-related, but exactly how, Thad wasn’t sure. It had something to do with what many of the adults called “irony.”

His mother had become what seemed to be permanently “incapacitated” – that was the term the adults used when Thad was within ear shot. As a result, Thad had to spend more time with his father. This included fairly frequent train trips – to Chicago, to New York, and most frequently, to Washington, DC. While on the surface this sounds exciting, in fact, this was where the aforementioned boredom came in. The train rides were long, and when finally at their destination, Thad’s father was in meetings; Thad either sat in the hotel room amusing himself, or worse, sat in a chair in a hallway outside a meeting room in some non-descript government building.

Thad’s father, Thaddeus Jackson, Sr., worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Atlanta. He didn’t talk much to Thad about his work, but Thad had heard enough around the neighborhood and picked up bits and pieces from listening to his father and his work companions to know that his father was a pretty important.

The senior Thaddeus had made a name for himself a few years back fighting people called “opium peddlers,” whatever they were. Thad’s father had testified before the U.S. Congress and even spoke at the League of Nations a few times about “The Epidemic,” whatever that was.
The League had sent Thad’s father to Europe to chase down a certain criminal – a gangster with a funny name that Thad could never recall. That was a long trip as the lawman chased the bad guy through England, France, and all the way to China, before coming home. It was while Thad’s father was in China that his mother took ill. And ever since then, Thad’s father refused all assignments that would send him overseas and took young Thad with him on every trip that would last longer than one night.

So it was that young Thad was up before the sun in a quiet, small, yet elegantly-appointed hotel room in a city just outside Washington, DC, amusing himself. The city was Alexandria, Virginia and the hotel was The Morrison House Hotel. This morning’s amusement was Rain Races.

The Rain Races were a diversion he invented on a trip to Chicago the previous year. On that trip, his father had several important meetings, including one with a man who was either his father’s boss, or had invented the vacuum cleaner, Thad wasn’t certain which. Thad was holed up in his hotel room for long stretches that time – the hotel was The Drake, a nice modern hotel with a big room, but too much big clunky furniture. One of the secretaries who looked in on Thad called it “gaudy,” not that Thad knew what that meant. All Thad knew was there was so much furniture in the room he couldn’t play “Pillow Ball” and he needed to come up with something new. It was raining that day – that week, actually – and the great wind for which the city was famous whipped around the massive hotel, rattling the windows and driving rain hard into the building. Rain drops on the windows were shoved this way and that by the wind, creating interesting patterns and finally, Thad noticed, a kind of race track. And so were The Rain Races born.

And now, in Alexandria, he knew from the moment he woke up this morning that it was going to be a great day for Rain Races. As he lay there silently in his cot, listening to his father’s rhythmic breathing, he could hear the rain delicately pummeling the windows, but he heard no wind. When there was no wind the races took longer, but there was more skill involved in predicting winners. Today was going to be about gravity, rain drop size, the path the drops would follow, and what happened when rain drops collided.

Thad was just settling into the wing-backed chair he dragged over to the window when his father began to stir.

“Good morning, father,” Thad said with the reserved enthusiasm his father had come to expect on these trips.

“Morning,” replied his father with the efficient economy of words Thad had come to expect.
“Raining today,” said Thad, turning back to his races.

Agent Jackson took in this information, thought about it’s implication to his day, realized there wasn’t one.
“Meeting is here. The hotel. Need you to go downstairs.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll get dressed,” said the future Agent Jackson, abandoning his races and using the indentations in the plush carpeting to return the chair to its rightful spot facing into the room.

Twenty minutes later one Thaddeus Jackson was in the shower and another, smaller Thaddeus Jackson was stepping off the elevator into the lobby of the hotel holding a small satchel.
“Stay dry, Master Jackson,” said the elevator operator.
Thad implied he would with a smile and dip of his head.
The large doorman rose from his seat near the only slightly larger front door and placed one immense gloved hand on his cap and the other on the door handle. He froze like that, professionally eyeing the young guest’s movements, judging whether he would go right towards the dining room, left towards the library, forward and left into the drawing room, or straight out the door.
Drawing room, he thought.
Thad slowed to a stop and surveyed his options, considering: food, books, fireplace, or rain. He decided the drawing room was as good a place as any to settle in. He could look out the window to the alley in front of the hotel, perhaps continuing his Rain Races, he could keep an eye on the front door to see when his father’s appointment showed up, and more interestingly, left. And he could warm up by the fire he heard crackling around the corner.

Thad was intrigued by fireplaces. While homes in Atlanta had them, there was rarely any call for their use, so whenever his father’s travels took him north, Thad always tried to spend as much time in front of a fireplace as possible. Today was a perfect fireplace day, so into the drawing room went Thad, and the doorman made a mental note of his correctly reading the young guest. Eight for eight this morning, he noted with pride.

Thad quickly settled into a sofa near the fire, opened his satchel, and pulled out the latest Detective Comics his father had bought for him at Atlanta’s Union Station. He carefully found where he had left off in the latest adventures of Slam Bradley and Shorty Morgan and began reading.

Approximately four pages later Thad’s reading was disturbed by a blast of cold air swirling into the room from the open front door. The doorman held onto his cap and made a welcoming motion to the three thin men in grey suits and black overcoats who hurried in out of the rain.
“Good morning, gentleman,” the doorman offered. “Welcome to the Morrison House Hotel. May I take your—“
“No,” said the shortest one, quickly glancing around the small lobby.
“We’ll hang on to them,” said the tall one, slightly more polite than his companion.
The man who was neither tall nor short, but rather could pass himself off as both or neither, depending on what the situation called for, said nothing. He looked into the drawing room, spotted Thad, and elbowed the short man, jerking his head towards the young Jackson.

Suddenly the short man warmed, but only slightly. “Hey there, Thaddeus. Did you have a good trip? Is your dad upstairs? Is he ready for us? Okay, great, we’ll see you later, sport.” Without waiting for a single answer, or even any acknowledgement, he led his colleagues towards and in to the elevator.

Thad wondered how long they would be with his father. He wondered what they were talking about. New opium peddlers? Gangsters? The war his father thought the Nazis were going to start in Europe? Some new assignment? Perhaps moving his father to a different office? Here in Washington? Someplace new?

As Thad thought about what moving from the only home he had ever known entailed, he lost interest in his comic book. He even lost interest in the fire that had drawn him into the room, turning his back on it and wedging himself into the corner of the sofa, staring off towards the library. How long he stared at the door jamb he isn’t certain (it was two and half minutes), but finally the chess set on the table to his right caught his eye.

There seemed to be a game in progress, but there was nobody in the room. Thad slowly reached out to one of the pieces – an ornately carved, majestic-looking horse head.

“Don’t touch that,” said a young but authoritative girl’s voice, adding, “please,” much less harshly.

Thad jerked his arm back and looked around – he was still alone in the room. Then he heard the floor creak near the library and looked over as a young girl, (she was actually almost five years his senior, but anyone not a bona fide adult on these trips counted as a kid to Thad), walked into the sitting room.

“You didn’t move any pieces did you,” she asked him, inspecting the game board. “I’m in the middle of a game with Chef.”

Thad hadn’t moved any pieces, but he couldn’t find words to answer, so surprised was he to see someone close to his own age in the hotel. The girl finished her inspection of the board, was satisfied the game was not altered, and then realized he hadn’t answered her. She cocked her head at him and carefully sized him up.

“Do you speak English,” she asked with genuine curiosity.

Thad sputtered a “yes, ma’am.”

“Ma’am? How old are you? Nine? Ten? I’m only fourteen. No need to ‘ma’am’ me. I’m Elizabeth Rosen from New York,” she said, extending a hand which Thad took and shook limply.
“Thad Jackson. Atlanta, Georgia. Nine years old.”

“Mind if I join you,” Elizabeth asked as she rounded Thad’s sofa and positioned herself near the facing one, waiting for an invitation to sit.

“Please,” said Thad, finally remembering his manners and rising while Elizabeth sat.

“How long are you here for, Thad?”

“I don’t know. My father’s here on business. I go with him on his trips.”

“Good luck charm?”

Thad doesn’t understand the question, so he pretends not to have heard it as he slips his comic book back into the satchel.

“Are you his good luck charm? In business. I mean, why does he take you on business trips,” she clarifies.

“Oh, um, no. There’s nobody for me to stay with at home. So…I go.”

Elizabeth, being a child mature well beyond her years even before her recent adventures with her father had aged her greatly, senses a fair amount of complexity and pain in young Thad’s answer. She decides to quickly offer him support and then change the subject.

“I don’t have a mother either. So who were those men who went upstairs to see your father? What’s he do?”

Thad is reeling from her statement and questions. She doesn’t have a mother either? What did she mean by that? He has a mother. Kind of. And how did she know the men were going to see his father? This girl was not like anyone he knew back home. (To be fair to young Thad, Elizabeth Rosen was not like any girl anyone knew anywhere. She was, as earlier stated, mature beyond her years, very perceptive and resourceful, and coming off quite a trip with her father that had taken her through Europe and Egypt, exposed her to the glamour of Old World royalty and the hideousness of fascism. But that is Elizabeth’s story. This is Thad’s.)

“He works for the government. The FBI.”

“Ooh, a G-man,” said Elizabeth, actually impressed. Then something hits her. “Wait a second, you’re name is Thad?”

A nod.

“Is that short for anything?”


“What’s your father’s name?”

“Thaddeus. Thaddeus Jackson, Senior.”

Elizabeth smiles broadly and snaps her fingers several times. She jumps up and comes over to Thad’s sofa. “I know your father!”

Thad is taken aback at the news. How could this girl know his father?

“I mean, I’ve never met him. But I heard all about him. He hunted down Yasha Katzenberg. Chased him all the way to China,” she explained proudly.

“I guess so,” said Thad, now even more confused that she knew the funny name of the gangster he could never remember.

Elizabeth stares at Thad and smiles. She’s found a kindred spirit in Thad. A young world traveler, just like her.

“What was China like,” she asks. “I’ve never been, but I would like to go. Though I don’t guess now is such a good time, what with Hirohito marching all over the place.”

Thad’s confusion deepens. “I’ve never been to China.”

Elizabeth is pulled out of her reverie and looks at him confused.

“I go with my dad around here. But I’ve never been to…places like that.”
“Oh,” said the deflated girl.

“Have you been to New York,” she asks, trying to salvage what she hoped would be a fun morning of swapping travel stories.

Thad nods and Elizabeth smiles.

“Have you ever been to the Waldorf=Astoria hotel?”

“I think so.”

“If you only ‘think so’ I don’t think you were there. It’s the nicest hotel in the city,” she explained. “You would know if you were there.”

“Oh. Then I guess not.”

“What was your favorite thing you did in New York?”

Thad doesn’t have to think very long. “I went to a Dodgers game with my father. We ate hot dogs.”

“Fun,” Elizabeth offered, not thinking it sounded fun at all.

Thad broke the silence before it became too awkward to break. “How do you know about my father?”

“He’s famous in Europe. Well, not famous like a movie star. But in the circles my father and I were traveling in – well, some of the circles – he’s well known.”

“What do you mean, ‘some’?”

Elizabeth recalled something someone in a Copenhagen cafĂ© had said about Thad’s father, about his grim determination and unflagging pursuit of justice. She decided that if the boy was anything like the father, as she was like hers, she should skip over the more morally ambiguous parts of the story: how the father’s break-up of Yasha Katzenberg’s network had almost cost Elizabeth and her father their lives when they found themselves in a tight spot in Hamburg just two months ago.

Elizabeth looked Thad up and down and decided, yes, this kid would run to his father if she told him everything she knew about his father and Yasha’s surviving network.

“My father knows lots of people…involved…in law enforcement. Most of them know your father; they still talk about him.”

“What do they say?”

Elizabeth didn’t want to answer, nor did she want to be rude, so she did what her father taught her to do. She waited for an opportunity to present itself. She looked thoughtfully at a point above Thad’s head, as if trying to recall something somebody said about his father, but in reality merely waiting.

And then a porter came into the room carrying an armload of wood. He knelt down in front of the fireplace and began stacking the wood on the small pile, adding two logs to the fire.

“John, would you remind Chef it’s his move,” Elizabeth said to the porter, jerking a thumb towards the chess board.

“Of course, Miss Rosen. Right away.”

“Do you play, Thad?”


“Come, I’ll show you,” she said, rising and extending her hand.

And like so many before him and an innumerable number after him, Thad had been manipulated by Elizabeth. Like she had done a few weeks ago to the pickpocket in the original Alexandria, or to the police captain a few weeks before that in Budapest, or numerous times in the days leading up to that as she and her father criss-crossed Germany, staying two steps ahead of the Nazis. But as has previously been mentioned, that is her story. This is Thad’s.
Thad, who spent the next hour learning about chess, although he forgot almost everything by the time his train slid south out of Alexandria a week later.

Thad, who taught Elizabeth about Rain Races later that morning, (and won their tournament 11-10).

Thad, who tried (unsuccessfully) to get more information about his father from the confident and worldly Elizabeth Rosen.

Thad, who ate with Elizabeth in the hotel dining room four times that week, including one time eating in the kitchen itself with Elizabeth’s friend, Chef, (as those were the stakes of the chess match which the girl won handily).

Thad, who played cards in the library with Elizabeth where she taught him several new games, all of which involved gambling, none of which Thad’s father would approve of.

Thad, who one day twenty-two years from that week would run into Elizabeth again, under different circumstances, on a different continent – him an FBI agent, her…not. But that is neither his story, nor hers. It is theirs.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Vital Contractors Association Turns 30, Earned Respect From All

I wrote this for a client, the Minnesota Utility Contractors Association, as the group celebrates its 30th anniversary. It will be published in the group's magazine this summer, and was also distributed to newspapers in Minnesota and western Wisconsin.


Vital Contractors Association Turns 30, Earned Respect From All
by Michael Klein

Few would argue that clean drinking water and a sanitary sewage system are among the most important public health advances in modern times. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control identified “clean water and improved sanitation” as one of the top ten public health advances ever. A 2004 report from Harvard University, “The Role of Public Health Improvements in Health Advances: The 20th Century United States,” concurred: “[c]lean water technologies are likely the most important public health intervention of the 20th Century…responsible for nearly half of the total mortality reduction in major cities, three-quarters of the infant mortality reduction, and nearly two-thirds of the child mortality reduction.”

Underground contractors are vital in making this contribution, and yet the role they play is often taken for granted.

“When you have no water and sewer service at your home, it becomes a crisis, but you really don’t think about it until that happens,” said Bruce Lillehei, President of the Minnesota Utility Contractors Association (MUCA) and Risk Manager for Collisys in New Hope. “Once you restore the top [of a job site]…and there is a new road, or a sidewalk, or new seed and sod has taken, [people] quickly forget what is in place under the ground,” explained Lillehei. “That’s part of the challenge we face, we are a very quiet infrastructure, until there is a failure, then all of a sudden we are a big infrastructure.”

Indeed, utility contractors keep our communities healthy and vibrant, ensuring we all have clean and safe drinking water whenever we need it, and that we continue to be safely and efficiently served by other utilities as well. Keeping up with growth, emergency repairs, and regularly scheduled maintenance can be a twenty-four hour a day job.

Groups like MUCA exist to make sure our underground infrastructure doesn’t suffer from an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. MUCA uses education and consensus building to encourage local government to keep up with infrastructure repairs and replacement – trying to avoid catastrophic failures that will be more costly to fix and more disruptive to citizens.

MUCA will soon celebrate its thirtieth anniversary, and while the organization has been a boon for contractors, citizens, and communities, the group was originally borne out of conflict.

Utility contractors have always had a complex relationship with engineers. The two professions are distinct, but co-dependent: engineers design public projects, and then ask the contracting community to bid on the work and eventually execute the plans. For the most part, the engineering community and the contracting community get along just fine and we have the vital public services we need and depend on. But that wasn’t always the case.

“We decided to organize some contractors to address the irresponsibility of some of the engineers in the way they wrote specs,” remembered Tom Schany, Chairman of the Board of Directors and Past President of Northdale Construction of Rogers and one of the founding officers of MUCA. “The jobs ended up being impossible to do or guarantee. A group of us contractors got to talking and we all found we had the same complaints. But we couldn’t get the engineers to listen, we were like voices crying out in the wilderness.”

Until they joined forces to speak with one voice.

Initially consisting of about eight sewer and water contracting companies and with a part-time executive director, MUCA was born. And while some in the engineering community weren’t pleased at first, the group quickly earned the respect of the contracting and engineering community through common sense approaches to issues, a dedication to fair and honest bidding, and continuing education and training.

The group has grown now to encompass more than 140 members consisting of electrical, sewer and water, and tunneling contractors, and other professionals that service the industry and is one of the most active state chapters of the National Utility Contractors Association, based outside Washington, DC.

And the notion that there is strength in numbers holds as true today as it did thirty years ago. "Our industry has changed tremendously over the last three decades,” said Executive Director DeAnn Stish. “New technologies have come on board that have greatly expanded the number of companies that would benefit from becoming a MUCA member, but these technologies have, in some cases, complicated the legislative and regulatory playing field. I’m trying to help grow our membership to include these new technologies so MUCA can be even more effective as the leading voice for the contracting community.”

As with any trade association, MUCA puts members first, but given the crucial role the members play in our communities, Ms. Stish believes literally everyone benefits from her group’s efforts.

“Our main goal as an association today is to ensure a vibrant industry,” said Stish. “To achieve this we need a strong, educated workforce, but also projects. The downturn in the housing market has had a negative impact on the trench side of the industry, and gas prices and onerous regulations are squeezing everybody. We try to encourage Federal and State investment in infrastructure because it helps our industry, but at the end of the day, these are critical services for our communities.”

Another focus of the group, and a major success is safety training. “It’s not enough to ensure there is work to be done,” added Stish. “You want the work to be done right and safely. Safe for the community and safe for the workers.”

MUCA’s safety training programs were a key to the group gaining the respect and admiration of legislators, regulators, and the engineering community, and more than 1,200 contractors have gone through the programs.

“The training programs definitely contribute to our credibility,” said Mike Robertson, MUCA’s chief lobbyist for more than a decade. “I think also being able to work with people you sometimes disagree with and being able to come forward with descriptions of problems is important. You need to try to understand what the other stakeholders’ point of view is and come forward with solutions to try to resolve problems—that’s how MUCA does things, and that’s why we have credibility in the system.”

Solving problems before they become a crisis. It’s a goal of the men and women of MUCA. As you walk out of your home, or drive to your office, try to remember all the complex and vital infrastructure that’s just below your feet, that you maybe can’t see, but if you stopped to think about it, you wouldn’t want to live without. And remember the groups like MUCA that work with the Federal and State governments to ensure repairs and maintenance to this infrastructure are done on time, safely, and efficiently.

For more information on the Minnesota Utility Contractors Association visit them on the web at www.muca.org.

1,123 words

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

From Real Life to Reel Life

This is the cover story I wrote for the July issue of NACS Magazine. NACS is the National Association of Convenience Store Retailers, thus the genesis of this article: "How is the convenience and gas station industry portrayed in the movies and on television.
We had hoped to interview Matt Groening about The Simpsons, particularly the upcoming movie. The film recently announced a tie-in with 7-Eleven where they would retrofit some stores to resemble Kwik-E-Marts. I got no comment from The Simpsons crew - actually, that implies they got back to me to say they weren't going to get back to me. More accurate to say I was completely ignored by The Simpsons people, but I did get to talk to some very interesting people.
The text below is reprinted with permission from NACS, but I couldn't get the rights to the photos they used. I also wrote two side-bars for the magazine, but I'm leaving them out here. Let me know if you want to see them.
For more information about NACS, the association for convenience and petroleum retailing, including retailer or supplier membership or subscription information for NACS Magazine, please go to www.nacsonline.com or contact NACS at (703) 684-3600.

And now, the article...

From Real Life to Reel Life

By Michael Klein

“Drama is life, with the dull bits cut out,” once offered master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock kept audiences on the edge of their seats through more than 50 feature films and almost 60 episodes of his popular television series because he knew exactly how to keep audiences intrigued—he knew a dull bit when he saw it and he cut it.

To most writers and filmmakers, “dull bits” would probably include things like pumping gas and shopping for groceries, and yet gas stations and convenience stores appear in countless movies and television shows.

Even Hitch used one himself at least once. I remember feeling anxious for years every time my parents stopped for gas because I was afraid birds were going to attack my father, causing him to drop the gas hose, leading to a fire and explosion. (It happened in Hitchcock’s 1963 movie The Birds, in case you hadn’t figured it out.)

So if refueling your car and your body are dull, why do we see it so often in films?

Kevin Smith’s Clerks was set almost entirely in (and on) a convenience store. But there’s not a lot of mystery surrounding this choice; Smith had worked in several convenience stores while growing up in New Jersey, including the actual Quick Stop where his movie was filmed. When Smith dropped out of film school after four months to put his tuition to better use-- making a film--he looked around for something he could make his film about.

In the documentary, Snowball Effect: The Story of ‘Clerks’ Smith explains, “I had read an interview with [independent filmmaker Robert Rodriguez] where he said the best way to go about making your first film is to take stock of what you have. In this interview he said, ‘I knew I had access to a bus, I knew I had access to a guitar, and I had a turtle. So right away I knew I was putting those things in my movie [El Mariachi].’ So I was like, I’ve got access to a convenience store. And I know that world, because that’s all I’d ever really done. So I said I’m going to use the convenience store as a backdrop to a movie about people sitting around and talking,”

And talk they do. For 92 minutes the clerks swear and talk about sex in front of the customers, they ridicule and chase customers away, and one of them even sells cigarettes to a five-year-old. Not model employees. But the film is not actually critical of the convenience industry; it’s more an examination of these young people who work in the store.

“It’s really about those guys,” comedian Chris Rock told NACS Magazine. “If [Kevin Smith] had made that movie 20 years earlier those guys would have been working in a bar, you know? It’s just a setting. All you need with a setting pretty much is a revolving door — a situation where people come in. So a convenience store is probably better than the cockpit of a plane…no strangers coming in. Better than if you are on the space shuttle. Two guys on the space shuttle? Nobody’s coming in.”

Rock wrote, directed, and starred in 2003’s Head of State, which featured a gas station convenience store. Rock’s character, an improbable candidate for President of the United States, meets his love interest, Tamala Jones, while she works at the store. But according to Rock, not a lot of thought went into the choice.

“We thought, okay, he’s got to meet her somewhere — a place that is always open. [The gas station-convenience store] just seemed like a good spot.”

Many convenience stores are open 24 hours a day and attract a lot of customers, but that can be both a blessing and a curse for the industry’s portrayal on film.

The Blessing of a High Traffic Location

On one hand, having a store that is always open provides writers with a high traffic location and the potential for rich characters. “Wherever you have a steady flow of people is a good place, you can always write wacky characters to come in,” said Rock.

Television writer and producer Bill Grundfest agrees. “Anyplace you find people, you’re going to find drama. Or comedy. Anyplace you find people, you are going to find imperfection and you find the story. There is a lot of human drama that goes on in front of, and inside, and behind the counter of convenience stores. It’s where people go when they need…fill in the blank. But the story isn’t about the product they need, the story is about the people who need the product, how they get jammed up. Or the clerks — the people who work there. Are they on their way up in life, or are they on their way down in life? Or are they just going to move sideways through life? Where are these people at? And therein lies the tale. I don’t think there is any human place that is inherently dull. I’ll show you movies or TV shows about the most exciting places in the world that are dull, because they didn’t get the human story.”

The Curse of a High Traffic Location

On the other hand, a store open 24 hours a day that handles lots of cash is perceived by many to be a magnet for crime and thus earns frequent negative depictions in film.

In 1987’s Raising Arizona, Nicholas Cage’s character robs his local Short Stop four times in the middle of the night. He’s never successful — the first three attempts land him in jail and the final time leads to a hysterically absurd chase with neighborhood dogs, police, and a gun-toting, pimply-faced clerk. There’s nothing glamorous about the depiction — it probably wouldn’t make kids want to go out and copy Cage; and in addition to getting laughs, the sequences advance the plot, define Cage’s character, and create dramatic tension in his relationship with his wife.

The same can not necessarily be said of 2006’s highly stylized and violent Crank. Bad guys have injected Jason Statham’s character with a drug that will kill him unless he can keep his heart rate high. (The pitch was probably, “It’s Fantastic Voyage meets Speed!) Statham sets out to find an antidote--or at the very least to kill everyone who has ever wronged him--and make amends with his girlfriend. One of his first stops? A gas station convenience store where he loads up on energy drinks and energy enhanced snacks.

But Statham’s character is a criminal in his own right, so he’s not an ideal customer—he pulls the clerk through the window, points a gun at him, and takes the products without paying. (In the character’s defense, he is in a hurry, and the idea is to keep his adrenaline level up so he can stay alive. Perhaps a more traditional transaction would have been just mundane enough to kill him — remember Hitchcock.)

Much of the scene is shown through the four security cameras in the store, which thanks to sensationalist television shows like “World’s Dumbest Criminals,” and even the evening news, make for familiar images to Americans. This kind of real-life footage serves as another reminder that convenience stores may not be the safest place in the world.

“Look at the facts, every time you come out of a convenience store you push the door open and you have that height thing. That is a constant reminder that you’re in a place that statistically has more criminal activity than any other store,” opined Takashi Bufford, writer of 1997’s Booty Call. “They’re also open 24 hours a day…I guess after 10 o’clock there are probably more crimes committed in convenience stores than any other location. No one robs a bank at 10 o’clock at night. Then you have security footage and then all of the scenes we’ve seen from ’COPS’ and other shows where convenience stores are robbed. And there is probably a lot of cash passing through any business open 24 hours a day; so I don’t think it is a stereotype to view convenience stores as a hot site for crime because all the elements are there. Then again, we’ve seen a lot of footage where these clerks are very well armed too...and we did that in Booty Call where they are ready for anything.”

Booty Call features two heavily armed south Asian clerks who repel a stick-up man, almost destroying their store in the process. However, the film turns the ethnic stereotypes on their collective heads. First of all, the stars of the film, Tommy Davidson and Jamie Foxx, are black, and although one of the clerks is initially suspicious of Foxx--the stars actually pay for their purchases — it is a white drug addict who tries to rob the store at gunpoint.

And secondly, it is not Davidson and Foxx cracking jokes at the clerks’ expense, but rather the other way around; the clerks taunt the comedians, making fools of them in two scenes.

“I think we usually see it from the perspective of following our main characters and their interaction with the clerk, where the clerk is basically an ornamental stereotype. What we did was, even though it was a brief scene, we wanted to give the clerks’ point of view of what was going on and how they view the various people that come in,” said Bufford, who himself worked in retail before succeeding in Hollywood. “I used to work at a drug store when I was in college, and you tend to categorize your customers. You know the minute someone comes in — even if you’ve never serviced them before — what kind of customer they are going to be, what they’re probably going to want to purchase. So we thought it would sort of lift and elevate the scene to give the perspective of the two clerks.”

So Successful It Hurts

It is the convenience store’s status as an icon of American culture — indispensable and omnipresent — that motivates some depictions, and attracts some ridicule. We don’t attack institutions we consider irrelevant. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then mockery may be the sincerest form of veneration.

“Convenience in America is sacred, right? Americans love convenience. The idea of convenience is a sacred concept, and so I think it’s always fun to poke fun at that,” said writer and director Steve Pink.

Pink co-wrote Grosse Point Blank, a dark comedy starring John Cusack as a professional hitman who returns to his hometown for a high school reunion. Cusack tries to visit the home he grew up in, but it is gone; in its place, an Ultra Mart convenience store. While very unsettling for Cusack’s character, it gets big laughs from the audience, in part thanks to Cusack’s subtle performance as a violent young man whose world is comically unraveling around him.

Disoriented, Cusack repeatedly asks the slacker clerk, “What are you doing here?” Then as he tries to get his psychiatrist on the phone to talk about the experience, Cusack wanders the aisles of what was his childhood home. “You can’t go home again, but at least you can shop there,” he observes.

Later in the film, Cusack is dumped by his love interest. Depressed, and with no place to go,: he goes back to the Ultra Mart, like a carrier pigeon returning someplace safe and familiar. But it isn’t safe for long, a rival hitman follows Cusack to the store, a gun battle ensues, and the store is literally blown up.

“You take what is sacred and you blow it up, and that’s the satire,” Pink explained. “You blow up a convention — we literally blew it up — but you could blow up a convention, you turn it up and look inside it, and that’s how you make fun of something.”

Ready for Prime Time

Turning a convention inside out to find something fresh to make us laugh is essential to originality. Making fun of a stereotypical convenience store clerk may appear to be plentiful in pop culture, but considered a cheap shot by many professional writers.

“If something was going to get a cheap laugh…it’s hackish. We would never send up the Korean grocer because [he is Korean] or the Pakistani guy because [he is Pakistani]. But we would certainly send him up because he was an idiot,” explained Bill Grundfest.

Grundfest was nominated for three Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer on the Paul Reiser-Helen Hunt sitcom, Mad About You. One episode Grundfest wrote, “Giblets for Murray,” featured a Korean-run convenience store that, with its well-stocked shelves, repeatedly saves Thanksgiving for the characters. No robberies, no high prices jokes, and no immigrant jokes. The joke was that as hard as the main characters tried to ruin their own Thanksgiving, the friendly convenience store clerk downstairs could save the day. And the depiction came out of real life.

“My experience in Korean grocers were that there were basically two kinds. One kind, he’s only got three things and no matter what it is you want, he’s trying to sell you those three things, and the other is sort of like Batman’s utility belt. Whatever you need, this guy has it! You want a quart of milk? He’s got it. You need transmission fluid? He’s got it. You need birth control? He’s got it. You need Botox? He has that too. Whatever you need, this guy has it! How does he fit all of this stuff in this little store? And you can make both of those funny. And in the latter you are making it funny without going to a negative stereotype.”

On the surface The Simpsons does go for what some may consider easy laughs—based on stereotypes -- but the writers insulate themselves in a number of ways. First, they present every single character and institution as the most extreme stereotype imaginable. And then they find the envelope of the joke and push way past it. The writers go so far beyond the cheap joke that they come all the way around to clever again.

For example, Apu’s Kwik-E-Mart is known for outrageous markups. But $1.85 for a 29-cent stamp? Or selling $2.00 worth of gas for $4.20? Genius.

Show creator Matt Groening must have some affinity for convenience stores; not only is Apu and his Kwik-E-Mart a feature in almost every one of the show’s 400 episodes, but convenience stores even turn up a millennia later in Groening’s science fiction show set in the year 3000, Futurama. At least once, the main characters shop at a futuristic convenience store called 711 where a sign advises that the “Clerk does not know secret to happy marriage.”

Another television giant once got in on the act—but again, taking a fresh approach. In an episode during season eight of Seinfeld the gang finds themselves both in a convenience store and in its backroom.

Jerry, embarrassed that a check he accidentally bounced is on display in the store for all to see tries to convince the owner, Marcelino, to take the check down. Marcelino will — on one condition. Jerry must convince Kramer to have his rooster, Little Jerry Seinfeld, throw an upcoming cock fight—a cock fight that will take place in the backroom of the store.

As absurd and convoluted as all this sounds, it is actually funny. The moment that stings the industry is when Jerry buys a pack of gum — for 85 cents — to which Jerry replies in his mock outraged voice, “That is outrageous!”

The Thin Line Between Love and Hate

That Seinfeld moment could be an homage to 1993’s Falling Down starring Michael Douglas. At the start of the film, Douglas’s character, on the verge of a nervous breakdown and stuck in a sweltering Los Angeles traffic jam without air conditioning, abandons his car and walks off to make a phone call. Without change for a payphone, he ventures into an ironically located convenience store on a burned out, dead-end street. But the clerk won’t give him change and is dismissive and rude.

The encounter fans Douglas’s already lit fuse and he begins his citywide rampage against what he perceives to be injustice and society’s ills — starting with outrageously priced items in the convenience store such as an 85-cent can of soda.

When Douglas begins smashing up the convenience store you get a sickening feeling in your stomach, you see Douglas slipping into madness, past a point of no return that is going to spell disaster for him and anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path that day. But at the same time you have this feeling that the clerk kind of deserved what he got. If he had had any compassion at all, if he had just given Douglas change for the payphone, none of this would have happened. Of course, that would make for a pretty boring movie — Hitchcock, again.

It’s this dual emotion about convenience stores that fuels some creative choices.

“We have this love for the convenience store because everybody goes to them, but we have a hate for the convenience store because we are suspect sometimes with [its] quality, and it’s too expensive, and we feel like we are being exploited for our own convenience. So we have this hate for it,” explained Pink, who, remember, blew up the convenience store in his film, Grosse Point Blank. “There is a satisfying wish fulfillment aspect to blowing up a convenience store and that is why it makes us laugh; because we know the convenience store is an integral part of American life, [but] for once you have gotten over on the great convenience store that lords over you. You get some revenge for one moment — but then knowing that the convenience store will live on. It’s not like you’ve blown up all convenience stores. There will always be convenience stores.”

Mystical Places

Pink by no means has anything against convenience stores — even the store he blew up, which wasn’t a real store at all, but rather a set on the Warner Ranch — was blown up primarily as a plot device to move his protagonist past his own point of no return.

Perhaps it is just too good a comic observation to pass up, but Pink shares Grundfest’s sense of wonderment with the sometimes mystical stock convenience stores maintain.

“There is something toy store-like, kid-in-a-candy-store-like fun, about a convenience store. You can get a crazy frosty drink. Grocery stores aren’t fun—you go to a grocery store and you seriously shop for the actual needs of your family. But convenience stores have all the fun stuff you want. It’s not like the rush of going to a convenience store is like the rush of finding your favorite powdered dishwasher detergent. You go to the convenience store to get your booze or your cigarettes or fun food or magazines.”

Pink is not alone in seeing convenience stores as a kind of bricks-and-mortar version of comfort food. “People imagine, whether it is true or not, that everything they desire can be had and found at a convenience store. The whole idea of a convenience store was that somehow they’ve magically reduced everything you’d ever want into a small space called a convenience store. Which is kind of the most awesome thing in the world. It seems like such a uniquely American store.”

Pink echoed what many of the writers felt about convenience stores — that the constant influx of new customers keeps it interesting from a storyteller’s perspective, and as long as it makes for an interesting story, somebody is going to tell it. Clearly a thinking man’s comedy writer and director, he gets philosophical when he starts to think about what all these people are doing at convenience stores.

“Maybe the reason you think there is always going to be kind of an outrageous cast of characters [at the convenience store] is because if there is one thing everyone loves it is convenience. So you can see David Geffen and someone on crack. They both go to the same 7-Eleven. That’s weird. All classes and races, the lowest of lows in society and the highest of highs in society go to convenience stores because it’s convenient. When they want to go and get their Diet Cherry Coke, or whatever. Everyone has this primal need to get this little thing that they want to make them feel better and they get it at the 7-Eleven. No matter who you are, no matter how rich—you’ve seen Bentlys in the parking lot of 7-Eleven and you’ve seen Pintos with the bumpers that have been wire hangered on to the car. So there is no class or race — it is this pit stop where everyone can go and get this little thing that makes them feel better.”