Joanna Agee, Higher Education
June 6, 1992 was the eve of my 21st birthday and my dear friend. Carrie Stacy who was like a sister to me Was visiting me in Dublin where I lived Carrie had just graduated from Smith College and she didn’t have any plans for what came next in her life And I had just finished my third year of college As a visiting student at Trinity and I had learned right before Carrie arrived That I would not be returning to Smith College Like I thought I would It’s no fault of my own. It was beyond my control. I Had a lot of anger and a lot of grief But I also had no plans for what was going to come next. So Carrie and I were sort of together Staring into the abyss Which in this case had taken the form of a map because we had decided that the question Needing answered was not what would we do but where would we go? So there we sat shoulder-to-shoulder Crouched in the floor of my bedroom over as I recall a map of the United States. I Believe that one of us put our arms over the parts where we didn’t want to live And the other closed her eyes and pointed and the universe answered Albuquerque We’ll move to Albuquerque and get kittens that was the whole plan Brilliant so a few months later. We arrived in Albuquerque She from Portland, Oregon Me from Birmingham, Alabama I Had on me $700 and all the clothes I owned in the duffel bag Also a boombox and cassettes because this was 1992 We couldn’t find a place to live right away. So I believe It was the Economy Inn, right Carrie? the Economy Inn on Route 66 Lucky for us. They had a weekly rate because we were there for a few months and In the next stroke of luck. I got a job right away because even with a weekly rate $700 only goes so far The job was at 7-Eleven. It was about two miles down I had to be there at 5:40 in the morning, which meant leaving at 5:15. It was a long walk with no car So I’m walking. I don’t know if it would be the same today as it was then Took me about a week to start carrying a switchblade So had a lot of time to think And what I’m thinking gripping my knife is that it’s two hours later in Massachusetts And my classmates are still asleep And when I embarked on my college career I intended to pursue medicine, Dr. Hahn, I Mean I got to Smith and I fell in love with psychology and sociology. I was kind of a do-gooder Smartypants Naive for sure. So I’m not gonna lie. There was self-pity on that walk Absolutely, but more than that. It was like this whiplash level of disorientation. I was like, what the hell? Happened. I was going to be a doctor Maybe a social worker. How is it that I am walking West? Every morning down Route 66 gripping a knife in the dark But then like a beacon in the desert the lights of the convenience store and The swish of the automatic doors and then magically I’m at work and This particular franchise is Nestled in the heart of this little enclave of small weekly rate motels, which apparently is a thing in Albuquerque and They served as the home base for this Sort of community of intermittently homeless people that were all really kind of tightly knit though It was kind of a rotating group of people Kind of bound together by struggle really they were all affected by Pretty wrenching poverty and a lot of chronic illness and untreated mental illness But I got to know them all really well their names and their relationships and their stories and You know 7-Eleven we all know 7-Eleven. This was 7-Eleven but better than 7-Eleven, we were also a gas station and we also sold hard liquor and we we also had a deli I honest-to-god made sandwiches every day with loaves of Wonder Bread and Tubs of industrially produced egg salad in between keeping the coffee carafe Running and ringing up people’s gas I worked alone in the store every day, so For the people whose motels were adjacent to the 7-Eleven and there were several of them. I Was running the thing that was their gas station their a grocery store their post office because we sold stamps their bank because we sold Money orders their restaurant because hot dogs nachos deli sandwiches The community center the liquor store all of it You know and then also because we’re on Route 66 there’s this huge flow of commuter traffic and of course I knew all those people by name too, because people are Ridiculously regular in their commuting habits. It’s a really interesting piece to know and the most interesting and kind of terrifying part of every day was the section between 6:45 and 7:15 a.m Because liquor sales began at 7:00 a.m. Every day legally So at about 6:45 Two lines would start to form in the store Do you know where this is going?
one at the back where the where the beer cooler is with a chain around the the handle until I unlock it and one at the front next to the counter because the hard liquor is up by me and that would be okay except this is also when the commuter traffic really picks up and So the store starts to get crowded and people in a hurry really don’t like to be close to other people especially when the people in line for liquor For the most part are wearing dirty clothes and their pockets are heavy with nickels and dimes that they mostly got from panhandling To buy their hooch and the people getting their coffee and their newspapers and wanting to pay for their gas or mostly in suits suits there’s a lot of tension and you know in retail, you know where the tension goes, right? Ultimately, it’s gonna explode and most most of the time when it explodes is the person behind the counter is going to catch it And I know all of these people’s names none of these people are strangers to me and the thing that hits me over and over again, and it’s a daily event some Some man loses his temper every day, right? Nine times out of ten. It’s a guy in a suit
red in the face Shouting obscenities at me across the counter every day this happens I noticed that a Nice turn of events And there are tons of witnesses. It’s always a full store a Nice turn of events. Is that usually when angry man leaves? Somebody behind him leans across the counter and looks me in the eye and says Are you okay? And you know what nine times out of ten that Person has on dirty clothes and a lot of nickels and dimes in his pockets and that left a mark And I’d be lying if I said that that didn’t affect my worldview still today Outside of 7-Eleven my life and our lives continued much as you might imagine that they did. Carrie and I did move out of the Economy Inn. We Found this really fantastic duplex on Princeton Street. We both thought it was pretty funny that we went from Smith College to Princeton Street It was pistachio green and we got to tiny and adorable kittens and both of them ultimately lived almost 20 years old which was fantastic We made friends. We threw parties we took fantastic care of each other We drove each other crazy and the usual ways. I drove her crazy in unusual ways I had this inability to take off my 7-Eleven smock when I get home every afternoon It’s kind of a running joke in our relationship even today And all I can say about that when I look back on it, really? Is that sometimes when grief and anger Are too raw and too unexamined it makes you do really oddball things So, I’m sorry Carrie that was kind of a weird one But back at work, I was every morning and taking care of my customers there was John the Korean War vet that I saw Stealing sandwiches my first week on the job. I just couldn’t take it I mean he fought a war for his country and he had no teeth and I noticed it was always egg salad that he took because He couldn’t chew that much So I would always make a couple of extra for him and I’d stick them between the Slurpee machine and the coffee carafe swear I couldn’t see when I was facing the register and when I saw I’m coming that’s where I’d stick them and By the time he’d made a lap and came around front. I Turn around and make sure they were gone and they always were it was an unspoken agreement. I Felt good about him taking what was meant for him And there was Chelsey who would sneak into the bathroom to shoot up and Stay there for half a day, which wouldn’t have been that big of a deal except Her toddler daughter was always in the store when she did that So I spent a lot of shifts with Chelsea’s toddler daughter behind the counter with me And I’d give her cups to stack And it was okay because as long as her toddler was with me behind the counter I knew she was okay, and yes I called DHS and I never saw them come but While I was there, I knew she was okay, and it wasn’t just me taking care of them it really wasn’t my second week at 7-Eleven Michael who was one of the guys who had Pretty untreated mental illness got right in my face and said What’d you walk down central in the dark by yourself? That’s not safe. You can’t do that. And I said well Okay, Michael better. I gotta get to work, right he said well, I’m gonna watch for you and I said, okay Okay, you do that buddy And you know what every freaking day that I worked there the whole time that I worked there As soon as 7-Eleven came into view I could see Michael standing on the corner with a flashlight The whole time I was there. I don’t know what time he left his room. I never asked he was always there. He never failed So I never did graduate
the truth is I still hate that But it occurred to me recently that My tenure at 7-Eleven was eight months. I started in a September and I wrapped up in May and Nobody could say it wasn’t educational And I was kind of working in my desired field by that time And when I listen to people reflect on The things that they cherish most about their college experiences. I hear some themes and the themes that I hear are New experiences. Yeah, I got that and Learning to take care of themselves Check me out with a switchblade and Enduring friendships. I Think we knocked it out of the park Yeah, I’m good