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RED, WHITE AND BREW : To See Democracy in Action, Stand in Line for a Cup of Coffee at a 7-Eleven

June 07, 1992|Deanne Stillman | Deanne Stillman is a contributing editor of this magazine.

Comes the 1992 election and at least two presidential candidates have currycombed that old war horse of slogans, "Take back America," in an effort to gallop valiantly into the Oval Office. Frankly, I couldn't disagree more with the idea that the country has been kidnaped. Perhaps it has an unlisted number, but kidnaped? As we say on the beach, presidential candidates, get a clue. Because America isn't missing; it's traveling incognito. You just have to know where to look.

Which is why I always vote. For me, voting is a ticket to jury duty, and jury duty (not Simi Valley-style) is pure democracy in action. By pure democracy , I mean citizens from all walks of life engaging in social discourse to reach a consensus. That's the America I learned about in elementary school. Alas, I did not meet this America until I joined 11 other people and sat in judgment of a man accused of murder. The communion was so remarkable that I have made it a habit to vote early and vote often to secure another two-week gig at the county courthouse.

In the meantime, I can frequently be found at that other quintessentially American institution--7-Eleven. Along with jury duty (and crowded elevators), this store is one of the few places where citizens of all races, creeds, colors and video-rental preferences converge and commune. In a city like Los Angeles, such an experience, however fleeting, takes on deep significance. 7-Eleven is America both alloyed and refracted, the democracy that erupts when people stumble in from the desert for sustenance--and a lottery ticket.

Now don't get me wrong. I don't hang out at 7-Elevens to catch America in the hilarious act of being itself. Rather, I go to 7-Eleven because I like the coffee. I always have. The coffee at 7-Eleven is available in its own little area of the store. It comes in cinnamon, vanilla, Irish cream and the store's own tasty house blend. You can pour it yourself into a small, medium or large cup. Then you can choose from an assortment of tiny creamer tubs or cartons of milk or half-and-half to lighten your brew. While cruising through the Southland under the effect of a full-on Santa Ana, I like nothing more than to stop at a 7-Eleven for a 12-ounce vanilla java, head back out onto the highway and pump up the volume.

Frankly, both the coffee and the experience are so much more satisfying than what you get at the drug-substitute coffeehouses that have recently proliferated around town. That's because those places have nothing to do with Los Angeles. They have imported a culture that is mostly white and mimics beatnik folkways. Because of the mime act--the crummy furniture and the rhyme-free poetry--the feeling inside these structures is one of social disengagement.

The feeling inside a 7-Eleven is exactly the opposite. There is no guile and no pose. Like Los Angeles, 7-Eleven just is. Come on in. How about a giant Slurpee? No need for furniture because people are on the way to somewhere else. Want a hairnet, tire-patching kit or preservative-free scone from La Jolla? You never know what you might need on the way to somewhere else. And, wherever you're going, don't forget to read!

Academics debating what should be required reading these days would do well to study the 7-Eleven canon. It reflects every literary taste in Los Angeles, perhaps functioning as the country's most successful exercise in multiculturalism. Those who would rob the store can pick up a copy of Handguns, while those who would prefer socially sanctioned work can browse through Employment Weekly. Readers with more time to burn can choose from Danielle Steele, Larry McMurtry and New York media darling Josephine Hart--a low-, middle- and high-brow literary trifecta if ever there was one.

And the demographic bets are covered in more ways than one. I refer specifically to the lottery, for which ticket sales remain a cornerstone of this establishment. "What's your fantasy?" asks a sign above the lottery machine. In the land where happiness is the official pursuit, this is a singularly American question, one that is not consistently posed in any other public venue. Well, the streets of America may not be paved with gold, but they are lined with 7-Elevens. Stop here next time you need a change of venue.

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