Brick and mortar stores continue their decline as online shopping sites outcompete them in price and convenience, but there are real-space businesses that are likely to hang on. 24-hour convenience stores and diners are particularly hard to replace. Perhaps 24-hour pizza delivery by drone will cut into the sales of these places in time, but that time is not yet here. Where permitted by law – and even where not – late night food and alcohol providers have serviced workers for as long as factories have operated night shifts. Late-night and round-the-clock establishments proliferated rapidly after the Second World War. 7-Eleven convenience stores opened shop in 1946. The name came from the original business hours (7 a.m. to 11 p.m.), but these were extended as it became obvious that demand didn’t end at 11 but persisted 24 hours. Unsurprisingly, the first 24-hour 7-Eleven was in Las Vegas, but even smallish communities soon proved to have enough hungry night owls to support the model.
I rarely make use of 24-hour convenience stores. When I do it almost invariably is at the behest of some companion who finds unbearable the notion of surviving the next few hours before daybreak without a sandwich, Fritos, chocolate bars, Snapple, or (big one) cigarettes. In fact, I’m trying to think of a single exception when it was my idea to go into one of these places between the hours of midnight and 7 a.m. There might be one, but none comes to mind. There are occasions, however, when I make self-motivated use of a 24-hour diner. There is a handy one (across from a 7-Eleven as it happens) in nearby Morristown. I pass it on the way back from NYC, which makes it a convenient place to stop after a show or concert or some other activity. It’s also close enough to my home for a stand-alone visit. One of the advantages to single life is that if I do get the urge for dessert (or breakfast) at 3 a.m., I simply go out the door with no explanations needed. This doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.
The habitués of all-night diners are a distinctive mix in the small morning hours. Some are just workers and/or students with peculiar hours, so this is a normal time for them to have a burger. As one might expect, there are ample numbers of stoners with the munchies. After the bars close (2 a.m in Morristown; 4 a.m. in NYC) there is a wave of hungry inebriates and partied-out revelers. The atmosphere is strangely mellow usually – and a bit surreal. Lack of sleep offers a certain buzz of its own, so even the sober patrons have a slightly glazed appearance to their eyes. As neither a drinker nor a smoker of herb nor a night shift worker nor even (usually) sleep deprived, I suppose I’m typically the oddball. The diner food is better than I make for myself at home and the environment is weirdly beguiling, which gives the lie to the old admonition, “Nothing good comes after midnight.”
Yet, while that saying is wrong on the face of it, like many generalizations it contains a kernel of truth. Many good things finish after midnight, but not so many start up then. That’s when crack and heroin dealers (and their customers of course) come out to play. It’s when the seedy after-hours clubs open. It’s when drunks and overly-sleepy folk take to the roads. It when buzzes start to fade and hangovers begin. It’s when we make really bad romantic choices. It’s when we send ill-considered texts and emails – even a perfectly legitimate business email sent at that time raises suspicions among the recipients if there is any typo or error in it. It’s best not to post anything on social media. In one his routines, Chris Rock notes that anyone withdrawing $400 from an ATM at 3 a.m. isn’t likely to do anything good with it. Some of us know what he means. So, if you began before 12, you’re probably fine seeing it through even if it takes until dawn. Your carriage won’t turn into a pumpkin. But if it’s already after midnight, maybe you should let it go until daylight… unless it’s a bite at the diner.
DOROTHY - After Midnight