A Night Out: Part I

By Frank Thompson

The sun was hanging low in the sky and expectations tingled with possibilities as The Girl and I arrived at the first stop on our big evening out. Having opted for what I have dubbed the “Cricket/Thicket Hoop-De-Doo”, we were to enjoy cocktails at one of Soda City’s finest emporiums of sundries and refreshments, followed by dinner at the shrine to all that’s southern, fried, and artery-clogging good…

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Upon arrival at the L’il Cricket, one is immediately taken in by the delightful kitsch and pluckiness of the whole thing. The jaunty little chap in the cocked top hat, antennae raised as if in a cheery hello…the saucy non-contraction “L’il”, which always puts me in mind of a cockney newsboy or minor character in a Little Rascals short… (I must tell you all sometime about L’il Douglas, a person a couple of my friends thought they had accidentally killed under a mountain of dirt as children, only to see him emerge unscathed, still pretending to be a dog. Another story, another time).

Where was I? Oh yes, the L’il Cricket. It greets one with a promise of riches untold, assuming one’s idea of riches is a Snickers, some beef jerky, a pack of Marlboro Lights, two lottery tickets, this month’s AutoTrader, a pickled egg, a couple of fuzzy blue dice air fresheners and a Yoo-Hoo. If I just described your last year’s Christmas stocking, no offense intended.

Before feasting on the cornucopia of delights inside the Cricket, you will certainly wish to stroll the patio area, stopping to greet the locals who frequently congregate near the entrance, discussing issues of the day. Don’t let the fact that these issues often involve spare change, recently-found items of clothing and peeing in a milk jug deter you from having a listen. Many interesting things are to be learned here.

This is street theatre at its finest. Raw, unhinged at times, and generally improv-oriented, the plots are sometimes exciting, yet frequently similar. I have, myself, been told on at least six consecutive visits by a chap I call “Squeaky” (due to his low grumbling voice) that he needs only “a few more dollars” for bus fare to get to his wife and six children, who remained with the car when it broke down.

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The wife and children in reference have now been waiting for over a year, through cold and heat and wind, presumably without food or water. (Given my twisted sense of humor, I always envision one large skeleton and six small ones sitting roadside, with a “Have A Nice Day” bumper sticker on the car.) Having seen Squeaky in other places around town, I am tempted to have a “Broke Down Car Tour” t-shirt printed for him, listing all the locales he’s played…L’il Cricket, BP on Gervais, Richland Mall Shell Station…he’s been on the road with this show all season.

Another favorite is Old Annie, who, for better or worse, will go religious on you in a hurry. A dollar bill gets prayers and blessings showered upon the giver, but God help (pun intended) the poor shmuck who shrugs and says “sorry”. Curses and Biblical plagues going back to Moses and beyond are invoked, along with the suggestion that hell eternal awaits those who spent money on M&Ms Peanut candies and a Bud Light Lime instead of sharing with the less fortunate.

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Pale and wild-eyed, Old Annie is always in motion, swinging her stick at trees, those who dare to get in her way, passing squirrels, or sometimes just at nothing. She speaks in a bizarre dialect that sounds not unlike Gullah by way of New Jersey, mostly mumbled and peppered throughout with profanity. Her gnarled grasp is a firm one, especially when loudly thanking Jesus for the $1.19 you just handed her, and her voice is loud if not particularly soothing.

“Oh s#it! Gawdblessooo chile. De lord done sent BLESSINGS unto me, dat the truth. Dere is some good damn peoples in the WORLD, not all like that muddahfuggah what STOLE MY RAZOR!!!”

I can, of course, think of very few people over three years old and not having a seizure less qualified to own a razor, but when Old Annie told me this tale of woe, I simply nodded with grave concern and understanding.

The interior of the Cricket is intimate and cozy, with a definite sense of mood established by the overhead fluorescent lighting. Those among the patrons who recently found themselves released from prison will feel quite at home among the many security cameras and the no-nonsense demeanor of the counter clerk as well as the quality of hot food on offer.  I had to gasp and reflect for a moment on seeing Benji, Star Wars, and Raiders Of The Lost Ark in their original theatrical runs when I caught sight of the squeaky rotating hot dog carousel that I thought only existed in the movie theatres of the 70s and 80s.

Ancient dust-covered boxes of Ramen noodles share shelf space with bags of potato chips and Cheetos that barely have time to settle before being snatched up by ravenous kids or stoners with the munchies.

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The occasional bruised apple, pair of bananas or random mango can be found resting on the countertop, next to the cash register. What the hell is up with that, I cannot say.  Did the clerk decide to bring the contents of his crisper drawer to work in hopes of making a couple of bucks? Is there a slightly-dinged fruit market of which I am unaware? How does the supplier make any money when so few items are kept in stock? Did he find the fruit outside and just add it to the inventory? The world may never know. (Oh, and for the Gen-Xers who got the reference, yes, they have Tootsie Pops.)

At last the cocktail hour was upon us, and The Girl and I took a few minutes to peruse the offerings from the bar. Well, it was actually more like a mid-sized walk-in cooler, but there you are.) Wines of recent vintage (Yum! April!) were to be found, alongside the standard Bud/Miller/Coors and even an import or two. Granted, they were priced at convenience store rates, which means roughly twice the grocery store price, but no matter…we had drinking to do, and this was clearly a place that could accommodate us.

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Of special interest was the prominently-displayed row of “Forties”, those indelicate yet oh-so-satisfying beerlike bottles of torpedo juice that go so well with Funyuns, domestic disturbances, lost weekends in Topeka, and tattoos of indeterminate origin. I selected from among these worthies an insouciant little Olde English 800, complete with a semi-dampened brown paper bag as an accessory, while my lovely companion opted for a playful Boone’s Farm Colline des Fraises purchased in tandem with a “Little Red Solo Cup” not unlike the one of song- lyric fame.

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If one is in need of pornographic videos, there are several from which to choose on a rotating rack near the back of the Cricket. While these titles appear to be somewhat beyond the mainstream, even for the nekkid movie industry, one must applaud the entrepreneurial spirit clearly embodied by the producers. While I would never suggest that Amateur Booty #14 and Here Comes The Mailman, Part 19 were shot simultaneously, with the same actors and set, such does seem to be the case. While I wish only the best for the careers of Edmund “Tripod” Jones and Dakota Juggs, they may want to sign with a more discriminating studio if they seek the kind of widespread distribution (pun most definitely intended) enjoyed by the bigger stars whose movies actually make it to the internet.

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Having paid up and made our farewells, The Girl and I briefly considered investing in either a pine tree air freshener or Yosemite Sam mudflaps for future gift-giving occasions, but decided time was getting away from us, and repaired to the car for our aperitifs. Both were rather heady, but manageable when handled with care. The Olde English definitely put one in mind of something William The Normand would have swilled from an earthen grog chalice, while the Boone’s took us back to high school with all its upchucking-in-the-bushes-no-mom-I-swear-I-haven’t-been-drinking nostalgia. Tossing Old Annie a buck and a crisp salute as we drove away, we were showered with the love of the deity by way of His profane, croaking prophet of the convenience store parking lot. Next stop, dinner…

To be continued…

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