The SuperAmerica on 40th & South Lyndale is my go-to convenience store, and I usually blow in and out of the place like a thief in the night; head down and trying not to bother any of the clerks or other jittery creatures of the night and day with idle chit-chatter. Still, I think we’re here to connect with one another, to compare notes on the big nutty journey of life, so last Tuesday, I was taking my time and feeling good, and I took a shot.
“How’s your night?” I asked the woman behind the counter. She didn’t remember me, she never does, but I’ve liked her since our first exchange about a year ago, when I chatted her up and discovered she was new to town, originally from Alabama. Tough cookie with a warm smile.
“Not bad, kind of slow,” she said, then she said what I’ve heard her say to every customer, no matter how busy the business or long the line, and sweetly: “How you doing?”
In the moment it took for her to ring me up, I ticked off a long list of reasons Why I Should Not Make Small Talk with her and just clam up and be on my way, living as we are through these turbulent times of mixed messages, stranger danger, racial profiling, class wars, erupting gender norms and the overall general malaise, suspicion, and misanthropy that comes with being a real live bleeding human being in 2015.
Seriously, would she think me a fool? A flirt? Pathetic middle-aged white dude? Would she shut me down?
“Can I ask you a question?” I asked. She sized me up.
“Do you like basketball?” I guessed, introducing that most universal of topics this side of the weather, sports. Her eyes lit up.
“Did you see that game last night?” I asked, meaning the NCAA men’s championship thriller in which Duke’s Tyus Jones took over in the last three minutes to beat Wisconsin. The whole damn country had been talking about what a great game it was all day, and here we were, too.
“That… was… awesome,” we harmonized and then I, after briefly representing our polar opposite feelings for Duke, asked her if she played basketball. She said she used to, but she’s too old to play now for god’s sake but she occasionally still plays football with her kids. I asked her if she played in high school or college. Then:
“I was the first female high school football player to play for a boy’s team in Chicago.”
The guy behind me was getting antsy and another regular was happily jabbering in her other ear about her selling him another winning lottery ticket, so I stepped to the side. She reported her pioneer athlete status with great pride. Seriously? She nodded.
“Bloom Township Alternative High School. I was quarterback, I was wide receiver, I ran track, I was fast. No other girls ever thought about going out for the team; I played on the boy’s basketball team and I played on the football team. I actually opened up the door for a lot of people, because a lot of girls were really good and wanted to play, but they were scared. I cleared the way for a lot of them, and that following year there were five more girls on the team.
“I played football, but only for a year because I found I was pregnant and they wouldn’t let me play. Same thing with basketball. I was in the middle of a game and I started feeling hot and strange, and it turns out it was because I was pregnant.
“I opened up a door for a lot of people, and I caused some trouble, too. You know the boys, how they like to smack themselves on the booty? They liked doing that to me, too, so I started smacking them back on the booties. Sometimes I think that’s the only reason I tried out — there were a lot of gorgeous boys on the football team and I just wanted to touch on ’em. So it worked out, and I was good at what I did.”
Her name is Cynthia Johnson, and as far as she knows she’s not related to the Cynthia Johnson who sang “Funkytown,” about her newly adopted hometown Minneapolis. She grew up in Alabama, Wisconsin, and Illinois, and now she’s newly married with two of her 11 children in tow. Her oldest graduates from college next month. She works as many jobs as she can to support her kids, including shifts at SuperAmerica, which is something of a neighborhood social hub due in no small part to Cynthia’s calm demeanor and positive vibrations.
“It’s a community store, so it’s a lot of good people that come in here,” she said, grabbing three packs of cigarettes off the top shelf for an agitated and raspy-throated customer. “I’m always telling ’em I’m going to put some couches in here and have a social group because a lot of the regular customers just come in to socialize and they need some comfort.”
Her co-worker pulls her aside and together they survey a potential shoplifter’s patterns. She works with the calm of an air traffic controller as she multi-tasks, trouble-shoots, runs the cash register and sells pop, water, gum, magazines, newspapers, snacks, gas, cigarettes, lighters, and junk food. She likes sports, she’s an avid crocheter, and she recently crocheted 15 blankets for some lucky military vets. She doesn’t have time for anything but work and home these days, but she’d like to go sightseeing sometime soon. She’s looking forward to her kids’ college and high school graduations.
“It took a long time to get to where I got, because I was a messed up child. I went through a lot of different things in life,” she said. “I was troubled, I went through a lot of different experiences. I was at peace when I first started out here 10 months ago. I’m still trying to capture myself; I fell short a little bit. I just got married, I’ve been married for five months. I’m still a work in progress and a learning experience — for myself and to others.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at [email protected]