Who pours coffee before dawn at Brooklyn’s most remote locations?
It’s legitimately freezing outside the 7-Eleven on Coney Island Avenue, and one of the few signs of life is a white stretch Hummer idling in near silence. “Where’s the party?” One of the two older men in the parking lot yells toward the street, which is traffic-free at 5 a.m. The Hummer’s engine is switched off, but no one gets out. It’s safe to say no one knows where the party is.
A worker hauls a shipment of milk down a ramp and through the front door. A Daily News truck driver throws a cheery wave to the Post guy as they cross paths. Other than delivery people, the 7-Eleven parking lot seems to be the exclusive domain of bundled up old men. They spend 20 minutes at a clip making small talk and sipping coffee. They have the look of former cops or captains who never quite shook the inner clock of being on the job. A cigar-chomping man in a leather Jets jacket simply responds “Retired” when asked for his name. “It’s Jack” he says, a beat later. Does Jack swing by often? “Yeah, at twice a day at least,” he says, as in, hey, buddy, what’s it to you? The men speed off in separate directions.
This particular 7-Eleven, #27167, sits halfway between Avenue Y and Avenue Z and has 99-cent refills all day, plus a $1 coffee “happy hour” in the afternoon. It’s a 20-minute walk from Tatiana, Brighton Beach’s most enduring and raucous vodka shot palace. In August, it’s not uncommon to see a neighborhood kid downshift into the expansive 7-Eleven parking lot in an expensive sports car he can’t quite drive, after a night clubbing somewhere. Galaxy Tire, a brick fortress on the corner of Avenue V, stays open 24 hours a day and has no doubt saved the hides of many a minigarch.
“In the summer, Russian kids come in around 1 or 2, but then they move on,” says the manager. He looks sleep-deprived and presides over the nearly empty store in an short-sleeved polo shirt that has seen better times and endured scores of parking lot parties. “All those people, they moved on. They got married, they got kids,” he says. “Things quieted down here. It is what it is.”
Inside, past the chargers, ergonomic ear buds, USB adaptors, adhesive back LED lights, calling cards, scratch offs, single-serve rice pudding, Grab 'n Guac packets, foil-topped salad dressings, surimi sushi rolls, cold meatball subs, turkey breast slices, jazzed-up cottage cheese, glazed doughnuts, soft croissants filled with peanut butter creme and jelly, shrink-wrapped hard-boiled eggs, and the lemon hand pies that are, per the box, “partially produced with genetic engineering,” are the breakfast sandwiches.
One of them, new this year, is curiously egg-free, with bacon, sausage, and cheese. It emerges from its Plexiglass warmer cabinet with a swell of maple flavored bacon and a slick of vivid orange cheddar adhered to its “fresh artisan” ciabatta. The pork sausage is salty and savory by way of “spice extractives,” a listed ingredient, which must involve dried sage, and there’s also the butter component, which plays like a hybrid of a movie theater concession variety and something that comes out of a squeeze bottle in a dystopian franchise about teens who are forced to hunt each other down. It’s not a great sandwich.
Regardless, they are cheap. The chain is no doubt hip to the closing gap between its working-class and immigrant customer base, which is perhaps why the company went after obvious knockoffs “Eleven 7 Food Mart” and “Z-Eleven” in Brooklyn earlier this year with such ferocity. Situated on the edge of Gravesend, in one of the most diverse Brooklyn zip codes—Bangladeshi, Caribbean, Ukrainian, and Mexican immigrants run businesses here, sometimes on the same polyglot block—7-Eleven store #27167 is in a part of ungentrified Brooklyn. Surprises still happen on the regular. Until recently, for instance, a few blocks north, stood Coney Island Bialys and Bagels. Known for its beacon-like “Hot Bialys” neon sign, the 91-year-old shop shut down in 2011, but had a brief revival of sorts when it was bought by two Muslim men who aimed to keep things kosher.
Moreover, no one really goes to 7-Eleven for breakfast sandwiches. They go for coffee and whatever else might be hot, at least according to the lone customer at 5:45 a.m. at store #33709 #27167, which is located more in the heart of Gravesend. He’s coming home from his job of cleaning a restaurant after hours. He ignores the taquitos on greasy stainless steel rollers, in favor of the 2-for-$2 pupusas. But they’re sold out, as are the Jamaican beef patties. Instead he orders two empanadas, one chicken, one beef. When delivered, both are stamped “BEEF,” but he scarfs them down them anyhow while making small talk with the cashier.
This 7-Eleven has the new and fancy single-origin coffee from Nicaragua, but it blends it with the ten other coffees on offer. Meanwhile, there’s so sign of the newish Tropical Slam Rambutan craft soda introduced this year, or the fleece infinity scarves that commemorate 50 (or “fiftee,” in company parlance) years of the Slurpee. One of the chain’s most pointless innovations of 2016 was drone delivery, which enjoyed a highly publicized flight test this past July in Reno, Nevada. The recipient of an airborne chicken sandwich, doughnuts, candy, hot coffee, and frozen Slurpees was moved enough to call the experience "priceless."
Yet another Gravesend 7-Eleven sits adjacent to the elevated tracks, where Gene Hackman’s car-versus-subway chase in the film French Connection exceeded speeds of 70 mph. Store #34172 attracts the people who keep the city moving. A black livery car pulls up to the curb and honks, honks again, and eventually attracts a clerk who hustles out with food and a drink. “He does this every weekend,” she says to a Transit worker who has just put out his cigarette on the side of a beat up MuniMeter so he can go inside. Over by the creamers, a Sanitation worker laments under his breath that no one has brewed a carafe of blueberry coffee for the third night in a row. “They usually have it, right? It’s been a while.” He rejects the half-dozen flavored creamers. “Too much sugar.”
The Transit worker gestures to a sign advertising gingerbread lattes. “I don’t understand what that is,” says Sanitation, who is still trying to figure out which of the dozen carafes to pour from. Transit says something about a gingerbread latte, but Sanitation isn’t having it. “I need to wake up, bro,” he says with a wince.
Pupusas are also sold at the 7-Eleven in Dyker Heights, #34172, which sits on a wide triangle of concrete along New Utrecht Avenue, diagonally across from a dance club named for a defunct bus line. Twenty blocks south, 86th Street has been thronged with busses filled with tourists who ogle the neighborhood’s phantasmagorical Christmas lights. There’s a temporary ban on parking every day between the hours of 3 p.m. and midnight, a move that angered some locals.
The holiday has become an ostentatious flashpoint of politics for some, like the man in a Mercedes SUV who sports a goofy lapel pin of a bug-eyed Santa and a button that reads, in bold lettering: “It’s okay to say ‘Merry Christmas’ to me!” He sidesteps an icy puddle when he emerges with his coffee and a copy of the Post. Inside, near the checkout, a day laborer heats up an austere-looking dollar sausage biscuit in ancient Panasonic NE-1757 microwave oven provided for customers. “Do not bring outside food to microwave,” warns a sticker affixed to its door. The air fills the smell of vaporized butter.
The dozen men in the parking lot waiting to be picked up for work—roofing, demolition—all wear a version of the same outfit: Hoodies under light jackets, knit caps with the brim pulled down, beat-up back packs, dusty or paint-splattered work boots. Some make small talk while others try to disappear into their headphones and look up past the elevated tracks at a passing D train. Because it’s 7:23 a.m. and bitterly cold, most of the men nurse cups of hot coffee while they wait.