There is a small store attached to the Mobil gas station at the intersection of Midland and Kimball avenues in Yonkers. It is officially called the “Chestnut Mart”, although most refer to it simply as “the Mobil”. It is located past an underpass that serves as a clear boundary of what is “on” and “off” the Sarah Lawrence campus. Once you cross the underpass, the small brick houses and dorms stop, and apartments appear.
The tunnel is home to a dirty bus stop and takes on an otherworldly quality after dark, when its amber street lights create moody underlighting. They cast long curved shadows that arc over the ceiling, illuminating shuffling pedestrians and plastic bags alike. The Cross County parkway courses above, and the shadows shake and warp with its rhythm.
The trip to Mobil is a pilgrimage, a holy journey that dozens of Sarah Lawrence students make every night. The Mobil is their Mecca, a chapel whose offerings are exquisite and numerous, a shrine to consumption and hedony.
Its Pontiff is Dionicio, a slim, goateed man in his early forties who is wearing a dark blue polo shirt with the Mobil logo stitched over his heart. He has been working at the Mobil for one year. Most evenings he stands between a pulpit outfitted with a credit card reader and a wall stacked end-to-end with colorful boxes of cigarettes, vape juice, and vape accessories. Dionicio is proud of his selection, and reminds me of a merchant hawking his exotic wares at a bazaar. Dionicio has an extensive knowledge of each brand, flavor and size of tobacco product.
Nothing in this store is good for you. In fact, most of it will kill you. A notable exception, however, is the small of selection of fruit and fresh sandwiches (swiss cheese and ham was the first one I noticed) placed near the entrance, almost as an afterthought, to create some sense of moral balance within.
Two baskets of bananas are blocking one of the main doors; I suspect they're rarely touched despite their prime real estate. The stuff everyone wants is in the back; beer, soda, and energy drinks, only accessible past a sea of bagged nuts and chips. Brand names and logos adorn the walls, covering all the bases from Pepsi to Coke, Blue Moon and Coors, all stamped over images of ice cubes and cups filled with dark brown liquids.
Dionicio told me the two best-selling items are cigarettes and beer, products whose combined real-estate takes over about two thirds of the store. But, unlike his namesake Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and debauchery, Dionicio must sometimes stand in between his customers and their drinks of choice.
There’s been a problem, he explained, with college kids attempting to buy alcohol with fake IDs, although in the last year, he’s never caught any. I know fake IDs are as prevalent as Dionicio says they are, but I was still curious about how he could be certain of their existence if kids are getting away with it. I shelved the question as a customer appeared behind me. I did not see him enter. He was an immaculately dressed middle-aged man wearing a grey three-piece pinstripe suit. He had very wet, artificially brown hair, that hung over his forehead in emo bangs that seemed out of place with the rest of his outfit. He asked for a pack of Newports (eleven dollars and fifty-five cents), and tapped it loudly on the counter as Dionicio counted out his change.
Lottery tickets are also popular, Dionicio added, but in the year he is been working here, no winning tickets have been sold.
When it’s crowded, a line snakes from Dionicio to the back wall, where a bathroom is located. I found it surprisingly clean (for a gas station restroom), and oddly roomy, occupying a space that’s larger than necessary for just a single toilet and sink.
An old woman asked Dionicio if he could reach something for her. He temporarily abandoned his post to grab her a twelve-pack of Coors Light (ten dollars and ninety-nine cents), located on the top shelf of the fridge.
I asked Dionicio what he thought of Sarah Lawrence students. He hesitated, searching for the word he wanted, and despite their deception, settled on “kind”. He seemed unwilling to delve deeper into the question, like a politician afraid of alienating his base.
A hispanic guy wearing all black approached the counter, three Bud Light twelve-ounce cans (ten dollars and seventy-nine cents), in his hand. Dionicio rang up the beers and gave him the price in Spanish, before the man could say a word.
There are small, tiny speakers both inside and outside the store. As I left, they were playing “Sara” by Starship. It’s the kind of song that’s almost exactly what most people would peg as elevator music. It opens with a sexy saxophone riff over a drum machine. And then we don’t hear the saxophone for three minutes! On first listen, its offerings are plenty and delightful, but after the second chorus you realize you’ve actually heard this song a million times, in a million different dentist's waiting rooms and highway rest stop food courts, all that lies beyond is watered down emotion and recycled lyrics. Almost five minutes long, “Sara” is a big meal, but leaves you hungry.
And so “Sara” is actually the perfect hymn to accompany a convenience store at night. Like a buffalo-style taquito, it never promises fulfillment, and yet you still feel underwhelmed.
This, I finally realized, is the big draw of the Mobil, the dangling prospect of salvation, the reason me and my peers cross the tunnel and escape the gaze of the lone public safety van parked at the edge of campus. The call of the Mobil is not easily definable, and that’s perhaps part of its allure. People that grew up being dragged to church by their parents continue to go as adults, even if they don’t believe anymore. It just feels right.
The Mobil simply exists, waiting to be entered. It is sustained upon the sacrament of underage drinking and cigarette purchasing, necessary only to those who feel like it’s an obligation.
Dionicio finished ringing up a woman whose sole purchase was a gallon of whole milk (two dollars and ninety-nine cents). “Sometimes a customer pays for their gas, but they forget to pump the gas, they just go home. Then, once they are home and they notice they didn’t pump it, they come angry, arguing, you know, and yelling,” he recalled.
“I’m sorry but that’s not my problem. If the gas is out there, somebody else can pump it. It’s happened three times. At the end, they realize it’s not our fault,” Dionicio said.
Steven Orlofsky ‘22