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TRUE CRIME BOOKS BLOG

FROM AUTHOR HARRY N. MACLEAN

The Wawa Thing

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The WAWA Thing.

“Hey, Wawa,” the man a few yards away on the beach called. “Take a look at this.”

He was pointing to a baby hammerhead shark lying on its side a few feet from the ocean’s edge. I had seen the shark earlier, but I had never been called “Wawa” before.

This morning, on the boat over to Egmont Island, off the west coast of Florida, a lady had noticed the logo on my hat: a Canada Goose on the wing under the word “Wawa.”

“Do you work there?” she asked excitedly.

I shook my head.  I had become used to this sort of comment. It happened whenever I was wearing the hat.

“We’re from New Jersey,” the woman said. “Wawa is the thing I miss most being away from home. I just hate it.”

What is it about Wawa’s? I thought of asking, but I knew I would get a series of emotional statements about the coffee and the sandwiches, none of which were really the point. It was the place, the feeling of it, the attitude. Something.

“Have you been to a SuperWawa?” the woman’s husband asked, his eyes lit up.

I had in fact been to my first SuperWawas a few months earlier, in Dover, Delaware. It was much fancier than the ones I was used to, with 16 gas pumps and long buffets of freshly made sandwiches and Hoagies you could order by a computer, and a free ATM. Bright, sparkly clean. Julya had admired the Wawa hat on the young man behind the counter, and he had left his station, gone to the back room and returned with two, one for each of us.

“They’ve opened one in Orlando,” another man on the boat chimed in. We all looked at him, as if he had just proclaimed himself of divine origin. “And another one in St. Petersburg,” he added.

“I heard that,” the husband added. “That they were coming to Florida.”

“They’ve got five more planned,” another voice chimed in.  “We moved here from Pennsylvania five years ago. We can’t wait.”

I first encountered Wawa’s about ten years ago. I was working as a correction officer in a maximum-security prison in Smyrna, Delaware, about 8 miles north of Dover. On the turn off the main highway to the prison was a Wawas, and an hour before and an hour after each shift it was jammed with blue clad correction officers stocking up on snacks and sandwiches on their way in or cokes and snacks on their way out. There was another convenience story a few blocks down the road, but I never saw a car parked in front of it.

What does Wawa stand for? I had asked people. No one knew. Finally someone explained that it was the Indian name for the Canada goose. The green and gold goose on the wing is the store’s symbol, but I had never put it together. My regret about my new hat was that it was only black and white.

Up and down the coast, from Delaware to Florida, people would come up to me in restaurants, motels, bars, boats, in coffee shops, movie theaters. Some intense, some smiling, others misty-eyed.  It was like seeing your college jersey on someone in the streets of Peking. Some pointed at my hat, others just started talking about their favorite Wawas back home in Hoboken. A few times, when I forgot I had my hat one, I was startled by their directness. One woman told me she had worked part time fifteen years at a Wawa in her hometown in Pennsylvania, and quit only when she had her seventh child. The people coveted my hat, I came to see, and I was careful not to leave it around.

Julya picked up on Wawas right away. Not just the name and the gold-and-green Canada goose on the wing, but whatever it was that made it special, although neither of us could put a word on it. The place felt good. The people felt good. The food was fresh and service efficient and friendly, but so what? Lots of places were like that, but you wouldn’t drive five miles out of your way to go to one.

At the prison Wawas in Smyrna, an employee was standing outside the store smoking when we left. The goose on her hat was green and gold. I admired it. We get them free she said, along with the shirts with a green-and-gold goose on the shirt pocket. I asked her if she liked working there.

“Oh, yes,” she said enthusiastically. She was the store manager, and it was the best job she ever had. She told us excitedly about the Super Wawas recently opened on the south side of town. “Sixteen pumps,” she exclaimed. They take good care of you here? I asked. “Health care and everything,” she nodded. She was hoping to transfer to the SuperWawas, even if it meant losing her manager position. She posed for a photo with us.

We finally found the new Wawas in St. Petersburg. Someone called out “Welcome to Wawas1” when we walked in, just like they did in the stores up north. The place sparkled, as usual, and the fresh faces behind the counter made sure everything went well. People stood at computers selecting their hot dishes for there or to go. It seemed like the aura, the magic, call it what you will, had made it down south.

Wawa was founded as a dairy farm in Pennsylvania over a hundred years ago. In the 1960s, the founder’s grandson, expanded the dairy to small markets in Pennsylvania, and from there to New Jersey and Delaware.  Now, to the relief of thousands of snowbirds and transplants, there are Wawas in Florida. You can read all about it at http://www.wawa.com/WawaWeb/PublicRelations.aspx.

In some ways it reminds me of Coors beer, when you could only buy it in Colorado. Visitors would load their cars up with cases of the beer made from Rocky Mountain spring water and brag about it back in Topeka. Now it’s just another beer. I guess I hope Wawas never makes it off the east coast.

If you’re fortunate enough to go in a Wawas some day, you’ll feel what I’m talking about, but I doubt you’ll be able to explain it, either. As for me, I’ve stopped wearing my Wawa hat in public places.

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