AS ANYONE who's ever visited one knows, perhaps the most frightening place on Earth is a 7-Eleven at 2 in the morning.
People talk about Belfast and Beirut and places of that nature, but all you have to contend with there are bands of trigger-happy gunmen roaming the streets.
Not only do you have to keep an eye out for gunmen at a 7-Eleven in the early morning hours, but also for drunks crashing into Slurpee machines and sniffling dope addicts dropping cans of Dinty Moore stew on the toes of innocent bystanders at the checkout line.
Nevertheless, due to circumstances beyond my control (a bachelor party), I was out late on a recent Friday night.
And even though my friends and I had done virtually no swinging from chandeliers or Mexican hat dancing, as is so common at these affairs, we were hungry. Inexplicably, we found our car nosing toward the nearest 7-Eleven.
"Cover me," I said as we pulled to the curb.
Then I opened the car door, did a quick shoulder roll to the pavement to avoid any flying bullets, and sprinted into the store.
Sure enough, there in the harsh neon glare was the usual assortment of beered-up frat boys, giggling party girls and controlled-substance zombies.
Much of the attention this particular evening centered around the "Test Your Blood Pressure" machine, where two young men were whooping it up.
Setting aside, for the moment, any questions of how accurate the machine is, let me say this. People who would not normally bother to test their blood pressure find the machine an endless source of fascination with seven or eight beers under their belt.
For example, the conversation between the two young men went like this:
"What's it say, man?"
"It says I should be (expletive) dead!"
"No! Ha, ha, ha, haaaaa!"
Well, you can only take so much medical talk at that hour of the morning.
So I wandered back to where an obviously drunk auto mechanic ("Mickey" it said on his shirt) and his girlfriend were discussing the nutritional value of Fritos versus something called Tater Crunch.
The boyfriend argued (effectively, I thought) that Fritos, with their long history as one of America's most revered snacks, were probably better for you than this upstart Tater Crunch thing.
But his girlfriend remained unconvinced, and it was only after he cursed and gave her a shove into the Tastykake rack that the merits of his argument seemed to sink in.
"Kids, kids . . . is this any way to end a lovely evening?" I said.
But Mickey was already out of earshot, having lurched toward the microwave oven and the impressive Hormel canned heat 'n' eat display. To me, it only reinforced his image as a '90s guy concerned with eating right.
The magazine rack was also getting a lot of play at that hour, hard as that might be to envision.
But let's face it, after a night of draining six-packs in the Giant parking lot or doing lines of coke in a nightclub bathroom, concentration is a problem.
So the reading (at least from what I could observe) tended toward the lighter subjects, with Wrestling Superstars and Cycle World two big favorites.
As might be expected, few people were thumbing through the Wall Street Journal, although one energetic fellow used a copy to wipe up the orange Slurpee he spilled on the floor.
On the other hand, a particularly lurid supermarket tabloid was being examined by a wide-eyed punker with green hair, attracted by headlines that screamed ''BOY'S TONGUE IS 8 INCHES LONG!'' and ''QUICK TEST TELLS IF YOU'RE GOING TO HEAVEN OR HELL!''
Since my friends and I were already experiencing a special form of hell, we moved quickly past the newspapers to the sandwich case.
Unfortunately, Mickey had already staggered away, so there was no one to consult about the sodium levels and fat content of the various subs, chili dogs, etc.
I ended up buying an Italian cold-cut sub, Doritos, cup cakes and a Diet Coke because, like everyone else these days, I'm watching my weight.
Luckily, no one had yet set fire to our car, so we were able to jump in, lock the doors and gun the engine before the inevitable riot broke out.
The sandwich, by the way, was not bad. Then again, it was 2 in the morning.
=1 I would have eaten a tire and not complained.