First, there’s the name. Wawa. A word that sounds like nonsense. Like baby talk. Like a sad trombone. Wah-wah.
Thinking, I guess, that I’m not originally from here and thus a little ignorant about such things, the Wawa lover will generally inform me, tone pious, that “wawa” is the Ojibwe word for the Canadian goose in the company’s logo.
I mean no disrespect to the tribe — neither the Ojibwe nor the Philadelphian — but no amount of etymology can change the fact that seven years into my Philly life, I’m still mortified to utter the phrase, “We’re going to Wawa for a Sizzli.”
My husband, a Philly native, will drive us 10 miles out of our way on road trips, past BPs, 7-Elevens, Sunocos, Dunkins and countless other pit stops, in order to hit up a Wawa for that Sizzli. Or, more often, for the coffee, which he swears is the best road coffee money can buy. The dark roast is above par, but it’s still just coffee. When a gallon of gas costs three times as much as the coffee you’re driving to fetch and the convenience chain of choice has closed so many city outposts that a soul can hardly even call it convenient, it’s time to question such devotion.
To a Wawa fan, though, that statement is high treason. I might as well suggest we all start rooting for the Cowboys, or spit on Ben Franklin’s grave.
It’s not that I don’t understand Wawa’s attributes — the appeal of a free ATM, the cool touchscreens, the Gobbler Shorti. But when a friend tells me her nephew won’t consider any colleges outside the Wawa realm, or when a couple of colleagues spend a half hour warmly reminiscing about Wawa jingles, or when a local Tweeter cheekily suggests the death penalty for a robber stealing from Wawa, it sparks a sort of anthropological curiosity in me: How can any convenience store inspire this fanaticism? A level of loyalty usually reserved for sports teams, alma maters, firstborn sons? Surely there’s cash wrapped into those Shortis. Or free weed in the pizza chicken cheesesteak. Or a golden ticket in one of those Kandy Kakes. Otherwise, who are these people who have so much extra emotion lying around that they can invest it in something so pedestrian? What is the big freaking deal?
In fact, I suspect that the Wawa love lies not in the Sizzli or the Shorti or even the sum of all Wawa parts. This is a love rooted in sentimentality: the familiar glow of the Wawa highway sign on your journey home; the summer trips to the Wawa down the Shore; the feeling that in a world of change, the Shorti is, as one friend puts it, “our true north.”
Maybe in another few years, I’ll be a part of this curious fan club, too, forcing my husband to just hold it until we can get to a Wawa bathroom (so that we can then also buy some slightly-above-average coffee).
Until that happens, though, I can only watch and wonder — while I’m at the coffee bar, while I’m at the touchscreen, while I’m driving that long road back to the highway — just what it is about this funny-sounding chain that has Philadelphia so enamored. For now, I’ll quietly take my hoagie and think to myself: Wawa ain’t all that.
We’ve got plenty more Philly heresies where that came from in our “Fighting Words” package. See the lineup here, then go buy the July 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine, on newsstands now, or subscribe today.