Looking for a summer love? Don’t bother with dimly-lit bars serving $6 Coors Lights. Skip the club scene and the electronic beats. Even your corner coffee shop with the expensive — but admittedly delightful — light roast may not be the right spot. The real place you should plop down is in your local Wawa. At least that’s what the data from Craigslist’s Missed Connections suggests.
For a February 2013 issue of Psychology Today, Dorothy Gambrell created an infographic mapping the most popular spots for missed connections across the nation. For the majority of states, the prime destinations were the supermarket, the gym, public transit and Walmart (in 15 states, yikes). Aside from Illinois, which oddly has its top location as “at home,” and Rhode Island where apparently you’re bound to meet in a parking lot, Pennsylvania takes the snack cake for the oddest spot with convenience stores — a.k.a. Wawa (and, okay, Sheetz).
If you’re unfamiliar with Missed Connections, it’s the section on Craigslist where Internet sentimentalists write short posts about a person they saw somewhere — or someone they had a brief conversation with — who they can’t get out of their head. A lot of it is romantically oriented. Occasionally they can get a bit weird.
As I write this, 30 Wawa-related missed connections are currently listed on the Philadelphia site, dating back to March 24th (the posts disappear after 45-day limit), out of 1,003 missed connections. Open it up nearby locations like Central Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Delaware, that number grows to 86 Wawa-romantics out of 2,367 posts. That adds up to about 4 percent of the Missed Connection community. While that may on first glance may seem small, a large chunk of the other messages aren’t actually missed connections. Artist, writer and researcher Ingrid Burrington found during a study of Missed Connections data that almost half of the posts on the site fall into a “Grey Area” that includes, replies to other posts, tirades about former relationships, and saucy poems or song lyrics. The rest of the posts for Philadelphia are scattered about the city or don’t include a specific location.
But either way, there are a lot of hopeless — or misguided — romantics out there, crossing their fingers that a few Internet clicks may connect them with the love of their life. And a lot them appear to be frequenting your local Wawa; buying sandwiches, filing up on gas, and hoping not to miss another opportunity.
So why would a place that specializes in made-to-order hoagies be a top spot for almost-lovers?
Sociologists cite several factors that make Wawa a trifecta for romantic encounters: It’s a place we frequent, it’s conducive – enough – for conversation, and it lends itself to the changing landscape of the commercial sector.
“Wawa is a place we often go to, it’s a part of our routine,” said Amanda Czernaiski, an associate professor of sociology at Temple University, explaining that if you’re somewhere a lot, it ups the likelihood of bumping into a potential love interest there.
Czernaiski added that the disappearance of traditional meeting areas like bookstores has worked in the favor of places like Wawa. In addition, coupling the decline of old meeting areas was the improvement of existing public spaces, which has made them more pleasant to spend time at.
“Public places (stores, parks, bars) have been upgraded in the past few decades, so that they are more conducive as venues to meet people,” wrote sociologist Michael Rosenfeld in an email to Philly Mag. “I think people are finding new social uses for all sorts of public and semi-public spaces.”
While at first glance, Wawa may not appear to be prime spot to spend an afternoon, it has become a social gathering area of its own kind; marked by short but frequent visits and — usually — friendly interactions.
Desiree Amaker, who’s worked at Wawa for nine years, describes her Wawa at the corner of Second and South streets on Friday and Saturday nights when the party-goers come out as another club along the strip. The store fills up with shoppers searching for snacks and sodas as their nights come to a close.
If Wawa can be considered a club during the night, then it’s surely a café during the day. Aside from the masses of people that visit the store on a daily basis, Wawa has also upgraded its design layout in way that promotes casual conversation by adding indoor seating. The feature was first implemented at the Wawa on Walnut and Broad Streets that opened last September. The simple addition changes the store from being a stop-and-go convenience store into a place to lounge during a break from work or while waiting for a friend.
Lori Bruce, a spokesperson for Wawa, said so far the seating has been well received and that the company is considering adding it to other new urban locations in the future.
However with or without the seating, Wawas have always had a community element to them. Spend some time at the Wawa at 17th and Arch Streets and it becomes evident that many of the people in the area have made it their go-to spot — and with community comes connections. Not only between the customers, but also between the workers and the customers they serve daily.
During a recent visit, Parrish Thomasila, one of the deli-counter workers at the Arch Street store, easily switched from English to Italian when one of his regulars came up to the coffee carafes. They exchanged a few words, then wished each other well.
“It’s part of the job,” said Thomasila, describing how bonding with customers is an essential part of his day-to-day. Thomasila said over the two and-a-half years he’s worked at Wawa he’s picked up Spanish, Italian and even some Portuguese through speaking with customers.
Lesha McDonald who works at the Wawa down on Second and South echoed a similar sentiment. She said she believes the company’s emphasis on providing friendly customer service has led to the high amount of customer-to-worker missed connections.
“[I think it’s] how present out attitudes and personalities are,” said McDonald while describing her interactions with customers. “We kind of spoil them.”
For McDonald, bumping into flirts while at work is very common. She described how at her old location she used to have a customer who would come in every day and give her a rose. However, after she began working on Second Street she lost touch with the man and nothing further arose.
However, for some, relationships have blossomed. Robert Robb, a Wawa regular, announced his engagement to a Wawa general manager in response to a Wawa tweet posted earlier this year, which asked for stories from customers who have found their soul mates at Wawa.
In an article for a bridal blog, Robb recounts how he’d often go in to the store and flirt with the GM but would repeatedly get “blown off.” Until one day he gave her a playful ultimatum; either she would have to go on a date with him or he would stop coming in the store in order to save what was left of his ego. Consequently, she took the date and his number.
The couple is reportedly getting married this June.
While Robb’s relationship and the others were able to bloom without an intermediary, many Wawa romantics turn to Craigslist to bridge the gap between themselves and their convenience store crushes.
Arielle Kuperberg, an assistant sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensburg, said that meeting online is the more cautious approach. Online dating lends itself to the shyer romantics who aren’t as comfortable approaching strangers. It also eliminates the chance of an awkward public rejection.
In addition, Czernaiski added that in modern day society, online interactions have become the norm. She describes it as almost “second nature” to search for a crush online. In our tech heavy society the idea of an online wing-man like Craigslist has caught on. A spokesperson for Craigslist said the site gets over 1,000 original missed connection posts a month.
Whether the posts will illicit a response from their subjects though is hard to say. While reply posts on the site are common, many are not actually from the subject of the message, rather they’re from web-surfers adding their comments. In addition, Craigslist doesn’t track email responses.
While the odds of one person out of the 1.6 million in Philadelphia reading the post that’s written for them and then responding amicably may be slim, the promise of possibility keeps those filling up on gas and buying sandwiches locked into the website.
For them and for us, even if nothing materializes from the posts, we will continue to believe that chance encounters in ordinary spaces aren’t just confined to the Paris patisseries and New York museums of the world, but that they can happen here too; on Chestnut Street, at a dog park in South Philly, or even at our favorite convenience store.
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