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The Teenage Wasteland of Cumberland Farms

As a teenager in the ’90s, there was no better way to “look cool” than by casually drinking coffee. For me, that meant iced coffee from Cumberland Farms.

Illustration of a gas station next to old buildings, in the daytime.

I grew up in Amesbury, Massachusetts, which is a small, but not miniature, post-industrial mill town north of Boston. Its downtown features an amphitheatre backdropped by a waterfall, and makes for a nice postcard. As its Main Street ambles away from the center of town, it eventually links up with the Merrimack River, whose banks are lined with Federal and Victorian mansions built with wealth generated from the mills. But today, it’s mostly a place people drive through en route to vacation in New Hampshire or Maine. The 19th-century mills have since been converted into artist studios, insurance offices, nondescript American bistros, breweries (there are two now), and airy, half-million dollar condos.

Quaint Amesbury eventually cedes space to strip mall Amesbury, to corporate chain Amesbury — best evidenced by the fact that the town, with just over 16,000 people, supports two locations of Cumberland Farms. Colloquially known as Cumbies, the regional convenience store and gas station chain is ubiquitous in New England, especially in Massachusetts. It’s where you go for butter when the grocery store is closed, or for a cheap gallon of milk. It’s where you use your older sibling’s ID to buy cigarettes when you’re 16, and where you buy junk food when you’re stoned.

Illustration of gas station nestled among quaint buildings at dusk.

Famously, it is not where you go for a good cup of coffee. The coffee at Cumberland Farms is quintessentially gas-station coffee, in that it is never clear when it was last brewed. It’s always either burnt or stale, leaving an acrid taste on your tongue. Cumberland might not be your first choice of where to get coffee — but it might be where you go for your first cup of coffee.

I met my friend Mark sometime during the first week of eighth grade. He had just moved to town from Exeter, New Hampshire, and he knew no one. We were in health class together, and I remember being distracted by his good looks, like a young Johnny Depp. His haircut was cool in an intentional way that I hadn’t seen before in my peer group, and though his clothes weren’t as new or as trendy as mine, he looked better in them.

We were paired together to work on a project that required us to mock up a cover design for an anti-drug pamphlet, and we landed on McGruff the Crime Dog as our main idea. I scribbled some naive “just say no” aphorisms that could only come from the head of a kid who didn’t yet know how good being stoned could feel, and as I finished, I looked over and saw that Mark had, from memory, produced a line-perfect illustration of McGruff.

I was impressed and I was intimidated — I’d never met anyone with as much artistic skill, not even an adult. I’d known Mark for a week at this point, but I also knew instinctively that I wanted to know him for much longer than that.

Illustration of the interior of a bedroom with posters on the walls and a surfboard leaning against a desk.

By high school, Mark’s house became the center of my friend group. It’s where we’d make prank calls, watch movies, listen to music, and play video games. The house was also situated on Elm Street, just a few doors down from one of Amesbury’s two Cumberland Farms.

I remember that around the time we all started getting our drivers’ licenses, some of my friends began engaging in other, more adult, behavior like having sex (not me, I was a card-carrying high school virgin), smoking cigarettes, and drinking coffee. I’d never had the stuff to that point, despite living with two parents who always had a pot warming (burning?) on the counter. It never occurred to me that I could drink coffee until I saw my friends doing so.

I’d known Mark for more than three years at this point, but I was still intimidated by him. Maybe I thought that if I mimicked him I would somehow come to possess some of his unerring coolness. He looked like the protagonist in an S.E. Hinton novel, smoking his cigarette, drinking his coffee black. I didn’t think I wanted to smoke — I was a jock, and I needed my lungs for hockey practice, though I would eventually cave and learn to luxuriate in the act of chain-smoking, especially with Mark — but coffee, I could do. I knew coffee wasn’t mind-altering, and that it wasn’t going to do anything bad to my body, but it still felt decidedly adult. I wanted to be cool, to be older too, so I started drinking coffee.

Illustration of a teen boy wearing a white tank top smoking and hanging out of the open drivers’ side door of a car.

The first iced coffee I drank was from the Elm Street Cumbies. I filled it with a bit of half-and-half and a bit of granulated sugar, because that’s how my mother drank it. The sugar didn’t melt, but every so often it was a treat to suck up a cube’s worth with the straw. It took me some years to get into hot coffee, and some years more to drink my coffee black.

We spent less time inside Mark’s house after we got our drivers’ licenses. We became less interested in playing FIFA and making prank calls, and more interested in driving up and down the strip at Hampton Beach or rolling through the streets of Amesbury in search of gazing balls and lawn ornaments to smash. Still, Mark’s house was the place to meet, where we’d consolidate our cars and pile as many bodies as we could into Mark’s Jeep Cherokee or my (mother’s) Ford Taurus. Mark’s Jeep was red with plush gray seats. During surf season, it smelled like a wetsuit. Most other times, it smelled like cigarettes.

I knew Mark in middle school; I knew Mark in high school; I knew Mark in college. I didn’t know Mark after then, because no one knew Mark after then. When we were 13, we barely knew each other, but we knew we liked to spend time together, and that was enough. He made me buzz and I made him laugh, and he liked all of my friends, and he became friends with all of my friends. Throughout high school, we played soccer together and ate lunch together and drove aimlessly through Amesbury together with our friends while listening to Taking Back Sunday. I don’t remember the exact rate at which I drank iced coffee from Cumberland Farms, but I can’t really picture myself at 17, at or around Mark’s house, without one in my hand, either.

Illustration of three teen boys lounging on a green lawn, coffee cups and cigarettes strewn among them.

When we were 19, 20, and 21, we took drugs together and drank together, and I started smoking cigarettes because I wanted to be cool. We drove to the casino, Foxwoods, with my older brother Sean, and we unironically dined at the Hard Rock Cafe. My brother ate salmon and drank Kahlua and puked in the bathroom; Mark and I bought two packs of Winstons because we wanted to try a new cigarette. They burned our throats, and we never smoked Winstons again.

We stopped at Cumberland Farms on Elm Street before that trip. I remember this because there used to be one of those discount DVD carousels set up close to the register, not far from the entrance, which contained several copies of Speed on this particular day. We got shitty iced coffees and the Winstons in question, and we joked about how funny it would have been if the bus from Speed couldn’t go above 50 mph — not below — without it exploding. All it has to do is stop, but the bus driver keeps the needle perilously close to 50 for two straight hours.

We didn’t win big at the casino, but we said we’d go again. And then we never got to.

There is a Dunkin’ Donuts in Amesbury, and there are several independent coffee shops, too. But none of them were located next to the hub of my high school universe, so none of them hold any pull over me. I don’t particularly like this about myself, or the fact that a combination gas station/convenience store chain factors so heavily into my emotional history (or my emotional present and future, for that matter).

Illustration of a gas station next to old buildings, in the daytime.

Both Cumberland Farms locations in Amesbury have been remodeled and renovated — they are all bright white and lime green now — but they were mostly all flickering fluorescent lights and electric blue and faded orange back then. The cheap tiled floor looked like it hadn’t been mopped in weeks; one would not know if it were winter or summer, to look at it. The entrance was on one side of the store, and the coffee station was on the far left of the opposite wall.

I don’t spend much time in Amesbury anymore, and I haven’t spent any time at what was Mark’s house in 15 years. I don’t drink the iced coffee at Cumberland Farms anymore, either — though I’d like to have an occasion to. I still like an iced coffee with half-and-half and granulated sugar, which is the only way Cumberland Farms coffee, grapefruit-after-brushing-your-teeth bitter, can be consumed. I still drink it exactly like that, and the coffee station is still on the wall opposite the entrance, to the left.

Cumberland Farms disposable paper paper cup next to two cigarettes.

Darya Shnykina is an illustrator based in Moscow whose restrained and soothed color palette captures calm, introspective moments.

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