When UniMini (University Minimart) shut down at the end of our senior year, we were devastated. Nevermind that we were graduating, and moving out of Baltimore. UniMini was the go-to late night food place off campus, for those of us who didn’t feel like trekking to Paper Moon to wait in the line for their mediocre food and terrible service. At UniMini, we knew the dark-haired guys behind the counter (flirts, all of them) and we knew their falafel– or at least, I did. While my friends sometimes ordered cheese steaks and chicken salad sandwiches, I always ordered a 6-inch falafel. It was unconventional- it came on French bread, instead of wrapped, or stuffed in a pita- but it was always fresh, saucy, soft, and tasty. Peering through the stacks of bread that almost covered the condiments, I would hungrily point out, what I needed for my falafel– “Yes, pickles are good, lots of onions, tomatoes, yes I want the hot sauce… no, a little more…” UniMini was small and hot and dirty and while I waited for my falafel to fry, I’d wander through the grimy aisles, looking at the various yogurt drinks, chips, and soup cans placed haphazardly onto the shelves. Once I got my falafel, wrapped in foil, I’d hold it in my hands like it was a warm, tiny baby, pay, and then sit on the crumbling brick wall outside the shop, and eat it as I watched drunken revelers make their way home, or into UniMini for sustenance of their own.
But UniMini shut down, I graduated college and moved out of Baltimore, and Starbucks, Coldstone, and Chipotle opened along St. Paul. The sidewalks were repaved, the cracks covered, and Unimini reopened across the street from its old location. I walked by it late at night, when I was in Baltimore in July, and I didn’t recognize it at first. It was large and tidy and well lit. I wandered through the aisles. Everything looked so… clean. I ordered a falafel and paid, and no one smiled at me from behind the counter. I took it outside and sat on the chairs that were arranged near tables on the patio outside the shop. I unwrapped my warm foil treasure and took a bite. The French bread was the same, and I’m sure the falafel was the same, too, but something about the absence of smiles, and mostly, the absence of grime, undermined the taste. Or, maybe it was the fact that now, living in New York, I eat falafel regularly, no longer saving it for a late-night treat since at $2 a pop it’s so deliciously cheap. Either way, the feeling of magic- that I biting into this mouth-watering concoction created despite the dust and rats and crumbling brick wall- had disappeared. I was biting into a slightly strange (French bread?) version of falafel, from a fluorescently-lit, corporate looking UniMini. Boo. I miss college.