by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & hey're your friends, right? They wouldn't want you to be inconvenienced. & r & & r & "We don't want to put you out," they say, and it's high time that we take them at their word. "Oh, just get us a little something. No need to make a fuss."

Exactly. So late at night on December 24th, where else do you need to go?

Hit your local convenience store. When it comes to gift-giving, a gas 'n' gulp is your least fuss-making option.

I know, you're thinking the local mini-mart is only good for smokes and a six-pack. But where's the holiday spirit in that?

Consider: You're browsing the convenience store aisles, working hard at selecting that very special something for that very special someone. And some rush-rush guy barges in and barks out, "I need some Benson & amp; Hedges Menthol Ultra-Light 100s."

See, that's selfish right there. He's not in a giving holiday mood. He's just looking out for No. 1.

But not you. Surrounded by the bounty of a convenience store, you're feeling magnanimous. You feel like giving something to everyone who walks by. And what do they wish for, if they're limited to what's in a food mart? Gift cards. Gas cards. Corn nuts. (No, really. One guy said he loves 'em as stocking-stuffers.) And Arizona iced tea, one young woman mentioned. ("But think big," I said, gesturing grandly. "You can have anything in this store." She thought, and said, "Then I'd like about 10 of them.")

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & o you're stuck inside the corner store, and it's Christmas Eve. You have to get creative. What you have to do is: You have to think in themes.

In other words, present your friends with some lovely (and thematically arranged) gift baskets. The Auto Repair Collection, for example: motor oil, transmission fluid, maybe a nice funnel. (You can never be too prepared.) Or the Goin' Campin' Survival Raft: an Energizer Brilliant Beam flashlight, some batteries, warm gloves, maybe one of those Tibetan knit snow caps with the dangly ears.

Or you could try the Nostalgia Candy Variety Pack. Revisit the sugar-highs of your youth with Dots, Junior Mints and Charleston Chews. (Remember those?) Or Abba-Zaba ("chewy taffy -- peanut butter center -- long-lasting fun!"), 3 Musketeers ("45 percent less fat than the leading chocolate brands"), a Reese's Big Cup ("packs some serious peanut butter") or Jolly Ranchers (a 7-ounce package contains 770 calories -- and, other than carbohydrates, absolutely no nutrients of any kind).

"Anything with chocolate in it sells really well," drawled a voice from behind the counter.

Chocolate! That's it! Chocolate and Romance! A themed gift basket that keeps on giving! I call it the "Getting Lucky" Romance Special. (Not available pre-packaged. Last-minute shopping at the mini-mart requires hunting and gathering.)

Guys, the idea is to collect items that will put her in a holiday mood and the mood for something else, too. Start with Gallo Family Vineyards Twin Valley White Zinfandel, just $1.59 the bottle. (Better get the four-pack and save three for her.)

Next, as hors d'oeuvres, you can serve David's Jalapeno Hot Salsa Sunflower Seeds ($1.29) and impress her with your labial skills. Actual quote: "Experienced seeders pop a handful of seeds in their mouth and store them in one cheek, then transfer a seed over to one side with their tongues, crack it, then eat the seed and spit the shell."

She will look on in open-mouthed amazement.

Fancy smoked oysters come next ("in the easy-open can") for an aphrodisiac that costs just $2.79. (These were marked, I kid you not, "Ready to Eat / Since 1893.")

And for the hearty-meal portion of the festivities, we selected a slightly dented can of Nalley Beef Stew ($3.89).

For dessert? Your choice of Godiva Belgian Blends Dark Chocolate Mocha (a subtle hint, that Godiva bit) or "Fancy Southern Pecan Pie": individually wrapped, 3 inches in diameter, $3.59. Just stick a candle in it. She'll swoon.

The rest is self-explanatory. Binaca, for "the blast that lasts" ($2.89). No-Doz, the poor man's Viagra ($1.19). A three-pack of Trojan "Shared Pleasure" Latex Condoms (with "Warm Sensations" Lubricant), just $3.39 (or $1.13 per, um, mutually pleasurable episode). And back in the comfort of your own boudoir, you can capture the entire experience using a Snapster Ready-to-Use Camera (with 27 exposures, and we do mean exposures) for $7.79.

All told, that's just $33.18 (plus tax) for a December 25th you'll never forget.

Or you could really cut loose and purchase what one clerk assured me was the single most extravagant item in his entire inventory: the 18-pack of Bud Light ($12.99).

Still, I had a question for my speedy-store clerk: Has anybody ever come in here actually looking for a gift to give someone else?

"We had roses in here in February," he said. "Sold right out. Real roses." Each one in its own plastic sleeve. "We had a lot of guys in here looking for those back then."

A convenience store Valentine's Day, then. And you thought that guys don't put any thought or effort into selecting gifts for their significant others. You thought Romance was dead.

Book and Brew @ Heritage Bar & Kitchen

Thu., Jan. 27, 5:30 p.m.
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