TAMPA — It's 10 p.m. when the alarm clock goes off and Kara Patnoe gets ready for her overnight shift at a local convenience store.
She says her job is challenging and comes with a lot of responsibility, odd working hours, potential danger and very little pay — $8.25 an hour to be exact.
Patnoe arrives on time. Her first discovery - her co-worker called in sick. Now she must work the shift alone until 6 a.m.
"I hate when this happens," Patnoe said, "I'm very uncomfortable in the store alone, but I'm here to work."
Her list of duties is longer than the night allows. She sells the usual convenience store products to an awkward array of unique, and sometimes belligerent, late-night characters. Items such as gas, beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets are usually the biggest sellers. Adding to her nightly workload, she is responsible for making fresh doughnuts, which, according to her manager, must be ready to serve promptly at 3 a.m.
Patnoe is rather fearful not knowing if danger could come in the form of the next customer walking into the store.
"I knew this was part of the job when I signed on, but I need the work," Patnoe said.
The recent fatal shooting of Mohamoud Ibrahim, a 60-year-old Tampa convenience store owner, illustrates the inherent dangers for convenience store clerks. Ibrahim died while working at the 29th Street Store, 2802 N 29th St.
Police arrested Christopher Antonio Sheffield, 24, using video footage and information from witnesses.
Though the murder occurred at midday, it was a frightening reminder that clerks, often alone at night, take on a role that comes with more risks than rewards.
But some take the job because they feel they have no other choice.
Daniel Nolin, 29, rests at home from his day job as a maintenance crew member for Yacht Starship next to downtown's Channelside entertainment complex. It's a new job for the millennial who recently spent nine-plus years working behind the counter at several 7-11 corporate stores throughout Tampa.
"I started there at 18," Nolin said. "I liked the way they ran things because I'm the organized type. I did whatever my manager asked, and accepted any shift, including the dreaded graveyard."
Graveyard is the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift.
From the start, Nolin said, he excelled as a convenience store employee and was quickly promoted to assistant manager.
"The corporate bigwigs liked me, and would send me to help straighten out the stores on the graveyard shift that experienced excessive theft and absenteeism," Nolin said, describing his mixed emotions when remembering his years on the job.
"I consider myself lucky to be alive by only being robbed at gunpoint twice in my career," he said. "Having a gun staring in your face is not something I'd highly recommend."
Both times, Nolin said he followed store procedure and handed over the $40 or less that was in the register.
"At the end of the day, this is just a job," said Nolin. "It's not worth your life."
Convenience store clerks and others who work with the public in the early morning hours are dealing with a "separate culture," the inhabitants of which are not always the most upstanding citizens, said Cpl. Larry McKinnon, a spokesman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
"I've worked overnight for many years, and I've found alcohol and drugs are usually the common denominator for crime in these stores," said McKinnon, a 39-year veteran of law enforcement.
Tampa Police Department Capt. Mike Stout, 17-year veteran, leads a night-watch team that patrols north Tampa. He said a robust camera system, coupled with a management that takes an active interest in employee safety, is less likely to be victimized.
"If a store does it right, they can avert a robbery or serious disturbance" Stout said.
In the convenience store industry, employee pay and store standards may vary between corporate-owned, franchised and independent mom-and-pop operations. Employees for the small operators might not be paid as much or be subject to the same standards of employment as for multinational corporations such as 7-Eleven, Wawa and Thornton's.
"Running an independent convenience/gas business is hard work, but it's allowed me to send my son and daughter to college. It was my American dream," said Ali Sureni, who came to Tampa from India via New York City, and is the owner of the Golden King Food Mart on U.S. 301 in Thonotosassa.
"In the 11 years I've been in business in Tampa, I've gotten to know my customers by first name," he said.
A few years ago, Sureni was away from the store, when a robber pulled a gun on his cashier. A customer fought the robber and took the gun away, but not before a shot was fired into the ceiling.
"Aside from that incident, the store has helped my family have a good life," Sureni said.
For Patnoe, the job remained one filled with more anxiety than hope. Her pay barely covered the bills, but she soldiered on, especially when she found herself working alone.
"When you're by yourself, you learn to get smart and tough very quick," Patnoe says, "but always with a big smile."
Eventually, like Nolin, the former 7-Eleven worker, Patnoe found work in another profession. Both said they have no intention of returning to the life of a convenience store clerk.
Contact Mike Merino at firstname.lastname@example.org.