LEONARDO, N.J. -- A true-life Jersey scene: Behind the counter at the only convenience store in town, Kevin Smith, the 23-year-old clerk, snatches mouthfuls of Frosted Flakes in skim milk from a Styrofoam cup, while Vincent Pereira, 21, thumbs through July issues of Stacked, Juggs and Biker Parties.

Pereira, a clerk at the video store next door, prefers to while away his workday hanging here at the Quick Stop. But Smith, who has been out of town for two eventful months, has chosen the worst possible day to return -- New Jersey Lottery day -- and from the start of his 4 p.m. shift comes a steady parade of customers needing cigarettes or tickets to fortune, or both.

Look who's back! Kevin! Congratulations! ... How's movie life treating you? ... I need five Quick-Sixes, and my wife wants your autograph. ... I saw you on the news. You gonna do more films? That's your purpose in life?. ... Movies started in New Jersey, right? Thomas Edison!

It was on the news back in May: The kid jockeying the cash register at the Quick Stop has hit the big time. That month, "Clerks," a raunchy, low-budget, semi-autobiographical movie that Smith filmed at the Quick Stop and video store in three weeks in the middle of the night between shifts, captured two international awards at the Cannes Film Festival.

Now, after four years behind this counter, Smith, a postal worker's son who had never made a movie, has a "Jersey guy's trilogy" in the works and a huge advance from Universal Pictures for his next project.

So why is he back here in Leonardo, working at the Quick Stop?

"To stay grounded," he says, carving out a scoop of Entenmann's Golden Chocolatey Chip Loaf cake with a plastic spoon.

" 'Cause it's easy to believe your own press after a while. And then you forget all the important stuff. Writers buy into that lifestyle, and their writing loses that freshness. They wind up going back to that place where they did their best work.

"So," he adds, "I just figured I'd skip the middleman."

Lazy Letterman

Flash back to Kevin Smith's nearby hometown of Highlands: At Henry Hudson Regional High School he was, by his own admission, lazy. He excelled in English, wrote short stories to entertain himself and dreamed of writing for "Saturday Night Live." He hated basketball, yet won a varsity letter without a single dribble -- for videotaping the school's games.

Smith's life changed on Aug. 2, 1991 -- his 21st birthday -- when he saw Richard Linklater's first film, "Slacker," in a Greenwich Village theater. The movie -- a quirky, offbeat paean to the MTV generation, made for $23,000 -- spurred Smith to study filmmaking.

Drawing on his own experiences, Smith cooked up the idea for "Clerks," in which assorted customers and youthful hangers-on lend momentum to a plot centered on two fictionalized clerks, one from the Quick Stop, the other a philosopher-clerk from the video store.

A newspaper ad lured Smith to a film school in Vancouver, B.C. He stayed for only half of the eight-month program, but while he was there Smith met Scott Mosier, who would become the co-producer of "Clerks," and David Klein, its cinematographer.

"Clerks," which Smith wrote and directed, is an absurdist look at a day in the life of Quick Stop clerk Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) and video store clerk Randal (Jeff Anderson). It is a New Jersey movie, to be sure, but it's also a film for everyone who has ever looked at life through the well-focused lens of a menial job.

Smith selected much of the cast and crew from high school friends and hockey buddies at the rec center; others he auditioned at a community theater. The film's $27,575 budget was financed by credit cards, a loan from Smith's father and a $3,000 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant Smith got for a VW bug and Rabbit that were totaled in a storm and flood in January 1993.

The black-and-white movie was shot in March 1993, Klein coming to New Jersey from his Idaho home and Mosier from Vancouver. To qualify for a student discount on film from Kodak, Smith signed up for "Roast Suckling Pig," a cooking class at New York City's New School for Social Research that enabled him to get a student ID. He put the course on a credit card, then dropped it after buying the film stock he needed.

"Clerks" won its first award in January at the Robert Redford-sponsored Sundance Film Festival in Utah -- then was snapped up by Miramax Films, which has now released a 91-minute version -- trimmed from 104 minutes. The film opened in Washington Friday at the Cineplex Odeon Embassy.

"My interest in this film just stemmed from the number of times I not just laughed out loud, but so hard I thought I might get sick," says John Pierson, a producer's representative who peddled the film to Miramax.

Although the movie depicts no sex or violence, the Motion Picture Association of America originally gave it an NC-17 rating because of profane language -- making it the first narrative film to get the MPAA's most restrictive rating solely because of dialogue. But last month, after high-profile attorney Alan Dershowitz and filmmakers Danny DeVito, Callie Khouri and Cameron Crowe joined Smith in petitioning for reconsideration, an MPAA appeals board granted "Clerks" a softer R rating. No cuts were made to the film.

Smith, the youngest of three children, has been writing more screenplays. He sees "Clerks" as part of a trilogy that will include "Mall Rats and Busing," inspired by restaurant busboy jobs he held. And then there's "Dogma," a satire on the Catholic Church that draws on his eight years at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Highlands.

"There's a certain philosophy that goes with independent filmmaking: Don't write above your head. Ascertain what you have, and then write from there," says Smith. "So I had the convenience store, and then it was just a matter of building a story around the convenience store. And also, nobody had ever done anything on a convenience store before."

'You're Famous, Man'

Cut to the Quick Stop: The Skoal tobacco clock says 6 p.m., the lottery machine is slowing down, the line of impatient customers extends to the door. A blond kid with purple sunglasses and acne steps up: "You're famous, man." He asks for a carton of L&Ms. The bearded Smith puffs on a Marlboro Light 100. His denim shorts extend below his knees, and he's wearing black Nikes and white socks.

"You'll be in Hollywood, and you'll be flying back here for work."

"I will never be in Hollywood," Smith says earnestly.

Mosier, 23, is behind the counter now too, leafing through the July Playboy photo spread of Ronald Reagan's daughter Patti Davis. "God, she's got a nice {expletive} body," says Mosier, drinking a Yoo-Hoo and munching Fig Newtons.

Mosier grew up in Vancouver and briefly studied screenwriting in California before enrolling at the Vancouver Film School. He's no stranger to the Quick Stop. For four months, he spent 24 hours a day here and at the video store -- before, during and after the making of "Clerks." Like Smith, he has decided to remain in this white, working-class town off Sandy Hook Bay in Monmouth County. Today, he's in the store to keep Smith company.

"A walk down memory lane," says Mosier. "I had to learn to work all of this. I worked Kevin's shifts. Most of the time he was right next door, cutting the film."

At 7:37, with 12 customers waiting anxiously for tickets, the lottery machine dies. "Anybody waiting for the lottery, the machine just crapped out," Smith announces. He sighs. He flicks a lighter marked "Festival du Film, Cannes" onto a Marlboro Light 100, sips from a Snapple Orangeade and bites into a Joey's ("Luv in every bite!") Gourmet Devil.

Down at the Diner

Pan to the Marina Diner Restaurant, two miles up Route 36 in Belford: Smith has driven here in the new black Dodge Neon he bought at Motor World in Paramus. At closing time, 10:30 p.m., he had pulled down the Quick Stop's steel shutters -- the ones that are jammed shut in the movie because someone put gum in the locks -- and now he'll get together with other friends and associates from "Clerks."

Smith and Mosier order mashed potatoes. They share the gravy bowl. Smith also orders a hot chocolate with whipped cream. Pereira and Jason Mewes, a 19-year-old roofer who plays a crazed teenage drug dealer in the film, order mozzarella sticks.

Mosier is talking about how surprised he was when he came to Jersey and heard people talking openly and frequently about sex. But after the earthy dialogue in "Clerks" was warmly received in Utah and Seattle and Japan and "Cans" -- as they call it -- it was clear that the language had struck a universal nerve.

"I thought it was isolated to pure Jersey behavior to just sit around and 'talk smack,' " Smith says. "But I guess it's not such a Jersey phenomenon.

"One guy in the industry said it was the quintessential Jersey movie. And I remember thinking, 'What the hell does that mean?' "

He wants to spend the next 10 years writing and directing low-budget comedies.

Fade to glory ...