Here’s something you don’t see much outside of small towns like Piper City (population ~800):
That’s right — a gas station without pay-at-the-pump. And, what’s more, you don’t have to pay before you pump! When we moved here after several years of life in Los Angeles, it was astounding to discover that there were still places in America where they trusted you to pump first and pay second.
The gas station/convenience store in our town (the Loda Quick Stop) had similar pumps when we arrived in 2001. They’ve since upgraded to pay-at-the-pump, but if you want to pay cash you can still pump first and then come inside to pay. I also pay inside whenever I’m going to buy something in the shop, like dog food. I can pump the gas, go inside and get the dog food, and pay for everything in one transaction. The owner, George, knows and greets nearly every customer by name — and, locally, the store is usually referred to as “George’s” rather than as “the Quick Stop.” (“I need to run over to George’s and get a case of beer.”)
On 9/11, George’s was the site of a very important early lesson in rural community life. We’d been in the area less than two months, and we were still being initiated into the local culture. As we drove by George’s that evening, we saw a long line of cars queued up to get gasoline (remember how frightened we all were about oil disruptions?); there were easily two or three dozen vehicles, and the line snaked around the corner. I did a double-take, thinking I’d been transported back to the 1970s. Anyway, it’s sad to admit, but right then I got caught up in the fear — and decided to get in line so I could top off my gas tank.
George had pretty much his entire staff out at the gas pumps (remember, this was before pay-at-the-pump). After each customer filled up, the staffer would write the amount on a piece of paper, give that paper to the customer, and then tell him/her to pull ahead, park, and go inside to pay. They’d then reset the pump and pull the next customer in. If someone had wanted to sneak off without paying, it would’ve been easy to have done so in that chaos — but I don’t think anyone did. And George knew no one would.
That in itself was an eye-opening lesson, after living in Los Angeles. But what stuck with me even more was my conversation with George’s young employee who was tending my gas pump. As we waited for the tank to fill, I commented that with all this demand for gasoline I was surprised they hadn’t raised the prices. She gave me a look of astonishment and said, “We would never do that. We’re just going to pump until we run out.”
I thought about that a lot over the next few days and weeks, as reports of outrageous price-gouging rolled in from other places around the country. We would never do that. Not here. That’s when I knew, without a doubt, that this place was different from pretty much every other place I’d lived before. And my only regret was that we hadn’t been able to come sooner.