How Do You Know You Live in a Small Town?

It’s the summer of 1986 or 1987. I’m a high school kid, on my way home from my job at McDonald’s in the Seattle suburbs, and stop at a 7-11 for gas. I go inside, give the clerk ten bucks, go back out, and start pumping.

While I’m using a squeegee on the windshield, an old sedan pulls up to the other side of the pump. The car looks like it’s been on a long road trip, and has a couple of kids (with pillows and lots of other stuff) in the back. It’s a warm day, and the windows are rolled down. A middle-aged woman jumps out of the car and puts the nozzle in her gas tank.

A moment later, she yells in frustration to her kids: “Oh! We have to pay first! I forgot we’re not in Eastern Wahrshington [sic] anymore! Nobody here trusts anybody!”

As she slammed the nozzle back into place and stormed into the 7-11, I couldn’t help snickering at the whole thing and wondering what her problem was.

That was over thirty years ago. I’ve of course grown up a lot, and my attitude toward country life has shifted 180 degrees since high school. But I’ve never forgotten that incident at the 7-11. To this day, I use the availability of “pump before you pay” gasoline as an indicator of small town trust that truly distinguishes these places from larger communities.

Our town has three gas stations. Two are just off the freeway, and have standard pay-at-the-pump credit card readers. If you want to pay with cash, you have to go inside and pay before you pump – just like I had to, at the 7-11. Given the proximity to the freeway, and the large volume of travelers coming through, this isn’t at all surprising.

The third station is different. It’s much farther inside the town, on the main feeder road coming in from the country. That station is owned by the Fogg family, which has been in the area forever (and even has a rural road named after them), and which also runs a propane / heating oil delivery service out of that building. There’s no pay at the pump option. Whether you’re using a credit card or paying cash, you pump first. Then you go inside and pay.

And you know what’s even more remarkable? When I need to order propane or heating oil, I don’t need to give my name or address. I’m not a famous guy. I don’t order oil or propane more than a couple of times a year. But, without asking, they know (1) who I am and (2) the address to deliver to. (“Oh, yeah, the truck is going by your place tomorrow morning. I’ll have them stop. How empty is your tank?”) Needless to say, you don’t have to pay first for heating oil, either. If I’m home, I’ll write a check when they deliver it. If not, they leave the slip and trust me to send in a payment.

Remember those two gas stations near the freeway? The Fogg family owns one of those, in addition to the smaller one with pay-after-you-pump. It has a large display sign – the kind with movable letters, that someone has to use a long pole to arrange. The messages change pretty often, and make all kinds of community announcements like “CONGRATULATIONS BOB AND LAURA SMITH MARRIED 50 YEARS”.

You might see a sign like that in a larger town, especially if “Bob and Laura” are well known. But I can pretty much guarantee that a message they displayed last week will never show up outside a small town like ours:

Kidney Sign.jpg

Yes, you are reading that correctly. Someone in the Fogg family needs a kidney – and  they are using this sign to spread the word.

Suburban Seattle High School Me would’ve seen this and wondered what the Foggs were thinking. “After all,” SSHS Me would’ve thought, “who would donate a kidney to a stranger?

But you know what I’ve learned in the 30 years since high school? No one in a rural community is really a stranger. This place is a community. I think it’s wonderful that news and needs can be shared this way.

And it would not surprise me in the least if someone around here calls that number and offers to make that donation.

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