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.

Small Town Transactions

What’s it like doing transactions in a small town? Two quick examples from my last 24 hours should give a good idea.

First off is dealing with our Township government. We have just a handfull of elected officials, and each one wears several hats; the Clerk is in charge of voter registration and election administration, among other things. In recent days, it’s occurred to me that there is a chance I may get called out of town on business next Tuesday — the day of the Michigan presidential primary. As it’s extremely important for me to vote, I thought I’d inquire about getting an absentee ballot. I wasn’t optimistic; in most larger places where we’ve lived, it’s necessary to get those requests in far in advance of the election. It’s probably too late, I told myself, but it never hurts to ask.

Forgetting that yesterday was a government holiday, I called the local township clerk shortly before their usual closing time (they’re only open for a few hours, and only a few days a week). I was kicked into voice mail, and left a message with my name and number and a question: “I was wondering if there was still time to request an absentee ballot?” I didn’t ask for one. I didn’t say I wanted one. Just wanted to know if the deadline had passed.

The rest of the afternoon passed, and Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I left the Yeoman Farm Children with their grandfather and went off to attend the Jackson County Republican Lincoln Day Dinner. It was a terrific event, and the two of us had a nice evening out together. The keynote speaker was J.C. Watts, of whom Mrs. Yeoman Farmer in particular has been a big fan for many years.

We returned fairly late that evening. As the Yeoman Farm Children prepared to milk the goats, I went to my office and checked for email and voice messages. To my surprise, the township clerk had called back. In the message, she apologized for getting back to me so late, and said she’d put an absentee ballot request form in the mail to me, and that I’d probably get it Wednesday, and that I could then come right down and get my ballot and just make sure it was back by election day.

Think about that for a minute. This is a government official, hard at work even on a government holiday. She’s never met me and doesn’t know me from Joe Blow up the street, but (on a holiday), she not only took the time to return my call and answer my question — she looked up my address on the voter rolls and put a ballot request in the mail.

Can you imagine this happening in Los Angeles County?

That was last night. This morning’s transaction wasn’t quite as dramatic…but is still noteworthy. My 4×4 truck was getting low on gas, and snow was falling, and I wanted to make sure I had a full tank before taking goats to the butcher tomorrow. I ran a mile or so into town, pulled up to the pump…and did not swipe a credit card or deposit any money. I simply inserted the pump nozzle in my gas tank, selected the grade, and pumped about 18 gallons of gas. I put the nozzle back in its place, strolled into the shop, and only then paid for the fuel I’d pumped.

When was the last time you ever did that?

This particular gas station is owned by a family that’s been in the area so long, there are rural roads named after them. They also run a fuel oil and propane delivery service; when I need propane or oil, I simply walk past the front counter, go talk to one of the guys in a back office (usually the same guy who’ll be driving the truck), and tell him I need my tank filled. I don’t give my name, or my address. They just know. Heck, sometimes when the company’s owner (the guy with the road named after his family) is out driving around making oil deliveries and we haven’t gotten oil in a while…he’ll just stop his truck at our farm and ask if we need any. “We’re going to be having some nasty weather,” he might say, “and I just wanted to check.”

Has this ever happened to you, where you live?

Such is rural life in mid-Michigan.