Tell me your story; it’s for the paper

August 06, 2015. Photo by Fred Solis.

I saw a woman with a Minnie-Mouse-eared Santa hat, smoking a cigarette in her van Friday outside in the parking lot at a gas station. A rosary as well as a tree air freshener hung from her rear view mirror.

She looked to be extracting a few minutes of relaxation on a Friday afternoon.

Now, I tried not to stare so as not to appear creepy. But I wondered, though, what exactly is this person’s story?

Was she trying to get away from her family and kids for a few minutes? Had she just gotten off of work?

Why the Santa hat, and why the mouse ears? I couldn’t just go up to the van and ask her. That, again, would be rude. I turned to the other side.

There, a woman scarfed down what looked to be a Big Mac and took a picture with her phone. OK.

Inside, it seemed like 50 people came and went. A man held a 2-year-old boy with dirty bare feet. How did those feet get dirty?

There always seems to be 1,000 different stories at the gas station each time I go in to grab some needed caffeine. They’re good ways to really observe the community.

Where we shop, where we eat, who we socialize with, even where we go to church sometimes depends on socio-economic factors.

But we all need gas. There’s not a station selling farm-raised, free-trade, organic, unleaded gasoline. So as long as the store is clean and the food is cheap, a gas station attracts a wide swath of the population.

That makes me happy. I think we should all be exposed to each other. I think it provides context for the people who live behind the gates.

They provide context to me, at least.

I have found myself explaining Newton over the last few years to family members and friends as a safe place.

The line I usually give revolves around most violence and weird things people read about the city stay pretty well within certain communities.

If you’re not into hard drugs, you’re usually OK. That’s what I say. And, really, that thought process is kind of problematic. It provides me with a safe way to say that it’s other people’s fault that bad things happen to them.

I do believe we’re a society sorely lacking personal accountability at times. However, as a community member, I don’t think I get to write off violent crime because it hasn’t happened to me or to the people in my bubble.

Gas stations allow me to look outside of that bubble and, I think, are an important resource for us as we continue to grow socially and financially segregated as a country.

As journalists, as people, we go the direction often of least resistance, of convenience or easiness. We hate to be uncomfortable. I think where I fall short sometimes is that I end up writing about the same 300 people over and over.

But I rarely step back to ask if what I’m comfortable with is actually a good thing.

Sometimes I think about talking to different people standing in line to get some snacks and saying, “Tell me your story; it’s for the paper.”

Perhaps most would just look at me strangely. I don’t know if anyone would read the articles. But it’s an idea I toy with, at least as I sip my cheap quart of soda while people watching in my car.