I want to tell you about my two favorite gas stations in Oakland.
There are two gas stations equidistant from my house, but they are not my favorites — one is just off the freeway and only accessible on my way home. The little store is cramped, barely stocked, and the cashier sits wholly encased by a glass partition. There is no sense of warmth or friendliness. The other close gas station is a Valero. At a busy corner with an ice cream parlor on one side and an apartment complex on the other, it always bustles with people. It’s a fine gas station, albeit sometimes challenging to get in or out of.
But up the street from the Valero is a local gas station that only just reopened, after who knows how long of a renovation. There are clear “in” driveways and “out” driveways (I know — that probably seems overly picky? But it makes a difference!). The store is spaced out and they always have sour gummies. I’ve never seen a man working the counter; the whole operation seems to be staffed by several generations of smiling, competent women. They all wear hijabs and every time I’ve been in, at least one woman has a cordless phone tucked between her scarf and her ear, ringing me up and giving directions or exchanging gossip on the phone. They always compliment my hair. It’s also the gas station I stop at when I’m heading east towards the mountains or Rilke’s trainer.
My other favorite gas station is near R’s house. Sometimes I stop there on my way to her apartment and pick up peanut M’n’Ms and a lottery ticket. They just renovated their store, expanding to nearly double the size and replacing the linoleum floor with large, grey tiles. Every time I buy a lottery ticket, the one of the men behind the counter says, “Come back and let us know if you won.” There is warmth in the way he says it, so I smile back. An older man parks his black pick up truck permanently on the curb in front of the gas station. I think he lives in his truck; sometimes in the morning when I drive by, the windows are thick with inner condensation. Every time I pull up, he teases me that my car needs to be washed. It makes me think of all the guarded moments in my life when I have encountered men — not sure of their intentions, of what level of violence may be coming my way. It makes me think of this because with the men at this gas station, I do not feel guarded.
I love gas stations in general. Even before I adopted Rilke, I took road trips alone. Illinois to Missouri every other week for a year, Illinois to Texas and back, Illinois to California, back and forth from California to British Columbia four or five times, up into the mountains dozens of times. I drive a manual Subaru Impreza — four wheel drive for mountains and snow, with a hatchback that I somehow believe can fit anything I need to carry. In my car, I feel free and safe.
Gas stations were oases on those trips — a reliable spot to use the bathroom and restock on coffee, Twizzlers, pretzels or popcorn, cheese sticks and M’n’Ms. They offered a small moment of human connection. There is something wonderfully predictable about gas stations: half-burnt coffee, overly-sweet pound cake in plastic packaging, 2-for-$1 Spanish peanuts and orange slices, lottery tickets under the countertop, a give-one-take-one penny dish, a bathroom that probably needs a key on a terrible, disgusting spoon or plastic rod. But for all their same-ness, they are staffed by people who live in the place. What a strange coming together — of moving through and staying put.
The gas stations made me feel in control, as though no matter how far I hurled myself and my car out into the world, there would be something to sustain us. And in that small way, they made me feel safe, even when I was throwing myself from one place to another in an effort to start fresh, to erase the past, to escape the idea of who I was.
These two gas stations here in Oakland stand as islands in my mind, spaces of some relative safety. Is it that they recognize and remember me? Is it that I feel seen as a person first there, not as a woman or an object? They act as an anchor and as an echo of all the far-flung gas stations I’ve visited in the past.