Yesterday I stopped for gasoline and pulled behind a red Cadillac. As I selected my grade of fuel, a young black man emerged from the convenience store and walked to the Caddy. He was dressed in dark baggy jeans, white sneakers, a red jacket with white leather sleeves, and a red baseball cap. He looked good. He put a case of Corona in the trunk and started to pump gas. I noticed a police car at a light on the corner next to the gas station. I also noticed that the Caddy guy was pumping premium grade, like me.
My old Ford just went over 100K miles. I started using premium grade when the price reached $3.30/gallon as a way to clean out the injectors or whatever. And the car runs much better as a result. Anyway, I was curious as to why the guy next to me was using it. I wanted to ask, but hesitated. It wasn’t because he was black, it was because strangers don’t just start up conversations at the pump. I decided to take a chance.
“Hey, excuse me.” I said.
The guy looked over at me and raised his eyebrows.
“I noticed you’re using premium. I am too.” Then I thought about how weird this must sound. What am I, a survey-taker? “Anyway, I was wondering whether you’re using it because you have to with your car, or if it’s because the price has dropped so low.” Now I’m possibly insulting him. Awesome.
He smiled, “Oh yeah, I have to put it in this engine. Otherwise it runs like terribly.”
“Nice. I started using it when the prices dropped. But yeah, it even makes my piece-of-crap run better.” I said, pointing to my station wagon.
We talked for about a minute. He had a Caribbean accent. We were both using hand gestures. I told him about my old Range Rover and how I was paying $4/gallon because I had to use premium in it. He laughed, empathetically. We both finished pumping at about the same time. That’s when the police car from the light pull into the station. But he didn’t drive up to a pump, and he didn’t pull into a parking space, he just parked there between the pumps and the building–staring at us.
“I guess that’s my cue to leave,” my new friend said. Then he smiled and drove away.
My heart raced. I finished pumping and kept looking at the policeman. He was white, and he was definitely staking us. Did he suspect foul play? Was the old white guy trying to buy a dime bag? Do they even still call them dime bags? Was the guy I was speaking with a criminal? Did the cop think I was possibly in trouble? Or was the police officer interested in us because the other guy was a well-dressed black man driving a shiny red Cadillac? What would he have done had I also been black?
America is a strange place these days. But it’s nice to know that you can still strike up a conversation with strangers.