Yesterday at a gas station: SOYBEANS OR SALVAGE? A THRILLER/ CHAPTER ONE

Everybody belongs, everybody shows up, and the pancakes are not for sale.
CLAIRE O’BRIEN 2012

An ancient tractor barely avoided a harrowing end yesterday, thanks to a lucky fill-up at a  gas station presiding over an on-ramp of Hwy. 25, about an hour north of Las Cruces, New Mexico. I was driving by the station, heading for that on-ramp just before evening fell,  my brain in its usual idle state.  The tractor was right out in the parking lot, chained to the Junk Guy’s trailer.  I slammed on the brakes and made a criminal u-turn.  I’ve been driving like a crook ever since my brothers gave me a police interceptor car – even if it wasn’t a Crown Vic with a spotlight, it has those weird hub caps that announce “The cops are here” to everyone over ten.

I saw a man in denim overalls sitting at a cement picnic table near the gas station’s front door. He looked like he’d plowed a few fields in his day, so I made a beeline in his direction. The light was approaching that long inconvenient stage,  there was this tractor – and now,  here was a farmer, right in the nick of time. Things were working out fine for me.

I forgot that I’d just basically pretended to be a cop, and jumped right in.”It’s probably even the late twenties, or at least the early thirties, huh?’ I remarked in a familiar manner.  I tend to assume that all the word loves a tractor, and will stop what it’s doing with a swiftness directly proportional to the tractor’s age. 

Portrait of the farmer as his tractor CLAIRE O’BRIEN 2012

Robert Fisher had had good cause to brace himself as I’d come hurtling across the parking lot.  About 20 minutes before I’d  schreeched  through my U-turn and jumped out of my Intercepter,  the county sheriff had  offered to drop Fisher and his partner, Karen Lewis, at the county line if they were still  there when he came back.

Fisher wondered what to say.  He had absolutely no idea of what I was talking about and had just walked six miles, but clearly  he was not going to get a chance to rest.    His assessment of local law enforcement took an alarming plunge as he waffled graciously for a moment.

But when he realized I thought he was a farmer, Robert Fisher had a good loud laugh.  He’s from Brooklyn, New York.

He and Lewis were people who had somewhere to get to – and it didn’t  involve any tractors,  however old.

Thousands of people know Robert as the Early Bird Cafe. He’s been making pancakes for Rainbow Gatherings for fourteen years,  and needed to get to Arizona for a regional gathering in time to get his restaurant organized.  Robert starts serving his pancakes at 4 am and feeds people until noon.  He and Lewis lost their van when they couldn’t pay towing charges. They didn’t know exactly  how there was going to be enough  flour and eggs to feed breakfast to a thousand people a day.  They just knew it was going to be done, and they’ve been right for fourteen years.

All they could do was show up – and it turns out that’s enough. If enough people show up, it doesn’t matter what some racist sheriff thinks of you, or how invisible people make you as you pass through their town.

Sky, mountain, desert. Coyotes. Far from home.
CLAIRE O’BRIEN 2012

Well, Robert and Karen got a ride in a police car after all.  We zoomed through the night, alone on a country highway, maybe 30 miles to a more hospitable town where they thought some Rainbow people would be showing up. Robert recalled a town that was so enthusiatic about the first time a few thousand well-behaved people had spent a week in the state park  that “when we decided to return five years later,  they stocked the stores with stuff they’d  heard we ate,  like tofu,  dried beans, and soy milk. They strung a banner along Main Street:  ‘Welcome, Rainbow Gathering!’ They made a fortune that week. They’re probably still missing us.”

Robert laughed again. He was thinking of his drum, and of a circle of drummers surrounding a huge  bonfire,  playing into the night. He’d leave the circle earlier than most and get some good sleep.  He had a lot of pancakes to make.

When I returned to the gas station an hour or so later, the tractor was gone. The Junk Guys had hauled it  back to Las Cruces.  But the gas station had done its job.  The young woman behind the counter told me, “That tractor sat out there for a few hours, and everybody  kept stopping and gawking at it. They asked what was going to happen to it.”

So she’d called up the Junk Guys and told them there were people who would want the tractor, and would  pay them good money not to scrap it. “They said, like, oh really, that’s great, we didn’t know, ” she reported.

Then she smiled a little smile.  A gas station smile.

I drove like a good citizen that night.  Driving a cop car doesn’t make you a cop.

A cop told me that.

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