The McDonald’s Test
You don’t realize how far from the exit the gas station really is until you’ve already taken the exit. It’s almost always farther than you figured, which is annoying. It gets more annoying when you’re nearly out of gas and need a restroom very, very badly.
About five years ago, while driving through West Virginia, I found myself in this situation. Plus, I’m black. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 917 active hate groups in the U.S.A., four of which are in West Virginia, and none of which find me pretty.
I hastily devised a five-step plan:
- Pull up to the pump.
- a. Walk quickly into the gas station.
- Walk directly to the restroom.
- Use the restroom.
- Walk quickly out of the gas station.
- Pay at the pump for the gas so I could fill up and be on my way.
The plan worked great — until just after step 2b. On my way to the restroom I noticed the walls of the station were covered in camouflage and Confederate flags. The two employees were dressed in Confederate and camo clothing. They were maybe 19 or 20 years old. There was a third man, probably in his 40s, who seemed to be just hanging out. All three were white.
At least that observation hastened the accomplishment of step 3.
Step 3 complete, I joyously completed step 4, only to discover that step 5 would be impossible — the pump didn’t accept cards.
Since I was almost out of gas, I went back inside. As I did so, I heard the older man remark, “Maybe I shoulda called up my Klan buddies and —” He stopped talking when he noticed me.
I approached the register, put $30 on the counter, told one of the younger guys which pump I was at, and walked back to the car. As I was filling up, the older guy came outside, gave me a look, hopped on a bicycle and began furiously pedaling up a dirt road toward what I can only guess was the lair of his Klan pals. He looked ridiculous. I haven’t seen someone so silly-looking, yet with so much potential for danger, since — well, last November’s election (zing!).
Anyway, I didn’t wait around. I got back on the highway as fast as I could and didn’t look back. What I did do, from that day on, was start looking for McDonald’s.
There are very few businesses marketed to black people as heavily as McDonald’s is, so if a McDonald’s has no black customers, there must be a reason. Nowadays I start seeking service plazas when the needle’s at a quarter of a tank, and when I’m in a sketchy place I check the McDonald’s first. If there are black customers inside, I go to the gas station nearby. If not, I keep driving.
The McDonald’s Test™ served me well until this summer, when I drove across Texas (55 active hate groups, according to the SPLC). In Texas the gas stations are right off the highway. Since I wouldn’t have to drive far to fill up, I figured I didn’t need The McDonald’s Test™. I’d just pull into the first station I saw and wait a minute. If I didn’t see any black people around, I’d drive on to the next station.
It was the middle of the day when I pulled into this particular station, and there were plenty of people around, but something felt odd. Everyone looked weird and angry, and everyone was white. I was about to split when, from afar, I saw three people walk out of the station together. Two were white and one was black. Figuring they were friends, I got out and started pumping gas. Then I noticed that all the angry white men were looking at me. Staring, actually. Maybe I was mistaken, or had just been driving too long. Then I looked again at that interracial threesome. They were not friends. The white ones were in law enforcement uniforms and the black guy was in shackles and prison stripes.
The angry white guys continued to stare as I drove away. I made it home to Maine, but if you think I rest easy here, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that, according to the SPLC, there are only three active hate groups in Maine. The bad news is, when you consider our state’s relatively small population, we have more hate groups per capita than Texas does.
I love you, Maine, but sometimes you don’t make it easy. And your McDonald’s Test ™ scores need work.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.