Out of Odor

Out of Odor?


By Elton Camp


            Many years ago, my family was driving through a rural part of our neighboring state of Mississippi.  Here in Alabama, we have a saying, “Thank God for Mississippi.” 

No matter how bad Alabama rates, in almost any category, Mississippi will be even lower.  This saves us the ignominy of being the “worst.”  We found that the state’s disgrace could also extend to its gas stations and bathrooms. 


            The two-line highway wound on and on through trees, fields, scattered farms, and tiny villages.  The inevitable imperatives of needing gas and emptying full bladders began to coincide.  With women in the car, the usual trip into the woods to “See a man about a dog” wasn’t a viable option. 


            Up ahead, on the left, was a tall sign that had once read “Texaco,” but had been lightly painted over in white and the crudely-letter “Gas” applied.  Since the place had once been associated with a “name-brand” fuel, we decided that it surely must have a bathroom. 


            The small building had once been white, but most of the paint had scaled away.  The roof sagged a bit in the center.  Its asphalt shingles were dried and twisted and not a few were missing.  A mixture of empty oil cans and beer bottles lay in a pile to the left of the building.  A faded tin sign alongside the door invited, “Drink Pepsi.”  Nailed to the left side was another notice in blue print on a yellow background that suggested, “Goody’s Powders” and the long-ago price of 15 cents.  


            A single gasoline pump stood beside the front porch.  The words “Fire Chief,” and the red Texaco star had survived the change of suppliers. Although faded and a bit rusty, the apparatus appeared to be in working order.  Burlap sacks of cow feed leaning against the wall on the porch and two bushel baskets of apples added confirmation that the establishment was still in business.  Seeing wisdom in the adage “Any port in a storm,” we pulled over and stopped alongside the pump.  The fuel was priced at 27.9 cents per gallon, the going rate for the time.  A brown hound dog slept against the screen door that protected the store’s entrance. 


            From inside came a voice, “I’ll be right with you.”


            As he stated, an older man walked up to the screen door and pushed it tentatively against the sleeping animal.  Getting no results, he yelled “Rufus, git out from here.” The critter reluctantly moved aside and the station owner stepped onto the porch.  He wore a blue, long-sleeve shirt despite and hot July day.  Faded bib overalls and brown work shoes without socks completed his wardrobe.  Thinning gray hair and a three-day growth of beard were in keeping with his circumstances.  A trail of brown tobacco juice drained from one corner of his mouth. 


            “What kin I do fer you folks?” he asked.


            “We’ll take three dollars worth of gas, please,” I replied.  In those days, that was a substantial purchase.


            “You reckon thet thing will run on regular?” he asked as he looked suspiciously at our 1955 Buick Roadmaster.  “That’s all I got.  Not much call for ethyl ’round these parts.”


            After we assured him that it should be fine when mixed with what was already in the tank, he turned a crank on the pump to set the meter to zero and began to dispense the fuel, managing to stop at $4.03. 


            “I went a little bit over,” he said, not unpleasantly, but four will be enough.  Got t’ keep customers happy.” 


            “Sir, where is your bathroom?” my mother asked. 


            “Just around to the side on the right,” he replied as he pocketed the money.  “Stop ’n again when yore ’n these parts.” 


            We all walked around to the designated location of the bathroom.  There was a single door with a metal sign that announced “Restroom for Customers Only.”  Beneath it was a hand-lettered note on a scrap of white paper.  It read “Out of Odor.”  Our noses told us that wasn’t the case.  But what could we say…he had only said where the facility was, not that it was in working order. 


            Fortunately, the county courthouse proved to be just a few miles up the road.  In its basement were bathrooms with far more cordial signs:  “White Only.”  We had to wonder what black travelers were expected to do.  Mississippi fully met our expectations that day. 

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A trip through rural Mississippi.
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