Dan Conradt: You can learn a lot from a town's bulletin board
I was only there because the needle on the gas gauge was below "E." I only stayed because the rain was falling in buckets.
And I was reminded, once again, that everything happens for a reason.
It was already raining when I rolled into the parking lot on the edge of a town that couldn't have been a mile long from one end to the other. The car bounced through a minefield of bone-jarring potholes, and the price of gas was exorbitantly high. But it was the first sign of civilization I'd seen in an hour, and on the pancake-flat terrain in the middle of Nebraska there wasn't another option in sight.
I grudgingly handed my credit card to a teenaged clerk, and didn't realize I was hungry until I found myself downwind from the unmistakable smell of pot roast.
I slid into a corner booth and watched the rain slither down the window.
The pot roast tasted even better than it smelled, the waitress kept my coffee cup full and there was something comforting in the sound of thick ceramic plates being shuffled in the kitchen.
I turned over my credit card a second time, added a respectable tip and headed for the car.
Mother Nature had other plans.
I had just stepped into the entryway to the gas station/café/convenience store … a space the size of a walk-in closet with glass doors on both ends to help buffer summer's heat and winter's cold … when a clap of thunder shook the building.
The rain was cascading down the front door, and there were whitecaps on the potholes. Dashing across a parking lot in the middle of a Nebraska thunderstorm didn't seem like a good idea. But I didn't have anywhere special to go, and had lots of time to get there; I'd wait for the storm to pass.
Curiosity and boredom drew my attention to the bulletin board: Kittens To Give Away To A Good Home. Snow Plowing — No Job Too Big Or Too Small. Piano Lessons — Weeknights Or Weekends!"
It was a beat-up cork board that had apparently been home to thousands of community notices over the years. It took up most of the wall between the glass doors, and there still wasn't enough room; in places the notices were stacked three or four deep: Mike was selling his bass boat. Peggy needed a ride to Lincoln, and was willing to share the cost of gas. A church was getting ready to serve a meatball supper. The local high school was holding a talent contest, and the hardware store had a sale on latex paint.
Years of adding and removing thumb tacks had left craters in the parts of the cork board that were visible under the notices: Tom had lost a brown wallet, and was offering a reward for its return. Maggie had immediate openings at her daycare and Rachel was selling Tupperware.
A glossy business card showed a picture of a guy with way too many teeth who was ready to give a no-obligation quote on car insurance.
A poorly typed notice from an auto mechanic advertised a winterizing special: "mention this ad and save $10." The volunteer fire department was holding a steak fry to raise money for a new defibrillator.
Someone had blacked out a front tooth on the campaign flyer of a guy running for county supervisor. A girl named Tina had put up a notice with tear-off strips, offering her services as a babysitter. A guy named Mitch was selling homemade beef jerky.
On an index card that had yellowed with age, someone had used a red Magic Marker to write simply "John 3:16."
I was still reading the notices when a ray of sunlight slanted through the front door; off to the east there was a faint trace of a rainbow.
I stepped back into the store and bought a large cup of coffee to go. I never did learn the name of that town, but by the time it disappeared from the rear view mirror I felt somehow connected to it. It was a good feeling.
If you really want to get to know a place, spend some time with its bulletin board.