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As he talks he grabs a retractable truck-brush pole and absent-mindedly telescopes it in and out, in and out, in and out. "I like it. I like coming out here," he says. "No traffic coming out here."
Then: "I feel sick to my stomach. I've felt sick to my stomach for a week. We've had a lot of good times here. I've been here sixteen years, Jerry's been here eleven, Susan's been here quite awhile, Becky's been here nine." His voice slows. He stops fiddling with the pole, and for a moment he actually droops. "Well, I got some really good job offers. Amoco, maybe be a regional rep, represent four stores in the area, you know. Gotta take the good with the bad, the good with the bad." He's started up again -- in and out, in and out -- his eyes scanning the store like a cat tracking a fly. "You gotta stay up with the times. Very shortly we'll be out of the Nineties. Bob hasn't put money in the place the last five, six years, and it runs and runs and runs and runs like a clock. But you gotta stay up with the times."
Stuff you can find at Dade Corners: hunting knives, bilge pumps, twenty-foot-long bamboo fishing poles, air-seat blow-gun kits, brake coils, homemade banana bread, Florida Keys shot glasses, portable truck winches, CB microphones, breaded jalapenos stuffed with chicken and cheese, pencil holders in the shape of alligator heads.
"It's just a gas station," shrugs Becky Labno. But with a little prodding, she's soon talking about the customer who arrived only by helicopter and neighborhood manhunts for escaped convicts and a marriage that dawned in an exchange of flirtatious looks across the counter and another that ended in a hail of bullets three feet from her head.
She can be forgiven her initial indifference. After all, if you work at the carnival, the sight of dancing elephants eventually loses its thrill. For nine years Becky has operated one of the four cash registers in the convenience store at Dade Corners. Part of her job has been to ring up gas purchases: The station's pumps crank out 5000 gallons of Shell-issue petroleum every day. (It's pump-first-pay-later: "We're on the honor system," explains Tony. "We're not in Miami yet.") From her elevated roost, though, a yardstick above sea level, Becky has stood witness to the river of humanity that has swept through this intersection on the cusp of the Everglades, four miles past the westernmost housing development on the Tamiami Trail.
"It happened real quick," she begins, recalling the story of a recently divorced husband and wife who by chance happened to pull into the station at the same time. The man spotted the woman as she entered the store, returned to his truck, pulled out a gun, and began firing. "I was right here," Becky says, standing behind the cash register closest to the door. "Everybody said, 'Duck!' and I didn't move." She giggles and a blush reddens her pale, chubby face. "I was waiting on a customer, and the next thing I know he's down on the floor." The ex-wife was hit in the attack but didn't die, Becky recalls. The store lost a door.
Becky says it happens all the time, these chance encounters: Two people who haven't seen each other in years, maybe high school classmates now in their dotage, run into each other while ordering chicken wings and barbecue sandwiches at the in-store deli. Dade Corners has dubbed itself "The Meeting Place" and sells custom-made beer-can holders emblazoned with the slogan. "A cashier served a customer here once," Becky continues. "He asked her out and they got married."
Several years ago Dade Corners was a staging area for bikers taking mass Saturday-night runs, 75 to 100 strong. There would be so many motorcycles in the lot that no other vehicles could get in. Sometimes they'd head up Krome Avenue, block traffic, set up lights, and hold drag races along the dark road. But if it isn't bikers crowding the parking lot, it might be a small army of law enforcement officers sweeping the area, looking for prisoners who have busted out of the state correctional facility one mile west on the Trail or out of the federal detention center a half-mile south on Krome. "You know when there's an escape 'cause all the police are up and down the road with their guns," Becky says.
As for the helicopter man, Becky thinks he may have been a flight instructor, but she's not really sure: "He would land out back, come get his coffee, and leave."
More stuff: public-address paging horns, stainless-steel frogging gigs, fourteen varieties of beef jerky, alligator pot holders, four shelves of gun ammunition, cappuccino, a T-shirt that reads, "Bike Week Daytona Beach 1997 -- 56 Years."
"I don't eat in no shitty-ass damn restaurants," grumbles 82-year-old Ben Wolfe as he arranges the food in front of him at Dade Corners' bar-restaurant, the Frog Pond. Apple pie, a glass of iced tea, and a Haagen-Dazs ice cream bar. "If I was an inspector, I'd close this place down. They have pretty good pie and I like the iced tea and, of course, the ice cream's on a stick so they can't screw that up so much."