Right in the Middle of Nowhere

Anyone who thinks Dade Corners is just a gas station probably thinks the Everglades is just a little wet spot west of Miami

TONY

"Last week I sold $5000 of Budweiser, you believe that? We're like a -- what they call it? -- a premium account or something like that. Never mind the microbrew beer and all the other beer. We got our grocery aisle, we got our fishing aisle, we got our automotive aisle. We usually carry almost $300,000 worth of merchandise, you believe that? We got blocked ice, bagged ice -- nowhere else can you get blocked ice. And we bag our own ice. Probably do 100 bags a day." Tony Branciforte is walking fast and talking faster as he moves through the convenience store at Dade Corners, the gas station/deli/bait shop/restaurant complex at the intersection of Krome Avenue and Tamiami Trail in deep West Dade. "Aviation fuel," he continues, "100-octane racing fuel, $1.69 a gallon. Jose Canseco and his brothers used to come by and fill up their Corvettes with that stuff. Propane" -- Tony hasn't taken a breath -- "and we have diesel. We try to do a little bit of everything out here."

As he takes a measure of Dade Corners' stock he also mops up several gallons of water that have spilled out of a coffin-size beer-and-soda cooler, sorts out a dispute between a cashier and a patron over a twenty-dollar bill, fetches a bucket of shiners for a weekend fisherman, orchestrates the installation of an ATM, receives a delivery of bait ("Dade Corners is one of the great loci of the Dade matrix," asserts the bait man), and patiently answers a raft of customer questions, the same ones he's been answering for sixteen years: How far is Homestead? (Twenty miles.) Do you have a telephone? ('Round the side of the building.) Where's the bathroom? (Over in the corner.)

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Tony is Dade Corners' perpetually genial, preternaturally hyperactive manager/ maitre d'/ringmaster. His thinning hair is mussed up, his eyes puffy with fatigue. "Worms. We probably sell twelve to fourteen cases a week," he continues, then suddenly blurts: "Hey, man! How's it going, dude?" Tony has seen a customer he recognizes; he seems to know, at least by sight, about half the 1500-or-so patrons who pull into the place every day.

But there's really no time for small talk. Tony's off, hustling at top speed across the store, taking a detour past the bank of self-serve coffee and soda machines to pick up some scattered debris, finally coming to a stop at a glass case next to the cash registers. Radar detectors, CB radios, radar jammers, police scanners. "If I told you what I did in radios you'd say, 'No way, Tony!' Honest to God!" Then: "AQue pasa, Daddy-o?" Another customer. "To me it's like being in a honky-tonk," he chortles. "Like being in a country bar. Honest to God, I love it. It's kind of the end of the world."

Or the end of several worlds, all colliding. This is the last stop before plunging into the wilderness and the first stop coming out of it. It's the meeting of the rural South and the urban The quintessential crossroads, a buzzing confluence of cultures, South Florida's Timbuktu.

"Friday night, Saturday morning it'll be full of drunk Indians," Tony continues. "It'll be full of airboats; it'll be full of dead animals. Even when the hunting traffic dies" -- between the end of turkey season in April and the beginning of archery season in September -- "we still got the fishermen. I'm a fisherman. Honest to God, I'm a fisherman. I go out and when I get back I feel like a million dollars. I don't know what it is but I feel like a million dollars. Hey, whatcha doin'?" Tony waves to a customer. "Hi ya! Haven't seen you in a while."

Photos of people posing with their catches of the day cover a bulletin board near the back room where the bait is kept. During the hunting season, the bass and snook become deer and wild pig. Classified ads are posted on another bulletin board: Someone is selling a flats fishing boat for $2000 but would be willing to trade for a small swamp buggy. There's a 150 Lycoming airboat for sale too. Also on the market: a Max II amphibious all-terrain vehicle with "large tires, gun racks, roll bar, compass, and electronic backtracker unit." And animals: emu chicks at $75 apiece, as well as an eleven-year-old pointer named Buddy and a two-year-old Lab mix named Rosie -- "Both dogs are great with people and like to hunt!"

Someone is looking for a particular CB antenna but can't find it on the shelves. Several times today Tony has apologized to customers for the absence of a particular item. Inventory is low, he points out, shelves uncustomarily understocked. The reason: Bob Dollar, whose family has owned Dade Corners since 1978, is preparing to sell the complex. At least that's the rumor that's been circulating among the staff and up and down the Trail for days. "We used to have a rack of canoes outside," Tony says, sounding wistful. "Sold 250 last year, if not more. The shelves are empty, you know. But we'll rebound, we'll get back. I could get it back up in no time!"

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.

BECKY

"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."

BEN

"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."

Every Friday at about noon Ben dons his trademark snakeskin cap with the gaping jaws of a rattlesnake protruding from the crown, gets into his aging GMC truck outside his home on the Loop Road -- a neighborhood of iconoclasts and mavericks in Big Cypress National Preserve -- and drives the 35 miles to Dade Corners, which sits on the southeast corner of the Tamiami-Krome intersection, kitty-corner from the Miccosukee bingo hall. Once there, he usually heads straight to the Frog Pond, a shabby box of a place. He will eschew the menu heavy on fried food and order a tall glass of iced tea and maybe some pie and ice cream. Thus fed, he wanders over to the store to buy his lottery tickets, then drives five and a half more miles farther up the Trail to the Winn-Dixie to do his weekly grocery shopping.

"I been coming to Dade Corners for years," says Ben, who has lived out on the Loop Road since 1964, back when it was a hideout for poachers and other scalawags. He lives alone. "They didn't call it Dade Corners back then when I first knew it," by which he means in the 1940s. The site was owned then by a fellow known simply as Happy Jack, who built a bar and restaurant and operated a bait shop as well as a small motel. "Just a plain old ordinary redneck like myself," says Ben of Happy Jack. Ben remembers that Jack had a soft spot for the Miccosukees when they were forbidden by the U.S. government from buying alcohol. "He got them a little whompooned when they couldn't get it anywhere else."

Ben once had a chance to buy the property for $65,000 back in the 1950s, but he couldn't convince any of his wealthy friends to lend him the money. "It was all woods, woods, woods out here," he recalls. "I just thought it was going to be something because everything was coming this way. It never amounted to anything until the Dollar family came along and bought it. They fixed it nicer and nicer and nicer till they got it the way it is now.

"I met all kinds of people here, nice people," he says, adding that Dollar has always been loyal to the people of the Everglades. "He'd cash my checks, that sort of thing," he says. But Ben is unperturbed by the rumored change in ownership. "Don't bother me, 'cause at my age I ain't gonna be around for long. I don't care what they do. I just hope they don't do anything with Tony. There isn't a hunter or fisherman on Loop Road who don't know Tony."

More stuff: presliced mooring and dock lines, kayak paddles, faux-Indian hand drums with rubber skins and plastic feather decorations, car air fresheners decorated with lingerie-clad women, deer-avoidance devices, pork cracklings, gum in the shape of small oranges and packed in small wooden crates, a mustache-scissors-and-comb set, tow chains.

THE REVEREND

A wiry old black man in red trousers has cornered Tony -- as well, that is, as anyone can corner Tony, who is in perpetual motion even when he's standing still. The man is telling Tony he should have some sort of deal for senior citizens. He can get a free dinner at the Holiday Inn; why nothing at Dade Corners? The store's cordless phone rings -- it's in Tony's pants pocket -- and he steps aside to take the call.

"We fish off down here, off the highway," the man continues in his lazy Georgia drawl. "We do a lot of recreation" -- it comes out reck-ee-ay-shun -- "we fish down near where the alligators are, where they wrassle with the alligators. We come by about every week, every other week, something like that."

He says his name is the Reverend Barry Gilmore and he has lived in Liberty City since 1940. "We come whenever we feel like it," he says, then pauses and scratches his stubble. "Might be back tomorrow. When you get old, you needs a place to go." He adjusts his baby-blue cap, which threatens to slide off his head at any time. "You can get gas here, you can get oil here. You can get most everything you want. People don't go home till they make their rest stop."

He turns to his buddy who is down Aisle No. 4 picking out some tackle. "Where we goin' fishin' today, Mac?"

"L-67," Mac replies, referring to a drainage canal that cuts across Tamiami Trail.

The Reverend turns back and nods emphatically. "They got reckeeashun out there."

Tony comes bounding back over. "You know, you've just given me an idea!" he says, stuffing the phone back in the pocket of his black slacks. "I should have something for senior citizens. Free coffee. You never given me a problem. You been coming in here for years. I could do that."

The elderly man scratches his stubble and chuckles; his voice sounds like sandpaper. "Hey Mac, you heard this?" he hoots. "Free coffee!"

More stuff: a 54-piece puzzle of Franklin D. Roosevelt, mobile transceivers, Dunkin' Donuts doughnuts, a book called How to Cook Your Catch, fax and copy machine service, six-digit frequency counters, rubber reptiles, grease guns, a half-dozen types of fishing net, Kool-Aid.

SALLY
"You going to live?" Sally asks. A thin man is hunched over a beer at a table in the Frog Pond, convulsing in coughs. He has sun-blasted skin and hair resplendent in Brylcreem. A buck's head is mounted to the wall above him; it sports a stained Harley-Davidson cap and smudgy, skewed sunglasses. "You gonna live?" Sally Jackson-Smith barks again from the bar, where she's resting after a day's work in the Frog Pond's kitchen. The man silently shakes his head no without looking up. A column of cigarette smoke ribbons upward and encircles the buck's head like a scarf. "Goody!" she exclaims. "Someplace else to go!"

Sally has been here since very early in the morning, as she is every day of the week, to prepare for a day of cooking orders like the "Good Morning America" (three eggs with bacon or sausage plus three silver dollar pancakes) or the "Famous Lilly Pad" (two eggs with cheddar cheese atop a heap of hash browns) or the "Eighteen-Wheeler Special" (pick of a meat dish like chopped steak or fried chicken strips, plus soup or salad) or the so-called Everglades specialties: frog legs, gator tail, Okeechobee catfish, and shrimp.

This is the kind of place where they automatically put butter on your toast and grits, lots of it. The radio is always tuned to a country-music station. The walls behind the bar are covered in dozens of corny store-bought aphorisms: "Sex is like credit: Some people get it, some people don't." "Have a nice day -- someplace else." "This is not Burger King. You don't get it your way. You take it my way, or you don't get the damn thing." The thin blue carpet is spotted with age, the drop ceiling tattooed with water stains. A tapestry depicting a frog playing pool suggests that once upon a time there was a pool table here, but now the only entertainment is a couple of electronic poker machines; on top of one is perched a stuffed bobcat. A customer found it dead on the side of the road and dragged it inside a few years ago. Dade Corners owner Bob Dollar took it to a taxidermist.

At the Frog Pond you can have a beer or a coffee and just sit for as long as you like. "You take the majority of restaurants," says Sally. "How often do they say, 'Hey, howya doin'? What kin I gitcha?' Where can you go get a glass of iced tea and they bring you a pitcher of iced tea?"

Sally, at age 69, is a constant presence -- literally. She works seven days a week, from 4:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., but often sticks around longer. Of her 70-hour-per-week schedule, she says only: "I guess it's my routine." A lumpy woman, her thick, strong limbs and creased face suggest a life of toil. She walks awkwardly, as if she has painful blisters on her feet.

She came to Dade Corners in 1985 at the insistence of Dollar's mother, who was the matriarch of the station until she died seven years ago of cancer. Sally had been managing a bowling alley restaurant, but the bowling alley shut down. "The bowling alley closed, and her and I talked. She talked me into coming in here," recalls Sally, who moved to South Florida from upstate New York in 1953 and speaks in a regionless country twang. "Everybody knew her as Miss D. She loved these Everglades. She wasn't one for city living." Then Sally shouts, "Hello, sexy!" She's hailing a male cashier from the convenience store who has wandered in through the back door. He's a pudgy Hispanic man with a crooked smile. "You wanna fool around today?" she asks him.

"No," comes the mumbled reply.
"Good," she deadpans. "I don't either. I was gonna get you somebody else."
The lunch crowd has thinned now, not that the Frog Pond was ever actually jammed; the eleven tables are rarely all occupied at the same time. "You get truck drivers, you get federal employees from the Krome Detention Center, you get local drunks," Sally says. "Most of 'em, I know what they want. I can see their truck and I can start their dinner before they walk in." The truckers haul plants and produce, she says. Some will park their rigs out back on Dade Corners' ragged lot and stay overnight -- Dollar doesn't charge. "See where that dump truck is parked out there?" Sally continues. "They'll be lined up from there all the way around." She waves her arm in a big arc, encompassing the entire perimeter of Dade Corners. "We been here since 1935. We serve country cookin'. It's something outta the past. It's away from the city, the hustle and bustle. It's cooking like the 1950s, before everything came out of a box."

A vague feeling of family seems to have permeated -- along with the kitchen grease -- deep into the Dade County pine walls. (Stopping by for an iced tea several days earlier, Bob Dollar said, in a tone loud enough for the cook to hear, "Her nickname's 'Ptomaine' Sally. Drop it on the floor just means you have to cook it a little longer. She's closed more restaurants than the health department. She's great. Excellent at keeping food costs down. Nothing she won't serve. Liver's a little green? Put some gravy on it or wash it in bleach"

"No," Sally corrected him. "We put that in the casserole.")
But the cook isn't going to get wistful about the rumored sale of Dade Corners. "I think I met the new owner before," she says, a sly grin beginning to grow on her face. That morning, Sally begins, the Frog Pond was the venue for a state-mandated safety meeting for commercial truck drivers, and the place was packed. "Tony comes in here with a guy and I say, 'You can't come in here right now,' and Tony says, 'We need to go check the bathrooms.' I said, 'Together?'" She dissolves into laughter. "Somebody said, 'Hey, I think that's the new owner. He drove away in an $80,000 car.'"

For her part, Sally says she's retiring this summer, so it doesn't matter what becomes of the place. But then adds in a rare moment of seriousness: "The new owner needs to learn that there been a lot of people out here for a long time who will respect him, but he has to talk to the employees and present himself as a gentleman. With me, you won't get my respect unless you earn it, and that's a known fact."

More stuff: fried chicken gizzards, water purification tablets, night crawlers, Lotto tickets, Sport Utility and Truck & Van magazines, Blue Moon beer, fish scalers, a plastic "talking frog" with a built-in motion detector that croaks.

BOB

"I've been coming here for 38 years. Wasn't nothing but a little shack out here. You could buy cold beer, bait. Nothin' but a little shack. Hell, we used to hunt off of 107th Avenue." Just about every day Bob swings by the Frog Pond and takes his customary seat at a table beneath the buck's head, his back to the wall. (He doesn't want his last name used.) It's coffee in the morning, Miller Lite in the afternoon. He has red, leathery skin and a head of shiny dark hair that migrates down to long, gray sideburns. Even though he retired fifteen years ago from the City of Miami Fire Department after a heart attack, he has the wiry steel arms of someone who's led a life of physical labor.

"You want to know about memorable moments at Dade Corners? Son, I've been a part of those moments!" he exclaims, and without another word clicks out his false teeth and raises his right fist to show three broken knuckles: dividends from years of fighting.

He cups a hand around his mouth like a megaphone and looks toward the bar: "What happened to that waitress with a beer?" Julie the waitress rolls her eyes and says something about Bob having one too many, but plucks another cold one from the cooler anyway.

"I drive twelve and a half miles every morning just to have my coffee," he states, his voice dropping conspiratorially. "I live off Bird Road but there's nobody I can talk to any more. They don't speak my language. This is one of the last refuges we got. I'm not housebroken, son. I don't belong in town. I live in town but I come out here." For emphasis, he downs the rest of his beer -- perhaps his fourth of the afternoon, maybe fifth, he's lost count. "Everybody speaks English in here. I'm Irish, but I don't speak Gaelic. I speak American. Sally's Eye-talian, she don't speak Eye-talian, she speaks American. I'm just a dumbass country boy and this dumbass country boy paid taxes his whole life. I've never been on the dole. I don't mean to sound belligerent, but I am belligerent. I'm just tired of getting kicked in the balls.

"People make fun of rednecks," he continues. "Well, I have to plead guilty to being a redneck, but I never cheated anybody. I've worked for everything I got. I have twin daughters. They're 29 years old. I raised them out here -- fishing, camping. You can't do that any more. I got here in June of 1958. It was wide open. You didn't have to worry about getting ripped off. You're not safe out here any more. I am, 'cause I carry what they carry. If they want to shoot, we shoot.

"I've been in all kinds of shit, all kinds of fights. I love to drink and I definitely love the women. You can ask the ol' bitch over there if I lie. I don't lie. Hey, Sally! Do I lie?"

Sally says no.
"Sally's tough but she can get more protection than any woman we know. You can't put a hand on her. She's tough-talking -- she's mostly cussing me. If she don't cuss you, she don't love you. She calls me every night to tell me what an asshole I am. But she'd give you a free meal and the shirt off her back. Ain't a person up and down the Trail who don't know her. I don't know anyone around town who she hasn't helped once or twice. Sally's a landmark. They don't make 'em like her any more." He pauses to take a swig from his can and inhale a lungful of cigarette smoke. "If they close this place down," he says deliberately, "they close down the Trail -- as far as I'm concerned."

More stuff: Korena Ginseng Royal Jelly, an inflatable raft, a Little Mermaid life preserver, crab traps, a window-mount TV kit, car-top canoe pads, croissant sandwiches, dozens of varieties of lures, tool boxes, snake-bite first-aid kits, a kingpin lock, dog food.

DOLLAR

"It's the crossroads," says Bob Dollar, whose mother bought sixteen acres at Krome and the Trail in 1978. "I look at maps and there's not too many situations like us." At the time there was a gas station -- only a couple of old pumps -- a small convenience store that was as narrow and long as two bowling alleys side by side, and a country-food restaurant called the Green Frog. "She just always saw that this intersection would one day become valuable," explains Dollar, a slender man whose voice modulates between low and lower. "Everyone else thought it was all the way out in Bumfuck." By that time the Tamiami Trail had been widened to four lanes east of Krome Avenue, but the western edge of development didn't extend much past NW 107th Avenue. "It was a road-to-nowhere kind of thing," he says. Business since then has been steadily growing, owing in part to western development and, most recently, to the widening of Krome Avenue in 1993. It has now become a major artery for north-south traffic on the western edge of Dade.

"We're like a focal point. People seem to make it here. They crawl here with gunshot wounds. We call the police." He pauses for effect, smiling wryly. "People would pull up here, drop people off naked," he continues. "Guys would kick women out after raping them. The DEA has done operations out here," he goes on. "Anytime you notice people hanging out, that's probably what's happening. Once I saw some guys standing by one of the pumps. I go over to them. They said, 'Go away. We're making a deal.' They were going to make a sting on a guy selling explosives right here.

"Immigration used to grab people all the time" -- the recollections tumble out easily -- "they would swoop in here and grab people. It's just like a Cheech and Chong movie with emigres scattering into the woods."

One time Dollar noticed someone had left a truck rig behind Dade Corners. He allows truckers to park overnight only and doesn't charge rent, but this trailer stood for two days without moving. Police came by with a drug-sniffing dog and discovered the trailer was loaded with pot. "Within an hour, an unmarked truck was hauling the trailer away," recalls Dollar, then adds sardonically, "You never really know what happens. I'm sure it was handled properly."

But these are now old stories. Dollar confirms that after nineteen years, the Dollar family is indeed selling the facility. "Midlife career change," he says, explaining that he and his brother are going to concentrate on running their three truck dealerships. Dollar also says that although the government permits are in place, he doesn't have the necessary capital to modernize and expand the gas station and restaurant. "It's sad, in many respects," he reflects. "But I'm hoping that it will grow into something bigger and better."

More stuff: snow domes with tropical fish inside, hunting and fishing licenses, Coleman lanterns, bug spray, Sterno cooking fuel, "Wide Load" banners, car batteries and battery-terminal posts, deodorant, Mylar letters and numbers, flip-flops, CD extension speakers, diapers.

ISIDRO

On May 12 Dollar sold the 3.5-acre parcel of land that includes Dade Corners. Price: $4.5 million, he says. The new owners are a group of eight investors operating under the corporate title Dade Corners Marketplace, Inc. Six of the investors are also developing three other gas stations in South Florida. The hands-on front men for the gas-station group include two brothers, Isidro and George Almirall, and a partner, Roman Lavien. All three are Cuban American and in their thirties. Even before the official end of the four-day closing at Dade Corners, the Almiralls and Lavien had already begun combing the store, assessing the inventory and planning changes.

"We don't want to mess with success," says 30-year-old Isidro, a fit, clean-cut fellow. "I don't want to throw a wrench in an operation that's doing great. I just want to take it to the next level." For that he plans to switch the gas to Exxon, install showers for truckers, pave the truck-parking area at the rear of the site, and begin leasing truck-parking space (but still not charging for short-term stays of several hours). Next he wants to renovate the restaurant and, later, shift it to the rear of the station to be closer to the truckers. Also he plans to expand the store. Everything, he cautions, will happen gradually.

As for the staff, he says he's not going to change that much, either. "There's a lot of loyalty," he notes.

As Isidro scans the busy shop, clipboard in hand, his eyes sparkle with dollar signs. "I never knew about this place up until about six days ago," he enthuses. "I got goose bumps when we walked in here. I've been here a day already and I love it! Everywhere I look there's opportunities."

Amid all this calculator-punching, Bob Dollar doubts that the spiritual essence of Dade Corners is going to survive. "They're going to be more bottom-line minded: Maximize every dollar," he predicts. "They were questioning me why employees had health insurance. They said, 'You don't typically see that in a gas station.' And I said, 'Well, we aren't just a gas station.'

"We are a family-oriented place," he reminisces, not yet shifting out of the present tense. "A homey type of place."

A place, you might say, where you can buy parts for a truck's bumper, a hunter's safety vest, and a mail box in the shape of a bass fish. A place where the bait man uses words like "loci" and "matrix." A place where you can ask for free coffee and probably even get it.

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