BOSTON — It was hot that day, and from her window at the Mobil Station at the top of Mattapan Square, Stacey Thomas could see the old man inching along. He had been a customer once, before his car was stolen. Now he was making his way on foot to buy groceries. When he came out of CVS, bags in both hands, Thomas grabbed her keys.
She was headed home anyway.
“This is what you have to do in the neighborhood,” said Thomas, 53, who drove the man home on her way back to Roxbury. “Everybody, at some point, needs a little help.”
This is not the life Thomas wanted for herself: seven days a week at the window, struggling to keep the family business afloat. But after 18 years here, she belongs to this neighborhood now. She knows the faces. She knows the stories. She tries to help where she can.
The square has seen its fair share of improvements in recent years — the bars closing down, the new Mattapan Community Health Center moving in, right across the street. The Mattapan Square Main Streets Association, a group of business owners, is slowly making its way. But on her lot, at her pumps, she sees the struggle: customers coming in for the $5 of gas they can afford.
What Thomas likes to give them is warmth. Everyone who walks through her door gets a “How you doing?” and everyone gets a “Have a nice day.” It just so happens to be a good idea for business, which is what Thomas reminds her employees: Treat the customers with courtesy and respect, the way you would treat your mother.
But the way she does it is a different thing entirely. It gets to be a barbershop in that station, with people telling her all kinds of troubles. Branden Limage, 25, has seen it since he was a kid, coming in after school for his packet of gummy bears.
“Within five minutes, she cheers them up,” said Limage, who works part-time at the station.
Thomas has troubles, too, her customers know. A few even know the story of her life before here: how she grew up in Dorchester and Mattapan, the only daughter of a gas station owner and a Sears employee; how she met a cute boy with swagger, working a summer job at the federal building downtown; how they dated during college, then waited 10 years to get married, until he established himself in the transportation business.
When they left for the honeymoon, life seemed set: She would be a wife, a mother, an employee of the federal government until she retired.
Then they came back, and there was the gas station, a business opportunity from her father: something her husband could call his own. It came with a solid name in the industry, and a prime spot on Blue Hill Avenue — the very first station coming into the city from the south.
“It was the gateway to Boston,” Victor Thomas said.
And for a while, it hummed right along, selling anywhere from 4,000-5,000 gallons a day. Then the recession hit, and some of their customers sold their cars. Others let them sit idle. Thomas and her husband were young parents at the time. They spent nearly all their savings to keep the business on track.
He went back to his cab and his transportation business to support the family; she switched to seven days a week at the station. Even now, with the economy on the rise, the station will only break 2,500 gallons on a good day — nowhere near enough for the business to break even.
Her husband has a plan: Transform the station into a transportation hub, with taxis for hire, a mechanic in the bay, and used cars on the lot. Positive things taking place in Mattapan Square these days, and more positive things to come.
It’s all just a matter of time.
Some days, it’s overwhelming to think about: If Thomas had only stayed at that federal job, she would be eligible for retirement now. But then the door to the shop opens, and in walks Myrtle Ho-Sang with a plate full of food: baked ham, roast chicken, candied yams and collard greens from her garden.
She does this sometimes on Sundays when she sees Thomas working — whips up a little something, and walks it on over. A little appreciation for the times Thomas gives her $10 of gas on credit, when money is running low.
“I feed her for Thanksgiving, I feed her for Christmas, I feed her for New Years,” said Ho-Sang, who switches between Jamaican and American meals, depending on her mood in the kitchen that day. “Those are the days she works long hours and can’t afford to pay overtime.”
It’s a relationship Thomas has got going with the people who walk in here — Monty, coming in for his Boston Herald and his Jamaican beef patty; Chucky at the counter, looking for his blueberry-flavored tobacco papers; her “five dollar man” pulling up to the pump, for just that amount, and not one dollar more.
As soon as her elderly customers drive in, she walks out to pump their gas. Thomas needs every dollar she can get; this could be the extra service that keeps them coming back. But then, there’s always something else.
“I would hope someone would do the same thing for my parents,” she said.
Thomas has got an eye out for the rest of the neighborhood, too. “Mother mode” is what she calls it. When kids hand her a $10 bill and ask for only candy, she shuts them right down. When regulars come in for packs of cigarettes, she tries to talk them out of it. Just try complaining about the price of a pack of Newports, here versus there.
“I don’t even care,” Thomas snaps at a customer. “You shouldn’t be smoking anyway.”
Not all money is good money, and if she could give up the tobacco products tomorrow, she would. She cut off Keno a few years ago: Balancing the accounts was complicated enough, but to see people spending so much, when they had so little — that, for her, was the end.
This summer, she took a smaller stand: She replaced a row of Twinkies with cups of fresh fruit. All year long, she keeps plastic cups full of granola on the counter, right next to the basket of bananas and apples. They go for the Jamaican beef patties anyway, but it never hurts to try.
What Limage has learned over the nine years of knowing Thomas is this: Never give up. He’s watched her through good days, and he’s watched her through bad days. She stays calm, keeps her sense of humor, makes the best of what she’s given.
Limage has taken other part-time jobs, but he’s always kept this one in the rotation. It feels to him like home in here. He can see the neighborhood changing now — evolving, he thinks, is a better word — with the barbershop across the street, the new coffee house next door, the laundromat under new management down the street. But Mattapan Square has always been a little alliance, a community that looks out for its own. And Stacey Thomas is a part of it, for as long as she needs to stay.