My introduction to Family Express came in a handful of quarters.

Years ago, while driving through the unnamed but numbered roads of Lake County, I noticed two horrifying things. One, that the needle on my gas gauge had buried itself completely in the orange before EMPTY. Two, that the wallet I typically toss on the passenger seat wasn’t there. It was, in fact, at home next to my coffee maker.

OH, #$%&

Cold sweat and cursing. We all know the feeling. In the words of Futurama’s Bender, I was boned.

I gingerly let up on the gas pedal, wondering how far I could get on the gas I had. How much was left? A two-liter worth? A tea cup? A teaspoon?

Whatever I had wouldn’t get me far. I patted my pockets and the armrest storage, hoping to discover some loose or waded up bills. No dice. I did, however, find plenty of loose change.

Incidentally, if you’ve ever wondered WHY rural roads are numbered, read our aptly-titled article “Why are Rural and County Roads Numbered?

For a few miles, I watched that needle plunge deeper and deeper into the orange, then pass it by. Soon it tickled the gauge’s last line of defense: that heavy white streak above the E.

At that point I saw the compact brick-and-glass gas station with the familiar blue signage: Family Express. The convenience store chain had been around for decades, but they were fairly new to that part of Lake County. I had never been inside one. To be honest, it wasn’t on my To-Do list. I was a Speedway man.

WAS a Speedway man.

The numbered and nameless desert of the rural Midwest

At that moment, running on fumes in this cornfield desert of Indiana in the days before the Google Maps app, the Family Express station’s appearance was like seeing angels made of concentrated da Vinci.

I’m tempted to paint a wordy description of the convenience store, but I won’t. The best description is actually the title of a celebrated short story by Ernest Hemingway. I’m not trying to wax literary here, but it fits the Valparaiso-based company like a Saville Row suit. The title is “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

Another Clean, Well-Lighted Place: ‘Nighthawks.’ Edward Hopper. 1942. Oil on canvas.

That’s what Family Express was and is. The gray tiled floor always looks freshly mopped. There’s no overflowing garbage cans or the flicker of dying fluorescent lighting. No scattered stacks of softener salt or washer fluid. The windows have few if any smudges. The sidewalks are shoveled and salted in the winter and litter-free in the summer. And it has never smelled like someone hurriedly stubbed out a cigarette in the backroom.

Someone always says “Hello” when I step in and they say it nicely. I worked at McDonald’s for two years in high school. I know the mechanical rattle of a soulless greeting: “Hello. WelcometoMcdonald’showmayIhelpyou.” In that job, we sounded like our souls had been scooped out with a melon baller.

But years ago, when I had to deal with this empty gas tank and missing wallet, I admit my thoughts didn’t run that sugary or sentimental. Parked by one of the pumps, I tore apart my car, looking for more loose change, snatching quarters and jamming them in my shirt pocket.

I’m sure I looked crazed. I probably sounded worse, since my cursing is automatic when my blood is up. And not that PG damncrapshit cursing either, but the kind that peels wallpaper. Deadwood cursing.

After a few more minutes of scrambled searching, I grabbed a handful of snow and scrubbing a few of the dirtiest coins, I had harvested 28 quarters. Seven dollars. At the time that was about 2 1/2 gallons of gas. Forty or fifty miles and enough to get home.

I came inside and the door chimed its single, musical ding.

“Hello,” the young clerk chirped as soon as I stepped in.

I had never been in a Family Express so that greeting threw me for a second. Was she someone I knew? A former student? I’ve ran into former students hundreds of times and while I can remember faces, I’m not so good at names and cover it with the Hey, uh, YOU…

But I didn’t know her. She was just friendly.

We’ve (probably) all been there.

I stood in line, holding the quarters in a loose cylinder between my fingers, counting and then recounting them. I hated buying things with change. For one, it feels like an imposition on workers that whose jobs are already hard enough. For another, you can almost hear the thoughts of everyone around you*. That dude must be broke, counting out his coins for gas. Poor guy. 

*A decade and two kids later, I am proud to say paying with change doesn’t bother me anymore. Teenagers pretend they don’t care what people think, but only the middle-aged and above really embrace not giving a damn. It’s a wonderful thing.

When my turn came I said, “Seven bucks on pump seven. Is it okay if I get rid of some quarters? I left my—”

The clerk didn’t even let me finish. Her face lit up and she held out her hand. “Oh thanks, I was running low on quarters. Just in time.”

I plopped the change into her hand and she slapped it on the counter, spreading them out and then sliding them four at a time to count. Then she put her palm on the edge of the counter, swiped her arm again. They vanished into the change drawer. The entire process took less than 10 seconds. Painless.

From that point on, whenever I’m driving and reach a cluster of gas stations, I always go for a Family Express. I know it’s going to be clean and well-lighted (99% of the time). I know my shoes won’t stick to the linoleum. The milk and donuts will be fresh. The bathroom won’t look like a septic tank explosion. The clerk won’t be an automaton.

Another FE Covid precaution: wrapping donuts individually. I cannot imagine the cost.

And I argue no company in the Midwest has demonstrated concern for its customers better than Family Express during the reign of King Covid. Since early 2020, Family Express employees have sported masks, installed barriers, put out disposable tissues, sanitized surfaces, and provided a jug of hand sanitizer in front of their doors. Not once has that jug been empty.

Whatever your opinion might be on Covid masking, you have to admire and appreciate a company that errs on the side of caution for the health of its customers. No other gas station or convenience store chain has approached this level of care.

This quarters/Covid anecdote seems too insignificant for an article: I was low on gas, paid with quarters, and wasn’t hassled for it. Then people got sick and a gas station wiped the counters. Big deal. Not exactly the Avengers, is it? But our lives aren’t superhero movies. We aren’t worn down by tragedy, but by a slow grind.

What Family Express understands—just as Hemingway did in his short story—is that those little things DO matter. They add up and accrue interest. Providing a Clean, Well-Lighted Place pays off in every way kindness can pay off. Our lives often feel like a tug-of-war between drudgery and chaos, but a few minutes’ respite is sometimes just enough to get us through long drives and longer days.

To me each Family Express station seems to say: “Life is hard. Here’s a clean floor and a fresh donut.” Sometimes that’s all we need.

Life is hard. Have a donut.

Based in Valparaiso, this 46-year-old Hoosier company now has 70 locations in northern and central Indiana. They have mastered the art of proprietary branding. Family Express chooses the most suitable applicants: only 5% are ultimately hired. The company refers to these as “high-quality employees.”

In 2015, CStore Decisions, the industry’s leading periodical, awarded its Chain-of-the-Year Award to Family Express, citing its “”innovation, outstanding operations, superior leadership and the ongoing commitment to convenience retail.”

That’s one way of putting it. I’ll just say it’s for being a Clean, Well-Lighted Place.

I do not work for Family Express. I am not being compensated in any way for this article. I just appreciate a clean place after a long day. That said, if they want to throw some of those yummy Square Donuts my way, I won’t object. Cherry frosting with sprinkles, please.

Want to Know More? 

I don’t want to be a jerk, since I mentioned it a dozen times, so here’s a copy of Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” probably the best short story from a master of short stories.

If you frequent Family Express locations, be sure to install their loyalty app (found HERE). The Perks system is generous and builds up quickly, paying off in fuel discounts. And you can order food from the app as well. Their pizza is excellent. And their cookies. And donuts. And chocolate milk…