Collins Exxon has seen better days, but the best is yet to come. That, according to long-time proprietor-leaseholder Lee Collins.
It’s hard not to believe him. Collins is a determined man.
One of these days, the DOT is finally going to widen a portion of Alston Avenue to four lanes and a median. The upgrade will run from the Durham Freeway a mile north to Holloway Street, or N.C. 98.
“This improvement is going to change everything for me,” Collins said. “For years now, no one wants to stop. Getting back into traffic is impossible.”
The project doesn’t make everybody in the immediate area happy, but all in all, the widening seems a like a strike for progress in the wider neighborhood in need of good news.
The Collins service station, where Lee first began working in 1994, is can’t miss at the well-known, well-worn corner of Alston Ave. and E. Main St. Traffic slows or stalls there all day and segments of the night.
Pedestrians are everywhere. Walking, talking, waiting, living. A theater of sorts on a stage of pavement. There’s a busy bus stop. Los Primos supermarket. The Union Rescue Mission. Steve’s Auto Repair. Collins Exxon.
“If it can happen, I’ve seen it here,” Collins said.
It’s a major intersection slicing through a lower-income, higher violence area of Durham. Things aren’t easy with or without a good road. But to thousands, it’s home. Collins is smack dab in the middle, doing what he does.
Saturday a week ago, I happened by.
Here’s what I found. First, the gas station doesn’t sell gas. Not now, anyway. The once-active pumps are broken down. Collins blames, in part, the economy’s near-meltdown several years ago. And the road worries.
At this station, no prices gleam on the giant Exxon sign in the sky.
This in no way means the station is quiet. When I was there in the lot, a food truck called Taqueria San Pablito was cooking it up strong. The scents said so. I saw two rental trucks, a van, and a trailer. Collins is also the small neighborhood U-Haul spot.
Three guys with a makeshift car wash sign worked at the side of the station building. Suds and sweat pouring. It was hot out.
Lee Collins and two fellows had a truck above them in a bay. Another guy had his car parked by a dead gas pump with him underneath, doing some self-service. Lee’s got the tools many don’t.
A basketball rim without a backboard stood lonely on the west side. The net was in good shape, though, so you know it’s not abandoned.
Then I saw the mini-flea market on the east side of the station. Tables of miscellaneous.
A woman and several kids pulled away with a bunch of clothes they’d just picked up for nothing. All smiles. Can’t beat free stuff when you need it. Course, they could barely get out of the Collins lot thanks to the constant traffic backup.
The free clothes signs and the smell of hot dogs came from just across the tight, two-lane avenue. A young girl yelled through a megaphone: “Honk your horn for Jesus!”
The group was mostly from the Continual Praise Outreach Ministry up on Infinity Street north of I-85. Tashonda Wilder said: “It’s in our heart to give. That’s what this church is about.”
With the megaphone and the placards, traffic slowed even more than usual. A stream of drivers, I noticed, knew Lee’s name. Yelled it out the car windows to say hey.
Meanwhile, Collins had nearly the whole property buzzing with other people doing other people’s stuff.
“I like sharing,” Collins said. “I’ve been struggling, I’m not gonna lie. Since the recession ’bout shut us down, I been holdin’ out hope.”
Ah, the Alston Avenue upgrade. While a lot of attention once focused on the future of the Family Fare BP station nearby, and the once-debated relocation of the Los Primos Supermarket, Collins kept a low profile.
And now? “The state buys the right of way,” he told me, “and I believe it’s also going to help fix up part of the property.”
Collins maintains the infusion of resources will help the station get new gas pumps and put them in a better spot.
“I pray it all happens,” he said.
The meager convenience store shelves will fill up, too, Collins said.
“Full-service is what I know, and it’s what I want,” he said.
Collins Exxon will get its mojo back, says this bear of a man with the baritone voice.
“And I’m ready for it.”
With that, our visit concluded. One nod goodbye, and Lee Collins was back doing what he does. He strolled with his greasy shirt and good heart.
Gas or no gas, this loyal man keeps on serving folks at his service station.
You can reach Tom Gasparoli at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-219-0042.