THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- $20 dispute: Another reason to pay at the pump

As readers who read my note two issues ago know by now, Barbara Nordin has decided to focus on other writing projects, including a book of true-crime pieces set in Charlottesville, while continuing to juggle her day job as an administrative assistant at UVA's Curry School of Education. In her five years as the Hook's "Fearless Consumer," she's won refunds for customers, respect from businesses, and, most importantly, appreciation from readers. We'll miss her.–editor

"You better be careful what you write." The young man behind the counter at the Trading Post on Monacan Trail said that twice– or was it three times?– when I showed up at the store to ask questions about a troubling confrontation that happened there last month. He steadfastly declined to discuss the incident, however, and could see no discrepancy between his warning and his refusal.

This double message, which I have heard many times during my years as the Fearless Consumer, has always puzzled me. Why would someone (usually a business owner, but in this case an employee) refuse to tell his side of the story I'm getting ready to write about in the newspaper? And, given his refusal, why would that person feel entitled to issue veiled threats about what will happen if I don't manage to divine his account of what happened?

I'd left a message for the owner two weeks earlier, but he'd declined to call back and was gone the day I dropped by. That leaves us with only the account I heard first from Katrien Vance, who emailed to tell me what had allegedly happened to her son's kindergarten teacher, Regina Stuart. At my request, Stuart contacted me herself and confirmed Vance's version. 

Stuart stopped at the Trading Post for gas around 6pm on February 20 and, while she pumped, sent her high-school-aged son inside with a $20 bill to pay. When she cut off the pump, however, it came to $20.01, and she sent him back in with a penny. When he didn't return, she went inside to investigate. 

Things blew up fast. The employee, Brenda (who refused to either discuss the incident or divulge her last name), declared that Stuart's son had given her five $1 bills– not $20– and still owed $15. An increasingly heated discussion ensued. The manager appeared, removed the cash drawer and counted it, and announced that it was short by $3.85. If Brenda's claim had been correct, however, it should have been short by $15 (unless, of course, other mistakes had been made earlier). 

Stuart claims she then described the bill as "one of the new ones" that had been stuffed into a bank envelope and was folded over at the top edge. She says such a bill was second from the top in its slot, but the manager only "told her not to become irate." Frustrated, she suggested he call the police, and he did; in his call to the County Police, he allegedly said she'd assaulted him. An officer arrived, listened to both sides, and, Stuart claims, "sided with the manager." Frustrated, she left the store with her son. 

Vance believes the Stuarts got the treatment they did because they're black and the store owner, the police officer, and the employees (apparently the young man who urged me to "be careful" was also there) are all white. 

Unfortunately, we'll never know exactly what happened February 20 at the Trading Post, or what attitudes– if any– might have sparked the dispute. On one thing, however, we can probably agree: It's amazing that things were allowed to mushroom so far out of control. 

A heartfelt thanks

When I told my young friend at the Trading Post that this would be my last column, he pronounced that "a good thing." Well, yes and no. Yes, because now I can focus on my other writing, especially unsolved crimes. No, because I'll miss being the Fearless Consumer.

Look for my byline on articles in late April/early May about the 29 North stalker and the 1996 double murder in the Shenandoah National Park. Until then, thank you for being the best readers any writer could ask for!

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second Street NW, Charlottesville,  22902.