The Afterlife of a Small Town

I first came to Oil City, PA as a new employee of a Fortune 1000 company headquartered there.  You may remember Quaker State; it had a NASCAR entry that tended to trail billowing black smoke while coasting to a race-ending stop somewhere on the infield, and its final ads featured that snarling red-headed guy with too much attitude.  QS had acquired me and perhaps my most joyful workplace ever about a year before.  In those post-acquisition months many visitors from the North came to Shreveport to learn Specialty Oil’s take on operating motor oil distributorships and packaging plants, and each invariably reminded us that this could not possibly work on a larger scale.  Behind the scenes a plot was being hatched to move corporate HQ to either Dallas or San Antonio – for better air connections – and I suspect to tap a deeper pool of tech and marketing talent.


Word got out prematurely, and the new CEO’s house was regularly pelted with eggs, garbage, and QS Ten Years Service paperweights.  People sensed the loss of 300 highly paid jobs would doom schools, healthcare, and dry up the ancillary businesses that relied on a customer base anchored by QS personnel.  The lucky ones faced a painful choice:  move to Texas, grab that relo package, and deal with culture shock, or stay put and watch your mortgage go upside down while you look for work in western Pennsylvania.  Other than the CEO’s trophy wife, no one was happy.  She knew about Nordstrom’s.


I was supposed to learn to manage the Accounting to Info Technology interface of our soon-to-be combined systems.  My teachers were a woman who’d declined her invitation to move to BBQ Land, and another who got no offer.  Their interest in teaching me matched that which our first Springer held for becoming a vegan.  It was two  L – O – N – G  weeks of pointless “training” leaving me with all kinds of spare time to see the sights and learn the culture of our conquerors.

Oil Creek Looking North

Oil City is today a shadow of its old self.  Penn DOT leased the space QS had owned.  Nobody else moved in.  Five miles to the east a new town has sprung up complete with big box stores, franchise food outlets, and all kinds of new construction.  Cranberry’s location is a little better than Oil City’s.  Its homes are newer, and that is where any growth will go.  Oil City, PA:  RIP.


There were two good restaurants in 1994.  I ate at least four nights a week at the Chinese Food Restaurant.  Its owner, Jimmy Cheong, didn’t have a beer license (not enough business) so I’d bring a cold six pack around 8:00 after his dinner business was over.  We’d share a couple as I watched him cook my Mongolian or Orange Beef, General Tso’s, Cashew, or Hunan Chicken.  Jimmy came over from Taiwan and learned English in just two weeks chain-watching movies in stay-as-long-as-you-want theatres.  (“I like Scarface, lots of action, but learn many words cannot be use, and learn that hard way!”)  Jimmy bought an entire building in downtown Oil City (Cheap!) upon the rumored exodus.  His family lived upstairs, and he fed them well on prepped food he couldn’t sell.  James from Taiwan could really cook, and he was so fast.  I tried to persuade him to move his business to the D-FW area, to no avail.  He had a building and TV-grade cooking skills.  He was certain: “We will survive.  In time, in USA, I have lotta money.”

The Yellow Dog

The Yellow Dog Lantern was a steakhouse that offered an ambitious menu of seasonal items sourced locally, along with a first-rate bar supported by travelling salesmen who preyed on QS.  I enjoyed superb prime rib, exotic burgers, and lobster ravioli in my visits, usually dining at the bar.  Just before I left O.C. for good, I shared a pleasant conversation with three locals in The Dog.  One was its owner, the second was Bud, managing editor of the local newspaper, and the third a local legend who had won fortunes in Pennsylvania’s Lottery three times.  He then lost each to a bad divorce.  (“I can pick numbers, but I make the same mistake over and over.  Women choose me for my money, I choose them for their looks, and between lookers and lawyers, I’m soon back to Lotto.”)  They were depressed over the future of Oil City, a sentiment I shared.  But they couldn’t move.  I wanted them to think positive, and disagreed.  “You have yellow brick sidewalks, a clean clear river running through downtown, and a Catholic church high atop a mountain looking out for you … it may take a while, but you’re gonna be all right.”  Bud liked it “I better write that on a napkin.  We need an editorial on that!”  The three time winner/loser tossed back his beer and agreed “Just the way I feel about Lotto!”  The business woman gave me a wry smile and said nothing.  Only she was right.

That’s The Church with Twin Spires, Upper Left

The Yellow Dog is still a gem, although now it’s open only for dinner.  It gets rave reviews from people who should know.  Jimmy’s place has been closed a long time, and I do not know what became of him.  Somebody thought maybe he went to Texas, worked as a cook, saved and learned enough to buy his own food truck and made his fortune.


I may never know, so this is where we will leave Jimmy Cheong’s American Dream.


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