After Star Market, I moved on to something cleaner and less demanding. I traded sour milk and rat feces for gasoline, oil, and washer fluid, which was a definite step up. I worked for a full-service gas station, back when those still existed in New York, and even though it was hell on earth in the summer and 20 below zero in the winter, and we had to wear white uniforms with green pinstripes on the pants, it wasn't all bad. I was 16 years old, I had a new driver's license, an old Impala that sucked down gas like Lindsay Lohan sucks down -- wait for it -- booze, and no plan other than filling up that 36 gallon gas tank as many times as I could that summer. The Impala got about eight miles per gallon, so sticking to that plan was a pretty easy thing to do.
On the nice days, it was a cake walk, but toward the middle of July you really had to work for your money. When it's 102 degrees outside and you are standing on black, sun-blasted pavement breathing hot exhaust fumes from a half-dozen cars and trucks, and your boss insists that you keep your top shirt button buttoned at all times, it's hard to not take the easy way out and just die standing up.
Let me tell you what sucks the most about working in a full-serve station. It makes sense when you think about it, but when you're filling out that application on a beautiful afternoon in late May, it's the farthest thing from your mind. It's simply this:
The worse the weather is, the busier you are.
At the time, most gas stations had pumps that were in the open with no covered roofing. And trust me -- nobody wants to save three cents a gallon by getting out of their car in the pouring rain, sleet, snow, high winds or hail to pump their own gas. In an indirect way, that's what almost got me fired. To express it in a completely incorrect mathematical manner because I really, really suck at math, the equation in my mind looks something like this:
(bad weather + recurring asshole) x (short straw/had-it-up-to-here) = potential bad decision
Mike and I were in the hut wishing away customers. The hut was nothing more than a glass door and a plate glass window tacked onto the front of a 16x16 foot white cinderblock building. The building was just big enough to hold a front room with a desk and a couple of chairs, a tiny break room behind that, a footlocker-sized concrete safe with a money slit on top, and a bathroom accessible through another door in the back.
It was Wednesday night, and it had been pouring rain for five hours and it didn't look like it was going to let up any time soon. Mike and I were sitting on hard plastic chairs, our ankle-length yellow slickers unbuttoned, water dripping into pools beneath our seats. Mike got up for the third time in as many minutes and ran a squeegee across the window to wipe away the condensation so we could see what was going on. We knew we'd hear the bell if anyone pulled up and ran over the air hose, but it was nice to see ahead of time whether you're up against an 18-wheeler with a 100 gallon diesel tank on either side, or a Volkswagen bug driven by a guy sticking two dollar bills out of his window. This was also important because if it turned out to be a single car, you alternated, but if two or more pulled up, you both had to go out.
Like every other job working with the public, we learned pretty quickly who the pain-in-the-ass customers were. There are the ones that won't pay $10.03 if they told you to pump ten bucks, or the ones who changed their minds and decided to pay with a credit card after you'd already given them the cash price discount. And of course, there were the drive-offs, and while generally not recurring, those came out of your pay.
And then there was the guy we called Peener O'Tool. The peener in the beemer. Or simply, Peener. He was all of these things and more. Because not only did he show up every time the weather sucked, but he got off on making you wait on him hand and foot. So he would sit there in his BMW with his window rolled down half way and he'd basically mock you to your face and there wasn't anything you could do about it. He was one of those guys who, if you told him he had a nice car, would say "I know" instead of "Thanks."
He showed up every Wednesday, like clockwork, rain or shine. He didn't abuse you as much when it was nice out -- I guess there wasn't as much fun in that. Even so, he wasn't going to pump his own gas no matter what the weather was like. He might get his suit dirty, or wrinkle his silk tie. The other thing that pissed me off about this guy is that he would always drive in the exit and end up on the wrong side of the pumps, so his car was facing in the opposite direction from the other 99% of people who weren't obnoxious idiots. I assume he did this because the gas cap was on the passenger side, and he was too lazy to loop around and come in from the entrance.
The week before, he had pulled up in a rainstorm, and I got the short straw since it was my turn. I walked out to the pumps and he rolled down his window and said, "Super unleaded. Fill it." and rolled up the window again. Of course he pulled up a little too far just to make it more difficult for me. I tapped on the window and asked him if he could move back a little, but he ignored me. I sighed, stretched the hose to its limits, and started the pump. He always used his credit card, so I ran back to the hut to get the credit card machine and the little 4x6 clipboard and pen. There was no swiping a card at the pump during the late 70's. This was a metal slider thing and a hunk of carbon paper that you slipped the card under to take an imprint. Stone knives and bearskins. You couldn't get any of it wet, so you had to hold it under your slicker. By the time I got back, his tank was full, so I put the credit card machine on top of the pump while I put the hose away. It was really coming down hard now. The water was splashing underneath my slicker and the lower half of my uniform was soaked to my knees. He rolled down the window and I handed him the credit slip on the little clipboard, along with a pen. He signed it, took his card and returned the clipboard without a word. I turned and was about to jog back to the hut when he called me through the slitted window. I looked back and he smirked at me. "Check the oil," he said.
We weren't allowed to say no, so I had to do it. The Hess motto was "The customer is always right, especially when they're obnoxious idiots," and we had to follow that motto just as closely as we had to follow the button-up-and-die dress code from hell. I think he was hoping I'd walk to the front of the car and fumble around a bit looking for the hood release, but I had been working there long enough to know the hood release on those cars was inside. I nodded, and said, "Can you pop the hood for me, sir?" God, even now, the fact that I called him sir pisses me off.
He waited until I was leaning under the hood then he gave the horn a tap, for the sole purpose of scaring the shit out of me. I'm sure he thought it was hilarious. I checked the oil, which was fine, as we both knew it would be, and brought over the dip stick for him to inspect. He made a show of looking it over, then nodded. I ran back around to the front of the car and replaced the dip stick, then slammed the hood. I walked back and said, "Anything else I can help you with?" Of course there was. He said, "Sucks to be you today. Check my tire pressure, will you?" I gritted my teeth, and ran back to the hut to get the pressure gauge.
Mike had been watching all this through the window and when I walked in, he said, "Sorry, man. He got me a couple weeks ago if it's any consolation."
"It's not," I said. "What an asshole. Can you believe he wants me to check his tire pressure now?"
"I believe it," Mike said. "He's the only person who's ever made me clean their friggin' windows during a thunderstorm. I'm about ready to put diesel in his tank next time he comes in."
That didn't seem like such a bad idea to me, either. I ran back to the car, sneakers squishing, and squatted down next to the first tire as I unscrewed the cap and tested it. It was fine. Five minutes later, I had confirmed that they were all fine, as I'm sure he undoubtedly had known. I wasn't giving him any more chances, so I just gave him the "OK" sign and ran for the hut. It wasn't the sign I wanted to give him, believe me.
He left, and I wished him into a pole. I'm not entirely sure, but I think he may have been the first person to be listed in my manifesto who didn't actually know my name. A few hours later, I saw something that gave me an idea. An evil, horrible, wonderful idea. Assuming he didn't drive into a pole in the meantime, of course.
The station was small, and only had four pumps on two islands, two spigots on each side of the pump. Back then, you couldn't pick which type of gas you wanted by pushing a blinking button. If you wanted Super unleaded, you had to pull up to the blue pump, either on the inside, near the hut, or the outside, next to the street. I shared my plan with Mike and he said he was in. Now we just had to wait for another rainy Wednesday.
A few weeks later, it happened. It had rained all day, and it showed no intention of stopping. It was a Wednesday, and we were both on the schedule. After the day shift left and it was just me and Mike, we immediately bagged the inside Super pump. We had these little yellow bags with "Sorry, Out of Order" printed on them, and if there was a problem, you'd just close the pump until it could be fixed.
We waited, for the first time actually hoping that Peener would show up to make our lives miserable. He didn't disappoint. At 6:30 on the button he pulled up to the inside pump, saw it was out of order, backed it up and pulled in on the other side. He didn't even attempt to turn around, which meant his filler cap was on the wrong side. I think he just wanted something else to bitch about since that meant I had to drape the hose across the trunk of his BMW. I looked at Mike and he looked at me. "I'll take this one," I said. He just grinned as I donned my yellow slicker and pulled my hood up around my face. "Good luck," he said.
I walked up to the BMW's window, and Peener nodded at me. He brought the window half-way down and said, "Fill it up. And check the oil and the tires, since it's so nice out today."
I very carefully draped the hose across his trunk, put the nozzle in the tank and locked it while I checked the oil and tires. I had the pressure gauge and the credit card machine all ready to go, so I didn't have to leave and I could keep watch. I confess that I didn't really check the tire pressure. I just squatted down next to the car for a while at each corner, all the while scanning on-coming traffic. Finally, I saw what I needed. I had hoped for a pickup truck or even a delivery truck, but I hit the mother lode. An 18 wheeler at the light about a quarter mile away. I had to time it perfectly.
The outside of the pump was only a few feet from the right lane of Central Avenue, and whenever we had a thunderstorm or simply a downpour, it resulted in a gigantic and very deep puddle directly across from the outside pump. There was a depression there that would fill up with water and it was at least four inches deep and 20 feet long. You had to be very aware of passing trucks or you had a good chance of getting soaked. All of us had learned the hard way and this is what I had been waiting for. Most cars tended to at least try to avoid the small lake created by the rain, but if there were cars in the inside lane, the bigger trucks had no choice but to barrel through.
I showed him the dipstick, then stuffed it back in the engine and slammed the hood. I walked up to his window and took his credit card, keeping my eye on the approaching semi. Halfway. Probably doing about 25 or 30 mph. Shifting. Belting smoke from the twin stacks. The speed limit was 40, but most people did more than that. I could hear the truck changing gears as it picked up speed. I ran his card, but instead of clipping the card and the slip to the little clipboard, I just rested the card on top. Holding the credit card machine under one arm, I reached out to hand him the clipboard and pen. Because I'm clumsy and clearly no good at my job, I tipped the clipboard and the credit card slid off and fell on the ground next to the car. "I'm sorry!" I said, making a show of backing away and scanning the ground under the car and not finding his card. "Jesus Christ!" he said, then opened his door and leaned out of the car a little bit to see if he could spot his errant card.
It was a beautiful thing, and I can still picture it now. It was like the final scene of Point Break, when Patrick Swayze is on the beach in Australia during the 50-year storm and he heads out into the surf for the final time as Keanu Reeves stands on the beach and gives another oscar-worthy performance.
"Wait, there it is!" I said, pointing directly under his door. At the same time, I turned my back to the road and braced myself as the 18-wheeler barreled by and a six-foot-tall wall of dirty brown street water rose up and then crashed down on the open car door and unprotected back of Peener and his expensive suit. When the truck had passed, I looked past the dripping hood of my slicker and just stared at the destruction. Peener looked like he had been hit with a fire hose. Water was dripping from his hair, the steering wheel, his chin, you name it. He had gravel on his shoulders. He looked up at me in confusion as if he had no idea what had just happened. I bent down and scooped up the small rectangle of green and white plastic.
"Here's your card," I said, holding it out between two fingers. "Sorry about that."
He was furious, and even though he wanted to blame me, he really couldn't. I was just the idiot who dropped his card on the ground. He's the one who opened the door. I finally got him to sign the slip, then I went back inside. Mike was rolling on the floor laughing so hard he could barely breathe. After Peener drove away, we immediately pulled the bag off the pump and then replayed the event over and over for the rest of our shift.
He complained to the company, of course. Hess owed him a new suit, they were going to pay for detailing his car if it was the last thing they did, the town was going to hear from him about that pothole, blah, blah, blah. Typical blowhard stuff, from what I heard. The thing that almost got us fired was the fact that we had placed the "out of order" bag on the pump when they weren't actually out of order. That's a big no-no for some reason that has to do with gallon readings per pump or something, and Peener had actually thought to mention the out of order pump. Steve, our boss, put two and two together. He knew about the puddle just like the rest of us did. He was actually pretty cool about it though, and pulled us into the back room and gave us a speech.
"Don't do any shit like that again, or I'll have to fire you. I know that guy is a dick, and I know you did it on purpose. He made me check his tires in the rain, too, but dealing with his crap is part of the job. It's what you get paid to do, and if you can't take it, then you're free to find another job. Are we cool?"
We were cool. Both Mike and I worked that season until the snow flew, then we put in our notice. It was probably a good thing too, because everything went self-service the following spring, and the station closed shortly thereafter. If there's any justice in the world, Peener still has ditch water in his ears to go with the gravel in his douchebag soul.
I only hope he remembers the day he caught his first tube.
p.s. - Locals rule.