Monday, September 12, 2005

Cheese and Whine.

“Hi sweetheart,” I say to Maria, one of the hard-core regulars, as she walks into the shop on Saturday. “How are you?”

Maria is normally a rather cheerful woman, but seems out of sorts tonight. I’ve had a bit of bad news myself, and I’m not at all in the mood to deal with anybody else’s plaintive little cares, the bitching and moaning that passes for conversation with a lot of people.

“I’m really tired,” Maria whines. Yep. Just what I was expecting. Take my question and answer it with a complaint, without even bothering to ask how I am in return. The really awful thing is that I get this answer from about a third of my customers. Right, sure, I shouldn’t ask if I don’t want an honest answer, but really I just want someone else out there to engage in the pleasant set of lies that we dub courtesy in English so that we can all interact a bit more effectively. Nations will march off to war over lies about God and Hitler and Allah and Imperialism and Communism, and I can’t, with a sled and a pack of huskies, drag somebody into saying, “I’m fine, thanks for asking,” unless they literally and explicitly mean it and believe it.

“What’s troubling you tonight, dear?” I’m going to be nice anyway, damn it all, as a spiteful exercise in my higher social skills.

“Well, I worked all day long,” she begins her ode to sadness, while I grab the cigar rolling papers she’s going to need to get stoned when she gets home, “and then I got in an argument on the phone with that damn man of mine, and it’s late, and I’m tired, and I just want to go home and,” she whispers, “smoke me a fattie so that I can go to sleep.” I am unsure how I became the intimate confidante of every substance abuser in my zip code, but it obviously happened somewhere without me even filling out an application for the job.

I stop to do a mathematical formula: job + telephone argument + advanced hour = bad day. I realize that I sometimes give people way too much credit for sophisticated motivations and that I should just start applying math formulas to all of them and be done with it. As I listen to Maria complain with my patience a little more constrained than it usually is, I start to get offended and annoyed that she’s missing the point so badly.

So what’s the point I’m talking about? Maria, is like me, and like everyone else, a unique, highly improbable event. She thinks she’s an overweight woman who wears glasses and sports dreadlocks, and in those terms she is technically correct, but she is, like everybody else, a whole hell of a lot more than that. She is a recombination of genetic material unlike any that has ever come before and any that will come hence, an animal so totally individual that were I to take away her name and all of her possessions and everything she has ever learned, she would still recognize her reflection in a pool of water. She’s a thing so special that theologians come up with beautiful words like soul and Atman and inner light and Holy Spirit to address her individuality. She is a construction of organic matter so complex that it takes hundreds of differentiated organs working at a breathtaking level of productivity just to keep her from breaking down and dying any given moment. And in the face of that amazing fiat from nature she has the audacity to whine over a little bit of struggle in her life, the necessity that she work so that she may live.

“But if you in your pain,” Kahlil Gibran once wrote, “call birth an affliction and the support of the flesh a curse written upon your brow, then I answer that naught but the sweat of your brow shall wash away that which is written.” I think Mr. Gibran had that one just about right: we work, and we suffer, that we may live. An animal that lies down too long in the wild is a sick animal that does not expect to survive. Only industrial humanity has the luxury of viewing work as a curse, as some type of punishment, rather than the things we do to provide for ourselves and our loved ones. Maria would be darned bummed out, I strongly suspect, if the entire capitalist experiment were to fail tomorrow and she had to start hunting or gathering to live and thus be rudely informed of how easy she actually has it.

And so we grouse and grumble about our pain, as if it were designed by a wicked god to torment us, instead of being the very capacity that lets us know that we are animate, incarnate beings and not stones littering a beach. Who doesn’t feel pain? Quadriplegics? Heroin addicts? Other categories of people on the edge of death? Pain is the world’s most useful reminder to get your hand the bloody hell off of that burning stick or not to step on that snake again. People who shrink from pain—intellectual, emotional, or purely physical—are refusing to learn the lessons that pain and fatigue are trying to teach them. People who are habitually exhausted at the end of the workday, nine times out of ten, need to get more sleep and exercise. People that are constantly upset after talking to their significant others on the phone need to learn better communication skills or find new people to date.

I want to tell Maria this, as I listen to her sad misconceptions about the unparalleled gift that is life, that she’s a whiner, and that I’m sick of whiners, and that I just found out that an old friend of mine that I’d lost touch with was a whiner just like her except his case of the whines was so bad that he put a shotgun load through the back of his skull in a public park in Ohio and left some poor kids to stumble across his body. I want her to know that he’d forgotten that to be alive is nearly always to be loved, and that whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, there are people who are deeply attached to our lives, who hold fond memories of our presence and the shared experiences we have celebrated and endured alongside them. That thought alone should shut her up and make her realize that the world is bigger than just her, and go home and call her parents to thank them for making her.

But of course, I don’t. I can hardly go around condemning other people’s rudeness in dumping their small cares upon strangers and then go do something like that, especially when the reason I’m upset has almost nothing to do with her story and everything to do with the blaring noise in my head. So I just look at Maria, and, gently rebuke, “So it’s all about you then. Is it?”

She falls silent, with a look of childish amazement, and starts wildly beckoning me to follow her. I come around the counter out of curiosity, wondering what she’s up to, and follow her pointed finger to the plastic front plate on her car. It reads, I jest not: “IT’S ALL ABOUT ME.”

“Thank you Maria,” is all I can say when I get done laughing, which is something I badly needed to do. Maria drives away and I’m left with a valedictory thought regarding our conversation: Maria can poke fun at her whining and her selfishness, so at least she knows the score on that count, I muse. And that’s the start to understanding an awful lot more.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Moving On.

"If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause and say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well." -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

This thing, this situation, that has taught me so much about myself, about the world and all its beauty and horror, this life as a…gas station attendant, nears its end. To leave it behind will involve both a little euphoria and a touch of sadness, as all endings and new beginnings do, but to dress the situation up with a little (probably meaningless), feel-good rhetoric—it’s just time.

In a few months, Gas Guy starts a very different job, in a very different kind of office, because he allowed himself to do this one, at his rare best moments, with a love and patience that trumped selfishness and bitterness and resentment. Since that was the goal all along, the very thing I asked by immersing myself into the purgatory of service-slavery, it is time now to set new goals based on the same principles: I must come to love a different kind of work, not necessarily better or more necessary, but better suited to my interests, better matched to my skills, with a greater power to influence minds, and hence a greater responsibility to work with a compassionate caution, a vigilant remonstrance that I always do my best.

But I had to go through purgatory to burn away much of my stubbornness and foolishness, my blindness and arrogance and opinion, before I could let myself move on to new endeavors. I’ll not delude myself or anyone else into thinking that I am cured of the folly that being human so often entails, but, then again, I never will be nor will anyone else. I will offer myself only the flattery that I am less sick than when I took this job, that I am less foolish than the man who took issue over the smallest of perceived slights, who dwelt constantly in the twisted precepts of his imagination and created a reality so painfully illusory and unhappy that he was fit to do no kind of work that allowed him to share illusion and unhappiness with a greater multitude of people. I never liked that guy much, and so I will leave as much of him behind as I am able when I punch in the five-digit alarm code for the final time, a little while hence.

When I started this job a small span back, I was bitter and sarcastic, and saw people and things only so well as they conformed to the veil of my bitterness and sarcasm. Sometimes that filter produced some pretty funny descriptions of events, but the descriptions were funny because I had taken reality and perverted it to fit my peculiar and unique sense of humor. I still do, of course, but try to at least recognize that that’s what’s going on. When I can’t possibly resist the urge to label things and people to conform to my snarky predisposition toward them, I at least struggle to comprehend that the description is not the event, that people are not reprobates because I’m in a bad mood, nor saints when I am ebullient. They are what they are, wholly independent of what the three pounds of gristle in my skull is inclined to designate them that particular day. Life and time transpire as they do, and my opinion of it changes matters none at all.

I saw this job, I must confess, as beneath me when I took it. I cringed at the thought that someone with my education should be reduced, out of pecuniary necessity, to a labor so menial and so mundane. I felt superior to the college students and the laborers and the vagrants and crackheads and hookers that roll through here, because I knew things and had seen things and had been places that they’ll never know and never see and never be.

And, in that regard, I was half right; all of that last assertion is true. But I came, slowly, in fits and starts, to realize that every one of those people could apply the same statement to me and be just as correct. Sure, most of the pothead furniture movers I’ve sold beer to have never poured libations in three countries or toured Pompeii or read Milton and Shakespeare or the Bhagavad-Gita or the Tao te Ching. They have not led lives that afford them the idle luxuries that I have been afforded, and have had to learn other lessons, missives hard and real and practical. They have learned to keep 35-year-old automobiles running, to work on scaffolds without plunging to their deaths, to build the buildings that I live and work in, to survive traumatic childhoods that I never had, to reap the rewards of backbreaking labor that I’ve never performed; they have learned that survival is often more an act of necessity than one of decorum or convenience, that life in a country that sometimes doesn’t like your native tongue or skin color or taste in recreational drugs can be a pretty cold thing. Many of them are brusque people, with brusque demeanors, not crafted, as I once imagined, as a personal affront to me but rather as a defense mechanism against a world which has often been unkind to them, in a manner which it has never been so ungracious to me. Whores, as Jesus himself knew, know the dark secrets of the world in a way that I do not, and cannot, ever know.

I learned, concurrently, about the fortunate ones, kids driving cars that they could never afford without parental assistance, wearing fine clothing and living lives of ostensible comfort and ease. I begrudgingly accepted that my reflexive hatred of them was nothing more than envy, that my resentment was based in the warped ideological construction that because rich people are generous to their children, that the world owes me riches. It doesn’t. Wealthy people devolving wealth onto their own does not, contrary to popular opinion, entitle any of the rest of us to a cut.

I learned about this kind of learning, that of the blessed and the unblessed, because, once I got past my initial fear and revulsion toward kinds of people whom I had never before encountered, I began to ask questions. I began to realize that everyone has a story, and that all the stories are good ones. Not good in the sense of being pleasant, always, but good in the greater sense of being enthralling testaments to the human will to persevere through misfortune, or, alternately, the heartbreaking tragedy of those who do not persevere, who live lives of melancholy defeat and despair. I learned that, sometimes, charmed lives have their own sufferings, and beleaguered ones have their conquests. In watching and listening to all these narratives, I came to a terribly belated, if never-too-late understanding: I am damned lucky to have had so little to vie against in my time on earth.

In the face of the poignant, brilliant, joyous struggles of the people whom I’ve met, I decided to become, as the wise Dr. King would have it, a great street sweeper. I’ve elected to cease doing silly things like drinking at work, picking fights with the clueless nineteen-year-olds, and resenting every moment of my time behind that counter. It didn’t happen all at once, of course, and coincided with other changes in my perspective, but it happened, slowly-but-perceptibly, nevertheless. I can now perform a very easy job without much exertion, because I decided to pay attention to what I’m doing rather than fantasize about what I’d rather be doing or dreaming about where I’d rather be. The fact that a diplomat lobbying for human rights in China and me sweeping a floor in Tennessee are not of equal importance does not mean that the latter action is unimportant: if people worldwide with low-wage employment all quit caring at once, the entire global economy would collapse overnight. The world needs ditch diggers and street sweepers, or else we’d all have a lot of flooded roads and dirty streets.

And yet, all that said, with Dr. King in mind, I realize that some people are called to be ditch diggers and street sweepers, and others, perhaps, are not. I once, years ago, worked with a mentally retarded, 50-year-old dishwasher named Shirley. She washed dishes as Michelangelo painted, and Beethoven composed, and Shakespeare penned poesy, as it was dubbed during his time. She washed dishes so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth paused to say, “Here lived a great dishwasher, who did her job well.”

But although Shirley was certainly a great dishwasher, I suspect that possibly I am not called to be a great gas guy forever; I hope that vanity can be forgiven. And so I’m going to do something else: I’m going to teach college freshmen how to write, in the hopes that one day they may be able to tell their own stories with the passion and the insight that I desperately strive for, and often fall short of, in telling mine. I am going to try to teach with love that which I have learned through turmoil and conflict, so that others may see things for themselves which I have not yet learned and may never learn—to see the world through the rigorous wonder of observation, to tell the truth as they see it and not how anyone taught it to them, to tell the story of reality better than I can tell it.

If I can sweep a floor with dignity, which I believe that I now can, then I feel that I may be ready for a greater challenge. I merely hope that I may learn as much from teaching as I have from watching these manifold incredible things transpire, from an elevated perch in a convenience store.

Thursday, September 08, 2005


A thing happened to Gas Guy, or rather a culmination of a process happened, a mere few months ago. Gas Guy had a vision in a cave, an experience that transformed him from a presupposed knower to an inquisitive seeker, from a man who had ideas and opinions, into one who now merely possesses questions, leading to trasient and ephemeral guidelines about the whole nature of the human experience.

Are we wonky and deep enough yet? No worries. Rather than peer any further into the heart of creation, I have picked the safest path to deploy my newfound truths regarding creation's manifestations: I have found a degree of spiritual harmony, and am using it to get laid. I’m quite sure that Jesus and Buddha did it too. (Whoops, I forgot, once again to shelve the blasphemy for this story. I'm so going to hell.)

I am not a handsome man, you see, in that square-jawed, broad-shouldered, traditional conception of a handsome man, and hence have to work with other precepts. I have a nose that goes out a bit too far, and a chin that quits just before its time. I am tall and gaunt, about six-feet even, with a trim and fit, if a bit skeletal, 155lbs to my credit. My lone distinguishing feature, aside from brown hair about eighteen inches long, is a pair of large, pale grey eyes, that look blue when I wear blue clothing, and green when I follow accordingly. They have a dark ring about the iris, just like wolf eyes. Women, oddly, find them attractive.

I use them, like a poker player with only one good card, to my utmost advantage. I stare down everyone I encounter these days, young, old, male or female, with a gentle, friendly unwavering look, because I’m not frightened of them anymore. The results are always entertaining: some men get intimidated because they read prolonged eye contact as either a challenge to fight or, for the more insecure ones, a homosexual come-on; they shrink from it for either, or perhaps both, reasons. Women start to get flustered, giggling like little girls, playing with their hair, as they certainly did when their fascinated and loving fathers gave them the same entranced look with very different intentions.

The gaze, for me, is part scientific curiosity, part animal gesture of dominance. It is an open refutation of most of my previous life, in which I was afraid to look girls in the face and wordlessly tell them what I wanted from them. What was I afraid of? Are these usually soft, gentle creatures physically intimidating to me? Or was I just another coward fearing the psychological rigors of rejection? It was a stupid way to live, regardless, and my ability to choose to live otherwise is paying off for me rather, well, handsomely.

I think that I understand now a concept that I did not before: to fear rejection is to insulate oneself from life’s larger project, exchanging the fresh air of exploration and inquiry for the dank, hot vapors beneath the blanket of cowardice. I was consoling myself for failures that had not yet occurred, an exercise as intellectually fecund as that of a man who celebrates what he has not yet accomplished—winning the World Series before it has been played, or, even worse, losing it.

In any case, poor Kristina has become hooked on the drinking-it-all-in gaze. She’s a sweet girl, who sells products for Mary Kaye cosmetics, and has a totally respectable day job educating children. She shops in my store quite often. Over the course of a few short conversations, she’s developed a mad crush on me, the iteration if which I could spot from a different area code, she is so unsubtle. She manufactures reasons to come in to see if I’m working, sometimes several times daily, buying 30 cents worth of gum when I’m not, just so it doesn’t appear so obvious why she’s in the store—which of course it does. She tells me all about herself before I can even ask, in the desperate hopes that something will spark enough interest in me to inspire me to ask her on a date. What she’s doing is precariously close to stalking, but, since I do not associate stalking with the nasty unpleasantness that such understandably carries for most women, I’m finding it kind of cute.

So why don’t I put the girl out of her misery? Well, physically speaking, she’s really not my type. She’s attractive, in a certain mousy kind of way, with a pretty face and nice brown eyes, but a bit too skinny, my preference being women a good measure curvier. That may come across as a little shallow, but keep in mind that I’m, as I mentioned, six feet tall and 155 lbs. If somebody doesn’t offer some padding, bones could get chipped in that act of sin. I like to think that my desire for some hips and chest is just sexually pragmatic. Besides, I have some more promising prospects on the horizon at present.

It’s 6:15 on Friday evening, and Kristina has just stumbled out the door of the shop, badly intoxicated from two minutes of me looking at her while I listen to her chatter.

Keshia, my fellow cashier, inquires, “Why don’t you just ask that poor girl out, on a pity date?”

“I don’t offer pity dates. The last thing in the world someone like that needs is me leading her on. Besides,” I add, “she’ll probably ask me soon enough, and then I won’t have any choice.” This is true, as by the rules under which I operate, I won't.

My prediction remains unconfirmed for a whopping four hours, fifteen minutes. At 10:30, Kristina comes back into the shop, while I'm doing errands on the customer side of the counter. I can tell by her hurried movements that she’s a bit nervous.

“What can we get for you, Kristina,” I wickedly inquire, knowing full well why she’s here.

“Actually, um, I’m not here for anything…er…What are you doing after work,” she blurts. Saw that train coming from the station, I did. I wonder if it took her the 22oz Smirnoff Ice she bought on her last trip in to work up the gumption.

“I’m going to be here pretty late,” I answer, truthfully, a bit bemused at my uncanny ability to call shots of recent. “Why don’t you give me your number, and I’ll call you sometime?”

“Uh, yeah, let me get you my business card.” She begins digging through the cavernous expanse of her purse, piling disparate things into her left hand while she continues ferreting with her right, her movements growing more frantic with the knowledge that two people are watching her. Keshia, being the kind, attentive girl that she is, tears off a piece of blank receipt paper and sets it on the counter with a pen in an effort to give Kristina an easy out, but Kristina is hell-bent on conveying the Successful and Important label that a business card will clearly sell me, and will have none of it. I am not at all surprised when she fumbles everything she’s holding onto the floor, items scattering as badly as if she'd shattered a vase.

I squat down to help her gather her things, gentleman that I try to be. In the cheeseball Hugh Grant movie version of this story that she’s written in her head, we no doubt lock eyes and kiss passionately on the way back up. In the real world take, I help her collect her possessions, trying not to make her any more nervous or embarrassed than she already is, take her business card and send her on her way, promising to call.

“Oh, my,” Keshia opines, “that girl's going to be knocking things over the whole time you’re out with her.” I look at her and smile. She’s probably right.

But who knows? Maybe this woman is wonderfully suited to me, and I just haven’t given her a chance yet. Maybe there’s a delightful and hidden spark in her personality that can compensate for her initial shyness and slight build. I’m going to find out, because she mustered the courage to ask, which, from what I understand, is a hard thing for a girl to do.

I have come to admire courage, gradually learning that conquering fear opens the path to new endeavors, that it makes life beautiful and pleasant in times that previously seemed dark and foreboding. If I congratulate it so when I see it in myself, expressed in such tiny avenues as looking directly at people when I’m talking to them, then I have to reward it when someone like Kristina puts herself through something that was probably terrifying just to get me to call her. I could complicate the matter with superfluous window-dressings, but my take on the matter is as simple as this: my stalker risked a little bit of herself, as she would no doubt have been disappointed had I rejected her overture. And because she had the temerity to do that, I cannot find it in my heart to reject her without an interview, which is all a first date really is. Fair, after all, is fair—nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

A Small Thing.

The world, or at least my infinitesimal fragment of it, is going mad this Friday; panic is in the air, competing with nitrogen as the dominant gas. Another kind of gas is fueling the hysteria, the kind whose price has rocketed well past $3.00 per gallon for the first time in most of my patrons’ lifetimes. My station is out of standard and mid-grade, with only the exorbitantly expensive premium, and diesel, which is of little use to most private citizens, left in our subterranean tanks.

I’m not in the mood to play savior today. I want, desperately, to tell all of the people who are yelling at me about the asking price of our station’s remaining fuel to crawl into holes and die; I want to lecture them about buying inefficient vehicles that they never needed, all to serve their warped ideas about social status, while they operated under the ridiculously flawed paradigm that a product that had artificially maintained a nearly constant price for twenty years would do so forever. These people need a harsh dose of reality. Really, they do. They need to be told that cheap gasoline is not an inherent right, but rather a convenient luxury offered them by a very successful capitalist strategy, a bubble that has lasted longer than most, and yet was destined to burst, like all bubbles, eventually. I want to tell them that venting hostility toward me regarding the price of a flexible economic commodity like oil, as if I were a Saudi sheik or seated on the board of directors at British Petroleum and did my night job for fun, makes approximately as much sense as blaming me for hurricane Katrina, Sudanese genocide or the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that took down Pompeii. In short, people are being nasty to me, and I want to be nasty in recompense.

But I can’t, and I know that I can’t. This understanding has nothing to do with my fear of losing my job for being salty, as I’m well beyond the point of needing this gig any longer; it has everything to do with the needs of the hurt, frightened, desperate people that I’m dealing with. They do not need correction, at least not at this juncture; they need reassurance and stability and comfort. I’m not in the mood to provide it, and really wish that someone else was, but that deafening silence from the wilderness is telling me that I have to provide it, because, logically, if I don’t, then I can’t expect anyone else to furbish it either.

“When will you have more regular grade in,” asks a fortyish professional woman, in a panic.

“Honestly,” I honestly answer, “we know about as much as you do. Don’t worry, though. The sudden demand has overwhelmed our supply. This is a temporary condition, and we’ll have more gas as soon as we can.” I pause, and see that the stump-speech words have had no affect whatsoever, before serenely adding, “The world isn’t ending; gas prices just went up a bit.”

She interrupts her panic for a moment to look at me. I look back, calm as a man who uses infinite-miles-to-the-gallon sandals to get around. My engine runs, like hers, on calories, but mine uses a different kind of fuel, one unmodified by hurricanes and wars: I eat solid food, and I walk places. Sure, it’s a primitive means of fuel and transport, but one that got us around perfectly well before pack animals, steam, and internal combustion. On days when I’m feeling extra fancy, I ride a bicycle. Granted, the former method is Paleolithic and the latter preindustrial, but in case of dire emergency I can always get on the bus or call a cab. Some people think that my lack of motorized transportation is pretty weird, but then again, I think the two people who got in a wreck in my lot on Thursday while racing for an available pump are a whole lot weirder.

But I just deal with this day, and the throng of people and their wild, roving eyes with the whites exposed. The office is awash in fear; the cave is under siege from hyenas. They’ve been on the phone and the internet all day long, absorbing and internalizing the all-encompassing terror in the voices and words of everyone they communicate with. The sky is falling; the End is near. What’s really happening, on a deeper level, is that they’re exerting frightened pack-animal behavior not appreciably different from when a herd of gazelles on an African savannah spot a look in the eyes of the other gazelles that says “lion,” and take off running like hell. The sad thing is that they don’t even know that that’s what they’re doing and why they’re doing it

But I do. So as much as I want to be a mirror that reflects the light of their anger, I have to be a pool that drowns the heat of their fire. I have to suck it up and take one for the team. These folks may have to revert to the less advanced means of transport that I rely on; they may have to do without a second vehicle, they may have to trade in the junky, thirsty eighties V-6 Buick and buy a scooter; they may have to deal with high gas prices and the temporary economic recession it may well usher in. None of this is going to kill them. It may inconvenience them, it may traumatize them, but it is not going to deprive them of life or liberty, it is not going to bereave them of their children and siblings and spouses and so they all need to, if you will pardon my French, chill the f-ck out. There is an American city lying underwater, many of its residents having, some by necessity, gambled and lost against the wild caprices of nature. Bands of marauding thugs have taken root and flowered there, reverting to our precivilized instincts to plunder and rape and kill, patrolling the waterways of what was called New Orleans like jackals and dingoes, while others cower, beholden to their mercy. And people here are losing there shit over temporary price spikes and shortages in gasoline. I really wish I believed in any formal construct of god on days like this, so that He might smiteth the earth and remove this odious little race of vermin before we do it ourselves, which we inevitably will.

The latter sentiment is the one that I am inclined to share with people right now. So I swallow hard, and take deep breaths, and force it down into the pit of my stomach, storing it away to be freed later on a stack of metal plates at the gym and the water in my apartment complex’s swimming pool.

By Saturday the madness has largely subsided. I see the odd car here and there, circling from empty pump to empty pump like sharks, before swimming off into the hot night to search for another station. The crisis has passed its apex, and a general sense of normalcy is returning as people make the trip back from crazy animals to thinking animals, forming contingencies regarding the new fiscal reality of higher fuel prices, which mean higher freight costs, which translates to the consquent actuality that soon nearly every commercial product will cost more than it does now. There may be some choppy waters on the horizon, but the ship that is life is big and sturdy, and will sail through what it cannot sail around.

At six o’clock on Saturday, a massive industrial vehicle pulls up to pump seven, with two men seated in its cab. One gets out and begins to pump fuel, while the other heads into my shop and presents me with a corporate credit card. He appears generally at ease, which makes sense, considering that the money he’s spending isn’t his. He approaches my counter with a loaf of bread and a two liter of Pepsi.

“Hi there,” I say, “How are you doing tonight?”

“I’ll be better in a little bit,” he replies, reflecting the curious if pervasive assumption that the world transforms itself as soon as one clocks out from work. “Have people been giving you a hard time about the prices?”

“Yeah, a few have,” I continue, taking his cash for the groceries before charging $75 of diesel fuel onto the corporate card. “But I know that they’re not actually mad at me. They’re just angry, and I’m the next person they talk to, and so they take it out on me because that’s just how it goes. It does me no good at all to lose my composure in response to it, ya know?”

“That’s right, young man. Good for you for thinking about it like that,” agrees the driver, a man aged about sixty, and consequently a bit less silly than the younger demographic that I principally deal with. I am grateful for his words of reassurance, out of my secret fear that if I offer too many of my own and get none in return, that my supply will run out.

“Good night, friend,” I call, as he slips out the door, amazed as always by the profound impact that the words of total strangers have on one another. Perhaps, I think, reflecting on the small kindnesses that buoy us above murky flood waters of insult and ingratitude, the whole world isn’t going mad, after all.

Saturday, September 03, 2005


It is Friday night, and Gas Guy is a bit nervous. Keshia, our newest hire, has called in sick with a stomach virus for her last two shifts. If she doesn’t show for this one, I am looking at a whole world of hurt trying to navigate this evening on my own. I have received no phone call telling me that she isn’t coming in, but sometimes that just means that someone has quit and is afraid of the disapproving voice tone on the telephone that such a choice might elicit.

At 6:00 sharp, Keshia strolls through the door and consequently lowers my stress volume about four decibels. It appears I will be spared the rigors of anarchy tonight.

“Hi Keshia,” I say, “are we feeling better?”

“A little,” she replies, in that mopey sick-person voice that both actually afflicted people and people feigning illness like to employ. I decide to check this out for myself, which, at the end of the day, is really the best way to arrive at any conclusions. My inquiry proceeds thus: observe as many facts from as many senses as possible, and then see if that version of events coincides with the version of events that I’ve been given in language; ponder the motivations of the person speaking to see if they are consistent with actions performed. This is a new game that I like to play, called “jury duty.” I’m getting fairly good at it.

Physically speaking, Keshia is an eighteen-year-old, medium-hued black woman, somewhat overweight, with bright, alert eyes and a sartorial fetish about making sure that her shirt and shoes always match. Today she is a shade lighter than she normally appears, and further seems to have lost between five and ten pounds in the week since I’ve last seen her. Her shirt and shoes do not match.

I then consider circumstances: Keshia has been sharing a one-bedroom apartment with a friend of hers, a situation which, understandably, is driving her batty. She is desperately looking to hoard up some money, so that she can spring forth into that giant, grown-up world in which she has her very own place, and doesn’t have to deal with anybody else’s issues. Missing work frivolously is certainly bound to undermine that quest, and hence her doing so deliberately makes little sense from a pragmatic point of view. Furthermore, Keshia takes instruction well while she works, and comes in early to pick up extra hours when asked. The idea of her blowing off two mid-week shifts in the interest of social pursuits does not gel with my brief, probably arbitrary assessment of her work ethic, especially considering that our job features no paid sick-leave at all

The matter is sent off to the jury, which convenes for about eight seconds, combines the physical and circumstantial evidence, and returns with a “not guilty” verdict. Even though, factually, I know that the most call-offs are fabricated crises, I decide that I believe Keshia. The prescription bottle of anti-nausea medication I spy in her purse essentially seals the deal for me, telling me that her story would be extraordinarily well-crafted as fiction, a tremendous amount of planning and effort to defend a falsehood.

I could be wrong, of course, employing my prejudices and predispositions to confirm an idea that I wanted, deeply, to believe. I am not an upright-walking polygraph; I am a flesh-and-blood human being, who suffers from the same disorder that we all share: I like telling lies, and I like hearing lies. I know, way down deep, that lies contain, nearly always, a manifest artistic superiority over the truth.

Humans like lies, you see. We like stories that are totally and wholly disassociated from the actuality of events, because fiction is more amusing and pleasing to us than the harsh, clinical realities of discernable fact. We like thinking that we were created by sky gods when actually we descend from less intelligent apes; we like reading novels because they are pretty, if utterly untrue; we laugh and cry in cinemas over events that never took place, represented to us by actors who gloss existence to make it appear more palatable and rational than extant reality could ever hope to be. We become, from early infancy, creatures so addicted to lies that when reality, in no-Santa-Claus form, presents itself, we are profoundly disappointed—crestfallen and dismayed that someone or something had the temerity to shatter our silly illusions regarding anthropoid existence on a wet rock in space.

A few simple examples can illustrate this point. Say a person is out for the evening, and has spilled food or drink on the shirt he’s wearing. Does said fellow want people to point that out, at embarrassing expense to his ego, or rather to persist in the illusion that he’s wearing a clean shirt? Does anyone actually want anyone else to tell them when they look like hell? Do we sincerely want to know when we’ve badly screwed something up at our jobs? Of course not. We are addicted to praise and flattery, which are typically pleasant lies, and shrink like frightened children from needles before the incisive and often painful logic of truth. We like truth only so long as its deployment is favorable to us, and despise lies only until they benefit our self-image.

The key to smashing the locks of a lie-based existence is a simple, and yet a seldomly employed one: take nothing on faith, and rigorously examine every bit of information presented before regurgitating it like gospel. Become that smart person that one admires, rather than merely mimicking that person’s words and ideas. Jesus and Shakespeare and Gandhi and Einstein were not a breed apart; they were mere mortals who peered straight into idiocy and illusion and saw what was on the other side. They led unconquered lives because they exhibited the uncanny ability to perceive events for themselves, rather than farming out the task to everyone else and then lazily reporting secondhand news. They were people who saw that the latter path leads to sloth and torpor and ignorance, while the former grants the unparalleled joy of constant discovery, an immersion into the larger world of wisdom and knowledge that defies stereotype, shatters preconception, and enlarges the mind into something beyond what it had been before.

Keshia probably doesn’t know many of the things that I’ve talked about yet. She’s barely old enough to smoke cigarettes (which, to her credit, she does not). But today she has chosen to work through sickness and discomfort, and I am grateful for a decision that functions to my benefit. I am no more altruistic, really, than most people—just a bit more keenly aware of my selfishness.

“Thanks for coming in, sweetheart,” I tell Keshia, admiring her determination, the independence of a young woman who has lived beyond her parents’ shelter since she was a tender seventeen. She has seen a lot more truth than most people her age, and is hence a lot wiser than a typical, psychologically insulated American young person.

“Well, I needed to make up the hours anyway.”

I parse this last sentence in my mind: make…up…the hours. It’s as if we imagine ourselves constructing time rather experiencing it, being creation’s authors rather than its subjects. The abstract edifications of human conceptualization are a source of enduring wonder and delight for me; I love how we take the boundless and endless paths and alleys of the present and carve it up into the nifty rhetorical fiction of words, symbolic aural concepts bravely standing in for the reality that they represent. As most of the great spiritual literatures of the world concluded long ago, truth cannot be told: we may merely invent lies to describe it, paring away useless information until we arrive at something better and closer to the essence of the described thing in question.

If the above is true, then I tell myself another silly lie whenever I spot the lies of others: what I am telling myself is not that I have discerned deception from forthrightness, but that I would make a good juror, that I am smarter and more perceptive than other people. I am as addicted to the crack that is self-approval as anyone else is, but I tell myself prettier lies, so that I can believe that such is not the case. Sometimes I am terribly, terribly, disappointed by the limitations imposed by my own foolishness and vanity. But on other days, I realize that this is just what I am, and to lament it is as sensible as the proverbial butterfly, dreaming it were a Chinese philosopher. I know that it is simply in my nature to deceive and be deceived, a fundamental part of what it means to be human.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

By any Other Name.

There is a young lady standing in front of my counter; clinically speaking, a fascinating series of events is taking place. The twin clusters of cells that are my eyes are perceiving her dimensions, in their primitive and deeply limited capacity to perceive space and color. They are sending messages to the ancient, instinctive part of my brain called the amygdala. The message they are sending can be roughly translated thus: this is a female of your species, of adequate height, with large, bright eyes, indicating perception and inquisitiveness. Its round, full hips and round, full breasts, respectively, indicate excellent childbearing and childrearing capacity. Her colorful decorative attire suggests good grooming status, an excellent ploy to attract mates and keep offspring free from disease and infection.

The newfangled, oh-so-clever part of my brain called the cerebral cortex translates this information into other words so that I can comfort myself by thinking that I am more than a monkey wishing to pass on its monkey genetic material. It gives me a slightly more refined message: there’s a hot, brown-eyed, brunette, nineteen-year-old college girl with a unique, funky sartorial sense about her, standing in front of me looking to buy a pack of cigarettes.

“Thank you Shandra,” my thorax intones, in a voice deep and soothing, looking to allay fears that corrupt so many wild mating opportunities. My cerebral cortex has translated markings on the piece of plastic she has handed me, cleverly inferring her age and name from them. “That’s a very pretty name.”

Okay, enough of the National Geographic version of this story, for a moment.

Shandra (pronounced “Shohn-drah”), as I hand her I.D. back, perks up immediately. “You said it right!”

That’s because I’m not a drooling moron, I think to myself, and I can add one letter to “Sandra,” and take the wild guess that it’s probably going to be pronounced the same way. But she is clearly flattered by my use of her name, a trick I figured out a while back, because people always are. They get attached to their names, are happy when they are used, take joy when people approve of them, and are saddened when their names are not often used or not approved of.

I’m gonna let the whole world in on something that it is probably completely unaware of: that’s the same thing dogs think about their names.

We don’t name ourselves, after all. Our parents give them to us shortly after birth, to satisfy a legal requirement, but more importantly to train us to come when called, to have a presupposed means to get our attention. Over time, as our brains mature and acquire greater intelligence, we come to associate our names, and the tone of voice which pronounces them, with attention, with food, with affection, with reward, just like Spot and Rover associate their names with Jerky Treats and someone stroking their fur. When our dads were angry, we instinctively knew it from the sound of his voice and concluded that perhaps flight might be a safer response than obedience, just as our dogs pick up on the apprehension in our voices when we call their names but they hear “bath time” in the way that we’ve called it.

William Shakespeare, a smart monkey from 400 years ago, had an interesting take on the issue, from the perspective of a young woman talking about a young man’s name that she wasn’t supposed to like. We might all be wise to listen:

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot,
Nor arm nor face, nor any other part,
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.

What people don’t realize is that their names are simply words, with a communicative, rhetorical value identical to any other word—a name for a thing, and not the thing itself. I can prove this easily enough: if I say that the word “car” is a stupid, ugly word, and that I have no problem with the vehicles themselves but simply dislike the sound of the word, no one but perhaps a few deeply neurotic linguists and engineers are going to get upset as a consequence. It’s only a word, after all. Next I say that I think the words “Jennifer” or “Kristine” or “Mark” are stupid, ugly words, and watch a bunch of agitated monkeys work themselves into a tizzy over it. None of them had any idea how deeply their programming ran, how utterly brainwashed and indoctrinated they are, until that moment. I can say I don’t like the word “Dan,” and Bob doesn’t get upset, but Dan does. How ridiculous is that? We’ve taken ownership of something as if it were interwoven into our DNA and not a convenient label that somebody else gave to us, getting hopping mad in defense of a concept as rhetorically neutral as “bag” or “drawer” or “potato.”

But back to the ranch. I flirt with Shandra for a little while longer. I really ought to get a phone number out of this, but I’m not feeling very assertive today, and she’s an awful lot younger than I am. I wouldn’t even be able to take her to the smoky dive bars that medicate my insanity nightly, and hence I’d actually have to employ the imagination to find other things for us to do. Well, besides the obvious one, anyway. I’ve already overthought the matter, of course, but as a man who routinely writes six-page stories about two minutes of work in a gas station, such is my custom.

I let Shandra off the hook of my unbending gaze, and she flits out the door, nervous and blushing. That one was mine but for the asking, I realize. I’m sure she’ll be back, in case I change my mind. But my mass of monkey cells has just exerted magnetic control over hers for a couple of minutes, by the bizarre, primal power of name usage and eye contact.

A friend recently gave me, like a wonderful, unexpected gift, a quote from the wizened Chinese sage Chuang-tzu. I will pass this gift on to others: “When the monkey trainer was handing out acorns, he said ‘You get three in the morning and four at night.’ This made all the monkeys furious. ‘Well then,’ he said, ‘you get four in the morning and three at night.’ The monkeys were all delighted.” Sounds about right to me.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Fog.

A woman rushes into my store shortly after four P.M. on Saturday. She is short and mildly obese, dressed in fashionable office attire. She is in the fog. The fog is a place where we all go sometimes, but some of us live in it perpetually at our own expense. Her eyes are up and to the left, indicating that she is using the conceptual portion of her brain, and probably sees almost nothing of what is transpiring immediately around her. Her breathing is rapid and shallow, signs of hurry and panic. She never once looks at me while tersely barking her order for a pack of cigarettes and a prepaid sum of gasoline. She is miles and days away from here, in a place where she would not even remotely be able to describe the experience she is presently having if asked about later.

I have been playing a game at work, a fun and fascinating exercise that I like to call “prophet.” It is a simple game that anyone can play: it involves quietly, calmly staring at the people in front of you, taking in every bit of information that you can possibly observe about them, drinking in the modulation of pitch and tone in their voices, carefully monitoring the movements and directions of their eyes, perceiving the pace and evenness or unevenness of their breathing. The astounding thing about this game, if one has the patience to play it without distraction, is that the thing, or even the kind and category of thing, that people are going to do next sometimes leaps into the conscious mind before they do it. It’s a bit frightening the first time it happens; after that, it’s kind of a rush. Prophecy: this woman is going to do something harmful or inconvenient to herself before she leaves my station, through her lunatic hurry and inattention.

She heads out to pump three, stabbing wildly at the buttons to find the correct sequence to begin fueling. She is looking away the entire time the gas is pumping. Following thirty seconds or so of this, she suddenly looks toward the nozzle with an unpleasantly surprised expression, hangs up the pump, and comes back into the store. I already know what she is about to say.

“Do you have some paper towels? I just spilled gas down the side of my car.” She has managed to overflow the tank, even though the pump shuts off automatically before this happens, probably because she kept squeezing the handle, refusing to believe that she’d overpaid and would have to come back inside for change.

“There’s a sink with a towel dispenser above it over there to the right,” I reply. “You can use it to wash your hands as well.” She does, before taking extra towels, her change from the prepay, and fleeing out the door. She wildly wipes off her car with the towels, when she could have done so much more effectively with the squeegee right next to her, before heading off into traffic. I would be wholly unsurprised if I found out later that she was involved in a collision on her way home. She is a menace to society in her fog.

Humanity’s capacity for abstract thought is a wonderful ability, one that allows portions of the brain storing memory to combine previous stimuli and imagine new ones, to create prospective new situations from old ones. It is probably the very gift that allows us to be the animal that invents, that creates based upon real and anticipated needs. The potential to imagine, to be somewhere other than where we are, is probably why textiles and power plants and skyscrapers exist. The fog of distraction is, when used properly, not such a bad place to be.

But that fog needs to get checked at the door of the house, before people carry it off into an ephemeral, sometimes dangerous world which deserves and demands full attention. I do everything in my power to shake folks out of it when they come into my store, to give them a hand and raise them from the quicksand: I look into their eyes, ask them questions about their days, their jobs, their families, their clothes, their choice in purchases, their plans for the evening. I want them to turn off the TV in their brains and talk to me; I want to drag them out of the fog so that they can see that the present is a pleasant, air conditioned shop with an interested stranger who sincerely wants to know more about them, and not an invisible point on the line from A to B.

Sometimes I succeed, getting a smile and a confession of what they were busy musing about. Sometimes they have sick or hurt relatives, and need a bit of sympathy, a word of kindness. Sometimes they’re late and think that their hectic, distracted silence will get them somewhere faster than their calm attention will. It won’t, but they believe it will. But mostly I want to help them understand where they were so that they can be here for a moment, and realize that here is nothing to be scared of or averse to, nothing to be avoided but something to be engaged and enjoyed—the Buddhist concept of the past as memory and the future as fiction, with only the now as real.

And sometimes, inevitably, I fail. Two more young women come in later in the shift, chattering excitedly to each other like monkeys. Their bill totals at $11.18. Woman A hands me a 20, ignoring my conversational overtures and looking at the floor, then abruptly decides that it is important that she give me eighteen cents to get an even dollar amount in change. She hits up woman B for coins, and the two of them fish through their purses, digging like dogs mining under fences, while the rapid, meaningless chatter continues and they pool three nickels and three pennies. Woman A’s dancing eyes begin to move toward the door before she hands me the coins.

Prophecy: she is going to try to leave without getting nine dollars back.

By the time I have hit the “cash” button, and procured a five and four ones, she has turned and taken a step toward the exit. I could easily let them both stroll out of here, and let the donation of nine dollars to my drinking fund be her punishment and hence her lesson.

“Excuse me. EXCUSE ME.” I get her attention with the loud one. I hold aloft her change. “Did you want this back?”

“Oh yes I’m sorry I forgot all about it,” she chatters at me rapidly, not hearing or seeing anything that’s happening because her mind is spinning like a red-lined rotary engine, before disappearing with her friend out the door, into the fog.

I hope that there is no Jack the Ripper lurking out there, in that fog. Neither of them would stand a chance.