Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Somebody Else's Problem.

Yes, before anyone self-appoints themselves Monumentally Clever Person, that's a HHGTTG reference.

It's five minutes past closing on a Wednesday night. I see three collegians pushing a dark green Ford Explorer toward the pumps, trudging slowly, step-by-step forward, like Arab traders leading a camel into a desert wind. The pumps are off, of course; their arrival hither is bound to be disappointing. I am typically prescient about where that disappointment is going to be vented. I am the Gas Guy, after all.

I watch them stare disbelievingly at blank gauges on the pumps as they jab and prod the fuel grade buttons and fumble with the nozzle beneath our unlit pavillion. I listen to my register buzzing happily as it spits out the end of the night reports. I am counting my drawer and waiting for their card-house of denial to topple, its remnants blown by the wind toward my locked and bolted door. I stand in my citadel, the Tai Chi Ch'uan master surrounded by enemies, awaiting the first strike that I may begin the lesson. They're not only going to learn why they're wrong, they're going to learn it on my schedule.

It comes. One of the collegians, a well-kempt frat-looking fellow (as are they all) approaches and tugs desperately at the pull handles, feigning (or perhaps worse, actually feeling) surprise when the do not yield. He gives me a look of thwarted ambition, impotence--futility. It's the kind of look that inspires pity and amusement toward children and pets when you've given them a challenge beyond their abilities. It elicits derision and disgust toward adults.

"Hey" frat unit A implores, knocking on the plexiglass window that seperates us, "our friend ran out of gas, and the pump won't take his credit card."

"That's because we're closed, and the pumps are shut off until tomorrow," I shout, because plexiglass absorbs a lot of noise. "There's nothing I can do for you." I am wondering which of the usual semaphore-flag indicators of closed-business status they overlooked most effectively. Was it the absence of any other vehicles? Maybe the pavillion lights being off? The darkened interior of the store, perhaps? That it took the above plus pumps lacking electricity, a locked door, and me telling them to send the point home makes me pray silently that these are not criminology majors. Yep, guy standing and counting money equals establishment open for commerce: there's the logic of desperation, in all of its finery.

"Thanks," he snorts sarcastically, as he storms back to the truck like the proverbial scorned woman. Sure enough, this is my fault. Score another one for the Gas Guy's Crystal Ballâ„¢. By the look of A's slightly puffy eyes, by the way, these guys have been drinking, which makes me decidedly unsympathetic. Hate away, my frat boys.

If my collegiate friends here were in any danger, I might be a little more inclined to help. I go through, like most people, a partially conscious checklist when evaluating candidates for aid: Are these guys safely off the road and out of the way of traffic? Check. Do they have recourse to assistance? Judging by the fact that all three are now yammering on cell phones, check. Is it hazardous for them to be outside? No, it's a pleasant evening and I walk home through this neigborhood alone nightly. Is there a well-known organization called triple-A, which specifically addresses and rectifies situations of driver negligence and idiocy? Check. Finally was this actual bad luck, or just somebody not paying attention? Extra-bold check on the latter. There are probably at least 30 gas stations within a five mile radius, and I would bet their souls that they passed five of them with the needle of a freakin'Ford Explorer on "E." It's not quite as thirsty as, say, an H2 in terms of fuel economy, but it's hardly a Geo Metro either. I conclude that my heart is not, in fact, breaking.

I was in a very similar situation once, as my empty-tanked Toyota Corona bucked and wheezed into a BP station that closed two hours earlier than the one I work in now--ten minutes before I got there. The clerk wouldn't turn the pumps back on, rerun his reports, and recount all of his money just to accomodate my faux pas. Having no coins for the pay phone, no cell phone, and no collect call access to my land-lineless erstwhile roommate, I walked three miles across gangsta-infested urbania in the dark to get home. Although it never hurts to ask, I held no grudge against the station attendant for not reordering his evening around my poor choice. As I trugded home, I envisioned a yellow flag attached to a steel bit flying through the air, followed by a referee's miked voice: We have a foul on the play: stupidity--offense. That's a three-mile walk home through the ghetto penalty and repeat second down.

But the guys aren't done appealing my decision. "C'mon can't you turn the pumps back on for a minute?" vociferates frat unit B, ostensibly believing that with an identical tone and request, he's going to get farther along than A did.

"They shut off automatically at close and restart in the morning," I yell back. Instead of a prevarication, I like to think of this statement as a personal redefinition of the word "automatic." Today it means "operated by breaker switches flipped by human fingers." I repeat that "there's nothing I can do. Sorry." B slinks away, vanquished by the iron-clad consistency of my argument.

I can turn the pumps back on, of course, but doing so involves re-booting the POS system, starting another business day, and retotalling everything. I'm not sure how to go about it, it would take forever, and would probably get me fired. While that may happen one day anyway, it will be a down-in-a-blaze-of-glory, my-terms kind of getting fired, and not falling on a grenade for some snotty kids who probably couldn't be bothered to say "thanks."

But the hitherto-silent unit C, the actual owner of the vehicle, approaches. I can't wait for his boldly divergent tack. His query arrives: "Why don't you guys leave the pumps on at night, so people can use their credit cards?" It's a good question, as I've seen stations that do just that, but strangely theoretical and not terribly germane to his current dilemma. I wonder why on earth he wants to debate something with me that can't help him at present. It's not like I can make a phone call and spontaneously change company policy.

"Because if something goes wrong with the machines, there'd be no one here to assist the customers," I reply, pleased with the reasonable-sounding improv. C, apparently at last realizing that having different lawyers come before the same appellate judge is getting the same answer, retreats to the Explorer.

I formulate a better answer, as often happens, after he leaves: because that would be underestimating human stupidity. "Never underestimate human stupidity" is beyond an aphorism, it is an axiom, containing the better part of all self-evident truth necessary for operating commercial industry. The irony of letting the same people who can't keep their cars, which have well-lit, prominent fuel gauges, from running out of gas operate pumps unattended is clearly lost on C. I can just imagine the chaos of leaving machines unsupervised which accept money and dispense flammable liquids--in the wee hours of the morning, when most users would be intoxicated. I would come to work one day, to find the area that had once been the fuel pavillion a scorched crater, while the rabble from the Glen picked through the smoldering wreckage of my little shop searching for intact menthol cigarettes and unpunctured cans of Steele Reserve, with the ardor of rescue workers at NYC ground zero. And I don't want to see that.

I go to the back to put the money away and restock the beer. When I return, the frat guys and the Explorer are gone. I conclude that the situation was not so dire as they protested, and that I was correct to assume that they could navigate it with no extraordinary assistance from me.

A little tough love goes a long way.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Shoeless Joe.

Some college jackass comes into my store on a weekend night, with friend. I'm outside the counter sweeping, and I notice his filthy, unshod feet as he stares doen into the ice cream cooler in a pot-induced frenzy of dairy lust.

"Hey guy, you need shoes to be in here." My tone is officious; it's late, and I'm tired and being a jerk.

He replies, in brokenhearted inquiry, "Can I buy my ice cream first?"


He sniffs angrily and storms out, instructing his equally baked friend to buy the ice cream for him on his way to the door.

"Why'd you tell him to leave?" Vicki asks, heading tilting in puzzled-dog expression.

"No shoes. It's not my rule, it's the health department's." I can hear his friend mutter something under his breath about this assertion being bullshit. Although he is unwise to contradict someone who can revoke his walking-distance convenient store privileges, he's probably right. He buys his friend's ice cream, his own soda, and leaves. I see as they head back the Glen that Shoeless Joe has ridden a skateboard barefoot to get here. Underclassmen and their vestigial high-schoolisms crack me up.

I have no idea if there's anything about compulsory footwear in the Tennessee health code, and frankly, I could care less. This isn't exclusively about that, although I would certainly prefer not to have ringworm and athlete's foot slathered around my floor by anyone's fetid, sweaty dogs. It's about acting like an adult.

College kid apparently didn't pick up before leaving for school that the public world is not in fact an extension of his home. It places expectations on the individual that aren't present whilst strolling around the shitbag apartment hungover in one's boxers. One of these is, of course, that in the huge majority of indoor service establishments he's going to be expected to get dressed before partaking of their bounty. I could care less that he wants to skate-punk around the parking lot of the Glen, repelling coeds with his bare feet and atavistic juvenelity. He's outdoors and in his rental property in that situation. If they have a problem with his annoying the drivers coming to and fro (as they almost certainly do) then it's their problem to correct it. Seeing as limiting the inflow of crack into the complex is among the Glen management's competing priorities, I imagine that they perceive skateboarding to be a comparitively minor threat. Fair enough.

But in my store, he's going to be given an ettiquette lesson. He's going to miss it, of course, and probably all the rest of them he'll receive before failing out of college and skating home to his parents, but I feel it's my didactic civic duty to see if I can't create that crack that floods his brain with light--to impart to him that strangers have different expectations than the people he hangs out with, and that he's going to have to learn to play ball if he wants his ice cream on the first trip. His upbringing really should already have instilled this understanding, but since it didn't, epiphany by coercion is now passed on to luckless dupes like me, who are still brave or stupid enough to attempt it. He'll no doubt curse me all the way home, or mock me in that ubiquitous amateur-night college mode of sarcasm, because, like an unwise Zen novice, he's looking at the matter all wrong.

The fact that the raging alcoholic Mexican day-laborers that live alongside the students in the Glen, people who are often new to the country and the language, can understand playing by the rules better than the college kids is a source of enduring wonder for me. Is it fear of deportation or just better parenting? Many to most of them are legal, hence I am left to wonder if there's something in the water, or in the homestead, in Mexico that teaches people to interact with strangers is a manner expeditious and courteous. They picked up somewhere, perhaps by being strangers in a new land, that they don't carry the ground rules with them from home anymore than they carry their physical haciendas themselves. And maybe that's why they often comprehend, even 20 Coronas in, something that the college kids rarely get at all: when in doubt as to proper courtesy in a situation, defer to the people in charge. The college kids have this dynamic inverted: assume yourself to be the person that sets the rules, and then pout when you are informed otherwise. They retain that childish egotism that views rules as conspiritorial infringements on their personal liberties. To be sure, some rules are like that, but most rules are simply tiny, agreed-upon sacrifices of convenience we make for the mutual benefit and smooth running of society. I have to wait at the stoplight so you can pass through the intersection with minimal fear of property loss, death, and disfigurement. You then in turn do the same at the next intersection: quid pro quo, in all its beautiful simplicity. I would very much like to never stop at an intersection, but given sufficient traffic, that suggests that someone else will always have to stop at every intersecion. I can, nevertheless, elect to break the rules and never stop, but sooner or later the police cruiser or ambulance driver is going to explain the consequences of that decision.

Consequence, as a word in our privilege-obsessed society, has taken on a pejorative connotation that it doesn't deserve. It has come to be associated with words like "punishment" and "retribution" as in "suffer the consequences," when in fact it means nothing more then "effect" or "result." Rules, like traffic laws and no-shoes policies, are there to inhibit negative consequences like collision fatalities and fungal sprawl, while promoting positive consequences like smooth and predictable transit and public health. Most people never contemplate the idea that they live in no fear of measles due to rules governing vaccinations as they blow through red lights because they're late for work, just as college kid thinks that it's my personal bad attitude and not his lack of foresight that's kicked him out of my store.

He's right, of course, but he's missing the part where he's wrong. He made a decision to controvert the rules, when asked to do something as mundane as putting on a two-dollar pair of flip-flops before entering my establishment. I taught him that his behavior results in public embarassment and delayed gratification on his ice cream. He won't learn that lesson today, but maybe if enough other people teach it to him, he still stands a chance of becoming a decently considerate adult--the kind of person that doesn't habitually shed blame for his miscues. His parents, like most parents, didn't do a very good job of raising that kind of person. Perhaps the rest of us still can.