Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Elected Navigators.

"Can you tell me how to get to (insert desired location)?" is something I hear with inordinate frequency, at least several times weekly. This puzzles me to some great end, as, although my station is near I-40, it isn't on it, and hence I wonder how people get so terribly lost. Let me correct: I used to wonder, before I became wiser in the ways of the world. I have subsequently formulated a theory that neatly explains the whole badly-lost-traveller phenomenon, and it goes something like this: if you work in a gas station, your place of employ exudes a unique polarity that impels hapless pilgrims in your direction; someone will always be lost and wash ashore at your counter, no matter where such may be situated. I am, by this epiphany, now convinced that if I worked in a gas station in Vladivostok, I would have a minivan full of Canadian tourists disembark asking me the way to Juno, Alaska, and I would have to explain they took a wrong turn at the sea bridge across the Bering Strait, back when it was still frozen. Oh, and the lost folk invariably want to use my nonexistant public restroom while asking me for directions which I am wholly unqualified to give them. Sucks to be them.

The oddness of this incessant circumstance has led me to seek the opinion of those better versed in history or law than I, with a specific question: where and when was, pray tell, the national plebescite that ensconced gas station attendents as the preferred navigators for tourists who have wandered afield?

Any traveller, in this bold modern world, has a plethora of options at his or her disposal, the like over which their parents and grandparents could only salivate ravenously. They may: consult this newfangled organization, usually pronounced "triple A," which will happily mail any member detailed print directions based upon the individual itinerary, given sufficient notice; barring the available time, they may go to a website called "Mapquest," which, having taken satellite photos of the entire freakin' United States, will, for free, offer them a detailed and printable guide which gives instructions so minute that a chimpanzee could drive by them; they may purchase a paper map and abide by its dictums, in an old-scool manner that sufficed for 10,000 years or so; or they may, less sagely, jot down the instructions given them by Uncle Bill over the phone, dictated from his hazy memory of the last time he orated directions to Albuquerque, and then stop at my gas station, seeking my flatly inexpert guidance, when they inevitably get lost. (That one I can answer, by the way: get back on 40W; drive another 1,200 or so miles; don't get off the interstate.) That this latter option is chosen so frequently makes me grateful that breathing is still an involuntary exercise of the human body. Clearly, were it not, a whole slew of the public would forget to do it and die.

And yet I wonder why people place such faith in strangers so unqualified to alleviate their quandaries. Do they not know that gas stations are typically staffed by stoned teenagers and convicts, because most don't check backgrounds or references, and are surpisingly liberal and tolerant in their hiring choices if they do? I am reminded of a wonderfully entertaining Jacky Chan-Owen Wilson film called Shanghai Noon, in which Chan's character confronts Wilson's, screaming, "You gave me bad directions!" Wilson's character replies laconically, "No, John, I gave you wrong directions." Who's to say that even if the $7.25 an hour guy that you're placing your vacation-wellfare in the hands of was intricately knowledgeable about local cartography, which he almost certainly is not, that he wouldn't send you along the wrong arrow for his own amusement? Sure, that's a mean thing to do, and I've (to date) never done it, but why assume it won't happen? Success is a narrow tightrope over the seas of misfortune and treachery, and yet one that millions elect to walk daily--especially when directions are involved.

A curious externality of this situation is that, after so many desperate requests, I have begun to actually feel guilty for not having the right answer to navigational questions that I should never have been expected to answer in the first place. I begin to feel like there is a school for gas station cashiers that imparts "the knowledge," as certified London cabbies are required to have, and that, having avoided, I snuck into the job without this essential qualification. Because so many people get lost and demand my assistance, I start to feel like I aught to have some assistance to offer. I've caught myself apologizing for a lack of information that I have absolutely no commercial, moral, ideological, or practical imperitive to possess--my logic is overthrown by remorse, as if I were a Roman Catholic, or something.

But then, the cars disappear into the distance, and I'm left with the understanding that I did the best I could, while shamefully inept to do better. Would they have asked a sommelier to fix the blown fuel pump on their car? Would they have conscripted a cop to perform lasix surgery on their eyes? They asked a convenient store clerk to point them in the right direction, weirdly assuming that he were properly enabled to do so. And I do the utmost that my limited proficiency allows me to offer. If they get lost again, and want to sue for malpractice, they need look no farther than the rear view mirror for the object litigant.