Thursday, June 30, 2005


A haggard woman in her forties pulls up to pump seven, in a Honda Civic, from a few body styles ago--1989, if I had a guess. I look at Vicci, and grin. Vicci looks and grins back. The customer picks up the hose and I hear the dog-whistle wail of the authorization-request come on the register, and press the buttons necessary to make it go away.

Our station rests on the cutting edge of 1977 technology; we don't have a PA system, and so can't, in proper stentorian, anonymous form, tell the patrons at the pumps when they're being unfathomably stupid. (That's probably a good thing. I can imagine myself publicly-addressing things like, "THE PUMP ISN'T ACCEPTING YOUR CARD BECAUSE YOUR ACCOUNT'S OVERDRAWN, JACKASS, AND SOMEONE REALLY TOLD YOU WRONG ABOUT AQUA AS AN ACCEPTABLY MANLY COLOR FOR YOUR TRUCK. PLEASE COME INSIDE TO PAY.") So we just watch, and wait. Haggard woman tries, very hard, to fuel her vehicle with a pump that deliberately precludes it. I am reminded strangely of a chimp sticking a grass stalk into a tree in an effort to extract insects. After a minute or so of dejectedly fumbling about, she hangs up the hose and heads in our direction.

"Hey!" I am finally accosted, as our troubled patron strolls in and addresses me in proper out-of-towner West Virginia drawl, "This isn't my car, and the gas hole won't open. Can you help me? (or, more accurately "Hehh, this in't mah cahr, and the gass-hoawle won't opin."

"Did you pull the lever on the floor on the driver's side?" I ask, knowing full well that she has.

"Yeah, but the gass-hoawle (her coinage, by-the-way, not mine) jist won't come opin." As she speaks I notice the black teeth and badly receded gums that pass for identification among certain mountain folk.

I could, of course, settle this matter without going outside. The reason that the "gas hole" won't open is because she's trying to put diesel fuel in a standard petrol car; service station designers in America long ago acknowledged the blind obduracy of the motoring public, and made diesel nozzles too big to allow lawsuit-lusting miscreants to eviscerate their engines by administering the wrong kind of gas. But I nevertheless telepathically tell Vicci, who looks as if she's about to interrupt and clear matters up, that I'm having fun here, and head out with West Virginia toward the car.

"Wow, you're right," I declare, upon chivalrously attempting to pump the fuel for her. "The gas hole just won't open. Are there different kinds of diesel Hondas?"


"Yeah. This is a diesel pump, like the sign says, and that's why its shorter than the other pumps, and why the nozzle doesn't fit in your car. I just wondered what kind of Honda diesel it was."

"Oh! Ha ha ha! And Ah just thawt that there was sumpin' wrong with the gas hoawl! So Ah really should gowda anudder pump! Ha ha ha!"

(I realize afterward that I could have wittily added that the diesel pump lacks octane buttons, and that she must have assumed that we were the only gas station in North America lacking fuel grade options, but, as everyone knows, the things you wish that you might have said and the things that you do say are often very different animals.)

"If it's not a car that runs on diesel fuel, I suggest that you pull forward to pump nine," I entreat, dealing, bemusedly, with the waste of time, because I encouraged it in the first place. There are two of us working on a slowish night, so I have to do something to kill clock. And so she does pull to a usable pump. She finally gets her vehicle fueled, of course, and upon returning to the shop, greatfully, if hickishly, thanks us, pays for gas and goes.

Rotten-toothed mountain woman didn't pick (I hope, fervently) the diesel pump because she's stupid. She may well be stupid, but like everyone else that inadvertantly selects the diesel pump, she probably did so because she was preoccupied and distracted--somewhere else. But all of her preoccupation is an illusion; she's a drowning woman flailing around in the image-factory waters of the ego. Where she's going and whatever else is on her mind isn't real. It doesn't exist and hasn't happened yet. Conversely, the car she's trying to poison is real; the wrong kind of fuel is terrribly, terribly real. But reality, unkindly, doesn't offer judgement on your soon-to-be-blown engine; it merely presents events, sans commentary. And it lets you know, sometimes through gentle reminders like the remonstrance of a gas station attendent, and sometimes through signals much harsher, that thinking ahead to your destination, thoroughly unaware, while you ignore the salience of the moment is going to land you in some trouble. Life, as John Lennon sagely observed, is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.

Buddhists are big on awareness of the moment, but since Buddhism isn't (quite fairly) a cultural priority in the West, we tend to think in terms of the future, and not the present. The result is, while we are enthralled with what happens next, we rarely see what's happening now. We supplant the impending for the extant--and do so often at our own immediate peril.

To be less esoteric, West Virginia merely did what we all do: she practiced the idea that her proprietary rights to foolishness overweighed the correction rights of those better inclined, and that's why she was taken aback to discover that there was nothing wrong with her car and something wrong with her. Once again, fair enough. Her folly is of a universal flavor--it's just how we're raised and trained to think as people. Worry about the end and never the process. Stumble in a myopic drunken haze through each moment because the next moment is where it's at. It's a phenomenon that transcends race, class, age, occupation, gender, income, and religion: put an ice cream cone on the far side of a land mine, and put on a raincoat for the human shrapnel that's going to come splattering onto you. People living in the next moment will always manage to see the ice cream cone and miss the land mine.

"I could have told you there was nothing wrong with her car," Vicci lectures, after West Virginia has rolled off.

"I knew there was nothing wrong with her car," I reply. "I wanted to make her feel stupid so she might pay a little more attention next time."

"That's not very nice."

"Being nice wasn't my goal," I say, and then realize the last word I've chosen. I have a quick inward chuckle, realizing that my need to orchestrate conclusions at the expense of process is the same as anyone else's.

I wouldn't make a good Buddhist, I fear.