Saturday, July 23, 2005

Dead for a Ducat.

It’s still there, 74 days, and counting, later. “It” is a dead bumblebee, on its back, shrunken and desiccated in death, resting in plain view on a ledge beside the back door of the shop. It’s huge, waxy, pandirectional eyes are staring at me in an odd memento mori, announcing that he’s waiting for me, for us all, in the undiscovered country.

Why, one might ask, don’t I just sweep it up and throw it away? Because I’m conducting an experiment of sorts: I’m seeing just how long it takes for anyone else to sweep it up and throw it away (and for all I know they’re doing the same with me). After 74 days, I’m beginning to suspect that I might not live long enough to find out.

Furthermore, I’m learning quite a lot from this bee, and the running critique on human nature that he’s (or she’s, as I have no idea how entomological gender biology works) providing for me. It has been, and continues to be, an extraordinary ten week seminar.

The principal idea that this dead insect is conveying is that if people are going to notice and correct a change for the worse in the general state of cleanliness, they’re going to do so almost immediately. Once material objects go unnoticed and unaddressed for a sufficient chronological span, the tendency seems that they become part of the furniture—part of the landscape, even. It is hardly revolutionary psychology to note how the human brain has a curious method of assimilating objects once they cease to be novel, stuffing them into the vast mnemonic file called, “well, it was there yesterday.” This is why people can drive from home to work and back on the freeway and later be able to tell you almost nothing about the experience: the interstate, after the third or fourth time one has driven it, simply becomes a chapter from memory and no longer a new, interesting, or vital experience. There exists little likelihood that it will be much different today or tomorrow from how it was yesterday, so people simply react to it from memory, with just enough awareness fixed at the level of immediate consciousness to avoid crashing into the other cars. From a practical and utilitarian point of view, this type of activity is really pretty benign, but from a philosophical or spiritual perspective, the implications are somewhat more troubling: in doing so, one misses out on an awful lot of the minutiae that makes life interesting.

The intellectual negligence that I’m describing, regarding a thing as small and unseemly as a former social insect, certainly doesn’t end with wee and dismissible bits of matter. This is the phenomenon by which citizens of Switzerland and Nepal find nothing noteworthy or spectacular about the Alps or the Himalayas, how Londoners ride the bus to work past Big Ben and see a large clock telling them that they’re late, or go to church at St. Paul’s and find it the most pedestrian church in the world, wonder what the gawking tourists see in it, and sit through service as bored as anyone in the most truly uninspired of newer Episcopal buildings. It’s how fishermen on trawlers find nothing at all grandiose or inspiring about the pitch and yaw of a ship on the ocean, or indeed the sprawl of the ocean itself: while the witnessed phenomena are unchanged, the person receiving sensory input has changed. It is as if wonder and novelty are inextricably entwined.

In a perplexing way, the human brain seem to be offended by the concept of wonder, as if it is a cutting intellectual insult to be presented with something beyond its ability to effectively name and categorize, define and comprehend—something to simply admire rather than master. So as a gesture of spite it simply blinds itself to things that are beyond its grasp or outside the scope of what it deems compelling, as a means to isolate itself from the sensory overload that is the concept of amazement. We call things death, or ocean, or mountain, or God, or universe, so that we now have a working concept much more comfortably functional and infinitely less complex than the named thing itself.

My expired bee is teaching me another, more immediately germane, lesson, though. This lesson is about the people that work at my store, and the way any small, simple, repetitive business is run. Convenient stores work on protocol, you see; sameness is the fuel that runs their engines. Clerks are trained to be droids, assiduously executing a program that we acquire over two or three days of training and then incrementally refine from our own on-the-job experience. A simple, quintessentially repetitive system allows us to work without supervision, which in turn allows store owners to shell out minuscule weekly sums on payroll. We are not trained to ask questions or make difficult decisions, or to take initiative beyond that which we are explicitly asked to do. But it should also be noted that our failure to take such initiative or display ostensible ambition is not, necessarily, indicative of idleness, complacency, or lack of intellect—it is often a measure of self-preservation.

Allow me to explain: general managers of convenient stores, especially locally-owned, mom-and-pop chains, have gone as far as they’re going to go up their respective corporate ladders. So, like any person standing on a platform and looking down, they view anyone climbing the ladder beneath as a threat to be confronted and dispatched. Our store manager, Ethel, has been at her job for 23 years. She’s used to threats; threats get fired. And although no one outside of the tangled confines of her imagination is vying for her job, it is ultimately salient for her subservients to not appear to want her job. Sure, getting sacked from here isn’t the end of the world, but a lot of the people that work the lower rungs of the service industry have certain baggage that makes finding more prestigious jobs a touch difficult: criminal records, inability to pass a drug test, lack of a high school diploma, no references, poor interviewing skills, etc. So rather than find another position at another gas station down the street after a few wageless weeks they can ill-afford, they understandably want to keep this one. And cleaning the office isn’t part of the protocol. Ethel likes to do (or not do) that herself. And so that dead bug just keeps sitting there.

But the ex-bee is lecturing on something else, distinct and yet related: it is elucidating the concept of institutional rot—how good businesses morph into bad ones, how clean homes become squalid and filthy. You see, nothing in a messy apartment or dirty convenient store is ever that different from how matters appeared the day before—just a little nastier, a bit less efficient, than the last version stored in short-term memory. It isn’t as if anyone ever intends to have that disgusting tub-ring, or pink mold in the toilet, or peeling paint, or a rust-speckled car, or a massive belly, or a failed marriage, or a bankrupt commercial enterprise: these things just happen while we aren’t taking the time or exerting the effort to properly maintain the object of concern. The space shuttle Challenger took seven souls to heaven with it in January of 1986 because engineers assigned the (quite obviously) important task of monitoring launch-test simulations tired of getting data back saying that the o-rings were faulty , and assimilated the information, which leads to ignoring information, consequently lowering the bar over time. We all (or at least those old enough to remember) got to see the results of that on national television: NASA—Need Another Seven Astronauts, as the joke going about my grammar school had it.

The failure for anyone else to notice or remove a deceased, hairy, black-and-yellow, winged insect from a shelf in the office of my convenient store will, of course, carry no such implications. Yet while the scale is smaller, the tone and color of those very implications is the same: ignore the upkeep on anything, and sooner or later you will be most unpleasantly surprised by the externalities of that decision, or group of decisions. The retributive cards dealt may be as mundane as an unimpressed visitor to your unkempt home and a dirty office at the gas station, or as poignant as the funerals of spacefarers, but they will be dealt nonetheless.

So I look at that bygone bumblebee, 74 days, and counting, later, and think of a Hindu term badly overused and yet scarcely understood in the West: karma. Karma is popularly portrayed as the idea that your negative (and even positive) actions, or inactions, may come back to bite you in the ass; karma, in its more orthodox understanding in the Hindu faith says that those same actions or inactions will come back to bite you in the ass: you reap what you sow. It is, to Hindus at least, a law as simple and predictable as gravity. And so I wonder what the karma of my staff’s united laziness and inattention is. Plague? War? An unusually rude customer? The slushee machine breaking unexpectedly?

So the bee sits there, long dead and oblivious to the condition of its slowly decaying shell. Bombus americanus didn’t know that it would one day give an entirely different species pause for reflection, because it didn’t know much of anything: it was a bug after all, and God (if you’re into that way of describing things) didn’t give it much awareness of anything besides the needs to pollinate and feed. But I like attempting to discern big ideas by looking at small sources. Call it the scientist in me that never grew to fruition.

A simple pinch of two fingers and a fling into the nearby trash would, of course, make that bit of organic litter go away. But I’m not sure that I want it to go away: its enduring presence has shown me quite a lot about things that I need to know and understand. So I’ll keep this running tally going, maintaining a log on the extent to which a staff of six sentient beings can continue to accommodate a rotting bumblebee in their midst. It has been a college of the everyday—a means to learn without a lesson plan. 74 days and counting.

Thursday, July 21, 2005


Tails. I lose. Shit.

My coworker Mike and I have just settled matters in the time-honored, if somewhat pacifistic, death-duel that is the coin toss. I’ve chosen heads for as long as I can remember, and today the god of dichotomous transactions, or at least random mathematical chance, has frowned upon me. I have to clean the pumps.

When there are two staffers on at night, the wicked Ethel (our store manager), likes to, understandably, leave lists of chores to be executed during down time. Cleaning the pumps is among the least desired of these. It’s not really hard work to fill a bucket with warm water and to wipe down the grimy fuel stands with a rag, but it leaves one smelling of exhaust until a shower and a trip to the laundry become available, which does not occur until at least the following day. Flirting with the college girls is problematic enough when your cards are on the table as the guy selling them cigarettes, but smelling of blue grade fuel? Come on.

What’s worse, being caught outside by the customers compromises the spatial hierarchy that we’ve worked so hard to establish in the building itself: the six-inch dais that exists behind the counter grants us a weird air of authority that animal-level rules of eye contact and head position have ingrained into humanity; I’m taller, and hence I’m in charge. Outside, when I’m revealed to be a slightly-above-average height six-oh male, my authority evaporates like spilled gas on a hot Summer day in Tennessee. I now have to deal with the folk who drive up while I’m thus exposed like they are, quite literally, on equal footing. (It’s the same feeling I get when I run into them at the bar, but at least there I have alcohol to ease the transition.) That means no sneering, no rushing them, no condescension. I might even have to do more than say “hi” and ask them how they’re doing, winging my way through actual conversation while they pump gas, as if it were something I’m versed in, as opposed to something I’ve learned to feign. Damn.

But I also get to see a little bit of what happens outside the lines, if you will, the things that I normally only see the results of. So I watch the locals passing bottles of Bud Light and Corona in the car, taking that last hit off a joint, pooling money, arguing with spouses, emptying their trash from home into our garbage cans—the little bits of reality that make up our patrons’ lives immediately before and after my brief and highly ritualized indoor contact with them.

And today, as I’m finishing the last pump, I see a striking Russian girl who lives at the Glen walking toward the store, and feel a twinge of envy that Mike, and not me gets to deal with those fetching eyes and supple form and that voice. Oh my, the timbre that is a Russian girl’s voice. To sound more exotic she’d have to be from Mars.

As my eyes follow her into the store, I notice something entirely less welcome: some jackass at the front counter with a lit cigarette in his hand. I look over and wave a frantic, beckoning wave in his direction.

But smoker, like most militant smokers, clearly pines away for the glorious days of the seventies and eighties before the scientific community could prove that his suicidal, filthy habit was also a homicidal, filthy habit, and he could still pollute everyone’s air so long as he sat in the in a confined area of Taco Bell. So he’s passive-aggressively venting, literally, his frustration that this is no longer the case by carrying lit cigarettes into places he’s not allowed to and then acting surprised when he’s told to stop. We’ve all seen the type: they’ll take one last monster drag before discarding a butt and getting on the bus, just so they can exhale smoke everywhere once aboard and thereby assert their territorial pissing rights—as if smoking, any more than breathing, were exclusively the act of inhaling. And so I waved at this one.

“Why you got to wave at me?” smoker asks after charging through the doors. He’s clearly furious at this perceived slight, and he’s standing on the step before the door, about six inches up from the lot that I’m standing on. He has, Annikin, the high ground. The rage in his eyes and his superior strategic position are, I must admit, a touch intimidating. The advantage I carry for nearly all of each day at work has been, quite rudely, inverted.

I could, at a later and better opportunity, explain that I used gestures because shouting at bulletproof plexiglass, which absorbs an awful lot of noise, from twenty paces would be about as effective as treating advanced sarcoma with asprin, or that the burden of non-smoking in indoor spaces has shifted, palpably and obviously, onto smokers in recent years, or that I waved instead of spoke because his presumptuousness obviated the standard rules of etiquette. But none of that matters right now. Right now, a white man had the unbridled gall to wave at a distance to a black man, and the black man is all in a snit about it. Cracker invaded his racial space.

Wild guess? Blind, bigoted thinking? Pointless theorizing? No. Mike, the guy that I lost the coin toss to, as I found later, had told this guy to leave the store moments before I waved at him, and got no grief at all. Mike’s black, by the way.

“You’re not allowed to smoke in the store,” I say, with what I hope is a firm but uninflammatory tone.

“Why you got to wave at me?” Obviously, this is an issue for him.

“Sorry. Please don’t smoke in my store,” I offer, trying to be appropriately firm yet conciliatory. I have no idea if I’m pulling this off or not.

Smoker gives a shrug and a snort seemingly meant to convey, “was that so hard?” before turning and going back to his car. He got me to apologize, which is far more than he deserved, as he, not I, was the one doing something he knew he shouldn’t be doing. But sometimes that’s how it works when you have the high ground.

Since I’m done cleaning the pumps now, I take the six-inch step up before the doors, head through them immediately smelling the leftover Newport smoke hanging in the air from my angry departed friend. I wash my hands and step the next six inches up behind the counter—back onto the command perch. One total foot and a world of difference.

“What was that guy saying to you out there?” Mike asks me.

“He was yelling at me for waving him outside because he was smoking in the store.”

“Yeah, I told him the same thing right before you did.”

I look over at Mike. Maybe smoker’s beef with me wasn’t racially charged at all. Maybe Mike just had a better way of asking, or at least the illusion of superior height. Perhaps I shouldn’t jump to conclusions, although smoker’s very different reactions to two people giving him the same message is a bit suspicious. But I would have given that same wave to anybody in that same situation, and suspect most people wouldn’t have taken it as a personal insult. Ah well. Who knows?

Oh, and I smoke, by the way. I’m not some anti-tobacco zealot; I just understand that we’re the minority and need to accommodate others, not the reverse. But it’s a simple matter of courtesy to understand that lighting up on other people’s property, be it their homes, their businesses, what have you, without permission is just plain ignorant and rude. Just like I don’t assume I can smoke in other people’s apartments, they aught to extend that consideration into my store. To do otherwise is an invasion of people’s space.

With little more to do, I ruminate for a few minutes on this very idea of nearness and distance, insides and outsides, of high and low, and Herve Vllechaize and his suicide, on clashes of spatially segregated cultures. I wonder about odd ideas of personal definition and personal space flying under the radar of consciousness, defining the way we approach and react to people and situations, before the welcome interruption of a girl from very, very, far away breaks my train of thought.

“Hel-lo,” begins my Russian angel, in that mesmerizing, drawn-out way that Slavs pronounce multisyllabic English words, as she approaches the counter with her 20oz bottle of Diet Sun Drop. I guess Mike doesn’t get to serve her after all.

“Hello,” I return, with an actual sincere smile.

If only I didn’t smell like gas.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005


The following is an open letter to the nefarious crimelord who drove off with $3.01 worth of fuel the other day. He most probably will never read it, but I suspect that he really, really should.

Dear Bandit,

I fully comprehend the wild abandon/lack of a fiver that inspired you to desert the gas pump this recent dusky eve. I've been tight for cash myself, and can see how you, noting my inattentiveness, strolled off into the twilight without recompense for your pathetically small amount of 87 octane. It's an opportunist's world, and you pounced, leopard-like, on my lack of vigilance in order to secure your evil and clandestine acquisition of enough gas to get you 30-45 miles, at absolute best, down the thoroughfare, before having to repeat the exercise. I am your humble servant, having had to, at great expense to my ego, accept your bold gambit as an irrevocable conquest over my watchfulness. Well executed, my sly devil; I blush. I am, forever more, your familiar in iniquity, and admirer in the ways of cozening the system, that I might one day aspire to your great deceptive summit.

Nevertheless, my scallywag, it’s high time we had a chat, you and I, about you, and your future as a criminal. I understand that, for certain people, there is an understandable compulsion to steal when the opportunity presents itself. I was busted for shoplifting cassette tapes, when I was twelve, and luckily so: I had purloined about a thousand dollars worth of knickknacks prior to the event, and was wending my way down the road that takes such a one from a juvenile delinquent to an adult delinquent, and hence the one-month-grounding smackdown from my parents was fortuitous. So your petty theft is neither shocking nor alien to me.

And yet, I must ask, my maniacal villain, if petty thievery is your game, your trade, your vocation, your very niche in this life. If it isn’t, and you merely stole less than one-and-a-half gallons of gas due to the euphoric rush of the moment, then well done, my roguish scavenger. I was, at the time, most likely doing other things, and you, arch-fiend, busted out my inattention. I hope you enjoy that endless expanse, or at least forty minutes, of open road that your buccaneer's cache is going to get you.

But I suspect that this isn’t the first time you’ve ever stolen anything, or even stolen anything from my store. And that’s what troubles me, my despotic nemesis--your lack of ambition. Frankly, since the massive spike in gas prices, I’ve been dealing with $40 and $50 drive-offs, people who have developed cleverly articulated schemes in which they strike during peak hours, in which I’m more likely to authorize their sales without looking in their direction, and then set the nozzle on the ground, to prevent the piercing wail from my register that lets me know that they’re done pumping and need to come inside to pay. That’s a good scheme, and one that I’m unlikely to apprehend, if it’s performed well. Are you taking notes, my vengeful felon?

And so, my iniquitous adversary, I want you to do something for me: either look yourself in the mirror, or find a support group, or both, and say aloud: I will steal five dollars worth of gas next time, I will steal five dollars worth of gas next time. You, know, baby steps, insidious menace. Because what you’ve done, in present state, is so laughably underachieving that I paid your tab. That’s right: your debauchery was so unwicked and so unimpressive that a guy that works an unenviable service wage job reached into his pocket and picked up your bill rather than write your scandalousness off on his company. Do you feel like creation’s biggest loser yet? You aught to. You just made a convenient store clerk feel superior. And that’s a hard thing to do.

So allow me to recap, my malicious miscreant: selfishness and opportunism are par for the course of the human experience; there’s little sense in disputing that. But sneaking away from three Washingtons? Please. If this were a matter of actual and true desperation for the person needing the fuel, I’d have simply given it to them, and paid it as I did. But if skipping out on that bill is a point of pride for whoever did so, I have a bit of advice: reach for the firmament next time, my friend--$3.01 just isn’t going to cut it. Your subterfuge hasn’t even made me angry; I merely sighed and then giggled.

You cruel gangsta, you.