Friday, August 19, 2005


I am working a Monday shift, which I despise, as it means that I am working alone with nobody to talk to—for the ninth day in a row. A man, a dark-skinned black man, about 5’9 with a pot-belly from too many Hooters appetizers and too much Corona, walks into the store at about 8 p.m. wearing a shirt that I vaguely recognize as a work shirt. I know that I know this guy from somewhere, some faint memory from a largely forgotten dream.

“Hi, Mike” I say, as my just-sprung-from-jail coworker comes to relieve my endless stretch of work, “welcome back. You owe me your soul for covering your ass. I demanded that Ethel not fire you, that I would cover all of your shifts until you got out.”

“Thank you. And you’re right, I do,” he concedes, adding, “but this wasn’t my fault.”

I am puzzled as to how a man jailed for non-payment of child support can be blameless in this situation, yet curious about his version of the events.

“Do tell,” I instruct.

“I was at the (insert Tennessee county) agency when they told me that there was a warrant out for my arrest for being behind on my payments, when I’ve never missed a child support payment in my life. Next thing I knew, I was being handcuffed and taken to jail. They only hold court there once a month, so I sat there for eight days, before I appeared before a judge. ‘Why is this man here,’ the judge said to the prosecutor, ‘cuz he saw that my failure to pay was a mistake in the paperwork, and then they let me go.”

As Harper Lee once noted, what a man says is often less important than how he says it: there is no stammering in Mike’s delivery or whining in his tone. He is looking at me while he speaks and his eyes are not twitching wildly. I’m an imperfect judge, of course, but better, I think, than most at telling if someone is lying. After all, as anyone is who regularly has underage high school and college students attempt to purchase alcohol and tobacco from him, I am lied to an awful lot. I decide that I believe him, and that my long, overtime pay-laden stretch of work is a blessing compared to Mike’s long, wageless, pointless stretch of time in county. But I’m still very tired and my knees hurt from all the standing and I want badly to go home.

“So you’re going to work the rest of this shift for me, right?”

“Ah, no,” Mike says, “I just came in to help you out for a few hours. Besides, I don’t have my key with me.”

“You can borrow mine,” I testily reply, “and bring it back to me next time I work, or leave it in an envelope in the drawer tomorrow. I really think you should work the rest of my shift.” The tone of my voice has, rather suddenly, looked directly at the Gorgon and turned to stone.

Mike, being a placid, observant man, immediately picks up on the anger and realizes, so I think, that he’s just said “no” to a guy to whom he owes his job, and hence his “successfully executing terms of parole” status. And that’s never, as we know, a wise decision. “Let me make a phone call,” he responds complacently, “and get some things done here, and you can go at nine.” I agree, finding this bargain acceptable.

But I am bothered still by Mike’s initial lack of gratitude, his summary dismissal of my altruism. I covered more than entire, hectic week without him, working 95 hours in nine days so that he could have a job to come back to when he resurfaced from the system, and he had to think twice about letting me go home from work. I am, weirdly, taking this paucity of appreciation as a personal slight, an affront that is scratching at my thought process, inflaming my perspective.

And suddenly I realize that I have already been rewarded for what I have done, that I was never doing anything for Mike at all—that I was wholly and self-interestedly doing something for myself. My logic is polluted and proud: I didn’t work this span so Mike could have a job when he returned; I did it so he would owe me a favor later, for the extra pocket money, for getting to feel benificent and generous and decent, for myriad reasons, all relating to my own reward and gratification. I am no saint nor angel. I did not do this thing for Mike; I did it for me. What I have performed was a thinly-veiled masquerade of self-interest in the guise of charity, the creation of a debt that I will almost certainly collect on later. I am as generous as a loan shark, munificent as a bookie.

I look back over at Mike, now busy draining water from our soda coolers, preparing to add more ice on this hot, humid Summer night. His eyes are roving now, his mind doubtlessly distracted by the implications of missing a week of work, wondering what he is going to do next, preparing to perform damage control on this tiny, hairline fracture of his life. We have two situations: mine, in which I did a lot of work and am a bit tired and cranky, and his, in which he has possibly violated the terms of his parole, lost a week of income, and has just returned to the larger society, lucky and grateful to find himself still employed. Mike has a lot more than I do on his plate right now, and it’s vain and silly of me, I conclude, to expect his immediate attention to be on what he owes me.

But he’s still working the rest of this shift. When he finishes the set of tasks he’s performing, I thank him, hand him my key, and take my leave.

“Welcome back, buddy,” I say again, sincerely, with the anger drained from my voice. I am happy to be out of this place, that has been my own more profitable jail for a little while. But as I clock out and exit, I contemplate the idea of reward, how so often when we think ourselves benevolent we are simply engaging in trade, bartering our efforts in exchange for repayment, all the while indulging in the curious delusion that this makes us something more, something other than—something better—than salesmen. How untrue. I have sold my labor for wages, sold a favor for a debt, sold a little extra sweat in exchange for an illusion of goodness. I am a dealer—nothing more, and nothing less.

Monday, August 15, 2005


There is a high school baseball tournament taking place at the university across the street; it has caused an atypical run on every form of smokeless tobacco that my store carries. Although I have a deep and abiding love for the sport that is baseball, I have ever been puzzled by its inextricable association with a habit so disgusting that smokers actually look down on it. At least when we, Peter Jennings-like, die of lung cancer, we won’t be missing our surgically-removed jaws like carnival freaks. The dads have been the principal purchasers, but that hasn’t stopped the kiddies from giving it a shot.

“I need a bag of Red Man and a tin of Skoal Wintergreen,” announces a tall, athletically-built young man wearing a baseball cap. He appears to be about seventeen years of age. Perceptive lad that I am, I am immediately suspicious of his credentials to purchase tobacco. It doesn’t help that his buddy standing next to him looks even younger than he does.

“Sure, I just need to see your I.D. first,” I reply, turning to retrieve his can of dip and taking the three steps and back to get the bag of chew. When I return with his product, he presents me a military identification card. That’s fine—date of birth is on the back; I know this drill. I carefully inspect the photo to make sure that the person in front of me is the same person on the card, and vice versa, and then flip it over to check the date. I give it a puzzled look, while doing a swift bit of usually unnecessary improvisational math: present date minus birth date equals seventeen years, nine months. Nope, kid’s not old enough. I quickly wonder how many clerks have been inattentive enough to fall for his bluff.

“Sorry friend,” I say, returning his I.D. and removing the contraband from the counter, “that’s not going to do it.”

“C’mon, man,” comes his disappointed reply. I am curious as to whether this ineloquent rebuttal has ever succeeded with anyone besides his parents.

“Absolutely not” is my final and unshakeable response. He gives me a disgusted snort and storms of with his friend in a huff.

That is how our conversation transpired, in reality. I will now remove it to Facetioustan, the nation-state that I have invented and rule over as Celestial Emperor.

“Hello,” says the young Facecetioustonian man, “I’d like to stupidly and illegally indulge in my noxious, filthy habit which involves publicly expelling my polluted bodily fluids, all so I can fit in socially with my other future frat boys on the team. Can you help me?”

“Well,” I reply, “as a man who inhales burning leaves as if that were an intelligent decision, I certainly ought to be sympathetic to your situation. However, we have the tiny issues of an arrest record, my heretofore criminal-background-free status, a massive fine, and getting fired from my job, all for the benefit of you, a complete stranger who may well be an undercover plant hired by the alcohol and tobacco authorities, with no possible reciprocal reward to me of any kind. Sure, dude, that will be $8.79. No. Not really.”

We catch a redeye flight and return to reality. I’ve always, from years of being a bartender, food server, and clerk in retail stores that sell alcohol, felt a strange awkwardness about asking for people’s identification. Part of the entire process carries the faint ring of totalitarianism, the low-volume equivalent of tapping a baton against the palm while screaming, “YOUR PAPERS, PLEASE,” to whoever is standing in front of me. I just don’t care for it. But recently another idea came to mind why the carding process is uncomfortable for both parties, one that makes a bit more practical sense: by asking for your identification, I am, in a subtle, implicit way, telling you that I don’t trust you, tacitly suggesting that I suspect that you’re lying to me. This little insult really isn’t the smoothest way to break the ice with a stranger ever devised, and makes me silently, sarcastically thank the government for foisting it upon me. Besides, I’m frequently left surprised and feeling silly when people are ten years older than I think they are: a lot of my customers are black people or Mexicans, and frankly, I’m horrible at estimating the ages of individuals in either group no matter how much practice I have; I consequently end up requesting identification from people who are 32 and then feeling like a jackass.

Now of course, if we lived in another fictional country where people obeyed the law, and worked through legitimate and available channels to change it when it did not suit their fancy, this entire authentication ritual would be a moot point. I concur with many that the very idea that most states allow sixteen-year-old children to sling around a 4,000 lb. piece of complex machinery at 70 mph on public interstates while allowing the federal government to bully and extort them into compliance with its mandates on the drinking age to be, for lack of a better word, a bit incongruous. But I didn’t write the law; some armchair despot from the state next door named Elizabeth Dole did. Complain to her; she has an email and an office phone—I’m just doing my job.

Later this same evening, a young woman in a denim skirt and leopard-print tube top walks into my store and heads toward the beer cooler in back. She is breathtakingly attractive: about 5’8, slim, tanned, and toned, with long blond hair and gigantic, pale, blue eyes. There is a natural spark about her that 95% of the sorority girls shooting for the same look just can’t imitate. She procures an eighteen-pack of Miller Lite and proceeds toward my register. I am looking forward to flirting with her, exchanging some playful banter while staring into those limpid pools of azure, as somebody whose name escapes me once described a pretty pair of eyes. But while I am convinced beyond measure of her beauty, I am unconvinced of her owning 21 years on this planet, and we have to get that part out of the way: I may play my games after I have done my duties.

“Hi there,” I say, looking straight into those gorgeous orbs, “how’s your night going?” She does not look away. Great, I think, she’s confident to boot. This girl is going to be a force of nature for the next thirty years, batting men about like cat toys, losing them under the furniture, getting bored, and walking away.

“Hi,” she returns, in a husky, phone-sex kind of voice and with a smile that is making my heart go pitter-patter and something somewhere else start to react in a manner somewhat, er, excited. “I’m doing just fine.”

“May I see your I.D., please,” I ask, happy that I’m about to know her name. She opens a wallet and holds it aloft for my inspection. There is a Tennessee driver’s license sporting the photo of a pretty blond girl, 22 years of age. The license is current and valid, bearing the name Shannon Hillcrest. So far, so good. I look from the picture back to the girl in front of me, and back again. Something is wrong. I mentally adjust for elapsed time since the photo, changes in makeup, hair color, etc. It doesn’t help. The girl standing in front of me, while similar-looking, is not the girl featured on this driver’s license. Additionally, I can feel her getting nervous from the amount of time I’m taking.

I see a university I.D. in one of the pockets of the wallet. I take my thumb, slide it two inches upward, and read the name on it: Lindsay Hillcrest. This is her older sister’s driver’s license, neatly explaining the resemblance. Lindsay’s beauty is a gift and a power for which she should be thankful, and that’s going to get her a lot of things out of a lot of people in this world. But here, tonight, I have become the Thin Blue Line, and beyond be there is chaos—I am guarding the gates and holding the keys like Agent Smith. Her ruse will get her no beer from me, for all of the reasons already detailed by the truth ministry from Facetioustan.

“I’m sorry, Lindsay,” I say, looking straight at her again, pulling the beer off the counter, “but this isn’t your I.D., and we're going to have to try this again in another couple of years.” This time, she blushes and looks away. I have faced off with a goddess, and pulled an upset out of the air. She shrugs a shy, “well, I tried,” kind of shrug before slinking silently away with her head down, falling from Aphrodite to teenage girl in mere moments.

Some days being the Gas Guy is too much fun.