Thursday, September 08, 2005


A thing happened to Gas Guy, or rather a culmination of a process happened, a mere few months ago. Gas Guy had a vision in a cave, an experience that transformed him from a presupposed knower to an inquisitive seeker, from a man who had ideas and opinions, into one who now merely possesses questions, leading to trasient and ephemeral guidelines about the whole nature of the human experience.

Are we wonky and deep enough yet? No worries. Rather than peer any further into the heart of creation, I have picked the safest path to deploy my newfound truths regarding creation's manifestations: I have found a degree of spiritual harmony, and am using it to get laid. I’m quite sure that Jesus and Buddha did it too. (Whoops, I forgot, once again to shelve the blasphemy for this story. I'm so going to hell.)

I am not a handsome man, you see, in that square-jawed, broad-shouldered, traditional conception of a handsome man, and hence have to work with other precepts. I have a nose that goes out a bit too far, and a chin that quits just before its time. I am tall and gaunt, about six-feet even, with a trim and fit, if a bit skeletal, 155lbs to my credit. My lone distinguishing feature, aside from brown hair about eighteen inches long, is a pair of large, pale grey eyes, that look blue when I wear blue clothing, and green when I follow accordingly. They have a dark ring about the iris, just like wolf eyes. Women, oddly, find them attractive.

I use them, like a poker player with only one good card, to my utmost advantage. I stare down everyone I encounter these days, young, old, male or female, with a gentle, friendly unwavering look, because I’m not frightened of them anymore. The results are always entertaining: some men get intimidated because they read prolonged eye contact as either a challenge to fight or, for the more insecure ones, a homosexual come-on; they shrink from it for either, or perhaps both, reasons. Women start to get flustered, giggling like little girls, playing with their hair, as they certainly did when their fascinated and loving fathers gave them the same entranced look with very different intentions.

The gaze, for me, is part scientific curiosity, part animal gesture of dominance. It is an open refutation of most of my previous life, in which I was afraid to look girls in the face and wordlessly tell them what I wanted from them. What was I afraid of? Are these usually soft, gentle creatures physically intimidating to me? Or was I just another coward fearing the psychological rigors of rejection? It was a stupid way to live, regardless, and my ability to choose to live otherwise is paying off for me rather, well, handsomely.

I think that I understand now a concept that I did not before: to fear rejection is to insulate oneself from life’s larger project, exchanging the fresh air of exploration and inquiry for the dank, hot vapors beneath the blanket of cowardice. I was consoling myself for failures that had not yet occurred, an exercise as intellectually fecund as that of a man who celebrates what he has not yet accomplished—winning the World Series before it has been played, or, even worse, losing it.

In any case, poor Kristina has become hooked on the drinking-it-all-in gaze. She’s a sweet girl, who sells products for Mary Kaye cosmetics, and has a totally respectable day job educating children. She shops in my store quite often. Over the course of a few short conversations, she’s developed a mad crush on me, the iteration if which I could spot from a different area code, she is so unsubtle. She manufactures reasons to come in to see if I’m working, sometimes several times daily, buying 30 cents worth of gum when I’m not, just so it doesn’t appear so obvious why she’s in the store—which of course it does. She tells me all about herself before I can even ask, in the desperate hopes that something will spark enough interest in me to inspire me to ask her on a date. What she’s doing is precariously close to stalking, but, since I do not associate stalking with the nasty unpleasantness that such understandably carries for most women, I’m finding it kind of cute.

So why don’t I put the girl out of her misery? Well, physically speaking, she’s really not my type. She’s attractive, in a certain mousy kind of way, with a pretty face and nice brown eyes, but a bit too skinny, my preference being women a good measure curvier. That may come across as a little shallow, but keep in mind that I’m, as I mentioned, six feet tall and 155 lbs. If somebody doesn’t offer some padding, bones could get chipped in that act of sin. I like to think that my desire for some hips and chest is just sexually pragmatic. Besides, I have some more promising prospects on the horizon at present.

It’s 6:15 on Friday evening, and Kristina has just stumbled out the door of the shop, badly intoxicated from two minutes of me looking at her while I listen to her chatter.

Keshia, my fellow cashier, inquires, “Why don’t you just ask that poor girl out, on a pity date?”

“I don’t offer pity dates. The last thing in the world someone like that needs is me leading her on. Besides,” I add, “she’ll probably ask me soon enough, and then I won’t have any choice.” This is true, as by the rules under which I operate, I won't.

My prediction remains unconfirmed for a whopping four hours, fifteen minutes. At 10:30, Kristina comes back into the shop, while I'm doing errands on the customer side of the counter. I can tell by her hurried movements that she’s a bit nervous.

“What can we get for you, Kristina,” I wickedly inquire, knowing full well why she’s here.

“Actually, um, I’m not here for anything…er…What are you doing after work,” she blurts. Saw that train coming from the station, I did. I wonder if it took her the 22oz Smirnoff Ice she bought on her last trip in to work up the gumption.

“I’m going to be here pretty late,” I answer, truthfully, a bit bemused at my uncanny ability to call shots of recent. “Why don’t you give me your number, and I’ll call you sometime?”

“Uh, yeah, let me get you my business card.” She begins digging through the cavernous expanse of her purse, piling disparate things into her left hand while she continues ferreting with her right, her movements growing more frantic with the knowledge that two people are watching her. Keshia, being the kind, attentive girl that she is, tears off a piece of blank receipt paper and sets it on the counter with a pen in an effort to give Kristina an easy out, but Kristina is hell-bent on conveying the Successful and Important label that a business card will clearly sell me, and will have none of it. I am not at all surprised when she fumbles everything she’s holding onto the floor, items scattering as badly as if she'd shattered a vase.

I squat down to help her gather her things, gentleman that I try to be. In the cheeseball Hugh Grant movie version of this story that she’s written in her head, we no doubt lock eyes and kiss passionately on the way back up. In the real world take, I help her collect her possessions, trying not to make her any more nervous or embarrassed than she already is, take her business card and send her on her way, promising to call.

“Oh, my,” Keshia opines, “that girl's going to be knocking things over the whole time you’re out with her.” I look at her and smile. She’s probably right.

But who knows? Maybe this woman is wonderfully suited to me, and I just haven’t given her a chance yet. Maybe there’s a delightful and hidden spark in her personality that can compensate for her initial shyness and slight build. I’m going to find out, because she mustered the courage to ask, which, from what I understand, is a hard thing for a girl to do.

I have come to admire courage, gradually learning that conquering fear opens the path to new endeavors, that it makes life beautiful and pleasant in times that previously seemed dark and foreboding. If I congratulate it so when I see it in myself, expressed in such tiny avenues as looking directly at people when I’m talking to them, then I have to reward it when someone like Kristina puts herself through something that was probably terrifying just to get me to call her. I could complicate the matter with superfluous window-dressings, but my take on the matter is as simple as this: my stalker risked a little bit of herself, as she would no doubt have been disappointed had I rejected her overture. And because she had the temerity to do that, I cannot find it in my heart to reject her without an interview, which is all a first date really is. Fair, after all, is fair—nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

A Small Thing.

The world, or at least my infinitesimal fragment of it, is going mad this Friday; panic is in the air, competing with nitrogen as the dominant gas. Another kind of gas is fueling the hysteria, the kind whose price has rocketed well past $3.00 per gallon for the first time in most of my patrons’ lifetimes. My station is out of standard and mid-grade, with only the exorbitantly expensive premium, and diesel, which is of little use to most private citizens, left in our subterranean tanks.

I’m not in the mood to play savior today. I want, desperately, to tell all of the people who are yelling at me about the asking price of our station’s remaining fuel to crawl into holes and die; I want to lecture them about buying inefficient vehicles that they never needed, all to serve their warped ideas about social status, while they operated under the ridiculously flawed paradigm that a product that had artificially maintained a nearly constant price for twenty years would do so forever. These people need a harsh dose of reality. Really, they do. They need to be told that cheap gasoline is not an inherent right, but rather a convenient luxury offered them by a very successful capitalist strategy, a bubble that has lasted longer than most, and yet was destined to burst, like all bubbles, eventually. I want to tell them that venting hostility toward me regarding the price of a flexible economic commodity like oil, as if I were a Saudi sheik or seated on the board of directors at British Petroleum and did my night job for fun, makes approximately as much sense as blaming me for hurricane Katrina, Sudanese genocide or the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that took down Pompeii. In short, people are being nasty to me, and I want to be nasty in recompense.

But I can’t, and I know that I can’t. This understanding has nothing to do with my fear of losing my job for being salty, as I’m well beyond the point of needing this gig any longer; it has everything to do with the needs of the hurt, frightened, desperate people that I’m dealing with. They do not need correction, at least not at this juncture; they need reassurance and stability and comfort. I’m not in the mood to provide it, and really wish that someone else was, but that deafening silence from the wilderness is telling me that I have to provide it, because, logically, if I don’t, then I can’t expect anyone else to furbish it either.

“When will you have more regular grade in,” asks a fortyish professional woman, in a panic.

“Honestly,” I honestly answer, “we know about as much as you do. Don’t worry, though. The sudden demand has overwhelmed our supply. This is a temporary condition, and we’ll have more gas as soon as we can.” I pause, and see that the stump-speech words have had no affect whatsoever, before serenely adding, “The world isn’t ending; gas prices just went up a bit.”

She interrupts her panic for a moment to look at me. I look back, calm as a man who uses infinite-miles-to-the-gallon sandals to get around. My engine runs, like hers, on calories, but mine uses a different kind of fuel, one unmodified by hurricanes and wars: I eat solid food, and I walk places. Sure, it’s a primitive means of fuel and transport, but one that got us around perfectly well before pack animals, steam, and internal combustion. On days when I’m feeling extra fancy, I ride a bicycle. Granted, the former method is Paleolithic and the latter preindustrial, but in case of dire emergency I can always get on the bus or call a cab. Some people think that my lack of motorized transportation is pretty weird, but then again, I think the two people who got in a wreck in my lot on Thursday while racing for an available pump are a whole lot weirder.

But I just deal with this day, and the throng of people and their wild, roving eyes with the whites exposed. The office is awash in fear; the cave is under siege from hyenas. They’ve been on the phone and the internet all day long, absorbing and internalizing the all-encompassing terror in the voices and words of everyone they communicate with. The sky is falling; the End is near. What’s really happening, on a deeper level, is that they’re exerting frightened pack-animal behavior not appreciably different from when a herd of gazelles on an African savannah spot a look in the eyes of the other gazelles that says “lion,” and take off running like hell. The sad thing is that they don’t even know that that’s what they’re doing and why they’re doing it

But I do. So as much as I want to be a mirror that reflects the light of their anger, I have to be a pool that drowns the heat of their fire. I have to suck it up and take one for the team. These folks may have to revert to the less advanced means of transport that I rely on; they may have to do without a second vehicle, they may have to trade in the junky, thirsty eighties V-6 Buick and buy a scooter; they may have to deal with high gas prices and the temporary economic recession it may well usher in. None of this is going to kill them. It may inconvenience them, it may traumatize them, but it is not going to deprive them of life or liberty, it is not going to bereave them of their children and siblings and spouses and so they all need to, if you will pardon my French, chill the f-ck out. There is an American city lying underwater, many of its residents having, some by necessity, gambled and lost against the wild caprices of nature. Bands of marauding thugs have taken root and flowered there, reverting to our precivilized instincts to plunder and rape and kill, patrolling the waterways of what was called New Orleans like jackals and dingoes, while others cower, beholden to their mercy. And people here are losing there shit over temporary price spikes and shortages in gasoline. I really wish I believed in any formal construct of god on days like this, so that He might smiteth the earth and remove this odious little race of vermin before we do it ourselves, which we inevitably will.

The latter sentiment is the one that I am inclined to share with people right now. So I swallow hard, and take deep breaths, and force it down into the pit of my stomach, storing it away to be freed later on a stack of metal plates at the gym and the water in my apartment complex’s swimming pool.

By Saturday the madness has largely subsided. I see the odd car here and there, circling from empty pump to empty pump like sharks, before swimming off into the hot night to search for another station. The crisis has passed its apex, and a general sense of normalcy is returning as people make the trip back from crazy animals to thinking animals, forming contingencies regarding the new fiscal reality of higher fuel prices, which mean higher freight costs, which translates to the consquent actuality that soon nearly every commercial product will cost more than it does now. There may be some choppy waters on the horizon, but the ship that is life is big and sturdy, and will sail through what it cannot sail around.

At six o’clock on Saturday, a massive industrial vehicle pulls up to pump seven, with two men seated in its cab. One gets out and begins to pump fuel, while the other heads into my shop and presents me with a corporate credit card. He appears generally at ease, which makes sense, considering that the money he’s spending isn’t his. He approaches my counter with a loaf of bread and a two liter of Pepsi.

“Hi there,” I say, “How are you doing tonight?”

“I’ll be better in a little bit,” he replies, reflecting the curious if pervasive assumption that the world transforms itself as soon as one clocks out from work. “Have people been giving you a hard time about the prices?”

“Yeah, a few have,” I continue, taking his cash for the groceries before charging $75 of diesel fuel onto the corporate card. “But I know that they’re not actually mad at me. They’re just angry, and I’m the next person they talk to, and so they take it out on me because that’s just how it goes. It does me no good at all to lose my composure in response to it, ya know?”

“That’s right, young man. Good for you for thinking about it like that,” agrees the driver, a man aged about sixty, and consequently a bit less silly than the younger demographic that I principally deal with. I am grateful for his words of reassurance, out of my secret fear that if I offer too many of my own and get none in return, that my supply will run out.

“Good night, friend,” I call, as he slips out the door, amazed as always by the profound impact that the words of total strangers have on one another. Perhaps, I think, reflecting on the small kindnesses that buoy us above murky flood waters of insult and ingratitude, the whole world isn’t going mad, after all.