A Summer Stuck at Gas Mart
I close the cash register drawer, take a breath, and look up. A middle-aged man with a two-day stubble, wearing a dirty T-shirt and oily jeans, sets a drink and some beef jerky down on my counter. He smells like eight hours of hard work.
“Anything else I can get for ya?” I ask.
“Nope. That’ll do ’er,” he says.
“Good deal,” I say, not looking at the man or really thinking about what I’m saying because I’m pressing the buttons for a 32-ounce Pepsi and a bag of Pemmican Premium Cut: FOUNTAIN SODA, 5, 699 GROCERY.
Apparently he needs a higher prescription for his bifocals, because he’s squinting at the price display screen and still asks me, “How much do I owe ya?”
“That’ll be $7.90, sir.”
He grunts and reaches into his back pocket, pulling out a bank envelope full of crisp green bills. He licks his index finger. His tan, chapped digits pinch the stack of dollars and extract them. He flips through them and squints, a sliver of his tongue jutting out the side of his mouth. Friday must be his payday, I think to myself, and I watch him leaf through a couple hundreds and several fifties and twenties before reaching the appropriate denomination: a creaseless piece of legal tender commemorating everyone’s favorite Federalist himself, Alexander Hamilton.
“Out of a 10 dollar bill?” I ask. Obviously it’s out of ten dollars, but I ask anyway. Ol’ Trucker Hat nods.
10 00 CASH. DINGGGG— rattlerattlerattlerattle SMACK. The drawer jerks open. Simultaneously, the printer buzzes, recording the transaction on a long roll of paper that I will eventually cut, tape, sign, date, and stash in my bag for Carla the manager to peruse at her pleasure the following morning. The screen tells me to give the man 2.10, and I oblige.
“Annnd,” I say, looking back up, “two-ten’s your change.” I pause for a brief moment, a moment for which I have paused thousands of times, and for which I will pause thousands of times more. It’s an amount of time I learned, memorized, and now allot from muscle-memory. And after that pause, I say, “Have a nice night.”
“Have a good’un,” he replies. He turns and leaves the store.
The next guy’s a lot younger. He walks toward me from the fountain drink area with confidence, clopping his light brown work boots on the dusty tile floor. He sets his Styrofoam cup down and, without hesitation, hands me a hundred dollar bill. I glance down at the piece of paper, then back up at the customer. Yep, it’s payday, alright. Why do I always get stuck working Fridays? We make silent eye contact for a moment that feels exponentially longer than it actually is— him peering at me from under his yellow, green, and brown camouflage cap into my deep-set blue eyes; me studying his unblinking brown eyes, trying not to frown.
“Sure you don’t have any smaller amounts? I won’t have much in my drawer to work with if I give you change for a hundred.”
He says nothing for a moment. Only chews his gum and stares at me.
“Nope. This here’s all I got.”
Bastard! I yell in my mind. And then I remember how my coworker Jack always says, “People always come in here thinking this is a bank.”
“Alright, but just this once,” I say, knowing full well that if the same guy comes in next Friday and repeats this offense, I would still let him get away with it. After all, there’s no point in letting a perfectly good soda go to waste. I’d just have to throw it away if he didn’t pay for it.
Such is the nature of a Friday night spent working at Dickerson Petroleum’s Phillips 66 Gas Mart 7 in Cottage Hills, Illinois.
* * *
I come from a town of about 30,000 people in Southern Illinois called Alton. It’s a Metro East suburb of St. Louis with a slightly urban personality and a notable history. Alton is home to the tallest man who ever lived, the first martyr in the abolitionist movement, the man who shot Martin Luther King, Jr., the punter for the Tennessee Titans, and the Piasa Bird from Illini Indian mythology. There’s a circular intersection in the middle of Alton where the capitol building would have been constructed had Springfield not become the capital of Illinois— now we just call it “The Circle.” According to Troy Taylor’s Haunted Alton, my town is the most haunted in America.
Contrary to Chicagoans’ popular belief about Southern Illinoisans, in Alton, we’re generally not rednecks with Southern accents that sport the Confederate flag on T-shirts and car decals, although there are a few of us who do. We’re about 25/75 black and white, and for the most part the races live harmoniously in A-Town, although there are some who will never let go of the virus that is racism. We’ve got a fair mix of white collar and blue collar workers and a fair mix of regular neighborhoods, new subdivisions, old subdivisions, great mansions, apartments, and project housing developments. We’ve got a crappy mall that’s well into the process of losing all its businesses, a ton of fast food restaurants, a few grocery stores, some stuffy antique shops, a couple coffee shops, and way too many new dollar stores.
In a matter of less than five miles, the lifestyle changes completely. With a population of 4000, Cottage Hills contrasts sharply from Alton’s progressive attitude about constantly adding or subtracting businesses, building a new high school, and renovating old roads and buildings to make them look better. Instead of embracing an impending future, Cottage Hills seems to be stuck in its old ways. There’s never talk about exciting new businesses popping up around town. For most young Gas Mart customers, college is not an option. Kids grab whatever work they can find after high school and do what they can to survive. When sporting a mullet is not unusual in a town, it’s a pretty clear sign that the place has yet to fully enter the 21st century.
In short, Cottage Hills fits the Chicagoans’ Southern Illinois stereotypes pretty well. Mild Southern accents: check! Trailer parks: check! Beaten-up muddy pickup trucks: check! Believe me when I say that I wasn’t exactly dying to work at Gas Mart, but I took the only option with which I was presented.
I had submitted over 50 job applications to the full gamut of available businesses: city works departments, bookstores, video rentals, movie theaters, CD shops, hotels, grocery stores, toy stores, restaurants, coffee shops, and dollar stores, as well as gas stations. I completed hour-long personality tests for Target, Blockbuster, Walgreen’s, and a St. Louis-area grocery store chain called Shop ’N Save. Apparently, answering a few basic questions is not enough. Earning the right to work at these fine establishments requires a test of endurance: one must yearn for a position with at least enough fervor to not fall asleep at the computer in between pages of mind-numbing inquiries. For God’s sake, I even suffered through a fifth-grade level math test in a desperate attempt to become a Pizza Hut Customer Maniac. Nothing worked.
It took almost two weeks to receive the first phone call from an interested employer, which was too long, because as a poor college student, I needed work and money, and I needed them all summer long. Carla had left a message on my cellphone voicemail requesting that I come in for a job interview. Before that call, I had fretted for days that no one would contact me, and that I would end up spending my summer twiddling my thumbs, stuck in my living room watching the Gameshow Network. I’d have no money to do much else. Having any sign of hope was a relief unparalleled by any trip to the bathroom I've ever taken. Yet, as I would soon find out, working at Gas Mart would not be easy. It’s an experience that I now recall with mixed emotions.
* * *
There were a lot of shortages at Gas Mart. We were short on the money needed to repair the ratty old roof. We were short on 75-cent bathroom condoms. We were short on tall brown paper bags customers needed to carry home their 24-ounce cans of Keystone Ice and their 40-ounce bottles of Milwaukee’s Best. After the Fourth of July, we were short on ice, since all the residents of Cottage Hills needed three 8-pound bags for their coolers stocked with Bud Lights. On Friday nights, I was short on $20 bills since I had to break fifties and hundreds left and right. Short on food stamp receipt paper. Short on time, short on patience, short on temper.
The one thing that Gas Mart never even came close to being short of was character. There was enough personality in the Gas Mart staff for a sitcom, a soap opera, a drama, a cartoon, and a reality show. Between Carla, Jack, Mary, James, Charles, Patty, Anne, and I, we covered the entire range of human emotion— from chipper to downtrodden, from fresh disappointment to jaded antipathy, from lightheartedness to cynicism. During each shift, employees would shift from suffering utter boredom due to lack of business to exhibiting high-strung irritability from hours of nonstop customers.
Charles, James, Mary, and I worked mostly nights. Every once in awhile there might be a change in lineup, and one of us would work a morning shift. But in all likelihood, when people came into Gas Mart after the sun dipped below the horizon, they’d see at least one of us up at the counter, stuck in the exact place from which we wanted to escape. They might have seen me staring at my watch in disbelief in between refilling cigarette shelves with Marlboro Red hard packs. Disbelief that I’d only arrived to work an hour before and that I’d be stuck at Gas Mart for six hours more. They might have spotted Charles leaning idly on the counter; might have smelled the sandwich he carried on the long walk to work and warmed in the microwave. Might have walked in on James bitching about his son’s mother to his friend, a stout, curly-haired blonde in his early twenties fresh from his day shift at Steak ’n Shake. Might have caught Mary in the act of gesturing to no one in particular, complaining about either not receiving enough hours, or working those hours at the wrong time.
Charles started work at Gas Mart the same week as I did. “Chuck,” as Jack called him, must have been in his late forties or early fifties, since he’d developed a bald spot on the top of his head— an island of white flesh surrounded by short, graying hair. He’d recently moved back to Southern Illinois after the government revoked his driver’s license for drunk driving in New Hampshire. As a result, he walked to work every night, often arriving a full half hour early for his 10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. shift. He’d fix his nightly pot of coffee, buy scratchers tickets, and tease Mary by expressing his doubts about her ability to count the money in their drawers. After all, he’d say, she was a woman. Then he’d head out for a smoke and clock in five minutes late. Charles had a girlfriend-turned-stalker that, toward the end of summer, held up the line in order to berate him for not spending enough time with her. I felt bad for him because he seemed to be stuck in this situation. The woman repeated this behavior several times, and he never seemed to have any ideas for how to end it. Due probably to his frustration, Charles called the woman “The Stalkerazzi,” a term he could not define when I asked what it meant.
“Well, isn’t it pretty obvious? She’s a stalker.”
“What about the ‘azzi’ part?”
“I dunno. James made it up.”
James interested me because, as a Caucasian male born only a year before me, he represented what I could have been had I grown up a stuck in a sleepy village a mere three miles directly east of my home in Alton. I could have been that dude with the too-baggy, too-holey washed-out jeans, sporting a pony tail and scruffy goatee, who listens to a little too much 80’s hair metal. James swore by Marlboro cigarettes and White Owl cigarillos. He, unlike all the other employees besides me, actually traveled out of Illinois on occasion. Except he only crossed the Mississippi River from Alton to West Alton, Missouri in order to buy his smokes at Dirt Cheap Cigarettes, Beer & Liquor, a trip that would probably only take him twenty minutes each way from Gas Mart— if he followed the speed limit. James worked the late night shift so he could see his infant son during the day. They’d been spending more time together ever since the custody battle had shifted in his favor. James claimed it was thanks to the lawyer he hired for $2000. “I know I’m paying him too much,” he said. “But it’s worth every penny.”
If no women were around, both Charles and James used two terms interchangeably to refer to opposite sex: bitches and pussy. I kept my distaste for these expressions unsaid for fear of alienation. They concurred that women were not for dating or marrying. With Charles long-divorced and James in the process of ridding himself of his former girlfriend, they’d already been through that mess and figured it wasn’t worth the trouble. The use of women for sexual gratification, however, was still a viable option. They made the ogling of attractive girls into a sport.
As soon as the double doors would shut behind a curvaceous brunette, James would bellow, “Did you see the ass on that one? God DAMN!” He’d hold his hands out in front of him, grabbing the girl’s imaginary hips and thrusting his pelvis. “I would ride that all night long!” Charles reacted only slightly more subtly in similar situations. I can’t count the times I watched his eyes nearly pop out when teenagers in short denim skirts entered the store. After the girl invariably half his age disappeared from sight, he would turn to me and nod his head, baring a devilish grin. I couldn’t help but laugh at the greedy lust in his eyes.
The men of Gas Mart were not alone in their quirkiness. The women matched their male counterparts in peculiarity. Take, for example, Mary’s interesting habit of talking to herself. When business slowed down, she’d tell me in her mouth-full-of-marbles voice that she would go stock the cooler while I’d be stuck up front taking customers. And off the middle-aged bespectacled woman would go, trotting with her long, skinny legs, scratching her head under her long brown hair. When the store emptied, I could faintly hear her deep mumbles from across the building. Was Jack back there and I just didn’t know it? Was she talking to her husband or son on Gas Mart’s cordless phone? I peeped down the hallway from the storefront to the open cooler only to see Mary with her arms akimbo, her veiny fingers twisted around the belt loops of her 80’s-style high-riding jeans. She stood there and thought out loud, cursing Carla’s clumsy arrangement of beer in the cooler. Mary would move a few cases, then pause and curse out loud, then move a few cases, then pause and curse out loud some more.
One night when Mary and I stood outside enjoying a soothing, gentle zephyr, we spotted Charles ambling toward Gas Mart. I leaned back on the building’s window ledge and thought about where I’d rather be as she talked about random things and smoked. Eventually, we could see Charles’ lips moving and both of his hands freely gesturing as if he were making conversation with a friend. Yet his line of vision was directed at the ground a few feet in front of him. The wind carried his voice to us.
“Is Charles out there talking to himself?” Mary asked. “It looks like he’s talking to himself.”
Needless to say, Mary’s observation perplexed me. I considered pointing out the irony of her statement, but by the time I parted my lips to speak, Charles emerged from the darkness of the long parking lot Gas Mart shares with a bar-and-grill, and we could see he was speaking into a hands-free cellphone headset clipped to his ear.
Charles finished his call and greeted us.
“Oh hi, Charles. We thought you were talking to yourself.” Mary laughed, and I cracked a smile, but for different reasons.
If there were certain people who worked mostly nights, it only follows that others worked mostly days. As a whole, they did not interest me nearly as much as the night crew, so I was disheartened the few times I looked at the schedule and saw an a.m. and not a p.m. time under my name. The day workers included Carla, Patty, and Anne. Carla was short-and-stout with an ever-growing rear end, and she was usually bright and cheery. She listened to country radio station morning talk shows as she rang up truckers’ daily diesel fill-up and the neighborhood regulars’ coffees and newspapers. According to Patty, Carla loves to sing a rendition of “When Stars go Blue” by Tim McGraw that could make a hound dog’s baying sound as glorious as Luciano Pavarotti in comparison to Carla’s shrill, dissonant singing voice. I never witnessed it myself, which was fine by me since I despised country music. That was another reason I preferred to work nights— less chance of listening to Billy Joe’s love song to Bobbie Sue. Overall, I liked Carla. I almost always felt comfortable around her, because she never spoke to me harshly. She graciously accepted my apology each time I messed up on the job, which was often. Carla was definitely more forgiving than most of my coworkers. She also seemed to be the most ambitious of the full-time employees. After only two years with the company, she’d moved up to a position of management. She did not seem to be stuck in one place as did everyone else.
. When I asked Patty how to perform any task, she would shoot a bewildered glance at me like I had a booger on my face, then demonstrate by doing the task instead of just telling me how. I often wondered if Patty was trying to make me feel guilty for not just magically knowing how to do everything. Patty, our most active worker who Jack often deemed “one of these hyper people,” cleaned shelves and checked dates of grocery items more than anyone else. She once told me that she mopped the floor about five times in a normal day shift, which was about five times greater than my average. Patty was about the same age as Mary, with dirty blonde hair and wrinkly yellow-tan smoker’s skin, aged before its time because Patty was stuck in with the same nicotine addiction as everyone at Gas Mart besides Carla and me. She also loved NASCAR with a passion, hated Bush with a passion, and had an unemployed husband that visited her twice a shift to buy fountain sodas and GPC full flavors. I discovered that she wore dentures to work after seeing her visit work to buy gasoline a few times. Her shpeech shounded a shmidge shloppy, and I noticed that her lips curled under her gums where her dentures would normally be while she was working.
The coworker with whom I enjoyed working the least was Anne, although Patty was a close second. Anne was a petite, freckled 26-year-old trailer park mother of two daughters and one son. She didn’t look a day over 17, and she had a teenager-esque attitude problem to match. Anne refused to stock the beer cooler, telling me I would have to go do it myself because “It’s fuckin’ freezing in there.” There I was, stuck laboring long, dull hours at a job that didn’t pay enough for how hard I worked, and to top it off, Anne forced me to do chores for her because she might get a little cold.
And then there was Jack. He bridged the gap between the night and day regulars, working days every other weekend and weeknights usually on the 2-10:30 p.m. shift. As assistant manager and Gas Mart employee for 18 years, he served as the fuel that kept the place running and the glue united us all. If one of us underlings had a complaint about Carla, he or she would inform Jack, and he would most likely concur and later give subtle suggestions to Carla. If Carla had something to tell the night crew, she would use Jack as her messenger. Plus, Jack was Gas Mart’s big draw. Everybody and his grandma stormed in demanding to know if Jack was working. After all, a whole generation of Cottage Hillians had grown up with Jack selling them sodas and candy bars. It is my firm belief that without Jack, there would be no Gas Mart. Perhaps the business would still exist, but it would not have the same personality. I think Jack realized that too, and the knowledge trapped him into being stuck in Cottage Hills for the rest of his working life.
Jack was a portly career smoker pushing 60, with a rusty hair color that mixed brown and gold and had hints of graying patches. He looked a little bit like a walrus with his puffy eyelids and his sagging, leathery flesh. He had long claws for fingernails stained approximately the same sickly coffee stain yellowish-brown as his mustache. His hot breath reeked of rancid milk.
But Jack was a riot, and he knew it. He’d perform chores in his natural bowlegged gait humming Golden Oldies and classical music. His proud potbelly opened up a space at the bottom of his shirt. Sometimes the hanging material would flutter in the box fan-produced wind. He would fabricate denominations of money, just to prove to everybody that he was a clever guy: “And a four-dollar bill’s your change.” He’d hand the customer four singles, tell them to have a nice day, and ask the next customer in faux-grumpiness “Oh, what do YOU want?” It was always a show with Jack, always something out of a mid-20th century comedy hour. In the same minute, he would wiggle his eyebrows at a blushing blonde, whine about having to help the next customer, ask him if he was absolutely sure he wanted that pack of cigarettes, and glance at the person and ask, while feigning sincere innocence, “I can keep the change, right?” Then his face would light up, a sly grin rising to the surface.
At first, I couldn’t understand why no one had promoted him to full manager yet. I mean, the man’s worked there almost as long as I’ve been alive. So one day in June, I asked Patty.
“Naw, they’d never promote ’im. You’ll understand once you work with him more. He doesn’t really do that much.”
Thus was the public conception of Jack. If a man asked what Jack was up to and I told them that he was in the back, the man would chuckle and say something like “Have you actually checked to make sure he’s working back there?” Sometimes people extended their sympathy to me; at least one person for every shift would ask me if Jack was making me do everything. I, however, never really thought that to be the case. It’s true that Jack took smoke breaks too often and spent a lot of time yakking it up with all the regular customers. Sometimes his absent-mindedness got the best of him, and he’d forget to either clock in or clock out. Patty even claimed that Jack completed paperwork too slowly, although I’m not sure how she knew about that, since she never worked in the office. But when it came down to it, he finished everything that needed to be done, whether or not it meant sticking around an extra half hour after his scheduled clock-out time.
On one occasion, Carla confronted Jack about staying clocked in for an extra 30 minutes on one day of the week before. She asked if he’d spent the extra time actually working or if he’d forgotten to clock out. He replied to her saying that he hadn’t done any work. But later, he told me candidly:
“She always asks me if I was working, and I always say no. But it ain’t the truth.”
Here was a man who felt responsible for the wellbeing of his store, but he never asked anyone for credit. He was stuck at this gas station because he knew it needed him, even if Gas Mart didn’t know it.
* * *
I’m pretty sure they all made fun of me behind my back at some point or another. I could sense it when Mary said to Charles one night: “Jack said everyone all weekend came out with the right amount in their drawer. Well, except for one person.” She paused for a moment, then added, “And guess who that was,” after which she looked right at me.
They probably thought of me as the college student dandy, working just for a summer and then gone until the holidays because I thought I was better than them. They probably wondered why, if I was supposed to be so smart, I did not often end a shift with an even drawer. Why, they must have asked each other, did I press Check sometimes when customers paid in cash? Why did I insert new receipt paper upside-down? Why did I not shovel enough cubes in each ice bag?
Those were the questions they must have wanted to ask me for which I have no valid answer. I gradually improved, but I never reached the level of perfection of all the other employees. It was strange feeling dumb in the presence of people with no education past high school. People like James who will admit they conceived children out of wedlock because they drank too much to remember to use adequate protection; people like Jack who threw away hundreds of dollars every year buying the same lottery and instant win tickets that they saw hundreds of people lose money on daily; people who spent half of what they make in an hour each day on a smoking habit that will someday kill them, when they could have saved their money (and their lives) and moved out of their trailer park or sent their kids to community college; people who don’t refer to soft drinks as “soda” like most St. Louisans or “pop” like most Chicagoans, but “sodee.” And yet every day, I felt like a naïve greenhorn among seasoned professionals, seeing their heads shake in scorn at my careless errors. It’s true that I was probably more book-smart, but they were undoubtedly more work-smart. I surprised myself every night with how many mistakes I could make that I should have already learned to prevent. About once a week, I’d discover a new and exciting mistake and quickly incorporate it as part of my regular routine. It’s clear to me now that I was stuck in a never-ending cycle of making stupid mistakes.
But then, everyone made fun of everyone else behind their backs. I think it was just our way of getting through the day without going insane. We weren’t allowed to beat the customers senseless, so we had to take out our stress on each other.
And we were all, in a way, stuck. I was stuck working at the only job that offered the hours I needed among people with which I had little in common. Patty thought she’d be receiving a promotion to become assistant manager for another Gas Mart forty minutes away in Belleville, but the other store’s manager was none too fond of her, so she settled for third-in-command in Cottage Hills. With Anne’s boyfriend out of the picture, Anne was stuck raising her three children by herself from the age when she was almost a child herself. Charles couldn’t legally drive a car, so he couldn’t drive off to God-knows-where to resume causing mischief. James’ court date schedule had no end in sight. After whiling away a third of his life and still never receiving a promotion to manager, Jack would clearly never make enough money to move out of the same home in which he grew up. Even if he could, he knew that Gas Mart could not function without him.
Even the customers were stuck. Born to continue their fathers’ waste collection, carpentry, construction, and auto mechanic businesses. Born to mimic the abusive and submissive behaviors they grew up witnessing their parents perform. Born to become dependant upon link cards as they piss away grocery money on cigarettes, beer, and the big Tuesday and Friday Mega Millions drawings. Even if on a one-in-a-billion chance one of them did win it all, I bet not a damn thing would change.
My feelings about the coworkers and the customers I dealt with for those three months, however, are more complicated than just that. It is not as easy as feeling condescending toward them, because I know they are stronger than I am. I’ll live my whole life never knowing what it’s really like to be from the neighborhood surrounding Gas Mart. I was stuck there only for a brief amount of time, so I can only speculate.
At the end of the summer, my parents’ financial circumstances afforded me the privilege of returning to college. The arrival of fall had unstuck me. I had the option to forget all about those people, just as most middle class Americans do as soon as they leave gas stations. A lot of educated people might look at Cottage Hills and stick up their noses in arrogance, believing that those people’s lives aren’t worth anything because they aren’t becoming doctors, lawyers, stock brokers, and computer programmers.
But I didn’t forget about them, and I don’t hold those beliefs, because I know a certain truth: these people possess a kind of wisdom I will never attain— a knowledge that can only come from being stuck one’s entire life. They know that their lives will never change; they’re not college graduates, but they’re not stupid. They’re stuck in their dreary, workaday Cottage Hills lives, and they are utterly aware of it. Yet they still find the will within them to persist.
A life of middle-class convenience has weakened me to the point where if I ever faced the same adversities as the residents of that hard-working little Southern Illinois hicktown, I would buckle under the frustration. I wouldn’t find the will within me to forge on as they do, making just enough to live paycheck-by-paycheck. I wouldn’t be able to accept the fact that most members of society wouldn’t give me a second thought or believe that I am an important part of our country.
Yet they keep chugging along, finding a way to scrape by even though America forgets they exist.