Gas Station Treasures
There’s a fella I want to spend some time recognizing tonight.
His name is Art. He works the morning/afternoon shift at the local Shell station near our house. He is a gem. When we moved here, I was in a not-very-good shape of mind. I was sad, and listing five things for my gratitude journal every day was a challenge. One blustery, gray morning, we stopped there to fill up. We’ve lived near this neighborhood before but I can’t recall ever using this particular gas station. It was morning when we walked in. An older, gray haired man with slumped shoulders stood behind the counter, looking rather ordinary (don’t the really good people ALWAYS look ordinary?) except his mouth. He wasn’t really smiling, but then again, he kind of was. Frankly, at first, I didn’t notice much about him. I just wanted to pay for my gas and get out without buying the girls something sugary. Then, he said, “How you doin’ this fine night, young lady?” At first, I thought it was a slip on his part—-he KNEW it was only, like, nine o clock in the :morning:. He knew it wasn’t nighttime. He just slipped. But he didn’t. Although he still wasn’t actively smiling, I noticed his eyes twinkled. I laughed and nodded. “I’m alright.”
“Good,” he replied, then asked, looking down at the register, “And what flavor would you like tonight?” Me, laughing: “Regular, please, number 12.” He looked up and winked. “Fast learner.” I was still smiling and shaking my head as we walked out. That was some time ago. Every time since Art has been unfailing full of bland humor and the twinkle in his eye when I see him. Today, we stopped around dinner time, again to fill up. Feeling stronger, and armed with the knowledge of how Art operates, I smiled as I approached the counter. “Good morning, Art.” Straight faced, he replied, “Still mighty early, ain’t it?” When I laughed, he said, “You’d hear about the pregnant woman who was in a very bad car wreck?” I shook my head, frowning. He nodded, looking down at the register. “Yeah. She was in a coma but went into active labor. This was about three months ago, I guess.” Me: “Oh, goodness. Was the baby okay?” Art nodded: “Well, when she woke up, the first thing she asked the doctor was that, was if her baby was okay. The doctor said, ‘You had twins. Both babies are okay but… well, your husband… he died in the wreck. The woman tried to make sense of that and then asked about the babies again. The doctor nodded, ‘They’re both fine. Your brother named them for you, though, since it has been three months. The woman said, ‘Oh no. My brother don’t have a living cell in his brain. What did he name my kids?’ The doctor said, “Well, he named the little girl Denise.” The woman thought, ‘Denise. Okay. That’s not too bad. What about the other baby?” The doctor said, ‘He named the boy ‘Da-Nephew.” I laughed appreciatively. He waved me on, telling me to go away so he could ring up the next lucky customer. I walked to the door but Joey came to mind. Joey hung out at gas stations too, and I lost him because I failed to say what I wanted to say when I wanted to say it. So I turned back around, armed with my phone’s camera. “Hey, Art…” I said, and he looked up. “Thank you for always making me laugh.” He winked. “Have a great morning.”
Number one, I don’t really like jokes. I don’t know any and I’m always half confused. Jokes generally are not the way to convince me of your everlasting charm or intelligence, no matter how good the joke may be. Art’s joke … shrug… sure, it was funny in a off-beat kind of way but his humor has done more for me since moving here than make me chuckle. Art is a little bit of sunshine in human form. He works the cash register of a gas station. I know he has troubles. I know that sometimes six a.m., when he has to be at work, comes early and he’d rather not be cheerful. I’m sure there are people in his life who have medical concerns, or financial worries or a half dozen other issues that could dampen his spirit. But, somehow, it doesn’t. He has —never— been anything but humorous and kind to me. See, for me, optimism is something that, honestly, I have to work at. I want to be positive and optimistic. And so I deliberately, consciously make myself be that way, even when I don’t want to. My philosophy has always been that if I smile, even if I don’t want to, eventually, I will start to feel some of the joy that I’m pretending belongs to me. Self-fulfilling prophecy, basically… if I want to be happy, and I make everyone else believe I’m happy, then, eventually, I WILL be that way. That’s my philosophy and I’ve held to it because, most of the time, it works. But it’s a struggle. Sometimes it feels like a lie, especially when I want most is to curl up under the covers and disappear. I used to think there was something wrong with me because I didn’t seem to feel so genuinely happy most of the time. When someone I loved told me I was broken… well, it made sense, it was easy to believe, because I didn’t feel things the way most people seemed to feel them…. I either felt them TOO DEEPLY or I was numbed when I “should have” felt happy or joyful or excited or angry. I’m good at pretending to feel carefree and optimistic. But it isn’t natural for me. It seems like it is for Art. He could come to work every morning and do nothing but mumble the total of my purchases. I would think nothing of it. Half the gas station sales clerks do that all day, every day. Art could come to work andexist. Instead, he comes to work and chooses to make the most of his time there—he chooses to interact and engage the people he sees and he chooses to do so by making them smile and laugh. As a result, people like me leave the gas station having filled up with more than gasoline… we’re filled with just that much more sunshine and joy. We’re filled with that much more hope and belief in humankind.
And the thing is…
Art is not the first angel I’ve met at a gas station. Joey was a bonafide, come-from-heaven kind of angel who hung around gas stations disguised as a homeless man. I’ve written about him before. Then there was the young college student who worked at the same station Joey haunted. I don’t know her name but, one day, as she was cashing me out, she said, “It’s always so good to see you… you’re always smiling and so friendly.” Because I had never really noticed her before, and because she had no reason to say that if she didn’t really think it, I believed her. I’ve never forgotten that a stranger thought I was consistently friendly and engaging. I should have remembered her name. I should have somehow suggested becoming friends outside of the gas station. I should have… but I didn’t. And it probably had nothing to do with her and everything to do with how I viewed gas stations in general.
My daughters, eight and five, love to help me pump gas. They think they are super cool as they stand holding the pump into the tank. I remember being a young teenager and thinking the same thing as I pumped gas by myself for the first time. When you’re little, anything that has to do with cars is exciting—going through the wash, pumping gas, running inside to buy a stick of gum. But then, after your, you know, hundredth time pumping gas…. well, it starts to lose it’s novelty. Slowly, day by day, it becomes a chore—if you don’t do it, your car won’t go anywhere. It might even quit on you while you’re driving. You must have gas. So you stop to get some… but you’re there for the gas, not to socialize. You’ve stopped because you need something, but you’re in a hurry, your mind is on where you should be, where you’re going, and whether or not you’re going to be late. These days, you might stare in horror at the pump as it eats away your cash much faster than it once did. Whatever you’re thinking about, it probably isn’t: Who am I going to meet behind the counter inside? Whatever you’re thinking, it probably isn’t excitement about the possibility of making a friend or of having your life’s perspective changed by a gas station attendant. I know because, too often, I still think those same bland things about gasoline. But the thing is… that gas station attendee is a human being. The person in line in front of and behind you is a human being too. And wherever there are human beings, there are stories…. beautiful ones, sad ones, tragic ones. Have you ever been stopped at a light and looked at the driver of the car beside you, only to think: “I wonder what s/he’s thinking, where s/he’s going.” Maybe they were bobbing their heads to a song or talking on the phone and you wondered briefly what their conversation was about, what song made them feel the need to sing along. Sometimes, you realized, you sing along to the radio in the car too. You talk on the phone too. You’ve probably had a similar conversation while driving that that person’s having right beside you right now.
Because we’re all connected. We’re all made of the same stuff—-bones and blood, nerves and tissue, heart and soul. We all shared the planet during the last twenty four hours. Time moves too fast for all of us. We can rush through it, we can overlook treasures we see every day like Art and Joey in lieu of progress, we can attack our jobs with barely concealed resentment like most of the gas station attendants I run across. Or we can remember that caring for each other, getting to know each other, seeing each other is what matters. I have a bank card, I could easily avoid going into the gas station every day. I could stand outside, pump my gasoline in silence, play on my phone so I could avoid thinking while my tank filled up. I wouldn’t have to wait in line that way, I wouldn’t have to overhear snippets of conversations that don’t concern me, I couldn’t be “held up” to indulge an older attendant’s joke. I could exist in the isolation, I could achieve a little bit more productivity by alienating those around me in lieu of all I can accomplish on the phone in 2 minutes. Paying at the pump probably is more efficient and convenient. I could exist. But then I would not have such a simple and yet profound reason to feel a genuine smile either. I wouldn’t know about Art’s fondness of switching day and night, or of telling jokes. I wouldn’t have noticed that someone walks around with the corners of his mouth naturally tilted upward—a sign that he’s smiled a lot in his laugh. I can use time as a crutch: “I’m late, I gotta go, can’t talk.” But, if I do that, how much longer will it take my heart to feel lighter, how much longer will it take for peace to settle in, than if I allowed a stranger to touch my life? Our lives are not limited to the people we know intimately. Our lives are not limited to the people we work with, or to our families, or to our neighbors. How many faces do you see each day? How many conversations do you have with people you don’t know? Each of those faces, each of those conversations, no matter how brief, present an opportunity for hope, a chance to lay claim to a little bit of joy. Interacting with each other may take a few extra minutes out of our day… but it makes us richer in compassion, empathy and emotional well-being.
I tried to take a picture of Art today. I asked him if I could. He laughed and shook his head. He said he wouldn’t his own boy take a picture of him. His response made me think of my English teacher, Stackhouse. Stackhouse changed my life, and his hatred of the camera was legendary. Art impacts my life in happy ways, through our short and animated conversations in which morning is night and night is morning. Art helps me leave the gas station armed with a little bit of optimism that isn’t a charade. He helps me genuinely believe in the overall kindness and decency of people. I don’t know him. I don’t know his flaws. I don’t know his troubles. But I know that he’s beautiful and that his sense of joy and humor has helped me find peace and comfort during a trying time. On the days when I’ve stopped at the station and he’s not been there… I’ve felt a loss from having missed the chance to see his eyes twinkle and his permanent, funny looking half smile. He, and Joey and the college student girl, are all excellent reasons for why I almost never pay at the pump. I choose instead to go inside the gas station because I know that ordinary treasures await me there.