Being a kid ain’t easy, and figuring out what you’re going to do with the rest of your life is the most important thing you’ll do. It takes some people decades to reach the correct decision. But when you’re fifteen, figuring out what to do after school or on the weekend can be debilitating in spite of its apparent simplicity. The influence of your friends battles with the influence of adults in your mind. Choices become nuanced and reveal more about the person presenting the situation than they do about the situation.
My baseball coach approached me one day during lunch and asked me if I wanted a job. It sounded simple enough–the gas station near my house needed someone to pump gas. The coach was friends with the owner, and the owner asked my coach to recommend someone for this plum position. The position was for four hours each day after school, and four more on the weekend. It paid minimum wage, which was about $2.75 back then. The way the coach explained it, he had been asked to recommend someone reliable and smart who could be trusted to run a cash register. The coach left no doubt whatsoever that he was doing me a great favor in this, as he could have chosen Eddie the first baseman, Marc the shortstop, or Jeffrey the pitcher (his favorite) but he thought I was the best. Had I been thinking clearly I would have realized that I lived closest to the station. I would be reliable because I only had to cross two streets to get there. But I wasn’t thinking clearly.
When my coach approached me, I was not thinking about pumping gas. I was thinking about the fact that I had gone one-for-eighteen at the plate, and I was paranoid I would never be allowed to swing a bat on his team again, and that to disappoint him with this was to seal my fate on his team. I was not the most self-confident of teenagers; in spite of my sarcastic countenance, I was mostly a push-over, and avoided confrontation. I simply did not know how to say ‘no’ to my coach. So I said ‘yes.’
The gas station was at the Southwest corner of Cleveland, just across the border (an intersection) from my quiet little suburb. We were a small community, and overshadowed by Cleveland’s problems. I grew up during Cleveland’s post-industrial death spiral; I was born the first year that the Cuyahoga River caught fire; and the race riots of 1969 cemented attitudes that had been forming for the preceding seventy years. That intersection probably had as much traffic as any corner outside of downtown Cleveland, and there were gas stations on three of the four corners. When I showed up for my first day, the boss showed me what was expected during a rush of cars that never slowed down.
Back then, all gas stations were full-service stations. They all had at least one repair bay and the owner was likely a mechanic. The attendants would pump gas, check the oil, check the washer fluid, and put air in the tires if needed. You tell the customer the cost of the gas, take their money, return their change. Repeat as needed. With their traffic, there would be no breaks.
I knew two of the other attendants, but they were not what I would call friends. I never did anything with those guys. I was kind of afraid of one of them, and had nothing to talk about with the other. It was also winter. For hours after school each day, I’d pump gas and give other people’s cars the once-over. It was winter, in Cleveland, so it would be dark and cold.
I played hockey then. The baseball coach had reasoned that hockey practice was in the morning, so my afternoons were free. I would be spending two hours before school on the ice, and then four hours after school outside in winter. Only Eskimos spend so much time in the cold, and they can’t help it because they lived in Alaska. I had options.
As the gas station owner repeated my duties, I felt the urge to cry. I hadn’t felt that urge since first grade, when I cried every time it rained. Dark clouds were like a trigger for an anxiety attack. What sort of attendant would I be if I cried every time a car pulled into the station? It’s the same thing with prostitutes–if you cry, the sailors on liberty call won’t give you any money.
When I had mentioned the job to my parents, they thought it was nice I’d have a job, but hadn’t really commented beyond that. All of a sudden, as the owner explained the duties, I wanted to talk to someone about my job, but I didn’t want to talk with the owner about the new job. He had told me plenty already about the new job, and he was biased.
At last he said, ‘Do you have any questions.’ I blurted out that I had changed my mind, and I didn’t want the job. I walked home in the cold and watched the six o’clock news.
My mother got home a few minutes later. She had gone to the station to have her son fill up her car and check the oil. Instead, she was met with a look of incredulous disbelief when she demanded that her son service her car. Granted, it wasn’t like she had gone to the Vatican to be blessed by her son, the new Pope, only to discover he’d abandoned the Papacy and run off to find a virgin once he realized he was the only one in Rome. But still, she was embarrassed.
In the spring, the coach brought up a sophomore to bat for me. I became the catcher who couldn’t hit. I don’t know how Karma really works, but that coach was struck in the right testicle by a baseball that year, and spent two months recuperating, and I eventually got a chance to swing the bat before the season ended.
So much of life happens to you simply because of what happens to be around you. For instance, if it had been a brothel, rather than a gas station, just two streets away, maybe I would have been a little more interested in the work. Then again, there may have been more to the job than just pumping gas. But I have to believe the tips would be better.