I don’t like pumping gas, but I don’t avoid it like I used to. Several times over the years I found myself on the highway anxiously glancing at the fuel gauge every few seconds until I finally reached a gas station. I never actually ran out of gas, but more than once I floated to the pump on fumes. I’m not sure I can reconcile the irresponsibility that allows one to run out of gas with my usual tightly wound dependability. It’s not as if I drove around in carefree oblivion with the gaslight on, because I definitely worried about it. I just didn’t do anything about it until it was way too late.
One time, I got off the highway in the worst part of the city, guided by my GPS to the nearest station. It was probably literally the middle of the day: the sun was shining bright and warm, so I wasn’t too concerned about driving around streets whose names were familiar from the news. The gas station the GPS led me to was shuttered, though, and after several more anxious minutes cruising around, I finally located another. As I got out of the car, a man was walking toward me from the edge of the parking lot, an attendant who seemed to sense I was a little lost and a little panicky. As I swiped my credit card, he grabbed the hose without my asking and cheerfully pumped my gas for me while we chatted. I warily eyed a group hanging out in the park across the street, but they were laughing amongst themselves, paying no attention to me.
Things were going fine until the pump clicked signaling the tank was full. As the attendant withdrew the nozzle, he began asking me for money and I began realizing something was not quite right. And then, like the click of the gas pump, details suddenly clicked into place in my mind: this man had come from the parking lot, not the garage; all of the pumps were marked “self-service”; and a cashier I only just noticed was inside shaking his head at me through the window, a warning. My friendly attendant did not work there.
The group across the street were now watching me and this man, growing increasingly loud as he saw that I wasn’t giving him anything. I couldn’t decide if the audience was comforting or foreboding.
In an effort to get money, I think he mentioned his hard life and may have even said that he was homeless. But the only thing I remember for certain is what he said about me, with a shake of the head, eyes narrowed, and obvious disgust: “I thought you had class.” I couldn’t even muster much anger at his bait-and-switch tactics because I found his choice of insult so baffling.
Since that day, I (almost) always fill up when the needle hits the quarter-tank mark (lately, even the half-tank mark – the caution that comes with age, I suppose). I still don’t enjoy pumping gas, but it’s become almost like a balm for anything that’s worrying or troubling me. “It’s ok,” I tell myself, when I’ve been looking forward to something that doesn’t end up happening. “I can just get gas.” Then, when I’m back in the driver’s seat, with the car just on, and I see the needle creep up past the F, my disappointment abates, even if just slightly, just temporarily “I don’t have to worry about that again for a while,” I tell myself, and I allow my relief about the gas to soothe me into renewed hope about life. “I have a full tank now. I can go anywhere.”