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Desert Companion

My Own Alternate Universe

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Alternate Universe
Illustration by Kristina Collantes

Notes from the postmodern anywhere of a suburban convenience store

My colleague is mopping the floor and muttering obscenities about the customer  who tracked mud into our gas station. How would you feel if someone came in and trashed your office? is the sentiment here. He has a point. It’s a matter of principle. We may be lowly gas station clerks, but we still don’t want your muddy shoes slopping up our shining floors.

“A pack of Marlboro Gold, please.”

“Can I get some tokens for the air machine?”

“Where’s your restroom?”

And we hear this at least once a week: “I remember when nothing was out here.”

Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” pipes through the speakers, and I stretch my aching legs.

 

*****

The gas station and convenience store is a nerve center at the edge of Green Valley servicing a nexus of gated communities. Nearby, the mountains were lopped and terraced to accommodate high-end custom homes. The new manses look down on miles of stucco, with the Strip in the distance.

As clerks, we’re officers at the intersection of needs and wants. Residents emerge for chips, beer, hot dogs, sandwiches, and the soda fountain. Candy for the cologned nightclub workers heading to the Strip; cigarettes for the waitress getting off shift; beer or Gatorade for nearly everyone else. They talk about their double shifts, terrible hangovers, mothers’ illnesses, and discuss summer vacation options. We see them before their workday, after their workday, when they’re on the way to barbecues, or just getting on the freeway to L.A. for the weekend. We know their routines and are reliably here for them.

Support comes from

The gas station is postmodernism on speed. It fits in nowhere, and everywhere. “What,” I often ask myself, “would Kafka say about a place of trinkets like this?”

 

*****

“I don’t want to scare you, but there is a woman behind you in the window. I think she needs help,” a customer says one night.

I turn and look. It’s D. A regular, she lives in a nearby apartment. A now-retired competitive downhill skier, she is waving to my colleague through the glass before heading into the bar in the strip mall behind us. But it’s late at night, the lights inside and out were illuminating her oddly, and I can see how this might look unusual to someone who got off the freeway and fell into our little enclave.

I was once a customer here, too, a freelance writer working alone in my home nearby, and this gas station became my lifeline, my social outlet, my office break room. It was a chance to get out, stretch, check in with others. These were my people.

 

*****

I prep for each shift as if going into battle, and tend to my wounds afterward. I bandage my feet, slip more support into my ultra-shock-absorbent running shoes. I wrap my knees with compression bandages during the shift and wrap my calves before going to bed at night. I read about the hazards of extreme standing. I talk to other clerks. I talk to pharmacists and to hairdressers. I hear about their aches and injuries, blood clots and varicose veins. At the end of the day, I stretch in the quiet of my living room. The silence throbs in my brain. It feels so good.

“You’ll see a lot of me,” a man says on my first shift. “I’m in here every day.”

By the end of the second week I realize that this is a portal to the community. I know names, schedules, daily struggles. There are working moms, construction workers, family men, bus drivers, schoolteachers, medical professionals, executives, construction workers, sanitation workers, the unemployed, the always working, or the retired and leisurely.

 

*****

“Isn’t it amazing how the most mindless jobs can be so mentally challenging,” one of my favorite customers asks one day, knowing I’m new to this line of work. I understand completely. Between the customers, the daily chores, and the momentary counseling sessions for those struggling with the pumps, the physical and mental demands of this job merit more than a kick in the face. According to a national association overseeing convenience stores and gas stations, labor is already the highest cost. From this side of the counter, the argument seems jacked. I’ve worked low-wage gigs in my 20s, but this is asking a lot for little.

I’m learning how to survive (and not survive) in low-wage America. After 20 years in a professional career, I’d been set out to pasture while dealing with a health condition, and stayed out there to recover. I have little left to lose. But my colleagues are my mentors. They teach me everything.

“People think we’re idiots,” one of them tells me. “They treat us like shit.”

“I used to love people,” another says one night between rushes. The honeymoon can last years and then, suddenly, you’re done.

“You don’t know which customer is going crazy or going to snap until they do,” my colleagues tell me. “They can be completely normal, and then they’re not.”

The unpredictability of people is exhausting. Customers don’t always know how to use card readers. They pay for the wrong pump inside and now someone is getting their gas. They don’t know where the latch is to open their fuel door. They drive away with the gas hose attached to their car and bring it in apologetically. They come in expecting a power struggle over a pump that’s running too slow. Nine times out of 10, it’s the customers slowing the line, but the clerk takes the heat. Somebody has to be accountable for the 20 extra seconds they had to stand there, tapping their feet and glaring.

 

*****

My first difficult customer is a quiet, unassuming, professionally dressed woman in large dark glasses who walks in near the end of my first week. Incensed that the card reader on the gas pump asked for her ZIP code, she comes through the doors ready for a battle.

I kindly tell we can take care of her at the register, but she is in a quiet stew. Why did nobody trust her? Why did the world want her ZIP code to verify her authenticity? She saw us as representatives of the system, equally guilty for not believing her.

“It’s not that we don’t believe you,” I say. “The transaction won’t clear without a ZIP code.”

In barely audible murmurs, she stands defiant. I feel for her. She’s frustrated: First outside, now inside. The line is growing behind her, and she leaves the counter to stand at the end of it. I void her transaction and ring up the others. When she’s before me again, we are alone in the same awkward dance. The afternoon has stopped, and it’s just us and this ZIP code thing.

A convenience store staffed by poorly paid employees is a place where customers feel their power when something’s not going right. I let them get it off their chest. Somewhere, a schedule is weighing them down, a boss is weighing them down, a job is weighing them down. What’s it going to hurt me if they let off a little steam in my face? I have nothing else to do but be kind.

I ring her up again and when I lift my head, she pushes her driver’s license into my face, holding it inches from my eyes without flinching. It was all I could see. She was expecting rage, but I moved my head from behind her driver’s license, looked at her and said, “This is great! Your ZIP code is right here. All we have to do is punch it into the machine.”

That simple. She didn’t need to leave the line in the first place. She was worried the customers behind her were getting mad. “But you’re a customer, too,” I say. When I hand her the receipt, she leans forward and into me. For a moment, I think we’re going to kiss. “God bless you,” she whispers, and walks out.

“What was that about?” my colleague asks.

“No idea,” I say, watching her walk away.

Not all customers are like this. So many of them are great and the friendships are symbiotic. “I always fill out these surveys because I just love you guys,” a woman says one day, punching the computer-screen questionnaire facing her.

 

*****

Some of my colleagues are careerists. They take me under their wing and show me the ropes. They have skills I envy. They’re like super computers who also clean the floors and stock the cooler and clean the hot dog machines and make the ice and clean up spills and make sandwiches and ring up several hundred customers, all in one shift. Veterans of the game, they know who smokes what, chews what, drinks what. They know idiosyncrasies of customer behavior, and that a lot can go wrong between people and gas pumps. In the Venn diagram of society, gas station convenience stores are the overlap. Everyone comes in. You never know what kind of logic they are working with. There are more than two million convenience store clerks in the country. And we’re all expected to be super human.

 

*****

Society is especially interesting from behind the counter of a gas station. You witness a kind of absurdist theater version of America. I operate the register but double as a concierge inside America’s pantry, surrounded by Cosmic Brownies, Grandma’s Cookies, Carl’s Donuts, and the Reese’s candy bar repackaged in King Size, Bites, and hybrids. I’m in the last box in a flow-chart of capitalism: the last to touch a product before it’s used by a consumer. (My next job should be at a landfill, I tell myself. I want to see where all of this goes.) There are four shelves of chips stretching an aisle long; hot dogs rolling on the machine in the corner; a nacho pump oozing melted cheese. We have candy bar-flavored gum, fruit-flavored M&Ms, flavored sunflower seeds, condoms, Sour Patch Kids, Charleston Chews, more than a dozen brands of various strengths, sizes, and flavors of Marlboros. Then there are flavored Swisher’s and White Owls, Black and Milds, snuff, Mountain Dew, 20 million different energy drinks, branded water, nonperishables, tampons, and a few hundred gallons of beer chilling in the cooler or stacked along the walls. Most importantly, there are four types of packaging for the same brand of cinnamon gum. Americans are ridiculously spoiled. There are too many options.

“Why is there a worm in this sucker?” a little boy, standing next to his mother at the counter, asks in regard to the tequila-flavored lollipop. There was so much I want to say to him about this, but where do I begin? It was a good question.

“Do people buy them?”

“Never,” I said. “They don’t.” He’s mostly ignored the box of fidget spinners, but notices it when he sets down the worm sucker.

“You don’t need another one,” his father says. “You have 27 already.”

 

*****

“Hey, you guys have a tire gauge?”

“No. The customers kept breaking it off.”

“What? How can you be a gas station without a tire gauge?”

I wish I knew that answer so we could sit and discuss it, but instead I’m standing witness to an uncomfortable moment with a confused and angry stranger. I get it. Even I’ve punched a pump. Gas stations are convenience stores, a title that’s taken literally by customers who need to be somewhere else five minutes ago. Every emotion is on display here. They’re vulnerable, captive to our abilities, bound to expectations that don’t always play out as smoothly as expected. All you do is ask a customer to reswipe their card and you’d think from their expression that you just told them their best friend has drained their bank account. Bewilderment and anger collide in their minds as they stare at you.

I want to hear my colleague handle the tire gauge guy, while I’m try to figure out if I should tell the friendly middle-aged regular at the counter that he has a small kernel of marijuana resting on his beer belly. I ring him up and decide to let it go. It’s no longer illegal. He’ll be okay.

The customer behind him, noticing the clock above the register is not set right, takes it upon himself to fix the big hand and little hand. “There,” he says to his friend standing next to him.

There, I think. We’re now in concert with the universe.

Did I say that out loud? “Here’s your receipt. Thank you. Have a great night. Be careful out there.” Wherever that is. I spend 40 hours a week in a well-lit fishbowl listening to rock ’n’ roll and wearing plastic gloves because I’m allergic to the soap. I’m not really sure what “out there” means anymore.

 

*****

But amid the insanity, I’m reminded that there is a world outside of social media, that people aren’t just waiting to gang up on the next vulnerable victim by Facebook or viral memes. One night, a woman in her early 20s comes to the gas station asking for bus fare. Odd; few panhandlers hit this neighborhood. She’s gaunt, emaciated, has no idea how she got here and wants to get home, but will only say home is “down the street.” Concerned, we accommodate her. “When will the bus come,” she asks. A customer looks it up on a phone, wanting to help. But as the minutes tick away we realized we can’t let her get on that bus. Drugs or mental illness, we didn’t know which, but she is simply too vulnerable. Anyone could get her in this condition. The customers have become concerned. She won’t drink the water we gave her and keeps setting down the envelope of bus fare we’ve given her. She roams fawn-like, as if in a meadow, occasionally stopping customers to talk about the bus. A guy named Kent spends 20 minutes outside talking with her to keep her from disappearing into the night.

“Remember that conversation we were having?” one of them says discreetly when I walk out to check on things in the parking lot. “I think it’s time.” An hour later, the ambulance will drive her away, the police cars will leave, and the parking lot will be silent again.

My day began with a $100 tip from the manager. I’d been secret-shopped for the first time in my life and passed with flying colors. Even my colleagues got $20 each. It started out great, but I go to sleep tonight wondering where that woman’s head will be in the morning.

 

*****

I don’t peg them as robbers when they come to the counter on a Saturday afternoon.

As I ring them up, and without my noticing, she carries half of the groceries out to the truck. But it turns out that they’re paying with food stamps and certain items can’t be paid for with them. They know this already. It’s a common trick, I would learn, for some people to confuse the newbie by coming to the counter already sipping Icee’s and fountain sodas that they know can’t be rung up on food stamps. One guy would hand such items to his kid in the stroller, knowing I’d be forced to literally take candy from a baby.

So while the woman carries their stuff away, the man tries to add tobacco and other forbidden products to the order. I have to void the transaction and ring it up again. I mention the other bags, and her accomplice laughs and says he hoped I’d forgotten about them. The situation went downhill from there. Before long, the woman is unhinged and screaming. We hadn’t gone over this in training. At this point, she’s only yelling, but who knew if she had a weapon in her truck. “Clerk dies in Saturday afternoon gas station heist,” the newspaper brief would say.

My colleague calls the police. I’ve had enough and am now angry as they bolt to their expensive truck with the unpaid-for merchandise. She flops on the truck bed, hanging her legs over so we can’t see the plate number. But a regular out there pumping gas wrote down the plates when he saw them dashing out of the store. “Nobody runs out of a gas station that fast without something bad happening,” he later says. I’m rattled.

Amazingly, an hour later the man is back, dressed exactly the same but wearing a disguise of mirrored sunglasses and a baseball cap. Friendly and smiling, he waves and nods from the back of the store. He pretends to be someone else when I tell him he isn’t allowed back in the store. “I know it was you,” I say. He wonders what I’m talking about, but leaves.

An hour later he’s back again, same disguise, this time playing slots. My colleague sends him out.

A week and a half later, here he is at the counter, seeming happy to see me. “Your surveillance photo is hanging up,” I tell him. He looks confused and I close the open cupboard door, revealing the photo taped there, so he can see himself, large and in black-and-white. He pleads with my colleague to not be 86’d. It was his brother’s girlfriend, and not him, he says, who took the items.

A few nights later he comes in again while I’m mopping. Standing at the counter he turns to me and asks politely if we’d please take his surveillance photo down. It embarrasses him. I set the mop down and stand next to him. We look at his photo together. I kind of liked him, despite the difference in our shopping habits and methods of paying and not paying. His family and friends shop here. The photo isn’t appropriate, he says. “We’re good people.”

 

*****

They’re all good people, really. The customers never quite leave your head; they float in and out long after specific moments with them are forgotten.  I no longer work there. I quit after a month and a couple more weird situations. But I still wonder how they’re doing. I’m curious as to where one of my favorite regulars ended up taking her kids for family vacation. I think about the Flamboyant Clairvoyant, who did retail during the day and psychic work at night. His cheeriness made me smile, without fail.

After the incident with the couple, when the manager came in to assure me that the thieves probably weren’t going to come back and pop me over a $12 grocery bill gone wrong, he reminded me not only of the police substation down the street, but of the loyal regulars who look out for us. “This is their gas station, too,” he said. “They take ownership of this place.”

I drive past the gas station occasionally, seeing it as a testament to humanity amid the walled-in, matching neighborhoods of Tuscan design, a somewhere indistinguishable from anywhere else.