Gas stations are a microcosm of American culture—everyone goes to them, rich or poor, young or old. Working behind the counter means seeing a slice of life pass through the doors each day.
People spend a hell of a lot of time in the gas station. According to the Association for Convenience and Fuel Retailing Stores (NACS), the average American pumps gas for about three hours a year. And that estimate doesn't account for time spent at the gas station buying cigarettes and lottery tickets, hot food, and slushies. Big chains, like Shell and BP, practice place-product packaging, meaning they all look the same—whether you're filling your tank in Little Rock or Los Angeles. Going to the gas station is a shared experience that transcends class, race, and geography.
Because of all this, gas station employees are unlike any other members of the customer service field. They interact with people from all walks of life, all of whom seem to be agitated and in a hurry. After the Mercedes owner buys a bottle of coconut water, the next person in line might buy a bag of chips with food stamps. Gas station employees don't receive tips, and most earn between $9 and $11 per hour—more than your average Wendy's line cook, but nowhere near what a lot of people consider to be a livable income. During every shift, they see an America that is constantly craving, yet they're overlooked. Some people don't even make eye contact with the gas station employees when they're buying Marlboro Lights. At least, that's been my experience.
I've been working at one of Pittsburgh's busiest gas stations for two months. It's a mega-store: 16 pumps, made-to-order fast food, and a lounge. Shifts are eight-hours long, with two paid 15-minute breaks. This is the story of one of my 3 to 11 PM shifts.
Outside the gas station, I spotted Watchdog's milk crate, but no Watchdog. His real name is Jim, and he begs for change throughout the neighborhood. We're supposed to run him off the property if we see him begging, but only one manager ever does. The Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) lists gas stations as one of the top places where panhandlers ask for money. The typical scam is claiming to have a broken down car. Watchdog isn't that creative, though. "Got any change?" is his go-to line. He panhandles until he has enough money to buy food, and then he sits in the lounge, eating and singing. Last month, he yelled, "Whoomp, there it is!" randomly for an hour. It was amazing how it fit perfectly with the scenes unfolding around him.
There were three cigarettes rubbed out by the crate, and when I walked inside, I saw why Watchdog left: two of the five managers, including the guy who runs him off, stood behind cash registers. The octagon-shaped counter has four registers and a lottery station, but even with 23 employees, the gas station is understaffed. Two clerks work at once, while three people sweat in the kitchen. The morning clerks had left, and the 2 PM person called off, but the managers assured me they had someone coming in to help.
First customer of the day: a short, middle-aged man stepped to my register, holding out a $10 bill. He wore a black cap and long black T-shirt. I took the money from his hand, assuming he wanted gas. He mumbled the pump number. I asked him to please repeat it, and unable to understand his second attempt, I said the pump number I thought I heard to confirm. The man flipped out.
"Eight on three! Eight on three! I said eight on three!" I asked him to calm down, but he cut me off. "And you snatched the money outta my hand!"
My therapist says I like to live in anger. I struggle to let go of incidents like this, and feeling the rage bubble inside, I took a deep breath and continued with the transaction. The man snapped his fingers.
"Hurry up! I got places to go!"
I slammed the drawer shut, made him reach for his two dollars, and then hesitated to let go of the bills. We shared this moment where we both held the money and looked into each other's eyes. He tore them from my hand and, backing away, he pointed over his shoulder.
"Step outside and we'll finish this."
"Have a nice day, sir." I turned to the line of people and waved. "Next."
Today, Kayden agreed to work on her day off. She's a beautiful 22-year old, tall and skinny, the tips of her hair dyed green. The hair inspires a lot of jokes. When she pulls it back, the green tips curl and coworkers tell her she looks like broccoli. Kayden laughs and fires back. She has a no-fucks-given attitude. She once got in trouble for playing music on her phone and twerking behind the counter. That afternoon, Kayden logged onto the neighboring register with straightened hair and Adidas pants—a dress code violation.
She turned to me. "Ready to admit you're a cop, Officer Gavin?"
After we met in April, Kayden told everyone I was a cop. One of the kitchen workers called her out on it in front of me, and she stood by the rumor. I joked that I was just a clean-cut white guy, but she disagreed. It was more than that. My build, my posture, how I talk, how I walk—she insists I'm a cop. I showed her my University of Pittsburgh student ID and explained I was in grad school for writing. I'm one of two employees studying for a master's degree; a few other employees are undergraduates, and a couple people have degrees they're not using. Kayden has a high school diploma. Still, she didn't believe me because I had exactly the kind of backstory as an undercover cop.
"You're either a cop or related to cops," she said, opening her register that day. Kayden was sure because her dad was a cop, her brother was a housing authority officer, and she could just tell. Minutes later, a Pittsburgh police officer walked in, and he was barely two feet past the door when Kayden yelled: "Don't he look like a cop?" The officer played along. "Oh yeah, definitely. We have undercovers everywhere."
I gave in. My brothers are cops. I hated to admit it. Being told I look like a cop is like being told I look like a total douchebag. In the past, people who I thought were my friends have accused my cop brothers of being terrible people without having met them, which pisses me off to the point where I have trouble letting it go. I hoped that by coming clean Kayden would give it a rest, but that didn't happen.
Throughout the night, she'd end moments of silence by saying, "I knew you were a cop."
A woman wearing a long purple dress and matching sunglasses prepaid for gas. She was about 60, dark black hair. As I punched in the transaction, she leaned across the counter and asked if I would pump it for her.
"I'm allergic to gas," she said.
I'd never heard of anyone being allergic to gas before, and walking to her Jeep, the woman explained that her condition was undiagnosed. She didn't need a doctor to tell her what was wrong with her. "I passed out pumping gas when I was 20," she said. "Obviously, I'm allergic to something."
She felt lightheaded and nauseous standing several feet away from the pump. Lifting her sunglasses, she revealed eyes that were watering and swelling. Her symptoms could be classified as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), a controversial condition. The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Asthma, Allergy, and Immunology, and the American Medical Association on Scientific Affairs don't recognize MCS due to a lack of evidence of what causes symptoms. The woman seemed convinced that she had some type of disorder. She even had trouble cleaning her house.
"Anything with aerosol makes me dizzy," she told me.
I joked that I should check her oil and wash her windows. She called me sweet and tried to pay me, money cupped in her palm. I declined. Obviously, I was happy to help, but it also was just nice to get away from the register for a few minutes. Kayden was singing one line from a song and then stopping, but it's only funny when Watchdog does it.
The bathrooms are in a nook next to the coolers. Facing the men's room, there's a sliding door that leads into cooler storage. At the beginning of my first break, I headed to the bathroom and saw that the sliding door was open. Cases of Red Bull had been ripped open and cans lay scattered on the ground. People steal from the gas station every day, but this took some nerve. I closed the door, and grabbed the manager. The manager groaned. A camera was aimed right at the sliding door, but it was broken. She now had to write a report for corporate.
A short, heavyset woman wearing a neon green tank top and matching sneakers leaned on the counter and examined the board of winning lottery numbers. Possibly nearsighted, her face was inches off the board as she slid her finger from game to corresponding number. My register was next to the lottery station, and when I asked if she was ready to purchase lottery tickets, she growled, "I'll let you know." Minutes later, she interrupted a transaction with another customer. The board wasn't updated, and she demanded to know all of the day's winning numbers. The customer in front of me was trying to order a can of chewing tobacco, but I missed what he said and was irritated.
"I'm sorry, miss, but the manager posts those numbers, and she's not around. Maybe you could try Googling it?"
Squinting, the woman showed off her tooth. "Why would I go home and Google it when I'm right here?"
I sold the can of chew and began talking to her. She played the lottery every day and bought tickets from several locations. "My aunt taught me this system, and she just won $2 million."
A Pittsburgh woman did in fact win the Mega Millions in February. I asked if her aunt was going to share. "Why should she?" the woman said. "I ain't gonna when I win."
"Two people in the same family hitting the Mega Millions—the odds of that happening must be astronomical."
"It can happen. You just gotta know what you're doing."
The gas station sits in a diverse section of Pittsburgh. It neighbors one of the city's richest communities and several of its poorest. Some customers purchase food with Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards. I grew up lower-middle class in Pittsburgh's suburbs and had no experience with food stamps prior to being hired. That evening, a man approached my register with a kitchen ticket for a Philly cheesesteak. Customers have to prepay for their made-to-order food and get their tickets stamped before they can receive the order. The man swiped his EBT card, but the computer declined the transaction.
The man wore a faded Pirates T-shirt and dirty jean shorts. He hadn't shaved in days and had brown teeth. "I think I punched in the right code. But I have metal plate in my head." While he cackled at himself, I called Kayden to help. She checked his ticket and looked at me in a way that said you're an idiot.
"He can't buy hot food with EBT, Officer Gavin," she said.
"Is this because I have a metal plate in my head?" the man asked.
The people in line began to laugh, and Kayden waved the man to follow her over to the kitchen, so they could talk to one of the line cooks before they made his cheesesteak. At first it sounded cruel: food stamp recipients not being allowed to buy hot food. But it made sense after a coworker, a gas station veteran who has an EBT card, explained that food stamps focus on cold food because it can be stored longer. The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) has seen a sharp decrease in participation over the past year, but there are still 46.5 million Americans receiving assistance.
The gas station has regulars. There's Dee and Jimmy, who read the newspaper in the lounge, and Leia, who works at a pizza place across the street and drinks about 400 ounces of slushy each week. The same group of paramedics and cops stand around and drink coffee together. And then there are the veterans who come in for free coffee. One vet has a white mustache, curly white hair that's receding, and a turkey neck. Every night, he comes to the gas station and gets a large coffee and a chicken salad. He raises the coffee and says "veteran," then puts $4.80 on the counter for the salad. That night, I beat him to the punch.
"Veteran," I said. "Four-eighty for a chicken salad." His turkey neck jiggled as he nodded. "What's your name, sir?"
"I've memorized your order. Wouldn't it be nice to say, 'Hello, Mr. Smith' when you come in here?"
"No, it wouldn't, actually. This isn't Cheers."
The man may have felt self-conscious about admitting that he spends a lot of time at a gas station. With common names like "Kwik Stop" or "Kwik Fill," there's a perception that one shouldn't linger at a gas station.
Historically speaking, though, the opposite is true. Gas stations were meant to be community hubs where everyone knows your name. Frank Lloyd Wright probably would agree. The famous architect loved gas stations, and he predicted they would be "the future city in embryo," which would "naturally grow into a neighborhood distribution center, meeting-place, restaurant... or whatever else is needed."
Wright's vision is coming true. Fifty years ago, my dad hung out at a gas station every weekend learning how to work on cars. America's car culture is gone and in its place we have gas stations with lounges featuring free WiFi.
Two 15-minute breaks is barely a rest when standing on concrete for consecutive hours. There's a mat by each register, but they don't really soften the blow to knees and feet. I move constantly, squatting, rocking, alternating feet. No matter what I do, by the end of a shift, I'm exhausted and in a little pain. We had gotten slammed that night, which can make time fly, but can also be stressful. I had a non-stop line for about three hours, and as I counted down my drawer, I didn't want to talk to anyone.
Hearing voices, I looked up and saw a customer standing outside the front door. He was looking down, digging into his pocket. The man entered the store and Watchdog followed. Watchdog wears all black: a knitted cap, hoodie, jeans, sneakers. He has gray streaks in his long beard and his breath smells like brine mixed with rancid milk. It's so pungent that I can smell it from across the counter.
"Can I have paper money?" he asked, sliding across a handful of quarters.
Exchanging the money, I asked if he had family in the area. Watchdog said he has four children, but the closest one, a 32-year old daughter, lives in a neighboring county. Her age struck me as odd. Watchdog doesn't look that old.
"I'm 48." He shrugged and laughed. "Maybe 47. I don't know. I'm a little screwy since I got shot."
Watchdog spun around and began lifting his shirt. In 2010, he was shot just above his tailbone, and he loves showing off the wound. The problem is he tends to moon people, and the last time he did this in the store, the counter area smelled like his ass. I ordered him to stop, and changing the subject, I asked what he was doing for Memorial Day.
"Drinking a whole lot of beers and smoking a shit ton of cigarettes," he said.
Watchdog bought food and sat down in the lounge, while I finished counting my drawer. The gas station becomes chaotic during a shift change. Employees are usually relieved during peak times: 6 to 7 AM, 2 to 3 PM, and 10 to 11 PM. The switch can create long lines, and as I filled out my end of the shift paperwork, customers tried to ask me questions, but I just pointed to other people. "Sorry, I can't help," I mumbled. The lines stretched to the donut and coffee stations, and the people waiting looked bored and angry.
The store's music is awful. The manager cranks this station that plays "Mambo Number 5" and "My Heart Will Go On." The shift change got so loud that night that I wished I could have hear the shitty music. Leaving my paperwork by the safe, I punched out and left without saying goodbye. The manager didn't care; no one ever counts my drawer. Outside, the neon lights hummed over a Shania Twain song we were forcing people to listen to as they pumped gas.
Names in this article have been changed.
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