NOTE: This is the first thing I ever wrote. Ten years ago, during my second marriage, I had a shitty part-time day job at a self-serve gas station that lasted for about a year. After I left the job, I felt like I needed to make some kind of art out of the experience or else I'd feel like I'd wasted a year of my life, but I could not come up with any visual images that would convey the full monotony, seediness, offensiveness, despair, weirdness, idiocy, and sheer vulgarity of the gas station world. My then wife was a writer of sorts and when I expressed my feelings of artistic frustration to her, ending with "I wish I could write about this," her response was "Well, why don't you?" "What? You mean...just write?" I said. "Yes," she said, "just write." And so I did, since an outside force had given me the permission that my inner self couldn't, and I was surprised when the results turned out better than I expected.
Welcome Back to Cretinville
David Aronson 1996
My parents are self-employed
artists. When I was a child, they instilled in me the belief that
one should do work that one believes in; work that is personally
I have a gut-level reaction of fear and disgust at people who allow themselves to get locked into shitty, mindless, unrewarding jobs, and feel powerless to change their lot in life. I guess they scare me because I'm afraid of being trapped in the same situation. Despite my fears, however, I found myself, at the age of thirty-one, working in a dingy self-service gas station in a seedy, squalid, little piss-hole town.
For various reasons, total self-employment as an artist still eluded me. Since graduating from art school, I had toiled at a succession of part-time jobs, most of them in frame shops. The work was boring and repetitive, but at least I usually got to work with intelligent, creative people.
As a teenager, I held some menial, repressive, degrading blue-collar jobs, including a mind-numbing stint in a steel factory. I fled from those jobs in horror and swore I would never take that kind of work again, yet, here I was, back in Cretinville.
Mark, one of my fellow employees, was a complete idiot. A pasty-skinned man in his late fifties, Mark was obese, balding, and wore thick glasses. With his buggy eyes, and continual sweating, he reminded me of the archetypal old pervert who goes to the park in his raincoat and exposes himself to little girls.
When I first met Mark, he immediately tried to get a rise out of me; behavior which turned out to be characteristic of him. Mark's pathological need for attention compelled him to provoke the customers at every opportunity and eventually led to his getting fired.
"I'm not giving you your cigarettes until you give me a smile," he would say. He refused to sell customers lottery tickets unless they walked around the counter and stood in a specific spot. If he didn't like where customers had parked their cars, he refused to wait on them until the cars had been moved. He flirted and said lewd things to almost every woman who walked in the door. It got to the point where customers would stay away from the station when Mark was working. Complaints about him were lodged regularly, including charges of sexual harassment.
Normal conversation with Mark was impossible; his thought processes were scattered and fragmented. He jumped from topic to topic before I could respond to what he had just said and he mumbled so that I couldn't understand half of what he said anyway. Mark consumed huge, flatulence-producing quantities of hot dogs and meatball sandwiches and it seemed that all of the toxins stored in his bloated digestive system were traveling through his body and poisoning his brain. An endless stream of babbling and muttering, nonsensical statements and half-completed thoughts flowed from Mark's mouth. After a while, it became so annoying that I just ignored him when he spoke.
Mark's perceptions were often skewed and it sometimes seemed as if he lived in a fantasy-world. For example, one day, Mark said to me, "Did you hear what happened last night?"
"No, what?" I asked.
"I saved the station from being held up."
"Oh yeah? What happened?"
"These two guys came in to get gas and right away I knew they were trouble."
"Well, they had long hair and, uh, they just looked like white trash."
"Oh...I see. So, what happened?"
"Well, while one of them was pumping gas, the other one came in and asked me if I ever got scared working alone at night, and I told him, 'not when I've got "Old Bessie" here.'"
At this, Mark banged on the underside of the counter with his palm.
"What's 'Old Bessie'?" I asked.
"You know...Old Bessie...my sawed-off shotgun."
"I didn't know you had a sawed-off shotgun."
"So then what happened?"
"They left. I scared them off."
"Mark, what makes you think they were going to rob you?"
"Well, uh, the guy had his hand in his pocket the whole time."
At this point I began to doubt Mark's credibility. Later, I found out that almost everything he told me about himself was a lie.
For instance, Mark told me that his wife was dying of a rare blood disease that only strikes people of Dutch descent, but inconsistencies in his story made me doubt that she was sick at all. Mark said that she was too ill to walk up a flight of stairs, yet I would frequently see her power walking up and down the hill in front of the station. She seemed healthier than Mark.
Mark used his "sick" wife as an excuse to get out of working and as a way to get sympathy and manipulate people. After Mark was fired, I spoke to a customer who knew him. This customer told me that Mark's wife had been "dying" for the last seventeen years. "She's not going to live past Christmas," Mark would say. When Christmas came and went, he would say, "She's not going to live past Easter." I learned that in his neighborhood, Mark and his wife were known as "the crazies."
Mark lied about his other job. He told me that he was a press operator at a commercial printing shop. In reality, he swept the floor and drove the van.
Mark once told me about how he saved a woman from being raped by a black man in the subway. "I threw a half-dollar at him and knocked him out," he said.
Mark was an irritating schmuck, yet, strangely enough, he unwittingly facilitated a transformational experience for me. I believe that angels or spirit guides can speak through anyone or anything at any time, and one day they spoke from Mark's blabbering mouth. I was doing a crossword puzzle and trying to ignore Mark as usual.
"Hey, guy, I cleaned the hot dog machine."
"Great. Thanks a lot, Mark."
"There's some soda there in the cooler if you want any ."
"Hey, you know what's really funny? Old Bill Cosby. You ever hear any of his old stuff?"
"Uh...yeah, I think so."
"I've got a bunch of eight-track tapes in my basement. I was listening to them the other day. Man, is he funny."
"And it's good, clean humor, you know, not like today with all this swearing and cursing. Today's comedians have no class."
At this point, I was completely ignoring Mark and concentrating on my crossword.
"Go ahead, you just keep your nose buried in that book," Mark said suddenly. "I guess you're just too good to socialize like a normal, decent person. You know, customers take offense at your unfriendly behavior. Just the other day, I had to talk some black guy out of beating you up."
"Fuck you, Mark," I said. I was fed up with him.
"Who do you think you're talking to? You're not talking to your wife or one of your little friends, now; you're talking to a real man. I oughtta smack you," he said.
"Go ahead, Mark, hit me," I said, knowing he was full of shit.
"No, I don't believe in fighting. But I'm going to report this to Barb and it'll mean your job."
"Oh, really?" I said, remembering how Barb, the manager, had laughed when Mark was going to "have my job" over a doodle I had once left on the counter for him to see. The offending doodle contained a penis and a speech balloon saying, "Hi, Mark." I had thought he would get a kick out of it, but he misinterpreted it as some kind of personal insult.
"For your information, Mr. Self-Righteous," I continued, "I have customers complaining about you all the time. Just today there was a woman in here claiming that you were harassing her. She said she was going to call the office and file a complaint"
The fight quickly fizzled out but something Mark said had struck a nerve. He accused me of being unfriendly to the customers and I realized that he was right. I was letting all of the sour and unpleasant people I waited on get to me. Many customers treated me like shit; they were arrogant, hostile, and rude. They barked commands at me. Sometimes they just threw money or credit cards at me without speaking at all. Consequently, I became rather sullen. After the fight with Mark, however, something shifted. I took the behavior of the jerk-off customers a lot less personally and so became friendlier in general.
Barb's brother Mike
worked at the gas station. With his stubby, muscular limbs and
enormous belly, he looked like an overgrown version of one of
the seven dwarves. He was thirtyish, wore his lank, brown hair
long, and had a huge, square head which was too big for the rest
of his body.
One day, Mike told me that he was going to the K-Mart next door and would be right back. He didn't return for two and a half hours, and when he did, he was obviously stoned out of his nut.
"Mike," I said, "Are you high on something?"
"Yeah," he said sheepishly.
"Promise not to tell anyone?" he said.
"Is that where you went-to get the PCP?"
"Yeah, this dealer I know lives near 69th Street and I Æwalked over to his house."
"Are you going to be alright? You look pretty fucked-up."
But he wasn't. He stood at the lottery machine drooling and gibbering, poking erratically at the buttons. He looked at the money that was handed to him as if it were written in Chinese. He kept knocking things over: the candy displays, the straws, the tic-tac dispenser. Captured on film, it would have made good propaganda for the "just say no" people.
After an hour or two of Mike's chemically-induced antics, it was time for me to go home. I left him sitting outside in front of the station in a stupor.
When I got home, my wife yelled at me.
"You just left him there? What if he burns the place down?!"
"Okay," I said, "I'll call him." I dialed the gas station. Mike answered the phone, slurring his words like a stereotypical TV drunk.
"Mike, is everything alright?"
"I had to closhe th' shtasion. Th' conshole'sh fucked up.'"
"Okay, I just wanted to make sure you had everything under control."
The next time I saw Mike, he looked like a football team had trampled on his face. His eyes were tiny slits in a puffy mass of swollen, discolored flesh. Mike's brother was responsible. He had berated Mike for closing the station early and they had gotten into a fistfight. One particularly witty customer insisted on calling Mike "Rambo" for the next nine months.
After his brother beat him up, Mike's whole personality changed. He became a model employee. He started calling people "hon" like some old waitress in a diner. In fact, he became somewhat annoying, giving orders and acting like he owned the place. Nevertheless, I liked Mike; he had a good heart.
The gas station itself
was a dingy, little brick cubicle about thirty by thirty feet.
Inside, every space that could possibly be filled was crammed
with soda, candy, snacks, motor oil, and miscellaneous other crap.
Half the merchandise in the store was left unpriced so I just
guessed at what to charge for it. The manager regularly ordered
too much soda and juice and the boxes spilled out into the store
from the back room. In addition, they were always acquiring some
new machine that had to be cleaned by hand, making more work for
me, and all the counting and tallying had to be done the old-fashioned,
time-consuming, hard way because the owner was too cheap to buy
I stayed at the job because it was within walking distance, paid a little better than most shit jobs, and because I didn't have anyone breathing down my neck.
The town in which the gas station was located seemed to be nothing but one big service garage. At least two dozen businesses devoted themselves to the automobile: body shops, engine repair, towing, car washes, etc.
The town also boasted a sweatshop-style yarn mill with no heat or air-conditioning where drab, trodden-down women operated machines for slave wages. Right next door to the gas station stood an empty, dilapidated plastics factory. Up the street, a car wash exploited African immigrants who could barely speak English, paying them next to nothing.
As the days passed
in the gas station, I made observations about the locals. It seemed
as if nine out of every ten males were named John and sported
tattoos. Not sophisticated, artistic tattoos, mind you, but the
cheesy, redneck kind that looked like they might have come out
of a bubble-gum machine.
One such tattooed individual gave me the willies every time he came into the station. He would fix me with a psychotic stare. His hands trembled spastically when he reached for his money. I had to watch what I said to him because he was paranoid and only needed the slightest of excuses to become violent. He was muscular and fairly young, but his hair and moustache were gray. Someone told me that he had been in jail for murder and rape and digging up bones in a nearby graveyard. He lived in the town with his mother.
Another guy practically whispered when he spoke; his voice was barely audible. He always seemed angry. Once, when I asked him to put his cigarette out, he threatened to throw me through the window. Another customer, always crabby and morose, looked like a frog with a bad toupee.
I got into the habit of reading as I sat on my stool in front of the cash register and some customers felt obligated to comment on the open book in front of me. They invariably asked, "What are you studying for?" or, "Where do you go to school?" These people could not imagine that someone would read a book for his or her own pleasure.
I also heard many racist sentiments expressed in the gas station.
"This was a nice neighborhood until the coloreds moved in."
"Black people are all a bunch of animals. They smell."
One guy said to me, "Did you know that Indians don't believe in God? That's right-they don't believeñ in God!"
A skinny, shriveled, old man came in one day and asked for a pack of Camels. When I gave him the Camels, he threw them back at me and said, "I asked for Marlboros!"
"No, you didn't. You asked for Camels," I said.
He started shouting and jabbing his finger in my face. "I've lived here for seventy years!" he bellowed. "I'm a big-shot around here! I'm the baron of Clifton Heights!"
"Oh, I'm sorry," I laughed, "Here's your cigarettes, your Majesty."
The most pathetic characters were the hard-core numbers players who, day after day, pissed away their money on the lottery. They almost never won and when they did, it was always a piddling amount.
Tommy, a runty, middle-aged weasel of a guy always played the same number. "I have only one word for you--three-oh-one," he would proclaim to the other regulars who hung out in the station. When his number didn't come out, which was every night, èTommy would loudly issue forth a stream of profanity. It was always the same. "Jeezis Christ! Goddam motherfucking son-of-a-bitch!" It was his mantra. Once, he got so angry that he threw something as he ranted, scaring a woman who ran out the door, taking him for a dangerous lunatic.
Tommy made use of the services of prostitutes and he described the purchased sexual acts in graphic detail. Once, a hooker stole his wallet while giving him a blowjob. All his buddies thought the incident made a pretty funny story.
My favorite regular was John, an older man about sixty-five, who always wore a Disney World baseball cap. He came into the station every day, without fail, two hours before the lottery numbers were announced.
John carried a little spiral notebook whose pages were covered with numbers written in ball-point pen. He stood at the counter studying and writing in the book and schmoozin]g with the other lottery players. When I asked him what the book was for, he told me it was his system for playing numbers.
"Oh? How does it work?" I asked.
"Well, see, the seven here gives you a three. The nine repeats. Six gives you an eight..." As he spoke, he pointed, seemingly haphazardly, at the winning numbers which were posted on a big sheet of paper hanging on the wall. "See--threes came out here, here, and here. Double twos gives you a nine..."
"John, I don't see any pattern here. It all seems random."
"Look, Dave, I told you--twos gives you a nine! Look--it's right here!" He was shouting and gesticulating wildly.
I still didn't see any kind of pattern with which one could make predictions, so I decided that John was deluding himself, and since my questioning his "system" upset him so much, I never brought it up again.
John never "hit." He was always off by one number. "Look, Dave, I had three-eleven, it come out three-twelve. Oh well."
John punctuated almost every statement with "oh well." It meant something like, "We're all powerless anyway, so why bother." He also finished sentences with such defeatist banalities as "What're ya gonna do?" and "I dunno, Dave, I dunno." John was fond of philosophizing. "Dave, life's a gamble," he would say. My favorite pearl of John's wisdom was "You're born, you work, you get married, you have kids, then you die. That's all there is, Dave."
In his younger days, John played the saxophone and piano in jazz bands. "Why don't you go back to playing music instead of standing around in this gas station?" I asked.
"Nah, I'm too old for that. I don't wanna have to stay out late, y'know? Jesus Christ, what do I need that for? If I could just hit big, just once, then I could quit playing these stupid numbers."
The end of my employment at the gas station came when the owner's son took over the business and fired Mike. Mike's grungy, unkempt appearance was the ostensible reason given. Rumors flew that Mike was dealing drugs and stealing money from the register. When Mike went, his sister Barb went with him.
"They've been treating me like shit for ten years; I've had enough," she said.
We all had to start wearing shirts and ties with the gas company logo on them.
Some jerk-off named Joe, with the title of "District Manager" came in to get the new manager installed. Joe was on a power-trip. He threw tantrums and was arrogant, rude, and obnoxious to everybody. Rarely have I known anyone more petty and childish.
On top of everything else, he made homosexual advances toward me which included lewd comments about the size of his penis. A regular customer informed me that Joe had inquired as to my sexual orientation.
On one occasion, after brooding and glaring at me for half an hour, Joe subjected me to a Gestapo-like interrogation about a note a customer had left objecting to Mike's dismissal. Mike had been very popular with the customers and a lot of them never came back after he was fired.
The order from the top was to clean up the gas station. Joe, typically, sat on his ass giving orders while everyone else worked.
Eventually, the new manager, Sharon, a taciturn woman in her mid-forties and Joe's stepmother, took over. Mark, hearing about the change-over, stopped by the station, bad-mouthing all the employees and begging for his job back.
Meanwhile, Mike wanted revenge. He mailed bizzare things to the gas station: gay magazines, a wheelchair, a book on overcoming impotence. He called the main office and told them that he had slept with Joe and contracted a sexually transmitted disease.
Joe, for his part, decide to institute some new procedures at the station. We were required to tick off checklists after doing dozens of new chores, which included cleaning the toilets after every shift. If we failed to wear our uniforms or do any of our chores, we were given a demerit. Three demerits was grounds for dismissal. The whole thing was getting too anal and militaristic for me.
I refused to clean the toilets. I told the manager that maids get paid a lot more than what I was making. I got my first demerit.
Several regular customers overheard Joe say he wanted to get rid of me. I figured he had it in for me because I didn't respond to his sexual advances. I thought about suing him for sexual harassment but the customers who witnessed what went on were unwilling to testify in my behalf.
The last straw came when the manager docked my pay because I forgot to turn on the outside lights one morning. I threw my keys down and walked out.
Working at the gas station and having to deal with ignoramuses, louts and cretins was trying. I could say that I eventually came to have a zen-like acceptance of the situation which turned it into a learning experience, but I would be lying. In reality, it was a horrible experience. The only thing I learned from it was that I needed to value myself more and put more energy into my art career so that I wouldn't have to work at a shit job like the gas station.