Note: Yet another snippet from my work-in-progress for NaNoWriMo (click here to read this story from the beginning), picking up right after the lovely Justine, Police Officer Extraordinaire and Coffee Buddy at the convenience store where I worked, had just queried “You gonna shove your stick in the tank tonight?”
Ah yes, the sticking of the tanks. As in the huge, underground receptacles that held the fuel that fed the gas pumps. “Sticking the tanks” meant measuring how much gasoline was left. And this was an activity that no one who actually worked in the stores wanted to do. Ever. We hated it, far more than dealing with dumb-ass customers or wearing the wretched, scratchy company shirts that made us look like we should be lugging dried venison on a safari in 1912.
Remember, it’s 1986. Things just weren’t as high-tech as they are now, with apps on your phone that can perform a self-colonoscopy, if needed. In fact, in comparison, some things were extremely primitive, even by Oklahoma standards. And this, ladies and gentleman, is how one sticks the tanks:
Each store had been furnished with this incredibly long wooden stick, maybe fifteen feet in length, with inches marked off all down one side. It was like a yardstick intended for Godzilla. Because this thing was so long, we had to keep it outside. And since our store was in a crappy part of town where people would steal anything, the stick often went missing.
I actually appreciated thievery when it came to the stick, because it meant I didn’t have to stick the damn tanks until somebody ordered another one, and that was not my job. On the flip side, there was always a tiny moment of sadness when I arrived for work each evening and the stick was there, lying along the front of the store, waiting smugly for sticking time, like those bullies in the schoolyard who want to kick your ass because you could spell and you could understand a book that didn’t have pictures.
When you stick a tank, you snatch up Godzilla’s yardstick, hoist it over your shoulder like those poles that high-jumpers use, trudge out to one of the various tanks, open the access cover, twist open the cap on the tank (and these caps were ALWAYS rusted shut, even if you had just opened them the night before), stand the stick on its end so that it is reaching for the stars, then gently lower the stick into the tank. (You can’t just drop it in, because the stick could snap in two, and then you’re screwed).
Once the stick hits the bottom of the tank, you pull the thing back out, locate where on the stick that the wetness stops, find the corresponding inch marker, and note this figure on the Official Sticking Report.
Now, this might sound rather simple, but it’s not. There are a number of factors that can get mixed into the process that can gum things up and cause heartache. Some of these factors are just innocent little glitches that are mainly irritating without causing too much of a problem. Other factors are downright evil and can only be due to the work of the devil, pulling his marionette strings from the pits of Hades, or the Oval Office, wherever the devil is dwelling these days.
First off, you are not allowed to stick the tanks if any customer is pumping gas at the same time. I was never made privy to the reasoning behind this protocol, but the impression was given that someone could feasibly perish if you dare to stick while pumping is taking place. So, you had to wait until the wee hours of the morning, when the roads were relatively quiet and chances were slim that someone would require a petroleum product from your establishment.
Unfortunately, the only people who are on the road in the wee hours tend to be drunken people with focus issues. The entire parking lot could be vacant, not a soul in sight, when suddenly there’s a roar and some crazed redneck could come barreling out of the night, careening about in a rusted pickup that smells like disappointment and ignorance.
Why is this critical?
Well. Each gas pump had its own tank. This store had four pumps, ergo four tanks. You would think that all the tank access points would be in a central area. They are not. They are scattered all over the parking lot. Sometimes they are in incredibly stupid places, like smack in the middle of the parking lot entrance. (You’ve seen these things and may not have realized it. You know those metal plates in the asphalt that you sometimes drive over, and they make that horrendous noise like you’ve just lost your transmission? Bingo.)
Ergo, you have to be very careful when you are sticking the tanks, because you’re right in the traffic zone. But, because you’re bent over screwing around with the rusty cap or the wooden stick, people don’t necessarily see you, especially if they’ve had 14 margaritas over at Sally’s Pool Hall. They might see the STICK, because it’s taller than the store, but drunken people don’t take heed of a flimsy stick. Such a thing is not going to slow them down in their quest for some Doritos and a pack of beef jerky.
End result, you need to be very quick when you stick, and if you even think you hear tires squealing on pavement, you javelin that stick toward an unpopulated area and you run like hell.
Trouble is, there are challenges that might impede you from making a hasty job of things. For one, it’s often pitch-black around the tank openings. You can’t see the damn numbers. You have to wiggle the stick around, trying to catch a glimmer of reflective light from the stars or maybe a passing plane. Or you have to drag the stick over to a better light source, which means the tank access pit is wide open while you do so, and Aunt Effie, who just needs a few eggs for the church breakfast later that morning so she can serve the Lord, might break an axle when she pulls in.
Wait, there’s more. Because there are multiple tanks that need sticking, you have to DRY OFF the stick between tanks. Otherwise, you can’t tell where the new “wet line” is. So, there you are, with an oily rag, rubbing away on this enormous stick, trying to hurry and creating enough friction that there could feasibly be a flash fire. As you stand over hundreds of gallons of gasoline that would happily welcome the accelerant from your over-rubbed stick.
Meanwhile, Justine is inside the store, sipping her coffee and laughing her ass off as I race madly around the parking lot, twisting and sticking and reading and rubbing, not to mention running for the hills every five seconds when I hear a car coming from any direction on the planet.
And what makes Justine laugh even more? Fuel delivery night.
Because on those nights, there’s an additional tank to stick. This one is on wheels. And the access point is two stories off the ground. Yes, boys and girls, we actually have to climb ON TOP of the tanker truck that rolls up with fresh fuel. When I see that tanker pull into the parking lot, I know, without a doubt, that I have made some very bad life choices.
Picture it. I’m clutching that humongous stick, trying not to whip it around too much and possibly decapitate the tanker driver. I have to climb up this ladder on the side of the tanker, using only one hand, of course, because of the damn stick, and this ladder has very thin rungs spaced widely apart. It’s like a demented jungle gym designed by twisted and bored sadists who have decided that there isn’t enough needless suffering in the world, and they are on a mission.
Once I’m on top of the tanker? Well, I’m sure you’ve seen these things. The tank is round, one long tube full of sloshing liquid. Meaning the top of the tanker is not flat. It curves downward to both sides. One misstep and I could be sliding and tumbling to my death. Therefore, it’s all about taking slow, baby steps, inching my way to the access cap. Twist the thing open, shove in the stick, write down the number, slap the cap back on, slip-slide my way back to the jungle gym, and try not to poke anybody with the stick before I’m back on solid ground.
And hey, I get to do this whole routine TWICE. We measure before they unload the fuel, and after they unload the fuel, so we then know how much our bill should be. (I told you this was primitive. There was no hint of accuracy or logic. We were merely cavemen grunting and rutting our way through life.)
End result? On delivery nights, after sticking four tanks and the tanker, drying off the stick every time I turned around, running from drunken motorists, cussing the laughing Justine as she pops out in the parking lot and yells at me on the tanker “Hey, the coffee’s getting cold! Hurry up!”, I’m usually completely exhausted by 3am. I’m covered in dried sweat, reeking of gasoline, my leg muscles are quivering from the tanker jungle gym, and I’ve still got to help Aunt Effie fix her axle so she can greet Jesus at sunrise with a bacon-and-chive omelet. I just want to go home and fall face-down in my bed, moaning quietly.
It was the morning after one of these delivery nights that I had another thrill-filled adventure at this evil store. Because of the delivery, I had been behind on all my other duties, just barely finishing up when the next shift arrived. I staggered out the door, filled up my car with some of the fresh gasoline (might as well), and started to drive away.
Then I realized that I had forgotten to finish out my shift report. It would only take a second to do, so I left the car running while I dashed inside, added a few figures, signed the thing and shoved it in the appropriate slot, then raced back to my car.
The door was locked. What the hell? Did I do that? WHY would I do that? The car was running, so obviously the keys were inside, but I peeked in the window anyway to confirm. Yep. There they were, dangling away and teasing me. Out of desperation, I checked the passenger door and the hatchback. Of course they were locked.
You have GOT to be kidding me.
Click here to read the next bit in this series…
Originally published in a different from in “Memory Remix” and “The Sound and the Fury” in 2010. Modified considerably for this post.
Justine: “Oh, so you finally decided to drag your ass back in here and put on another pot of coffee.”
Me: “I don’t care if I ever make coffee again. You’re on your own.”
Justine: “Really, now? As a customer of this fine establishment, I feel under-served. Perhaps I should push that panic button.”
Me: “Do it, Just Mean. Do it.”
Jesus: “Does anybody know what happened to my bacon-and-chive omelet?”
Categories: My Life