AS A favor to my pastor, Carlton Manning has hired me to work at his service station even though I am unable to drive. You might say that this is like having a baldheaded barber or a toothless dentist bending over your body with advice. You might say, “What does he know?” I will bet that he knows more than you think. I bet that he has a great deal of respect and admiration for the teeth you take for granted. Listen to him. He has inside information.
Sometimes I walk to work but usually I take the bus. Many people ride the bus because their own cars are broken or unreliable. These people see me in my uniform and they think Lord knows what, but they act like there is a doctor in the house.
Canton says that they are looking for free advice. Since I have no knowledge of the automobile, either foreign or domesticated, I reshape their questions into a way that will allow me to fellowship, to make friends out of strangers.
I have made several fine friends on the bus. Friends in need: In need of a dollar or two, in need of a comb, in need of my transistor radio. Last week I gave a woman my sneakers after hearing that vandals had slashed and shredded the seat of her son’s motorcycle. Having nothing upon which to sit, her son is forced to walk back and forth between his home and the church where he takes his meals.
“What can I do to help?” I asked myself. “I have no tailoring skills with which to repair a torn motorcycle seat. What can I do?”
“What can you do? Give her your shoes,” came the reply from somewhere deep inside my heart.
So I did. I gave her my shoes.
“What do I want with these?” the woman asked.
“That will be revealed in time,” I responded.
Now every time I see this woman I ask, “Has it been revealed yet?” She tells me it hasn’t but when it is I will be the first to know.
Friends! Every day the bus driver offers me the steering wheel and every day I am forced to turn him down. While I would enjoy nothing more than to shepherd these passengers to their destination I am forced by state and federal law to decline his kind invitation.
I can’t drive because of my eyes, which grow weaker by the day. In the future I will be rendered blind by the hand of fate. My poor sight is genital in nature, passed down to me from my, mother. I have turned my back against any number of “operations” because I cannot be so presumptuous as to force the hand of God in another direction. I will travel willingly along the path He has designed for me. Whether I walk or stumble or crawl, it is up to Him, not me. Carlton has trouble understanding my position. He says that, in a year or two, he will be in the market for a new liver. He always asks pretty girls if they have one they can spare. Carlton says that he will ask for their livers and steal their hearts while he’s at it.
On the radio I hear about men whose time has come, yet they deny the truth and attempt to live off plastic hearts installed in their cut-open chests. But what kind of a life is that, to push your heart’s battery over the rugged terrain of this earth? God looks down upon these men who try to wheedle Him out of His plan and I believe He chuckles. He lets them have their minute in the sun and then He calls them up for a consultation. The Lord gives these men just enough rope to hang themselves but in a gentle and crafty way that nobody can imitate or ignore.
Being a very quick learner I took only a few weeks to master my position as a service station attendant. The first hardship was finding the gas tanks, which are designed by hotshots to blend into the surface of the automobile.
I cannot answer that question. I can only speculate. Perhaps these hotshots would like to convince you that an automobile runs of its own accord, like an animal charging from place to place. You might look at, say, a dog running alongside the road and ask yourself why it runs. Rarely would you ask how the dog runs. You never think of the dog’s gas tank, a bowl of food and water set beside his cushion. These hotshots would like to confuse the natural and the mechanical world.
Can they fool the public at large?
Can they fool me?
Once I located the tanks I found it difficult to read the meter and administer gasoline at the same time.
“Give me seven bucks’ worth, unleaded,” a customer might say.
“What does that feel like?” I would ask myself. Seven dollars’ worth of unleaded gasoline passes quickly. It is a brief period of time compared to the seven dollars’ worth one might get from a movie or the time it might take to enjoy a meal at your favorite restaurant. Think about it!
Though my sight is poor I could clearly see that many of the station’s visitors were in need of more than gasoline. It was difficult to converse from my position at the rear of the car but where there’s a will there is a way. During the chilly weeks of April I found myself hoarse by noon, raising my voice over the sounds of traffic and of life itself. I would minister to all my customers and found the greatest challenge in certain young people who seemed to believe that Hell is nothing more than a hot day at the beach. I would have been more than happy to counselthese people, one on one. If it were to take me the rest of my life I would have accepted the challenge. Sadly, the majority of them refused my offer of guidance.
“F k you,” they would say. “To Hell with your ways, mole.”
Without paying they would cut out of the station and squeal their tires onto the busy street, playing their radios so loudly that I could hear them off in the distance for blocks. I would shout after them. I happen to know that Hell is nothing like the beach. There is no sand in Hell, or water either. It is so hot in Hell that the sand has melted. Think about that!
Many people would speak to me about troubles with their cars. They would feel a pull in the steering wheel or hear a noise like someone trapped under the hood was patiently tapping to be let out. Canton told me to tell them that it sounded like a transmission problem and that they should make an appointment to have one of our men look it over. I understood that this was Canton’s plan to entrap people by making the most of their fears. After the third week I told him that I could no longer be party to that. He did not seem angry or surprised but suggested that I might enjoy a job that gave me more solitude.
I began to work shorter hours on a later shift, a hands-on job designed to acquaint me with humility. I cleaned the rest rooms and found unspeakable things there. Men would advertise themselves on the walls with markers and sharp knives. Carlton had the door taken off the men’s room stall when he discovered it was being used as a perverse clubhouse by confused and lonely men. I would mop the floor and clean the sink and toilet daily.
“Human waste is, above all, human,” I told myself. “I am a human, they are humans.” Together we are a humanity who might take a moment or two to clean up after ourselves.
The women were just as bad as the men, sometimes worse. Frightened of germs, many women would use hand towels and toilet paper to fashion a nest upon which to sit. The bathroom floor was a fire hazard. I found quite a few articles of clothing in the women’s bathroom. It is I who was responsible for organizing the lost-and-found box at our station. So far, nobody has stepped forward to claim anything so I am considering donating these clothes to the needy. A newborn baby was found at a Sunoco station on Glenwood Avenue last year. It was a baby girl, still alive. She was taken to the hospital and named for a letter of the alphabet. After a month, the mother stepped forward to claim her child.
The mother said that it was a misunderstanding. She said she would never again ask her boyfriend to baby-sit. So how did her boyfriend sneak a baby into the women’s rest room? That is what the public wants to know. I have been following the case closely, which is a coincidence because I thought I had discovered a tiny baby in the women’s rest room of our station just last week. I followed my instincts and called the police, an ambulance, and Pastor Holden. The moments passed like hours and, in my impatience I reached into the toilet and pulled the baby shape out, thinking it might still be alive, praying I might save it. Thank God I was mistaken. It was not a baby after all. (But it certainly was big enough!)
Following that episode Carlton decided that Taylor should clean the rest rooms, seeing that he has a family to support and is in need of the extra hours. He also assigned Taylor the job of carrying in the beach balls and quarts of Pepsi we offer as premiums to customers who spend twenty dollars or more. In all honesty I felt slightly envious. Here Taylor was, getting all of the good jobs (so I thought). While it was true that he had a child to support, it is also true that the child is twenty-seven years old and currently resides in Feeny State Penitentiary, where he is serving a five-year sentence for armed robbery. It turns out that he robbed a service station. Carlton knows nothing about it. He has been told that Taylor’s son is a five-year-old in need of costly rhinoplasty, which will hopefully correct the child’s breathing disorder.
“How’s the boy?” Carlton might ask.
“Not good, not at all good,” Taylor will answer. “Had me up all night long for the past three days. Sounds like somebody scraping a shovel against the pavement. That’s exactly what it sounds like, listening to that baby try and grab a breath. It’s a sound to break a man’s heart.”
Taylor told me later that a shovel striking pavement is the sound his sister makes as she snores beside him in bed. It is wrong to lie to Carlton, and I have spent many long hours mulling it over in my mind. If Carlton should come to me and ask, “Is Taylor’s son an infant or is he a convict?” I would feel honor-bound to tell the truth. So far he has never asked but, should he, I am prepared to deliver the truth and pray that Taylor will understand.
My next job was to clean the area around the dumpster and to carry in the tubes and tires at closing. That is how I got my picture in the newspaper. I was carrying the inner tubes in a stack around me when someone took a snapshot of it. I had memorized the path from the pump island to the garage and was used to walking in the dark so it was no problem for me. I was right there in the evening paper but you could not see my face, just my legs.
Now Carlton wants me to do this every day. I come in at four-thirty and stand in front of the station wearing tubes until six or later. Canton says that it is an eye-catcher during rush hour and is good for customer relations. While I pace back and forth I can often hear Carlton’s loud voice as he jokes with the customers. He says, “I hope it doesn’t tire him out,” and “Folks, you are looking at the original boob tube.” I wish that I could see the people’s faces as they look in amazement at me, a man made of inner tubes, a dark tornado that can save them from drowning.