Monday, March 14, 2005

One night in Oildale

Growing up in middle class, small town suburbia has its advantages. I had supportive family & friends; I received a good education and I was taught to work hard to succeed. It was this hard work ethic which led me to accept a job working the late shift as a cashier at a Texaco StarMart on Olive Drive, just off Highway 99. I was in college at the time, I needed the cash, and I could study in-between customers. Nevertheless, it was not long before my desire to succeed was over shadowed by the realization that I had a false sense of security.

Working alone six to midnight every Friday and Saturday, I had pretty much gotten used to the weirdos and miscellaneous freaks who would wander in to purchase cigarettes, buy beer or stop for a tank of gas. I even became used to the frequent complaints about having to “pay first” for gas (as if I had just made up the concept to irritate them). Still, nothing could have prepared me for the frightening, and in many ways, life altering experience that happened one night.

A semi-regular customer (whom I had previously mentally nick named “Captain Ahab”) pulled up in his green and primer gray jalopy. He was a barrel of a man, thick and stout, with dirty fingernails and a sunburned face. He wore the same oil stained overalls I had seen him in before, and a greasy ball cap pulled down low over his frizzy, red hair. His full beard and moustache reminded me of a cross between a lumberjack and a sea captain. I could barely make out his steely blue eyes. His voice was deep and rough, hiding a slight southern drawl. He never smiled…ever.

“Number one,” he mumbled as he shoved a twenty-dollar bill at me across the counter. “Okay” I said cheerily, “Twenty on one.” Then I watched as he plodded outside and began to pump the fuel. The left, rear fender of his car was held on with duct tape and the headliner inside the car sagged in shreds. As I turned back to my homework, I couldn’t help but wonder what his life must be like.

Shortly after I turned back to my studies, a loud, beeping alarm sound caused me to look up again. ‘Ahab’ was outside, glaring at me through the window, frantically gesturing at me to turn the pump on again. I held up my hands to indicate my helplessness and waved for him to come back inside.

Furious, he stormed back inside. Mumbling and angry, he spouted derogatory and racist remarks as he slapped another twenty on the counter. Stunned as I was by his outburst, I tried to explain I could not turn the pump on without entering a dollar amount. “Ahab’s" retort was several profanities accompanied by a steely look. When he returned to his car, I felt my own temper grow as he continued to glower at me through the window. Then suddenly, I had a moment of clarity: I’m alone. Working the night shift at a gas station. In Oildale. This dude probably has a gun tucked away under the seat of his excuse for a car.

When he returned for his change, I tried to maintain my composure. He had only managed to squeeze in another twenty-two cents worth of gas. I kept my head down and eyes averted while he continued his tirade and I attempted to count back his change. My face was red hot and I heard a faint buzzing sound in my ears. And then, after a particularly inflammatory remark that he made - I lost it. Just as he turned to the leave, still spewing profanity and racist remarks, I let him know that he didn’t have to pay first at the Chevron across the street, and he should probably go there from now on.

What happened next is, without a doubt, one of the most terrifying things I have ever experienced (next to the monkey attack, of course). Ahab blew up into a fury of volcanic rage. Beet red and screaming at the top of his lungs, he erupted into a stream of profanity and nonsensical remarks, some of which included calling me a “n***r luvin’ whore.” Watching him explode and worried for my own safety, I tried not to show the fear which had suddenly gripped me. I lashed back out at him, hoping he would think I was as crazy as he was. I screamed at back him to get out and never come back.

What happened after that it is a blur. He headed for the door and for what I thought was the gun I imagined being in his car. The stream of obscenities continued and the more he bellowed at me, the more I yelled back at him. I have no doubt he wanted to throttle my neck. His stare was menacing and he had a wild look in his eyes.

Just then a small, elderly Asian man opened the door and stepped in. Quickly realizing what was going on, he made a small step backward in retreat. Seeing this as my opportunity, I informed “Ahab” that he should leave and never return or I would call the police. Abruptly, just as quickly as the storm began, it abated.

It took me a long time to shake the feeling I got from that night. At first I was sick and wobbly from the actual event. But more significantly, it was the feeling that I had afterward. That is the lesson that has stayed with me.

My sense of security was lost. I had come face to face with pure hatred. Beneath his sharp, blue eyes, I saw hatred. And the realization that there are countless others out there, just like him.