“My First Job.”
(Originally published 02/05.)
During a large part of my teen years, I worked at a Gas Station/Co-Op in the small Wisconsin town I grew up in. Even before I left the place for good, I knew I wanted to write a book about everything that happened to me there. It was these short stories that inspired me to start the CDP in the first place; a free and easy way to tell funny stories to people I didn’t know.
Three years later, and I’m still here, telling slightly less-funny stories to even more people I don’t know. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Thanks, and enjoy this three-part essay.
PART I – “Death.”
In my life thus far, I’ve been pretty close to death on a number of occasions. I’m sure we all have, really. Close calls with cars on the highway, one misstep away from a 10-story fall, kitchen appliances gone awry. When you consider how fragile and tiny life really is, you start to consider yourself pretty lucky when you find yourself on the “not dead” side of these incidents.
When I was about 7, my family went on vacation in Florida. There, I had an honest-to-God near-death experience in a hotel pool. I couldn’t swim (still can’t), and I ventured a little too far into the deep end. For the next eternity, it seemed, I tried to find my way back to the surface, taking in huge amounts of water with every wasted breath. I still remember every second of that ordeal, and each time I feel instantly claustrophobic. Water is really my only big fear, which explains why I haven’t bathed or showered in years.
The interesting thing I’ve noticed with all these instances is that I never thought I was going to die when they happened to me. You only think after the fact that you could have lost your life. Come to think of it, there has never been a single time in my life where I honestly thought I was going to die.
Except for once.
I had been working at the Co-Op for a couple of years at this point, and I was 18 years old. I shuffled in a few minutes late as always, positioning myself behind the counter for another typical Wednesday. I stood there for a few minutes, opened the store for business, and wondered where all the employees were.
After about 15 minutes and a dozen customers later, my boss finally emerged from the back room, where the 2 other employees seemed to be hiding as well. He was looking around every isle on his way up to the front counter where I was standing, and he didn’t look right. Todd, my boss, was a kind-but-tough man, boasting scarred arms and a black, David Crosby-like ‘stache. I’ve seen him lift hundreds of pounds over his head and put out fires with his bare hands. Today, however, he looked…well, he looked scared. Something wasn’t right.
After checking the store for any customers, he escorted me away from the huge window at the front of the store, to a seasonal isle full of rakes and garden gnomes.
“Hey,” he said to me, “There was a message on our machine this morning by a guy who said he was going to come in and kill somebody today. We don’t know if it was a prank or not, but the police are coming and we’re not taking any chances.”
I thought to myself, “Not taking any chances? Great! We’ll close the store up, and I’ll go back home. Hell, my bed’s probably still warm. I’ll just grab my coat and….”
“Keep your eyes peeled.” Todd said to me, and he hustled back into the storage room with the other employees, closing the door behind him.
I crept slowly back in front of the giant window, very much alone for the remainder of the day. Apparently the rest of the staff had a lot of things to do away from the main floor of the store. I’m sure their thinking was that as soon as they heard my dead body hit the floor, they could easily sneak out the back with little to no confrontation. I knew I was going to be on my own.
I tried to keep my wits about me. About 98% of our customers were down-home regulars who probably wouldn’t hurt anyone unless they were black. It was just the aimless drifters that I had to keep an eye on. Living in Small Town Wisconsin, trucks came pre-equipped with gun racks, and everyone was capable of taking a human life if only slightly provoked.
As the customers started to file in, I did my best to check them out as soon as they entered the store. I had a small axe behind the counter that I once used to chase a child out with (true story), and I was ready to split anyone’s melon should they come in with shifty eyes. I did this for a while, and when the action died down for a couple minutes, I excused myself into the office.
There, I listened to the answering machine message myself. Perhaps I could figure out who left it, or if they were just joking around or not. I’m pretty good at detecting sarcasm, and I can usually match voices to faces. I pressed play just as the cops arrived.
“I’m going to come in there and kill somebody tomorrow!”
I didn’t recognize the voice, and I wasn’t about to assume they were kidding. The cops took the tape with them, and I was back on my own. Honestly, where the hell did all the employees go?
Anticipating your own murder is really something amazing. You start to wonder if you’ve lived a decent enough life at the age of 18. I couldn’t believe that I was going to be killed behind the counter of a gas station. I helped myself to a few free sodas and candy bars. It was the least I could do.
Eventually, I started to take the defensive. If someone was going to come in and shoot the store up, it was my duty as an employee of the Larsen Cooperative to kill him first. With each strange customer, I clenched the small axe in my hand, looking insane and ready for a killing spree. In normal work situations, your supervisor wouldn’t take too kindly to their cashier wielding a hatchet at every smiling face that entered, but he was in hiding and there was no time for rational thought. I was sweating all day, I couldn’t stop circling the counter and I wasn’t in the mood for talking. Anticipating my own murder soon turned into me anticipating murdering someone else.
(Cue fantasy sequence.)
I had it all figured out. The car would pull up, probably an older American model. The muffler would be loud, and the rust would be creeping up along the edges of the forest green paint. The shooter would wait in his car, looking straight ahead, pausing to look around in wait for the store to empty itself out. Once the last customer had left, he would emerge from the vehicle slowly, looking left and right with squinted eyes. He would slink quickly to the front door and make his way inside, thinking he was home free.
But what he doesn’t know… is that I’d be on to him.
He’d take one look at me, and draw his rifle from the front of his pants. I’d catch it from the corner of my eye, glistening under the sickening fluorescent lights. All at once, I’d swing myself in his direction, the butt of the small axe swinging with me. The butt of the axe would make direct contact with the barrel of the gun, sending it careening down the Fertilizer isle. He’d turn in the direction of the rifle, taking his eyes off of me for one second too long.
I’d step out from behind the counter as he scampered down the isle for the gun. Like a Cherokee warrior, I’d throw the axe end-over-end, sinking it deep between his shoulder blades. He’d hit the ground and slide about 2 feet, just 6 inches short of the rifle. The axe would still be sticking out of his back as I slowly walked past him, Doc Marten boots stepping on the hand that was so desperately reaching for the gun. I’d pick it up with gloved hands (I said I was prepared), and he’d look up just in time to see me aiming the barrel right between his dilated pupils.
“You need to control your temper.” I’d say to him calmly.
My finger would wrap tightly around the trigger, and he would close his eyes with a grimace, bracing for the final impact. Just then, the police would bust in, take him away to jail and slap a medal of honor on my Co-Op uniform. The next day, the headlines would read, “Local Teen paralyzes nutjob; George W. Bush drinks self to death.”
From then on, I’d continue to work at the hardware store from time to time, but I’d receive enough money in shoe endorsements to live comfortably in Paris with the Missus and Kate Winslet.
I was ready to roll.
(End Fantasy Sequence.)
The hours ticked by, but I never let my guard down. If someone came in that I knew, I’d try to keep them around for a while, knowing that I could use them for a crude bullet shield when the carnage began. I was especially friendly to the heftier folks. If a straggler showed up, I hustled them out quickly, fingers sweatily wrapped around my axe. They didn’t ask questions.
It should seem obvious to you by now that no shooter ever showed up. Eventually, 4pm rolled around, I punched out and headed back home. We later found out that the message was nothing more than an angry customer thinking out loud while the answering machine was recording. He was mad that we weren’t open, and made an ass of himself. We never found out who it was, and no charged were ever filed. Things went back to normal at the Co-Op, and we never talked about that day ever again.
I learned a lot about myself that day. Morally, I learned that life is a tiny gift that should be enjoyed as much as possible. Weather or not we’re significant or holy means nothing sometimes.
I also learned that it doesn’t take much to go primal every now and then. I consider myself a pretty stable person, but when faced with my mortality I all but scalped the locals to stay alive. I usually frown on mob mentality and mass-hysteria, but I had a one-man breakdown that day because I thought I was going to be killed. I felt vulnerable, weak and irrelevant.
The ultimate irony was that I was never in any danger whatsoever. All those other near-death instances happen to me every day and I never bat an eyelash. But in anticipating something nonexistent, I overwhelmed myself with fear to the point of insanity. It’s happened to all of us at one point or another.
So, that’s my story about the time I was almost killed by a crazed madman.
PART II – “Explosion.”
Working at an establishment that specialized in highly flammable liquids and gasses, you can tell that I’ve experienced my fair share of things getting blown straight the hell up. Here’s a trilogy of Co-Op explosion stories, told in increasing order of destruction.
Explosion #1 – “Butane.”
Chad worked in the automotive department as a mechanic. He was a gentle giant with ice blue eyes; a hulking young man that could lift a pool table while simultaneously telling Ford jokes. He invited me and my wife to his wedding, which was incredibly thoughtful of him. Anyways, Chad came over to the hardware store, like he did every morning, to purchase a Mountain Dew and a handful of candy bars.
In between me and him was a large rack of about 100 Bic lighters, all color coordinated and facing the same direction (you’re welcome, customers). Not one to turn down a chance to try something fun, Chad dropped his purchase on the counter and began to play with the lighters like a small child.
Each row contained about 15 lighters, and stretched to about an arm’s length. Just then, I could see that Chad had some sort of bad idea brewing. Already tired of playing with just 1 lighter, Chad decided he wanted to ignite the entire row all at the same time.
Before I could explain to him the physics behind fire and oxygen (I did see Backdraft, after all), he laid his arm down across the row, pressing down on all 15 red buttons with his forearm, releasing gas as one. He then lit the first lighter in the row with his free hand, and waited for the fire to spread to the remaining gaseous lighters.
It worked. Sort of.
Instead of the flame gracefully sliding across the row, it formed a small fireball and shot straight up him arm.
For a split second, Chad’s entire arm was on fire, oil-soaked uniform and all. I stood there, slack-jawed and bewildered, as he windmilled his arm around and batted at the flame. A second later, it was out and the ordeal was over. Chad stared at me, and I stared back at him, both of us feeling pretty embarrassed. As he quietly reached for his Mountain Dew and candy bars, he mumbled, “I singed my arm hair.” He brushed the burned hair onto the floor and slunk away.
It was never discussed again.
Explosion #2 – “Air.”
It was a calm, spring day. The parking lot was empty, no customers to be seen. I sat on the counter of the store, reading Sports Illustrated and drinking a can of Mello Yello. I was still addicted to caffeine at the time, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why I was drinking such an inferior citrus soda that day.
Nevertheless, the 2 other employees (Jon and Dave), were busying themselves in different isles, facing and sorting inventory, just keeping themselves occupied on an otherwise boring afternoon. A customer eventually came in and needed a propane tank filled, so Jon walked across the street to the massive tank we use to refill empty cylinders.
Looking back, I can’t believe that I never had a problem working in the vicinity of this tank. It was essentially a bomb the size of a semi trailer, and I parked my 1986 Buick next to it every morning, whistling a happy tune and never thinking for a moment that if it decided to malfunction, they wouldn’t so much as find a fingernail with which to identify me with.
I spotted Jon by the tank from my perch across the street, and turned back to my magazine. I looked over to the clock for a second to see what time it was, when…
The explosion was so loud I fell off the counter. It was deafening; I’d never heard anything like it. I got to my feet, but remained ducked behind the counter because I had no idea what in the hell had just happened. Furthermore, I was in no shape to peek over and see pieces of Jon splattered all over the front window.
Forget Jon, what about my car? It took a few seconds, but I worked up the nerve to look out the window to see…
Nothing. The giant tank was fine, Jon was fine, my car was fine. So what happened?
Meanwhile, Todd was in the back of the store when this mysterious explosion happened, and I’m sure he thought that the tank had gone off as well. I say I’m sure because no sooner did I peek over the counter, when Todd burst through the saloon-style doors of the back room and run full speed down the isle and out the front door. Had I not been so confused at the moment, it was probably the funniest thing I’d ever seen.
With my ears ringing and Co-Op employees starting to peer out the windows, we all tried to figure out what had happened. What blew up? Then, staggering out of the shadows, emerged our culprit.
A customer was taking advantage of our “free air” hose, and over-inflated a truck tire to the point of explosion. When he saw what was about to happen, he turned away just in time to not be seriously injured by flying rubber and shrapnel. His ears, however, weren’t so lucky.
“What happened?” I asked him as he walked into the store.
He didn’t respond. Partly because he was still stunned to the point of a solid pants-crapping, but mainly because he was now stone deaf. After looking at me sideways for a few seconds, he said;
“I think I need to go to the Doctor. I can’t hear anything.”
True to his word, he got in his truck and drove off, fragments of his spare tire still littered in our parking lot. I never saw him again.
Explosion #3 – “Gasoline.”
Our main parking lot was getting more and more torn up with each passing winter day. Snow chains and plows were removing hearty chunks of concrete every hour on the hour. Something had to be done.
The first nice day of April, we had the lot re-sealed. It was another slow day (every day was, really), and I was passing the time by watching these driveway-sealing professionals smoke by the gas tanks and accomplish nothing in 5 whole hours. It was brilliant to see these people in action, and I model my work ethic after them to this day.
After completing a very small task, they placed their tools on the ground and had yet another smoke break. What follows is a Rube Goldberg-ian string of events and dumb luck that almost turned Larsen into an instant ghost town. Let me break it down step-by-step:
Dumbass mistake #1 – The driveway crew left a lit blowtorch running in the parking lot. I swear to God.
Dumbass mistake #2 – This lit blowtorch was unattended, and sitting less than 10 feet away from our gas tanks. Luckily for us, we had the gas tanks roped off with signs that said “Out of Order”.
Dumbass mistake #3 – Most of our customers cannot read. No less than 30 seconds after this torch was set down, someone drove their car right through the yellow tape, chose the pump right next to the open flame, and began to fill up. Luckily for us, gas pumps are equipped with an automatic shut-off switch to prevent overfilling and spillage.
Dumbass mistake #4 – This customer chose to only put an inch of the gas nozzle into his tank. Due to his rubbernecking at the progress of the driveway sealing, he left the pump unattended, the tank overfilled, and gasoline started to pool under his car.
I looked out the window and quickly figured out what was going on. All I could do was shake my head in disbelief as I saw the puddle of gas inch closer and closer to the open flame.
I was the only one who could see what was happening, and instead of doing anything about it, I quietly got into the fetal position behind the counter. I was wondering how much of the town would be left when the Co-Op disintegrated. I was also wondering how my family would feel about my death being honored in the Darwin Awards. I really didn’t think I was going to die, but I knew I didn’t want to live once the wave of fire washed the skin from my bones.
So I waited.
I peeked over the counter (which was something I was getting used to doing), and saw the driveway repair guy holding the lit torch over his head, screaming at the inattentive customer who, was in turn screaming back at him.
Laughing quietly, I walked to the back room to grab a bag of that pink sawdust that cleans up after vomit and gasoline spills. “Nobody’s going to believe this“, I thought to myself.
Sometimes, I still can’t.
(You may be saying to yourself, “That last explosion story wasn’t really an explosion at all! You’re a liar!” Well, that may be true, but sometimes anticipating the explosion is better than the explosion itself. Let that be a metaphor for life, kids.)
PART III “Customer.”
On my last day of work at the Co-Op, I did a quick equation to see if I could figure out how many customers I’d checked out over the last 4 years. The number was in the 6-digit range, yet it seemed like I knew everyone that came in by name. Truth be told, it was usually the same 100 people, day in and day out, for 1500 straight days.
I would like to tell you about one customer in particular. Let’s call him “Chet”. I’m protecting his identity strictly for my safety, for you see, “Chet” is completely insane.
Here’s a little backstory on Chet. He has an alcohol problem, a smattering of psychological problems and an anger management problem. He represents the Holy Trinity of what a serial killer profile looks like. Speaking of what he looks like, that did a lot as far as his frightening image went. He looked like Ed Norton in American History X, with the eyes of Marty Feldmann.
I’m not kidding. He was that scary. I’m almost positive that he had the same tattoo.
Doing a circuit court search on Chet revealed a large sheet of offenses:
4 separate DUI charges (with heavy fines)
3 times driving with a suspended license (including jail time)
1 count of driving an ATV on the highway (with suspended license
3 restraining orders
3 counts of disorderly conduct (including jail time)
1 count of domestic abuse (including jail time)
Most of these charges happened just before or just after leaving the Co-Op on any given day.
I first met Chet on the 2nd day of business at the Co-Op. All of the employees were still figuring out how everything worked, and the computer system was chock-full of bugs. Chet walked in and bought some candy and a sledgehammer. I had no idea who he was, and nobody took the time to tell me to be careful around him. I began to ring him up, when the computer decided to lock up on me.
Thinking he would be decent about it, I told him that there was a slight problem with the system, and I’d be more than happy to check him out at the next available computer.
This apparently was too much for Chet to handle.
He stared me down for about 20 seconds with those crazy-ass eyes, then proceeded to berate me for being an idiot. I felt horrible, and worse still, I couldn’t defend myself whatsoever. I was terrified of the guy, and he was holding a sledgehammer. In retrospect, there are so many things you would like to say to guys like that, but in the end you just nod and accept the gentle criticism.
He eventually left, and 10 minutes later he was arrested for using the sledgehammer to smash up his neighbors car.
That night, I wanted to quit my job. He gave me a very poor impression of the types of people I would run into, and he also freaked the holy hell out of me. I never wanted to see him again.
But of course, I would see Chet every few days. He would show up just before closing time and buy a ton of things that would take forever to individually ring up (a giant bag filled with 60 different kinds of PVC attachments, for example). He’d mumble constantly, and when you’d ask him to repeat himself, he’d yell. If you didn’t ask him to repeat himself, you’d hear him wrong and have to start the transaction all over, and again he’d yell. There was no winning with this guy.
Within a few months, Chet lost his driver’s license due to him being a filthy drunk. Always the resourceful fellow, he got into the habit of driving his lawnmower to the Co-Op with a flat trailer attached to it. I could literally hear him coming from a mile away, and I had 15 minutes to get ready for his arrival. All of the other employees would casually disappear whenever he walked in. It was pure torture.
On one particular day, he bought an armload of candy bars and soda, several bags of ready-mix concrete and 12 bottles of ammonia. As he putted off into the distance, trying to steer while drinking a Mountain Dew and eating a bag of chips, he turned hard into a ditch and tipped the lawnmower over. I didn’t get the chance to see it, but the mental image alone was enough to make me tear up with delight.
An hour later, the cops were at his house because he had filled his ditches with concrete and covered his driveway with sod. He said he did this to keep the frogs out of his garage.
Chet took his “sod” case to the town board, where it abruptly ended with him making a death threat to one of the head members. The police were notified.
Still, he fought against these frogs, renting a Caterpillar and quickly crashing it into our gas pumps, nearly incinerating the town. I don’t think you’re supposed to operate heavy machinery when your constantly inebriated and have no license.
The problems and verbal abuse continued for several more months. It was becoming too much for anyone to handle. Something had to be done before he finally killed somebody, probably me. I was honestly considering quitting my job because of him, and getting up for work in the morning was becoming almost impossible.
One night, before going to sleep, I wished out loud that I would never see Chet again, knowing full well that tomorrow would bring another day of his intimidation and bullying.
I got to work the next day, and my manager was the first one to run into me. He told me that the night before, Chet was (once again) arrested for driving drunk with a suspended license, and he was going to jail for 4 months. Along with that, he was forced to attend all sorts of rehab classes, and take scores of pills for his various problems.
I couldn’t believe it. My wish came true.
About 6 months later, a car pulled up to the Co-Op, and out of the passenger side emerged Chet. He was accompanied by his brother, who was now his legal guardian.
Chet looked like he had gained at least 50 pounds (because of all the pills he was taking), and was nothing more than a glazed-over shell of a man. He said ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ was soft-spoken and polite, called me ‘sir’ and looked like he had absolutely no idea as to what was going on.
Apparently, he went through the system, and this was the best that the system could do for him. Instead of hurting other people and himself, he was now incapable of even functioning without someone living with him.
That was the last time I ever saw him.
So long Chet, wherever you are. Ya’ crazy bastard.
LOST – SEASON THREE PREVIEW.