Dispensation

     I work at a full-service gas station in the wealthiest municipality in Canada -- West Vancouver. Over the year or so that I've been working there, I've become quite well acquainted with the regulars, and can probably come up with a pretty good description of the character of West Vancouver. I've also come to several philosophical conclusions in my experience of dealing with the same kinds of people day-in, day-out.

     The first is that there seems to be a definably inverse relationship between wealth and happiness. The friendliest people who come in to the station seem to be the low income earners of the municipality. The (relatively) poor folks, like you and I. They come in with their beat-up pick-up trucks, their old Volkswagen Jettas, and economical little Suzukis. They want their tanks filled, which usually comes to eighteen bucks. Or, if they can't afford that, they want only $10 or $5 worth. Just a little fix of West Van '87 (octane, that is) until the next time their cars run dry.

     Then come the rich folk, who comprise a majority of the residents, in their sleek Mercedes, BMWs, or gigantic SUVs. Or the old, harrumphing cronies, in their seaworthy Lincoln Towncars, who probably had to christen the damn things before taking them off the sales lot. These are the elite of West Van who make life difficult. I, of course, have to serve them, not insult them publicly, so it is a great exercise of my politeness and calmness to be civil to them. I have seen what they write on their customer information cards; THESE PEOPLE MAKE TONS OF MONEY!! AND THEY ARE BLOODY MISERABLE FOLK! It wouldn't bother me much if I could watch them interact in a cage at the zoo, but unfortunately, I have to serve under them. So their demands are the first order of priority to be met, or at least silenced, as fast as possible.

     The whole idea of a full-service gas station is questionable, at best, when these rich people want their gas pumped. They want to avoid getting their hands dirty from gas after they have already fondled something far filthier. What word usually comes before lucre? And rich? Filthy, that's it! Money is the issue here, no question about it. Cash, yecch! I try never to touch that stuff. It corrupts you, changes you. Yes, these West Van people come into the station reeking of cash, and not ashamed of their affluvia. Their paying with hundred dollar bills is an announcement of that conceit. They wave their bills and credit cards, expecting me to salivate, expecting me to supplicate. They demand that expensive flammable liquid, without which they would be reminded that they paid $70,000 for an immobile status symbol. They complain when the prices go up, and when their tanks are full with 55 dollars of a substance that gets used up within days.

     A corpulent blowhard of about fifty once complained to me about the price of gas going up. I responded with something sensible and quieting: "Well, oil is getting rarer and rarer. The price will keep rising until it's all gone." To which he replied, "What do you mean? We'll never be out of this stuff." He actually said this. I was in disbelief. I'm sure, up in the hills of the British Properties, gasoline may just seem like a commodity with which to fill your car, something to throw money at, and it's yours. But it takes hundreds of thousands of years for fossil fuels to form, and mere seconds for them to burn up. Does anybody seriously believe that gas will always be available?


     When one gets rich, I believe, a chemical change occurs in the brain. Logic no longer proceeds logically, the perception of other people as humans recedes, and manners or civility no longer exist as notions. This chemical change asserts itself over one's whole body, transforming it into an indiscriminate consumer. Get enough rich people together in one area, and their combined pecuniary aberrations cause a rupture in the fabric of space itself. Time itself is distorted: nobody ever grows up; they're born old, driving their Cadillacs. Yes, folks, cross westward over the Capilano river, and you enter... the Fiscal Zone! A place where even Rod Sterling himself daren't retire. Even my exposure to West Vancouver air has damaged me perceptively. The townspeople are... well, twisted. Read on...

     In West Vancouver, rich people are so obsessed with capitalism that they actually expect to be paying money constantly. Disrupt that flow of money, and they stare at you, and then at each other, conspiratorially. I did once. Now they know I'm an outsider. You see, just recently, for example, a man had dropped off his car to be inspected. He suspected a worn-out starter, or part, or whatever, needed replacing. So, just in case, my boss gave him a quote of about $160 for the cost of the part. The next evening, (after the boss and all the mechanics had left, and coincidentally and inconveniently when all the people were coming back to the Fiscal Zone from their directorships Downtown) the man comes to pick up the car and assess the damages. There seemed to be nothing wrong with the starter, and the electrical system just needed an inspection and a bit of tweaking. The total bill was $25. The man would not accept this. "That's not right," he was saying, "I expected this bill to be around a hundred and sixty bucks. Are you sure you guys did any work at all?" I pointed out the explanation of what was done, and the final diagnosis. He still wouldn't accept this, so I told him impotently that he would have to come back the next day to dispute this unacceptably low bill with the manager, my boss. Did you get that, folks? He wanted to pay more money!

     Just tonight, even, my co-worker had added up two successive fill-ups (for which one man would be paying) on his hand. He mistakenly quoted a cost which was $10 more than the actual cost. When my colleague returned with the man's correct change, he explained to the customer that he had accidentally charged him too much, and that here was his correct change. The man glared at him, and just stared at him in the eyes as he drove away. Another West Van resident... Angry that he couldn't pay more than necessary, angry that he had received back ten more dollars than expected. Only a psychologist... or a sociologist could possibly explain the thought processes that had just occurred. Sometimes I feel as if I have to act as a translator:
     "Hi, I'm from North Vancouver, where not everybody's rich. Let me explain this to you. Receiving free money is good. Paying more money is bad. Ok, now here's a primer on some of the smaller denominations. This (holding up a Loonie) is called a Loonie, our one-dollar coin. This is what you would normally use, not a twenty-dollar bill, to pay for a pop, say. Now, this (holding up tenner) is a ten-dollar bill. What's that? Yes, it does look like the one- thousand-dollar bill, except there are fewer zeroes. You own the refinery that's pictured in the background? Oh, that's nice. (God, somebody get me out of here.)"

     To all those of you out there now criticizing my subjectivity to all this, I will now respond. Yes, there are in fact some nice and polite rich people (Lance Henrikssen, the guy from Millennium, is one. He's also a great tipper.) living in West Van. And yes, there are some assoholic poor people who harass and demean gas station attendants just to feel the evil pleasure that rich people feel. And yes, there are some kind and sweet old people who come in to the station because they are too frail to pump the gas themselves. But there are still scores more of the rich (countless) and famous (Bryan Adams; he doesn't tip.), and petty (Terry David Mulligan; his only tip is to do a better job next time), who don't see young, exploited kids trying to make a living by pumping gas for them. They only see robotic arms that fill their precious cars up with valuable liquid. They only see receptacles of barked commands. As God is my witness right now, under the moon and stars, I hereby give free permission, to whoever in the world reads this, to assassinate me if I ever move into a house in West Vancouver, ever buy a sports utility vehicle, and ever frequent full-service stations. Just be sure, when you do do it, to get a clear shot of both me, and the gas pump delivering my fuel, to ensure a large and beautiful explosion. Thank you.


     One time, when I was washing a middle-aged rich man's windshield, he criticized my method of washing the window. He added that he had been a gas station attendant like me when he was younger. Was that before you 'made it', sir?

--August 1998


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