On the Receiving End of a Small Dignity
Occassionally I get gas near my kids' school after I drop them off. It's an old gas station that that has not been updated with the latest and greatest. It's one of the only places I know of that still has those vapor-recovery units (an anti-smog device that seemed to fail in its environmental efforts while succeeding in splashing gasoline on customers).
The neighborhood fillin' station's biggest credential as an antiquated dispenser of refined oil is its lack of a pay-at-the-pump facility. In the olden days you dispensed first, then walked inside to pay, visiting the office only once. But then society, at least around cities, deteriorated and some people pumped, but did not pay. This led to the inefficient and somewhat demeaning, "Pay at cashier before pumping" approach.
Pay-at-the-pump ushered in the best of both worlds. The driver doesn't need to walk to the office even once, let alone twice. And the pump won't deliver gas without a valid credit card.
But what if you are a gas station owner who can't afford those pumps, or you don't like technology, or you don't even want to sell a lot of gas? Let the drivers get a little exercise, fah crien out loud - pay first, pump later.
Which brings me to my relationship to the particular gas station in question and the little bit of dignity I receive when I fill up my car there. I don't remember how it started, when the Russian guy who runs (owns?) the place signaled to me that I didn't need to pay first. Or maybe I boldly waved to him and he relented. But either way, I don't pay first. I pump, and then I pay.
This guy owes me nothing, but yet he bestows this convenience on me. This little dignity certainly doesn't help to pay the rent. But it does feel like his willingness to break the rule for my benefit fires off some hopeful sparks in the universe that always leave me smiling.
Our conversation when I pay is 90% about the weather and 10% about the price of gas. I tend to raise that subject only when the price is dropping.
I'm sure he pays this dignity to others, though I haven't seen it. I feel special. One day an African American women driving a beat-up car drove up at the exact same time I did. That day I did not make the wave or eye contact that initiates his turning on the pump. I walked straight in, left my credit card, pumped and picked up the card, making the inconvenient double round-trip.
I told myself that I was being sensitive to both the women and my Russion "friend." I didn't want to embarrass the women by flouting the perk I was receiving that she wouldn't receive. And I didn't want to expose to the world the secret the Russian and I had, thereby laying open the opportunity for others to claim it as well.
But maybe my internalized racism was being released from its deep well. I don't know.
But despite these complexities, the simple part is that the Russian and I inhabit a world that feels just the tiniest bit more human, a result of his gift, and my receipt of it.