Ramblings: Fill 'Er Up With A Full Meal Deal?

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Comments directed my way at the Sertoma Picnic in the Park(ing Lot) held on June 1 brought back memories from my days as an educator and my brief weeks spent working part-time as a gas station attendant while a college student–those were my ventures into retail until the Sertoma gig imposed itself upon me. My rumination brought comfort to me as I realized I've seldom been a perfect team player, and I take pride in that.

My junior year at Blackburn, my first semester there, I found employment at the Boente Shell Station, located as one enters Carlinville from the east. Judy and I, married in August and planning to live on the $600 we had, lived in an apartment near the courthouse with the golden dome; a dentist office occupies the spot now.

Judy's best friend/roommate from Carrollton rented it for us. At $60 a month we could afford it; it was close enough to campus that we would walk to class; it was even closer to the square; it was close to the Methodist Church we sometimes attended (Judy's idea more than mine), and it was close to South School, where she did her student teaching, so Deanna  did  a good job of choosing it for us. (The  school has been converted into apartments since then).

Now I know better, but we thought $600 would last. Then came unplanned (by me) expenses. A hunk went for drapes. The apartment was on the second floor and the windows had blinds, but Judy felt drapes were necessary. We also bought a small, used black and white TV. Both of us called our parents every weekend. The cash stash slipped away.

About the time soccer season was ending, it was obvious our savings wouldn't be enough. I took a part-time job delivering coal for Curry Coal & Ice. Many of the older houses in Carlinville had coal-fired furnaces, and the older folk would have a pickup load brought to their houses and shoveled into the coal bin next to the furnace through a door/window in the basement.

I enjoyed shovel work. I'd driven pickups since I was 14 or so, and I'd delivered coal to neighbors in PA, even to Judy's parents, so I kept the job for a month or so. Then the battery in our old Buick went bad at the same time the Curry foreman sent me to Farmersville in a dump truck for a load of coal.  I didn't have a CDL. I'd never driven a truck of the size he pointed me to, and I knew it would be overloaded because his instructions were to go up Route 4 to Girard and then right to Farmersville because police traffic wasn't as heavy on those roads as it was on I-55.

Five miles out of Carlinville a warning buzzer sounded; I had no air pressure for the air brakes. I used the CB radio to call headquarters, and a mechanic was dispatched. A coupling had separated, and Shady Joe used electrical tape to reconnect the lines. He assured me that rigged repair would last till I finished the trip before he headed for home, apparently with a free conscience.

I backed under the loading chute, felt the rear of the truck settle as more and more coal poured into the bed, and headed for Carlinville. About ten miles north of town, the warning buzzer sounded again. This time the owner of the company said, "Bring'er on in; the mechanic's gone home. Just keep it geared down, and don't get caught."

It was a long ten miles and I was fearful of someone pulling out in front of me or a bicyclist or pedestrian playing frogger with the truck, assuming I had brakes and could stop in an emergency. I pulled into the yard in second gear, crawled out, and went home, never to return.

That sent me to the Shell station, though, managed by George Mefford. George's slogan was, "Let George do it," and he could. When I bought the battery (I had a Shell credit card), I hinted at looming financial difficulties, and he offered me a job. In 1968 Shell was a full-service station. My job, when I was on duty, was to hustle to the car, pump the gas for the customer, wash his windshield, and offer to check the tires, the oil, and the radiator. Often there were two of us on duty. I often worked with a high school student, Jerry Black, who lived between Carlinville and I-55. I usually wonder what happened to him as I pass the house in which he lived. George worked in the garage; he taught me to change oil, grease cars, take tires off rims and install them on rims, and patch tubes. He thought I learned quickly. Since I'd worked around equipment on the farm, very little of it was new.

When I first started, I asked customers how much gas they wanted (and what octane) as they rolled down their windows. Often the answer would be, "Give me a buck's worth of regular." At less than 20 cents a gallon, five gallons would last a week for in-town traffic.

George suggested I ask, "Fill'er up?" when I approached a car, and if the answer was "Go ahead," then I was to top off the tank. The more gas we sold, the more money we made was the rationale behind that approach.

Mr. Mefford wasn't dishonest. He told all of his workers that if we shortsticked (held a dipstick in the manner that would show a motor needed a quart of oil when it didn't) a customer, we'd be fired immediately. That was the line to sell products that he would not cross.

I was reminded of Mr. Mefford at the cookout. We Sertomians seem to delight in heckling each other; at times we're the dictionary example of arrested development. Traditionally (not by my choice) I'm the man in charge of the cash box. Our treasurer, Jerry Mehochko, would be a better choice, but the dates conflict with his CPA work schedule. For me to account for the money flowing in is rather like having Bob Fuehne pinch-hit for Albert Pujols in his prime in a critical moment of a baseball game. I'm aware of that, and I feel pressure to perform. Given time, I count the change back to the customer.

Then six customers appear at once, and the system breaks down. I take their orders (and their money) and then repeat the order to a club member standing nearby who has to retrieve the right sandwich, either in a pre-prepared bag if it's an order for a sandwich, a cookie, chips, and a water/soda, or in a bag alone if the full-meal deal isn't the buyer's choice.

To my mind, my duties should then be over. Someone else puts the order together–usually two someone elses because the food is to my right, the drinks to my left. As the guy who takes the order, though, I'm also the guy the customer blames if my compatriots foul up (which isn't as unusual as it should be). I'd take the time to write the orders down if I thought that would help, but then my handwriting would be ridiculed. I've been known to react poorly to the pressure.

I try to keep the orders in mind till they are handed over the counter because invariably (unless it's Mark Osborn, who does listen and anticipate problems) a helper will look at me with one of two expressions–the blank "What did you say she wanted?"–an expression I remember well from my classroom days–or "How dare you tell me what the customer wants? Who died and made you President?" That too is an expression readily recognized from days gone by.

Then there are deliveries. At times I feel like my counter customers are competing with call-in customers–those in charge of taking 16 orders to the x-ray room at HAH by 11:30 organize those 16 sacks to my left; and they, perhaps rightly so, feel the send-outs should have priority over the walk-ups. Occasionally I've had to say to a waiting, becoming hungry crowd, "Two more minutes and they'll be off the grill."

Sometimes those who should be food retrievers become salesmen. If someone else takes the order, I have no idea of what to charge, or of how much change to dole out until the seller tells me as he hands me the cash. Sometimes three people are shoveling $10 and $20 at me simultaneously, and Jerry isn't there to help. At other times the helpers become chatters, completely oblivious to orders shouted at them or around them. On one occasion on the date in question, no one was there to respond to the orders, but someone from the pack of wrappers shouted, "Get'em yourself," when I begged for two chicken full-meal deals and an extra sandwich. Luckily, he was hidden by the pack when he smarted off. That too happened when I taught, and I didn't take it well then either.

However, the most grievous admonishments came from one of the bag men (it wasn't Osborn, but the apprentice who is learning from Mark just as Mark learned from Leonard Zoeller, the legendary bag stuffer) and Dave Imler, who fulfills many roles when he's at the counter, allegedly to help. Both insisted that instead of simply smiling and asking, "What would you like?", I should slyly suggest one of the full-deal-meals because the club makes more money off the can of soda and bag of chips than we do off the single sandwich. It's the Mefford "Fill'er up?" philosophy. They want me to be a better marketer.

I did that for George, and now I learn that it's bad for the environment to top off a tank. I think we offer a soda and chips for the convenience of those who like salt with their sandwich and a drink to wash it down, but the customer probably knows what he wants when he stops. When I pull up to a drive-through window at a fast food spot, I almost resent the speaker's pre-order promotion–"Would you like six cheeseburgers today?"

I have to say "No, I want..." I assume customers would feel the same resentment if I suggested they spend a couple more bucks than they intended.

I am not a good salesperson; I have never been. I'm not always a polite customer either, pushing back when I feel pushed.

Maybe I should use my seniority to bid off the cashbox job to a job where I can sit at least some of the time. I think I'd be a good fetcher of soda–or even a bag stuffer/organizer.

Be aware, Russell; I may bid for your job.

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