The Gas Station Girl

by Tammy Strobel on August 8, 2011

He had a swagger to his walk and his face was bright red. There was something about him that I couldn’t put my finger on and I hadn’t even started a conversation yet.

He walked up to the cash register, pounded his fist on the counter and yelled, “You people are ripping me off! I can’t believe gas is $1.50 a gallon! You’ve got to be kidding me!” (The customer threw in a few expletives too, but I’ll spare you the vulgar words.)

Then he threw down some cash to pay for his gas, walked out of the station, and pealed out of the parking lot in his blue Toyota truck. My 17 year old eyes were wide with surprise. The way this customer carried himself freaked me out and I was thrilled to see him leave.

***

For over four decades, my dad worked for Chevron. He started out as an attendant washing windows and by the end of his career he owned a service station. As soon as I turned 16, I started working for him as a cashier. I worked for him throughout high school and when I headed off to college I landed a job at a Chevron station in Chico, CA. I even spent a summer working at a station in Truckee too. It was one of my favorite summers because I escaped the Chico heat and explored Truckee and Lake Tahoe on my own.

My career as a gas station attendant and cashier spanned about 8 years and the experience taught me a lot of lessons, including . . .

Don’t be an asshole. When I worked at the Chevron station in Chico, my morning shift started at 5.30. I loved it because the shift ended in the early afternoon. So I had plenty of time to do homework, attend classes and hang out with friends.

However, the problem with that shift was that I frequently encountered assholes. A stream of people always came into the station running low on gas and caffeine. In a lot of ways I felt like a drug dealer. I wasn’t handing out weed. But I was dealing coffee and fuel – two valuable commodities with unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

Not all of my morning customers were assholes, yet the mean people seem to stand out in my memory. Probably because getting berated for high fuel prices and bad coffee was a bit traumatic. Since I encountered a lot of mean people during my cashiering days, I always try to be extra nice to cashiers and customer service representatives because working with the public can be difficult.

Second, always practice patience, even when you’re dealing with an asshole. Getting into a yelling match isn’t the solution. For example, every time I was yelled at for high gas prices I tried to kill the customer with kindness and make their experience at the station stellar. Why? Because I found a lot of satisfaction in doing the best job possible.

Third, have fun! I’ve been working since I was 16 and I’ve had a variety of jobs. Every job has it’s downside, especially if you’re known as “the gas station girl.” Of course if you feel like “screaming or shouting because of job stress,” figure out how you can escape to pursue work you enjoy.

But no matter what you do, it’s still possible to have fun at work. For example, when I worked in Truckee my co-workers and I would time how fast we could do things like taking out the garbage or cleaning the bathrooms. You couldn’t skimp on your task or cut corners. The work had to be high quality. We’d give each other little evaluations and laugh about the mundane nature of our tasks, which made the work a whole lot more enjoyable. The personal exchanges infused with creativity was fun! As Todd Kashdan says in Curious?, “Research has shown that a small shift in attitude can energize us and change how we evaluate activities we previously viewed as silly, stupid, or unsatisfying.”

Don’t let angry assholes ruin your day. Whether you’re a gas station girl or a cashier at Macys, infuse whatever you’re doing with creativity and your own curious nature. Remember, be kind, be patient, and have fun!

Micro-actions: Read Are We Having More Fun Yet? and Curious?.

1 Mark August 8, 2011

Thanks for sharing some of your narrative–it’s wonderful; it also reminds me of my days as a kennel boy in my dad’s vet practice. Not only do animals take on the appearance of their owners–they take on the mood disorders, bitterness, resentment (and at times, freedom & joy) of their masters.

He too, anesthetized customers, by feeding dogs and cats drugs.

There are two types of people in the world: those who’s mood is dictated by the price of gas; and those who’ve found a way (or a reason) to let it go. There is also a third type: the person who can see a tragic and/or comic story behind the lamentations of an asshole.

Great story/reflections,
M

2 Tammy August 8, 2011

Thanks Mark! And thanks for sharing a little bit of your narrative too. :)

3 Sandra Pawula /Always Well Within August 8, 2011

Tammy,

This is a great mini-primer on transforming anger and cultivating patience. Meeting anger with anger only causes us internal distress. Only love and kindness can truly transform anger. Patience is their partner! You have a great attitude.

4 Tammy August 9, 2011

Thanks Sandra! I recently stumbled across this quote from, Elie Wiesel, about love & indifference:

“The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference.”

I thought you might like it. :)

5 Dawn August 8, 2011

Thank you for being nice to cashiers! I used to work as a cashier in various places-mostly Target. And because I know the difficulties involved in keeping multiple unhappy customers pacified (think Black Friday first cash register you see is where you work sort of crazy) I, too, make it a point to not just be nice to other cashiers but to go out of my way on my off days to thank someone who does a thankless job (cashier, laundry attendant, etc). And I was always the one to get the customers and other cashiers to laugh while providing high quality service. I danced when I was bored or doing a mundane task, lol. :) Thank you Tammy!

6 Tammy August 9, 2011

@Dawn – Thank you! :) I do my best. I can’t imagine working Black Friday. Now that is intense! :)

Good hearing from you!

7 Natalie August 8, 2011

Great post Tammy! I’ve recently been experimenting with the “kill em with kindness” route. It’s definately harder than reacting angrily, but it really gives you a satisfaction to know that you are not stooping to that level. Thanks for sharing your experience. :)

8 Tammy August 9, 2011

Thanks for reading Natalie! I can totally relate to your comment. Being kind can be really hard sometimes, especially if someone is being rude. But like you said, “not stooping to that level” is actually empowering. :)

Have a great week!

9 Caroline McGraw / A Wish Come Clear August 8, 2011

:) As a former cashier at The Children’s Place, I second the comments above! It really does matter whether or not we choose to be kind to one another.
Tammy, points to you for your creativity + ability to find delight in your days.

10 Thursday's Child August 9, 2011

I worked retail all through college and you’re right, my attitude could usually affect the attitude of the customer. I mainly remember the favorites, the regulars like my mallwalkers who would stop to chat and brighten my day. I also remember one in particular who grew progressively more frustrated as he waited for us to get the right base in for the color of paint he needed. He had the primer on his house and it looked hideous, waiting for this to come in. And it took WEEKS. He always asked for me, not just because I had waited on him initially but because he knew I wouldn’t blow him off. Also he knew that I knew he wasn’t mad at me and wouldn’t be offended. Unfortunately someone else got to mix the paint for him when it finally came in. :( Figures!

Something to keep in mind is this bit of advice from Proverbs 25:

21(A) If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat,
and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,
22for you will heap(B) burning coals on his head,
and the LORD will reward you.
23The north wind brings forth rain,
and a backbiting tongue, angry looks.

11 Tanja August 9, 2011

I have never forgotten having an open packet of ketchup chucked at my face in the Wendy’s drive-thru window. Lucky for me I had ninja-quick reflexes back in those days and I slammed the window shut before it hit me. :)

I too learned kindness to cashiers in my early job days. It extends out to anyone in retail and waiters/waitresses as well.

I love the story style in this post Tammy. I got cut off halfway through reading it and had to make my way back to finish it. :)

Cheers,
Tanja

12 Fawn August 10, 2011

I really love this post! I worked in an up-end bookstore for years and had angry and drunk male costumers with platinum cards coming in at closing time on december 23rd to buy books for the entire family. It meant me having to dodge their hands politely while coming up with an acceptable profile of gifts, often as many as 20 – 25 books that also had to be gift wrapped. We did not have a security guard, but quite frequently kind costumers would stay on for moral support. I feel I succeeded, but the stress level was intense. I was always firm but polite. I took this with me into the glorious world of software development. Being able to stay calm and cheerful is an important asset, at the same time the very real threath from a small group of men (and women!) who see professional women as free game is always there. This makes me constantly evaluate how kind I dare being.

My best and kindest costumer ever was Ingrid Bergman. I almost asked her for an autograph, but then I though I’d just give her my best performance ever. The memory still makes me smile. Sadly she passed away later the same year.

13 Jim Libenow August 10, 2011

Looking back working in a gas station was one of the best jobs I ever had. There were angry people who thought they could take their aggression out on the minimum wage worker but I did not mind. Most days I just sat behind the counter and peacefully watched as the day developed. Each day I met all kinds of people and had many memorable encounters. At the gas station I was able to read the newspaper from cover to cover, study and write in my journal. I don’t think I have read a newspaper completely since. Twenty years later I find myself looking into the glass booth of the gas station with envy as I fill my truck on my way to a much more stressful work environment with less job satisfaction.

I miss the gas station.

14 Tammy August 11, 2011

@Jim – Reading the paper and writing during downtime sounds lovely. I didn’t get a whole lot of time for that when I worked at the station. But I always tried to do a little reading even if I got interrupted. :) Thanks for sharing!

15 Gwyn Michael August 10, 2011

Love your attitude Tammy :-)

In the summer of 1977 I worked as an amusement ride operator at am amusement park for $1.50 an hour. Minimum wage was $2.20 but seasonal work could pay less. I worked long days in the hot sun and into the dark. I dealt with deliriously happy people, mean people, drunk people, and a good deal of puke. It was not a stellar job, but it it is where I learned to take the high road no matter the situation.

No matter how difficult the people or the work you can find a way to make it fun, or at least doable. I’ve many jobs both professional and retail/service and attitude makes the difference no matter what the job. Being happy is a choice.

16 Tammy August 11, 2011

@Gwyn – Thanks for sharing some of your story! That sounds like a hard job, but a lot of fun too. I’m sure dealing with the deliriously happy people made up for the bad stuff. I also loved your point about “happiness being a choice.”

17 Tasmanian Minimalist August 12, 2011

Always, always, always, a pleasure and an inspiration to read your work Tammy, thank you

18 Tammy August 12, 2011

@Tasmanian – Thank you!!! :) Have a lovely weekend. :)

19 Melissa Smith August 14, 2011

Tammy,

Thank you for sharing your gas-station-girl story. Everyone should have at least one customer-service/retail related job in their life. Those jobs are usually long hours (typically on your feet) and minimum-wage pay, but they’re a great hands-on learning experience of how to be a decent human being (or alternatively – how not to be an asshole).

I was a deli-counter girl, clothing-shop-girl, and an answering-service-girl (you know, before mobile phones and voicemail was affordable!), until I finally escaped retail at the ripe age of 21. I once had a guy YELL AT ME (I was around 17 / 18) for not slicing his roast beef thin enough and insisted that I start all over. I was such a wreck trying to make him happy, while an endless line of people waited impatiently behind him, that I ended up slicing my hand on the spinning blade and bled all over his “thin” meat (ha!). He left empty-handed (I like to think mortified and appropriately shamed for being such an asshole, too). I broke down tears and ran for the break room – out of complete humiliation rather than the fact that my hand looked like a piece of meat; I think I quit a week later. It’s been nearly 20 years, but I still can’t buy lunch meat at the deli. Ah, good times!!

Those jobs gave me a whole new perspective on how to treat people on the opposite side of the “counter”. No matter how badly I want to ring someone’s neck, even if it’s completely justified, I just think about the “roast-beef incident” or the other horrifying moments of my retail career and realize it just isn’t worth it. I’ve been “that” person before and “that” person usually has the least control over the situation, so getting all pissy and up in their face is useless. And the “Golden Rule” ought to be renamed “Don’t be an Asshole”; it would make sense to a much broader audience and the world would be a kinder place! :)

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