When I was little, one of the things I most loved to do with my father was go to the gas station. A child of the early 1900s, he called it the "filling station" and he always made sure that he had at least a half tank of gas. He took the filling station very seriously. Shopped around for the best prices. Knew the attendants and shot the breeze with them -- Chicago Lake Effect weather, price of beans and corn down in central Illinois, the youth these days. I kept my mouth shut and listened to the soothing sound of his part scorn/part idolatry of it all.
And when we were back on the road, I memorized the lyrics and Big Band tunes on his AM radio station, "The Music of Your Life." This was safety to me. The thought of women in white gloves, hats and heels, and smart cocktail dresses, and men in suits with slicked hair and doffed fedoras and overcoats...dancing in sync on a parquet dance floor with an orchestra and a cocktail waiting for them back at the small round table in a lowball glass. I agreed: what was wrong with the youth these days....sitting in ponchos and bell bottoms, smoking pot, talking about free love and war mongering? I wanted his youth. And I found it at the filling station.
I used to go there just to smell the gasoline, to see the rainbows of fuel in the wet pavement after a good old fashioned Midwestern thunderstorm, to see if the guy behind the counter might chat me up if I bought a Hershey's bar or a bottle of Coke. Over the years, I became friends with that guy. His name was Bud. He used to give me little plastic animals. One time he gave me a whole tube full of Noah's Arc plastic animals, who gladly joined my china figurines collection that I played with religiously (and now more religiously), in wooden structures I made in shop class. I'm not sure what happened to Bud, but I do remember the look he gave me when I tried to buy beer in sixth grade. Part scorn/part iconic. The youth these days.
Now I live in a small mountain town in Montana. I drive a big gas-guzzling truck because here...it's justified, given the roads we travel and the creatures who travel it with us. Thusly, I spend a lot of time at the gas station. I go there for gas. I go there for a carton of milk. I go there for elk meat. I go there for boxed wine. I go there for conversation. Now my Bud is a guy called Murray. For months he called me Laurie. NOBODY calls me Laurie. One day I got up the courage to tell this kind man with the Peace tattoo and the Jerry Garcia hair and the kind smile: "I'm Laura. Not Laurie." He looked at me in what I would come to know was mock-befuddlement, and belted out, "Hey, Munson!"
Now most every time I come into my gas station, there's Murray saying, "Hey, Munson!" I love this man. Over the years, I've told him jokes, we've shaken our heads over national tragedies playing out on the corner television. He's bought me a box of wine here and there. He even gave me a glass horse figurine that he picked up at a consignment shop. It's clear with cobalt blue inside. It sits next to another glass horse figurine that is almost identical, only I bought it for a lot of money at a glass-blowing factory in Venice. The one I bought is on its knees, struggling to get up, neck craning and stretching. The one Murray gave me...is just a little bit more on its feet. I repeat: I love this man.
A friend once told me, when I was new to Montana, that there are saints everywhere. "Pay attention," he said. "They will stun you with their loving hearts. Just when you least expect it."
Well the other day, amidst all the holiday scrambling -- sitting on the living room rug in a fit of wrapping paper, scissors, ribbons, and tape, my son entered the room and requested a ride to the ski resort in the town where we live. Maybe you've noticed something about the kids these days: they don't make plans. They text. They walk in and demand things last minute, like your whole world revolves around their social life and their techno needs, even if it's good clean fun like skiing. I've got pretty amazing kids. Kids who listen to NPR and write in journals and ring the Salvation Army bell. Still...it's different than it used to be and I've learned that being a mother requires some level of going with their flow, lest we be in constant conflict. So I ditched the wrapping paper, and stuffed my night-shirt tails into my yoga pants, donned my Sorels, and with neither underwear nor bra, I grabbed my big parka and hit the road with my son.
You know that thing they say about always making sure to wear clean underwear? Well...here's what happened:
In the car on our way up the mountain, my son realized he had no money for his standard grilled cheese lunch at the Summit House. I looked around for my purse, and there was no purse. Which meant there was no money. I always leave my purse in the car. I was perplexed. I said something to the tune of "blame it on the holidaze." But then I realized that I had no license, and that just the other day I realized my registration had expired. Blame it on the holidaze? And my insurance card was expired. And...then I looked at my gas gauge...and it was low. Really low. I always keep at least a half a tank of gas, just like my father. And no cell phone to boot. This was so entirely not like me. Holidaze?
I scanned the car for an errant $20, or at least a five. And there under the teacher gifts yet to be delivered on the dash, were two fives. "Here, I'll take one and you take the other," my son said.
"I don't know if I have enough gas to drive the 10 miles home. And my purse must be at home, so I have to go home in order to get money in order to get gas." I didn't tell him about the part where I was driving totally illegally. Not in unclean underwear, mind you...but in NO underwear. Etc. "Can't you borrow some cash?" I said.
But there I was, teaching my child to be a mooch. I humbly took the remaining five. "Don't worry, Mom. That's a gallon of gas. And a gallon of gas goes 15 miles. We live 10 miles from here and you probably have at least enough to get home and back to the gas station." He smiled, all faith.
For some reason, I bid him fondly adieu, feeling like a combo of Debbie Reynolds the later years, and Carrie Fisher, ditto. What happened to me? I thought. Two seconds ago I was in a twin set and khakis, fresh from the gym, with exfoliated skin and lunch plans. Now I am one beaten-up Suburban away from bag lady with no buttons to push, and only an accelerator from which to hope for power. And then I remembered what my friend said about saints being everywhere. And I thought of Murray.
So I pulled into my gas station on fumes, rehearsing what I could possibly say that wouldn't be a total breach in customer privileges. After all...what had I ever given him, except for a kiss on the cheek once when he told me that I was one of his favorite customers. This after I'd spilled my guts about a particular glich in a particular relationship with a particular persona non grata -- also a customer of this said gas station.
Needless to say...I felt like the worst mooch ever. Because I was about to ask him to spot me some cash.
I threw my shoulders back like my father used to do in facing an awkward situation. Walked in.
"Hey, Munson," he belted out. "How's it going?"
"Well..." I confessed, "Not so great, Murray. I need gas. And I don't have any dough on me. And I'm wondering...if I could borrow a few bucks to get home, so I can grab my purse, so I can come back and fill my tank and reimburse you." I looked past his Peace tattoo and into his kind eyes. "I feel horrible, Murray."
It's a great experience going from the false power of button-pushing and bitching about little things like the holiday rush and the price of gas...to actually knowing that you are one step away from standing on a street corner holding a cardboard sign, just to get home. Where is our power, really? Not in buttons. I can tell you that. It's in making those connections with real live people over the course of time. It's about looking in their eyes and past their tattoos and into their hearts. And sometimes, it's about asking for help.
Of course Murray spotted me that cash. Saints are like that.
Look around. Pay attention. Chat with the people at your local filling station. And be filled.