When I was 15, I wanted nothing else more than to get a job. A real job. And to be able to drive, legally, on my own. These two items, in my opinion, would indicate that I was now a Man, with a capital “M."
You see, I grew up in a family owned business and on a family owned farm. My parents were kind and wise enough to employ me beginning at the age of eight. An industrial parts supply company, the business catered to timber and fishing industries in a northern coastal town in Oregon. My duties started with sweeping the floor, and grew over time to include loading up orders for customers, taking the annual stock inventory and ultimately driving deliveries. In fact, my parents insisted I get my driver’s permit the Friday I turned 15, so I could begin to learn the stock-and-order delivery routes over the following year. This was how I qualified to get my driver’s license: driving the company’s stick shift Chevy S-10 with my mom on the passenger side of the bench seat for hundreds of miles a day. And during the summer, she coached me through a round-trip tour of the industrial districts of Portland at least once a week, the day usually entailing somewhere around 16 hours or so of driving and stops at suppliers. Sometimes my dad accompanied me on local delivery runs so he could visit key accounts and I could learn the art of sales.
The summer before I turned 16, McDonalds opened as the first fast food joint in our town. I got my workers permit and applied to work there during the final stages of construction, so I could start the day it opened. This was going to be my chance to earn a real wage, not just the patronage of my parents, via employment secured entirely through my own devices. Imagine my sense of injustice when I was notified that you had to be 16 to be hired. It seemed like nearly every other employer in town was a customer of my family’s business, and this was going to be my one and only chance to be hired clean. Down, but not out, I applied to pump gas at the local Texaco that just happened to be right next door to my family’s business (this was in a state that outlaws self-serve). To my surprise and elation, I was hired within a week.
My shifts began pretty gently. I worked 32 hours a week (plus at least another eight hours a week for my parents – it was a family business, after all). All my assigned hours were pretty hospitable. Minimum wage was $3.35 an hour, and that’s what I got. By mid-summer, my ambition must have shown through as I began to be assigned more responsibility. I was put on opening and closing shifts, which included inventorying cigarettes, dipping the underground holding tanks to verify no one stole any gas overnight, and reconciling end of shift cash.
Twenty-five years later, those summer months are shards of memories in my mind, much gone entirely. But a few moments have been woven into my persona, the minimum wage earned by that boy in the mid-eighties paying dividends to the Man of today:
My mom, the saint, riding with me, her 15 year-old-son at 4:15 in the morning so I can legally drive to a job pumping gas that I had secured solely so I could claim employment that was not under the shelter of her wing.
Pancakes to go, purchased from the 24-hour diner in town on my way in and eaten at the greasy desk in the back office between customers, the sweet smell of cigarette tobacco mixing with that of the syrup.
The smell gasoline spilled on concrete by the gallon by a misplaced nozzle, fumes mixing with the heat of the summer sun.
The monotonous squeak, squeak, squeak of the rotating hot dog cooker, like water torture, late on warm summer weeknights when hours go by without a customer. The cloying smell of the nacho cheese warmer.
The late night RV from British Columbia that pulls in at 10 minutes to close, with 100 gallon tanks on empty.
Arguing with my co-worker who is high and has locked himself in the office, taunting me as he eats my pancakes behind the glass of the locked door.
Free gas to the carload of pretty girls on their way to the coast who I had never seen before and never saw again.
The $20 tip from the RV driver.
Selling twenty cartons of cigarettes to out-of-staters who stank of smoke and premature age, in their soiled t-shirts and run down car.
Being so bored you begin to play with a pocket knife. Cutting yourself so badly you should go to the hospital, but can’t because you’re all alone. Telling no one what really happened because it was so stupid.
Catching your co-worker spitting in the nacho cheese.
Guessing how many condoms are purchased by quarter-toting teens asking for the restroom key, their girlfriends waiting in the life size Tonka trucks parked in the shadows of streetlights.
Verbal riffing for hours, inventing new swear words because you’ve used the standards so much they have lost meaning.
Learning to juggle windshield squeegees.
Inventing all the ways we could steal the place blind and no one would ever know, but swearing we would never do it.
Being able to fill five cars with gas at one time.
Making out with a girl, her sitting on the freezer in the back, out of sight from customers, never wanting it to end, hoping you don’t get caught but the risk making it more worth it.
Counting all that cash – more cash than I had ever seen in my life – all alone, after close near midnight.
The pain in my feet and back and hands from pumping gas for 9 hours straight.
Catching a co-worker trying to steal the place blind; watching him get fired because, after a sleepless night, you reported him.
Making plans with friends, where to meet, what to do, after I get off work.
The clean, fresh clothes to change into after my shift and before my date.
The freedom of payday and a full tank of gas. All the time in the world, invincibility of a teenage boy, and the promise of life stretching out before me.
Without the weight of adulthood yet upon me but the sense of accomplishment from the week and the promise of a summer night, I was Man in Full. I remember the warm summer air, shimmering amber as the sun began to set, the fossil smell of gasoline faintly mixed with the cool humidity of coastal air. My curfew was midnight, and I could go anywhere, do anything, the only limits the cash in my pocket and gas in my tank, and an undeniable sense of endless possibility for what the evening, weekend, indeed life might hold.
Today, with the dawn of summer coming, when I sit at a station waiting for my tank to fill, the smell of gasoline triggering my olfactory memories, that sense of freedom creeps up on me, and I wonder: where would I go with this tank of gas and the cash in my pocket?
So, where would you go?