Bad Jobs & Bullshit (My Unpublished Essay)

“If anyone comes in here with a gun just give them whatever they want.”

“Well, yes, I was going to do that regardless of what you said. I meant what I should do I after.

“I wouldn’t worry too much about that. We’re far enough off the highway that we don’t get too many people passing through here in the evening. Mostly you’ll get truckers and some of the locals. But it’s pretty quiet.”

But nobody robs the busy Shell gas station. Too easy to get caught. They rob the one just far enough off the highway to get some, but not too much, traffic.

I hadn’t wanted this job at all. I’d signed up to play American Legion baseball in the summer before I started college. I’d made that last-minute decision at the insistence of a University of Cincinnati baseball coach who’d promised me a spot as a walk-on if I decided to enroll.

But I hurt myself early in the season, and so I’d decided that the summer would be my last. I resigned myself to heading to Miami University where’d I’d been unexpectedly accepted a few months before. And I’d do so without any real idea of who, or what, I might become. For most of my life I’d been a baseball player. I expected that to continue. And now that was gone.

So here I was at the gas station hoping for anything that would help me make enough money to hold me over my first year in school. I’d just finished reading Way of the Peaceful Warrior, Dan Millman’s semi-autobiographical novel about finding spirituality while working third shift at a gas station. I thought that sounded pretty good. I needed some spiritual finding. And doing it with nobody else around felt like the best way that I could do that. If I met a Zen master along the way, all the better.

After completing the rigorous background check — the owner asked if my car worked — I left with the job. Not exactly the Zen master approach. Worse, the shop was dry, which meant I couldn’t even get drunk to pass the time,or sell beer to my friends. I was really just working in a gas station, peddling fuel, condoms, lottery tickets, and soda, in no particular order.

The nights would take on a familiar hue. I’d show up at 11 p.m. so very awake, the energy of the evening bustling through me in the way that it does when you’re young. The people who arrived did so with an erratic energy, a fire. The night was possibilities. When everything — life — happened.

I passed the time in those evenings by writing and reading. The solitude gave me the time to write without interruption, and the long nights gave me time to devour the books that I never did during the day. And that time passed the way time does in places like the Shell station: slowly and without air. Time came to a complete standstill in the late hours, the blackness of the night sitting just at the end of the station’s lights. I lived in a well-lit bubble surrounded by a darkness that wanted in and that I wanted into.

When I was 18, I thought I had a pretty good handle on the bullshit. I knew what my life wouldn’t become. I knew where my world existed. Just at the end of that darkness, in the hazy pieces where they light struggled to break through the blackness. That’s where I wanted to live. That’s where I knew I would find myself. The rest of it: that was the bullshit.

By the middle of the shift, the buzz would have faded. The energy slowly leaving the little store as the clock pushed past two in the morning, the witching hour when people returned to their homes. Traffic trailed off. And the people who arrived did so with less kinetic energy. They ran on reserves, fumes enough to get them to their beds.

As day would break, a new energy would settle. The warm, stale energy of routine. Cars would arrive, steadily. The people emerged, well dressed. Kempt. Girding themselves.

I was 18 years old and on the verge of announcing my presence to the world in that arrogant and unencumbered way you do as you make your first steps into it. I didn’t yet realize how little I knew, how big the god damned place actually was, and really how nobody much cared if I showed up at their the whole world party. I just knew that I wanted to make the words I wrote do for others what the words I read had done for me.

And as that last morning at the station came in early August, I watched the sun come over the horizon as I sipped coffee sitting outside, resting against one of the garbage cans that I hadn’t emptied. I watched the cars drive in, one after another. I watched the well-manicured people get out. I watched them pump their gas. Some said hello. Many didn’t.

What I saw was a future that I didn’t want. One that felt clean, ordered, safe.

That wasn’t the last time I’d have a job like that. But it was the first. And so it became profound because you can’t always tell when you’re at a fork, but sometimes you can. I sucked on the Marlboro filterless cigarette and stood there, invisible. An observer to a future I didn’t want. A world where I didn’t belong.

Without any word, I went inside to collect my journal and my copy of The Great Gatsby, which I was re-reading for the second time that summer. I got in my Chevy Caprice Classic, a beastly car, and drove away from that job for the last time. Not sure of who I was without baseball, but sure that I wanted to find out who I could be with the words.

This essay is part of the Bad Jobs & Bullshit: It’s Unlikely That We Will Be Missed, Vol. 1 book release and reading party on Wednesday, Sept. 14 at Metonymy Media. While this essay isn’t part of the book, it’s certainly part of the reading. (Update: It absolutely was not part of the reading because our authors were there…and they were great!)