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Third shift in the neon graveyard.

Posted 10 October 2003, 4.49 am by VanGogh

You learn things working in a gas station. Hell, you learn things working most anywhere I suppose, but the things that you learn while working in a gas station are different. For instance, a customer walks up to the counter and plops down a lighter, a miniature rose in a corked glass tube, and a box of Chore Boy copper scouring pads. An innocent purchase? Chances are, he isn’t looking to light up a cigarette, charm his sweetie with the rose, and then go tackle some stubborn stuck-on grease in the kitchen. No, the experienced gas station eye knows that as soon as Mr. Customer gets outside, he’s ditching the rose and the corks and keeping the newly purchased glass pipe. Then he’s going to stuff a piece of the wire mesh Chore Boy in, drop in a rock of crack, and get busy with his lighter. That’s the sort of knowledge you just can’t pickup working other places.

Third shift is the devil’s playground. When the sun goes down, all you have to see by is the glow of the neon lights, and often times they flicker just when you need them at their brightest. The ghouls come out to feed, and someone has to be there to charge them their toll. For two and a half years, that someone was me. From 10 p.m. to 6a.m., I was the man you saw for all those middle-of-the-night cravings and emergency goods. A single guy behind a counter of the town’s only 24 hour gas station and mini-mart. No bullet-proof shields. No guns under the counter. Just me, the ghouls, and a whole lot of time for things to get weird in the neon graveyard.

They call third shift the graveyard shift. Most will tell you that’s because it’s so dead. I’d tell you it’s because that’s when the ghouls come out to play. The ghouls I speak of are what you probably think of as customers. And during the day, they probably are. But on the graveyard shift, customers don’t exist. The closest thing you get is a friendly ghoul, and sometimes they are the most dangerous. The night does weird things to people. They become more primal, more susceptible to their base instincts. A guy who would never raise his voice in the light may very well be the one who tries to bash your skull in with a six-pack of beer that you won’t sell him at 3 a.m. Because of that, it’s better to think of everyone who comes in the door as ghouls. They can be friendly, sometimes downright charming. But there always exists that possibility of foul humor, and that’s what you have to be on the lookout for.

I once heard war described as hours upon hours of mind-numbing boredom punctuated with occasional moments of pure terror. I guess that’s as good a description as any of what working the graveyard shift at a gas station is like. You reside in an oasis of neon light, waiting for something or someone to stumble out of the darkness and break up the monotony of the hours slowly passing. That kind of boredom inspires either sleep or madness. I’m an insomniac, so I chose madness. The kind of madness that fades with the light, and whose chief symptom is devilish creativity.

Some of my stunts became things of local legend. If you reach back in your minds a bit, you’ll recall the near hysteria of impending doom that was Y2K. The apocalyptic visions of every computer in the land eating itself and crashing at the stroke of midnight on New Years Eve. In retrospect, the whole things seems silly, a paper dragon that had no bite. But at the time, the fear was very real. Visions of everything and everyone being plunged headfirst back into the middle ages were not only common, they were the lead story on the 6 o’clock news. And when the dreaded night came, who do you suppose was asked to stand a solitary post behind the counter?

I remember that the night was crazy. Normally when I came on at 10, and the place was a tomb. But not this evening. Everyone who wasn’t already at a party seemed to be in our store. They were buying up the bread, the water, the non-perishable food. It was chaos. Many were no doubt in a blind rush to get their last minute supplies back to the renovated Cuban Missile Crisis bomb shelters that their fathers and grandfathers had built. I took one look around and decided that if I were to survive, it was going to take something special. Before relieving the second shift crew, I grabbed one of those handy baskets that we kept by the door and started walking the aisle. First into the basket was a bag of 50 brown paper lunch bags. Then every pack of AA batteries that we had on the rack. I followed that with all the mini-flashlights from our shelves, and then two heaping handfuls of individually wrapped condoms. With my basket full of booty, I headed back behind the counter and began making up my impromptu special of the night.

I enlisted the help of one of the girls who was willing to cover my register for a few minutes, and headed to the back. I opened up the bag of lunch bags, and quickly unfolded 30 or so of them. Into each open bag I dropped one pack of AA batteries, two condoms and a mini-flashlight. When I had them all filled, I set the leftovers aside and took out a black marker. In thick letters on the front of each bag I wrote ‘Y2K Survival Kit’. Then I grabbed a blank counter sign and wrote the same thing on it, and underneath I wrote $10.00. I had done some quick math. If you bought all of the items together, they’d cost you $7.00 . I folded the tops of the bags closed and carried them out to the counter. I setup three or four of them beside my register along with the counter sign and went to work ringing people out.

The first customer I got was a panicky looking older guy with tufts of white hair standing up in all directions, furiously fighting gravity. He was sweating. Beads of moisture stuck to his thin mustache and he kept licking at it in a way that reminded me of a cat fishing for milk stuck on its whiskers. He was buying three gallons of milk, two gallons of water, and a can of cream of mushroom soup. He spied the sign and his eyes came into sharp focus for the first time. He opened up a bag, looked in, and then just stared at me dumbfounded.

Then he began laughing…

He bought two.

An hour later, all of the kits I had made up were gone. I’d sold them all. The next morning I was written up for creating a special offer without prior approval. Never mind that my offer actually grossed the store an extra $100 or so on stuff that was already marked up at ridiculously high percentages. I would have been pissed off, but I knew they’d never fire me. After all, I was king of the graveyard grind. And I had one indispensable quality that they couldn’t do without: I always showed up for work. And as long as I kept doing that, nothing short of blind robbery was going to get me in any real trouble. In my two and a half years there, I managed to get written up 13 times. According to the company manual, you’re automatically fired after your third. Once I realized this, I really turned my creativity loose upon the ghouls.

There’s something to be said for basic kindness. Treat others as you’d like to be treated. They call it the golden rule, and I happen to think it makes for a fine life philosophy. Unfortunately, some of my ghouls didn’t agree. When it’s 4 a.m., and you’re tired, cranky, and lost, do NOT take out your problems on the guy behind the counter. Yelling at him with language that would make a sailor blush is not advisable, especially when you follow it up with a request for directions back to the Interstate. I say this because if the guy behind the counter is me, as it so often was, then I’m liable to send you on your way with a set of directions that will land you at least fifty miles out of your way, and as far from the Interstate as humanly possible.

Often times I’d start them out down the road in the wrong direction, but with accurate directions. If I said they’d pass a blinking yellow light 8 miles after the turn, then they would. But at some point, I’d stop giving them actual details, and just start making things up. You might feel this is rude. I’d agree with you, but also remind you that at a measly $8.50 an hour, my tolerance for assholes was relatively low, and usually already used up by the time they walked in the door. And of all the times I did it, I never had any of them come back to bitch me out on the subject. Part of that probably had something to do with the fact that I had them so lost that they couldn’t have found their way back to me if they tried. But I like to think that part of the reason was also shame in their behavior, and the consequences it delivered upon them. Or maybe they just thought they heard me wrong. Ghouls can be silly that way.

But for all of the tedium, and the amusements that I conjured up to deal with it, there was a price to be paid. And that price was absolute fear. Working at a gas station is a dangerous job. The entire establishment is a large neon target just begging to be robbed. And working third shift, alone, without any sort of security aside from a phone, can be downright nerve wracking. In that business, it isn’t a question of if you’ll have the shit scared out of you, but simply when.

One night I was reading a paper behind the counter when I heard the door open. I finished reading the sentence I was on, and then put the paper down. When I looked up, I was greeted with the site of an obviously strung out guy in his 40’s, wearing a stained rugby sweater and no pants. While I tried to process this, he walked up and calmly ordered a pack of Virginia Slims, a traditionally female cigarette. Leary of turning my back on him, but also not wanting to piss him off, I managed to reach behind me and blindly grab a pack without taking my eyes off of him. I rung them up, and he paid using a greasy fiver that he had tucked in his shoe. He told me to keep the change, lit up one using a counter display lighter, and walked back out into the night. I never saw him again.
On another occasion, I was outside sweeping the islands. This is a menial task that I abhorred, but it was a good change of pace from the confines of the store. While working beside Pump #3, I bent down to grab a discarded coke can. A squeal of tires followed by the unmistakable sound of metal dragging on the road brought me upright. Just as I stood up, a tire flew past and slammed into the stainless steel side of the pump hard enough to leave a two foot dent. When I looked back around, I found an older model sedan sitting at an angle on our entrance ramp from the road. The front driver side tire had come off, and the car was resting on the hub. A police investigation later concluded that the drivers neighbor had removed all of the lug nuts on that tire as revenge for the guy stealing his parking spot. He had driven almost 3 miles like that, and the tire had only come off as he turned to enter the lot. They also figured out that at the velocity the tire was moving when it hit the pump, it would have almost certainly have killed me instantly. Both the driver and I were spared death by mere chance.

Third shift in a gas station is a different world. You meet both the best and the worst that humanity has to offer. I’ve had my life threatened over a cup of coffee, and I’ve had complete strangers give me $50 tips for being a kind face on a lonely night.. I’ve stared into the long hours of the predawn and seen life at its worst, and at its best. But no matter what I’ve seen or experienced, one fact holds constantly true. There’s nothing quite like third shift in the neon graveyard.

Green Mamba
on 10 October 2003, 12.10 pm
As always VanG, your posts are great, but I think (especially with AKpCEP's new policy of biger open spaces) you need to split them up into bitesize bits.

on 10 October 2003, 1.57 pm
The huge spaces between paragraphs is a tad offputting. However, while the post is a bit long, it doesn't really lend itself to being split in two. Not enough meat on the bones to carry it that far.

Damn my longwinded ways.

on 10 October 2003, 3.15 pm
Right, I've sorted it. As I've explained elsewhere, there is a bug in IE that fucks linebreaks up royally when you use CSS letter spacing.

Fucking nazi illuminati holocaust apologists.

on 10 October 2003, 3.32 pm
And that's why he gets to wear to big hat. Thanks Alex!

on 14 October 2003, 2.21 am
VanGogh, When did you break into my mind and steal my brain?

I've worked graveyard, and had a lot of interesting experiences, thankfully nothing quite as interesting as your Near-Death experience with a tire, but some interesting stories to tell. I really know what you mean about ghouls.

I should add, to anybody who's never worked graveyard, it's a life you're either cut out for, or you're not. And if you are, it's one of the most interesting experiences you'll ever have.


on 4 August 2004, 7.20 am

on 4 August 2004, 7.22 am

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This is the shot of a crab apple tree outside of my house. I used thirds and rather than having the foreground directly in the middle I moved it to the left and let the rest fall out of focus.

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Props to Green Mamba for bringing the weirdness


80s candy bars were pretty good

only because i traded it for a candy bar in the 80's.

lol we all know you don't have a soul ghoti

my soul for some carbs...

But of course!


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