Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Between the click of the light and the start of a dream
I believe newspapers should introduce you to the people you might refuse to see -- either by accident, choice or habit. In Oregon, attendants pump your gas for you. I usually use that time to sneak a few pages of a book, text a friend or scribble something in a notebook. Thank god I have a job that allowed me to stop and meet the workers instead.
Here's a story I wrote that ran last week:
Gas across the street is 19 cents cheaper. But Donald Bateman and Tom Machen have built up a loyal following in the 12 years they’ve worked the pumps at the Shell Station in North Portland.
Together, they earn less than $20 an hour. They don’t get free gas. They don’t accrue vacation. They just believe the gas station at North Lombard Street and North Portsmouth Avenue fills an important spot in a community.
Even the most modern, on-the-go lives must stop, refuel. When Machen and Bateman talk about a decade of pumping gas, they don’t talk about making cars go. They talk about the moments in-between, when life pauses and offers a chance to connect.
They’re taciturn, the kind of guys you’d take for rough-necks as they filled your tank if you just sat there eating an apple and texting, as one woman did. But roll that window down further, longer, and you’ll meet men as sensitive and fervent as they are wisecracking.
In the breakroom, a sign hangs over the pot of Folgers that Bateman brewed when he unlocked the station at 5:45 a.m. that reads: “Even your most loyal customers have a choice about where to take their business.” It’s his guiding principle, Bateman says.
One September morning, a little old lady driving a mid-80s Chevrolet Celebrity pulled in. Machen slipped on his gloves — pumping gives him calluses — as Bateman went to meet her.
“This gal’s gonna be a fill V-power (premium gas) cash,” Machen said. And sure enough, she was.
The lady comes by once a week, always in the morning. Before he died, her husband told her that’s when you get the best deal, she said.
The surrounding two-mile stretch of Lombard has five stations. About 17,000 cars hit that pavement at 35 miles per hour or more every day, according to state records. Machen and Bateman distinguish themselves with what they call “person-to-person contact.” They remember names and fueling preferences. They wash every window. They celebrate birthdays.
Few drivers tip, though sometimes the pumpers take home about seven bucks a day. At Christmas Eve, they take home nearly $50.
When they talk about the station now, they sound like men talking about a noble cause. But neither dreamed of this life.
Machen, 49, was newly divorced with a child support payment due when he started in 2000. The station was a Texaco then, and when Machen asked about the help wanted sign in the window, the manager put him to work right away. Three days later, she had a car accident, and he became the supervisor. He hired Bateman, now 42, two years later. That job had three finalists, and he chose Bateman because he had driven from Carlton for the interview. Anyone willing to drive an hour for an interview to pump gas would be a loyal, hard worker, he figured.
They hit it off, and as the decade passed, they began to spend more time together. Machen comes to work an hour early just to talk the pre-dawn quiet away. On the Saturdays when Bateman isn’t out of town for a bowling tournament and Machen isn’t away at a wrestling match, they meet in the breakroom for a cup of Folgers.
“He’s the only person I really get along with,” Machen said. “Him and my tag-team wrestling partner.”
Out at the pumps, Machen looks like he’d get along with anybody. He trades school pictures of his daughter for snapshots of customers’ kids. He once got in trouble for dancing between the aisles. He smiles through a thick goatee when he talks about The Joker, a 40-something man who used to bring them donuts when he pulled in for his daily $7 top-off.
But the pumpers grow quiet remembering the day another customer — Grandpa — stopped bringing his Buick LeSabre in for his twice-a-week fill.
Grandpa’s daughter showed a week later with news that a semi-truck crashed into the LeSabre as Grandpa tried to make a left on North Columbia Boulevard. Grandpa did not survive.
“It’s tough,” Bateman said. “You get to know the regulars. Then one day, they just don’t show up.”
“After Grandpa, I didn’t even want to get to know customers for a while,” Machen added. “It’s just too hard to lose them.”
The Shell keeps a reader board up for community announcements. They memorialized Grandpa, and other regulars, there. Every few days, drivers see a new rest in peace, happy birthday or dinner special announcement. Once, a man proposed to his wife on the sign. A family welcomed home an Iraq veteran there, too.
But plenty of people ignore the board and ignore the pumpers. While Machen washes their windows, some avoid contact. Others push cash through only a barely cracked window.
Machen jokes that if he ever writes a book, he’ll call it “STUPID PEOPLE: It’s just common sense.”
Over that first cup of Folgers, sometimes the pumpers shake their heads talking about the guy who urinated in the car wash or the truck drivers who use the parking lot as a u-turn hub. Customers want to pump their own gas. They complain about the price.
Machen has an answer for that.
“‘I don’t make it,’ I tell them,” Machen said. “ ‘I just pump it,’¤”