My Spectacular Odd Job: Pumping Petrol in the '70s

In California, we filled your tank, for a while, but then came self-serve and the little booth between the pump aisles where we also sold candy, gum and cigarettes, wiper blades, dip sticks and, unaccountably, those plastic fold-up rain caps, as well as oil cans, gas cans and spouts.

'Grease' is the word

Every morning I had to stack the Vavoline or Penzoil or Quaker State into a pyramid of 10/30 and another pyramid of 10/40. The cans were the size of government-issue beans, and we cracked the metal lids with a beer can opener. I remember loving the color of the oil as I poured it into the funnel, that thick, buttery, golden, transparent, spiraling flow-- utterly delicious looking. Grease on my hands, my forearms, my face, my uniform that wouldn't wash out no matter how much cornstarch or baking soda or bleach or scrubbing with a hard bristle brush. Once it got into the fibers -- enrobing them -- it wouldn't budge.

for Richard

Before the days of self service,

when you never had to pump your own gas,

I was the one who did it for you, the girl

who stepped out at the sound of a bell

with a blue rag in my hand, my hair pulled back

in a straight, unlovely ponytail.

This was before automatic shut-offs

and vapor seals, and once, while filling a tank,

I hit a bubble of trapped air and the gas

backed up, came arcing out of the hole

in a bright gold wave and soaked me-face, breasts,

belly and legs. And I had to hurry

back to the booth, the small employee bathroom

with the broken lock, to change my uniform,

peel the gas-soaked cloth from my skin

and wash myself in the sink.

Light-headed, scrubbed raw, I felt

pure and amazed -- the way the amber gas

glazed my flesh, the searing,

subterranean pain of it, how my skin

shimmered and ached, glowed

like rainbowed oil on the pavement.

I was twenty. In a few weeks I would fall,

for the first time, in love, that man waiting

patiently in my future like a red leaf

on the sidewalk, the kind of beauty

that asks to be noticed. How was I to know

it would begin this way: every cell of my body

burning with a dangerous beauty, the air around me

a nimbus of light that would carry me

through the days, how when he found me,

weeks later, he would find me like that,

an ordinary woman who could rise

in flame, all he would have to do

is come close and touch me.

I was proud of my job. I liked helping people get where they were going. I liked hearing about where they'd been. And when I worked the night shift, after I opened the lid to the underground storage tank and took a measurement with a 10-foot hash-marked stick and recorded it in the ledger, I could sit in my booth and smoke Marlboro Lights and read a book. Crazy.

A friendly place

I never thought of it as dangerous work, except for the one time I got drenched in gasoline. But that was just one day in years of working there, eventually becoming manager, hiring all my friends -- a Jewish rock and roll boyfriend with long curly hair, my gay best friend and womb-to-tomb girlfriend, one of my younger sisters. We never imagined for a moment that the gas, the oil, the brake fluid, were bad things, essence of dinosaur, we were just happy to have jobs with the Douglas Oil Company of California in the early 1970s.

They paid us fairly well as I remember, and as manager I actually got a salary. I don't think we had benefits of any kind, except maybe a discount on selected items in the booth. And after a while, as manager, I told everyone they could wear whatever they wanted -- bell bottoms, tank tops, jeans. It was, what we would call now, "a tit job".

I can't help but feel for those who work in this industry still. If I hadn't managed to somehow, miraculously, return to school -- meaning community college night classes -- gone on to Mill's College to get my B.A., where I wrote a book of poems that, against all odds, got me a job at a university, I might still be there. I would be a "company woman" by now, just like Bonnie who was a roving manager, who dropped by in her El Camino wearing her polyester slacks with the permanent crease, her scoop-necked tank T, her silver-bangled wrists and zirconium-studded watch, to take our weekly orders, inventory counts and credit card receipts, and to check up on us, make sure everything was in working order.

What might have been

Maybe I would have married one of the guys who drove the gas truck and arrived every dawn with a smile on his face, twisting a rag in his hands, a hard pack of cigarettes that made four small dents that wore the cotton away in his stripped breast pocket. He could afford the hard packs.

Back then I lived in a duplex, furniture made from orange crates and discarded pallets, pillows and mattresses covered over with a sheet for a couch or a bed. I cut photos from magazines and tacked them to the wall. I could pay my rent, my gas and electric, food, and still have a little left over. I felt lucky as hell. I lived an unexamined life.

Without an education I was working to survive. And I did, if not in style, in practical terms, and in spirit. If I had little, I had my pride. I was a woman doing man's work -- even if I wasn't being paid the same wage. I knew how to change your oil, adjust your spark plugs and change a tire.

Now, I'm trying to write poems that try to understand all that, now that the oil has been spilled.

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