I’ve been working into the late evening shift, getting done at about 11:30 PM. I’m usually by myself at the gas station during the last hour or two. I like to spend those hours doing the end of shift paperwork and just winding down from the torrents of customers coming in seeking sugar, fat, alcohol, nicotine, and the lure of winning millions of dollars.
But for the past four nights, I’ve been visited by a man who has begun damaging my calm. He’s not loud and boisterous. I don’t have to keep a close eye on him for fear of shoplifting. He is simply a man who is as different from me in every way that matters as one man could possibly be.
It began on that first night. He entered the store. I was by myself behind the counter. I gave my usual greeting that I give to people who come into the store – “Hello, how are you tonight?”
He answered, “Well, I’m feeling very downcast, mister.”
And then he looked me in the eyes through his thick glasses; a frown chiseled into his face. He was an older man. I would guess in his sixties. He was slightly built, but bulked up by a plain jacket, had a plain haircut. His shoes were probably from Payless. His plain jeans were patched. I was able to gather all of this information because he stood there awkwardly staring at me for about twenty years.
He was between me and the exit door. I had to talk to him. “Uhh,” I said. “Is there anything I can get for you?” I already knew he had filled up with gas outside, but he obviously wanted more than just to pay for gas.
“Just gas today sir,” he said. He pulled out his wad of bills, cards, and receipts that were held together with a couple of rubber bands, and he paid for his gas.
But he didn’t leave. He stood staring at the empty newspaper stand, despite my brain screaming at him as loudly as it could to go away. A few long moments later he said, “I hope they do what they say they’re going to do.”
Welp. I guess he wasn’t going to leave until I swung at the grenade he just tossed at me. I said, “What do you mean?”
“The legislature,” he said.
God dammit. He’s going all political on me? Dude, I’m just the guy behind the gas station counter. There’s a real big chance that I don’t at all care what you think. But I plowed ahead to get this over with. “What about the legislature?” I said.
“There’s a bill to reduce the pay of the Iowa Supreme Court justices down to the same level as legislators. If they’re going to legislate from the bench, then they should be paid as legislators,” he said.
I knew where this was heading, but I was on the job. I put up my shields. I would not get into a shouting match with him. I just stood, looking at him with an eyebrow cocked.
He continued, “You know what the Supreme Court did three years ago, right? They redefined marriage despite the will of the people.”
“I know what happened,” I said. I left out the part that I had been a groomsman in a gay marriage the year before. I did that in case he went religious wackaloon on me and decided to leap across the counter for an ad-hoc exorcism.
“I weep for this nation, Matt, I really do,” he said to me. “I shed tears over it daily. Everything is getting worse, and I don’t know what’s going to happen to our children.”
“Is there anything else I can help you with?” I said to him, staring him in the eyes.
“But I believe in the power of prayer!” he said, leaving the store.
What. The. Fuck.
Look, about half of my friends are gay. I fervently believe in equality rights for everyone. I got angry at this man. I could not fathom how he could put so much negative energy into a ‘problem’ that would not affect him in any way. Was he being forced to gay marry? Was his marriage failing now that other people were being allowed their rights?
I will admit something that I’m not proud of. When he left, I laughed out loud into the empty gas station. It was just ridiculous to me, and I felt a not-insignificant rush of schadenfreude. His hate and negativity against my friends were causing him such grief and heartache, and I felt that he created and deserved his own despair. (Just so we’re clear, I’m only not proud of the schadenfreude part of this. I no longer take pleasure in his grief, but I still think it is deserved.)
The next evening, he came in again. He saw that I was looking out the front windows with binoculars to write down license plates of cars that weren’t paying at the pump. (It’s in case of drive-offs. I can’t call the police without at least some information. And yes, it’s dumb to not have prepay-only pumps. Not my decision.) I happened to have written down his license plate.
“What are the binoculars for, mister?” he asked.
“There are some dishonest people out there,” I said. “Just a precaution.”
“This is a fallen world,” he said, reminding me that, by the way, we’re all doomed. He continued his rant about how fewer and fewer people were going to church and that it’s just terrible out there.
I wanted to tell him that the number of people killed in wars, the number of people in poverty, the number of people starving, the number of people dying of preventable illnesses are all at their lowest point in recorded history. I wanted to tell him that, in fact, this world is a wonderful place to be. Yes, there are many things that need to be fixed. It’s far from perfect. But us humans have been making it so much better, because we can. Because we want to. We’re living twice as long as we used to because we invented agriculture, plumbing, soap, vaccines, and antibiotics. We’re making our way of life so much better.
So what was this guy’s problem?
I have a hypothesis. It is religion – and only religion – that makes this man such a negative cloud of emotion. He’s getting proclamations from the pulpit (and likely ignoring or blocking out any other information that would tell him anything other than what his religion would tell him.)
And then there was last night. I think he noticed that the last couple of times of talking at me wasn’t effective in getting me to really interact with him. He began the same way, lobbing that damned grenade.
“Well, it looks like I’ll be heading to Ohio after all,” he said to me out of nowhere.
“Oh? What’s in Ohio?” I said.
“My daughter,” he said. “She’s annoyed with me.”
I raised my eyebrows in mock surprise.
“In fact, I’d say she doesn’t like me very much at all. I’m heading out there to mend fences.” He looked down sheepishly.
Huh. The guy needs someone to talk to. I bet he’s burned all the bridges to anyone that might have listened to him before. And here I was – a captive audience. “Family is important,” I said. “I hope it goes well for you.”
“You’re right, it is,” he said. “Thank you.”
So there it was. Something we had in common. We loved our families. He was human after all.
That’s why I can no longer take pleasure from his misery. He strongly believes in things that I utterly disagree with, and I will fight against any and all of his politically and religiously motivated schemes to try to infringe upon the rights of my friends. But he’s still just a man. He’s broken and misguided. He’s wasting his life. He wants to love his family, and he wants them to love him back. I hope he does reconnect. I hope it changes him. I hope he at least starts to spend his time and energy on positive things.
I anticipated that this post would delve into my own family. How I’m one of a few atheists in a family that also has some very devout Christians. But when I think about this man, and I compare him to my family, I see that there is no comparison. I love my family and they love me. I disagree with some of them on a few things politically or religiously, but we are still family. I must be lucky, because I know of many others who don’t have it that way.
That’s what I think this life is about. It’s about the family who you raise while it raises you. It’s about the time you spend with them. It’s about the friends you choose. It’s about the person you decide to spend a lifetime with, if it comes to that. It’s about how you treat the people in your life.
Just be a good person, and I won’t have a problem with you.