Cary’s classic column Tuesday, Mar 18, 2008
I have a feeling maybe I should move to the city, but I like my job, I like my town and I like my family.
I have several concurrent problems for you. Bet you can’t wait. Firstly, my job … I work in a small gas station as a cashier. My job is like a pair of slippers. It’s comfortable. The pay’s peanuts, it’s easy, the hours suit me and it’s totally unchallenging. Frankly, a monkey could do it. I get on with my boss, I like the banter I have with the customers, and sometimes it’s quiet enough that I can just read a book. But is this reason to stay? I have had some terrible jobs in the past. In fact, virtually all of my previous jobs were awful. I have had so many terrible jobs in fact that I am scared of getting a new one.
Added to that, at 26 I still have no clue what I want to do. In fact I got so tired of thinking about it that I consciously stopped thinking about it altogether about 12 months ago. I got the simplest job I could find and vowed to give myself a break. During that time, I’ve become a different person. I appreciate little things now (like chatting to many different people who pass through while I’m working) and take time to go for walks, write, drive around without having a destination. I get by on little, I am no longer materialistic, and I’ve learned how to live simply. In fact, I enjoy the simple life. It humbles you. I definitely don’t envy my friends in high-stress jobs. However, financially, I probably need to earn more money. That’s if I ever want to clear my debts and find a halfway nice place to live. Somehow, though, I can’t make myself do it. I don’t have a clue what to do next. I can’t think of a single career that I’d be right for. Added to which, I have had a pretty checkered career history, consisting almost entirely of dead-end jobs/career gaps.
OK, wakey-wakey! Problem two. I moved back to my hometown a few years ago, due to financial pressure. However, the longer I’m around, the more I want to stay. This is odd, because I was always so desperate to get away when I was younger. However, as I get older, my family is more important to me, and whereas I was once crying out to get the hell away from them all, now I don’t think I want to be hundreds of miles away. I’m pretty close to them now actually. The only problem with this is that I am gay and this isn’t really the sort of place where you meet any guys. But I just hate the idea of moving to a big city because my sexuality dictates that I must. I’ve never been defined by my sexuality and I ain’t a city person either. I like calm places, nature, landscapes, and I feel at home when I’m close to that.
I realize the answer is simple: Either go or stay and live with the decision. But it’s hard to actually decide. And just to make it all a little more interesting, I’ve fallen for a gardener who fills up where I work. I used to know him a little when we were younger, but it’s not always easy for a guy to ask another guy out, especially in this sort of a place. I have no idea if he’s gay. It all gets me to thinking, is there ever any end to our problems, or do we just replace every one solved with a new one. Goddamnit!
There’s something wonderful about your letter. Partly it’s the tone. It is so quiet. You are not screaming about the uselessness and unsuitability of your life. You are just thinking out loud about the possibilities. You have that same vague unsettledness that many of us have, the quiet restlessness and curiosity. But your nature has brought you to this place. It is not unsuitable. It is your place. There is much about it that suits you. That is what is attractive. You know what you like and much of what you like is here in this town. That is attractive.
There is also the presence, within this balanced situation, of one thing that makes you out of place; there is this one issue, this gardener, and the fact that you are gay.
So we like the setup: an orderly existence with a modicum of tension and a mystery at the center: Who is the gardener? What will he say?
The scene you suggest has a cinematic quality. People drive in slowly and stop by the pump. They get out and pump the gas. They come in to pay or to buy a quart of oil or some gum, or they pay by credit card at the pump and drive off. Life proceeds by repetition. Maybe there is a lull after each fill-up, or maybe the fill-ups go on constantly with a lull now and then. It gets busy and it gets slow. When it gets slow you are behind the counter reading “Madame Bovary,” or some old Tarzan pulp, or a French detective novel.
Now I am adding things. It is your story but I am adding things — because imagining you in the gas station makes us remember things.
As children on a long trip in a car we experience the gas station as a place of peculiar power and mystery.
We have been sleeping; we wake up and look out; the car has slowed down; we are coming into somewhere strange and different; a tattooed young man in tight jeans, a greaser from a small town, comes out to pump the gas. He grinds his cigarette butt into the concrete floor of the garage with his boot heel, walks slowly to the driver’s side window and ask if you’d like him to fill it up; he pumps your gas, cleans your windshield with a spray bottle and a blue paper towel, pops your hood (it makes a squawk because the hinges need grease), checks your water and checks your oil. He says you’re a quart low. You say, go ahead and add a quart of 10W-40.
Sometimes you pull in and run over the bell switch and the gas station attendant does not come out. You sit there in the heat wondering where he is. He might be on the john. He might be eating a sandwich. Eventually he will emerge from behind the garage. Once when I was a child traveling through the South with my parents on a hot Saturday afternoon we drove over the bell switch and sat for many minutes. Finally the mechanic emerged from behind the garage, grinning, and his girlfriend peeked out from the side of the white gas station building as he hitched up his pants, buckled his belt and pumped the gas. In the front seat, my mother looked at my father. The girlfriend’s hair was tousled. Her eyes were bright. The mechanic looked down at the ground as he pumped the gas and raised the hood and checked the oil and water. We were a quart low. He poured in a quart of 10W-40. He did not need to use a funnel. He poured it straight into the crankcase with a steady, grease-blackened hand.
So we have memories of gas stations. Those of us lucky enough to have traveled by road when gas stations were still on small roads in small towns remember the mystery and the quiet.
Imagine, by contrast, if you were to think to yourself, Well, I’m a gay man, so I guess I’d better move to San Francisco and sign up for all the activities.
Imagine giving up your family and the land you love; imagine giving up this life where you enjoy casual conversations with people as they drift through the gas station; imagine taking a new job in a big city and being unable to read because there are all these things that have to be done right now because it’s a big city and it’s an important job. Imagine trying to play a role that doesn’t feel right for you — and imagine choosing to do that when you don’t have to!
I think you summed up the situation nicely when you asked, Is there not ever any end to our problems? We do replace every one solved with a new one. But I must say your problems sound fine. Your problems are manageable and contained, and you basically have an enviable situation.
Sure, you are in some conflict. You cannot know the future or see inside other people’s heads. So you cannot know if you are going to get to know the gardener better; you don’t know if he will turn out to be also gay, and interested in you; you cannot know that. All you can do is get to know the gardener. Get to know him as a friend. Detain him in some conversation long enough to determine what his interests are and so forth.
Basically, I’d just say, don’t muck it up. Stick around. I was watching the waves the other day at the ocean and I thought to myself, stick around for the credits. Let’s stay and see how this turns out. Let the wave wash completely up on shore, and watch how it slowly retreats. Watch it the whole way. Notice the details — the foam, the ripples, the reflections. Here’s another wave. Watch it develop. Watch it unfold. Stick around for the credits.
Enjoy this. Maybe you can stretch it out. Maybe you can be one of those people who actually has an OK life for a while. Change will come. There’s no need to rush it.