The summer of 1981 liberated me from the pernicious influence of obesity. I graduated from high school, still one of the low points of my life. Still in the mindset of home, I didn’t think of international travel. That lay out of the reach of my pocketbook. I was raised to keep my place, and my place was at a job. I took up a gas pump handle and went to work at a place whose acronym stood for “Friends in Service to the Cars of America.”
The heat came early and stayed late. By June, 100 degree days followed one after the other. Every morning, the newspaper told of old people dying, shut up in their apartments. Construction workers collapsed and died on the job died. Out on the drive at FISCA, we withered and had it not been for the paneled roof above the pumps, one of us might have died as well.
We sold gas. That was it. No pop or candy bars. There were no hot dogs sweating on rollers. The station had 12 pumps. We pumped gas. We didn’t wash windows. We sometimes checked and added oil or power steering fluid when we needed to make up for shortages in the till. I worked in a crew of five: the station manager, three guys who split up the evening shift, and me. The manager and I were on the drive at 6 a.m. and worked until 3 p.m., after which we cleaned up and did the books. The night guys came on at 3 and worked until the station closed at 10 p.m.
I worked fifty-six hours a week at minimum wage, $3.35 an hour, plus overtime. I was bringing home more money than I ever made. I learned financial discipline early on. I let myself have $20 a week for drink and gas for my car. I cashed the rest. I was able to pay my first year’s college tuition and buy books with what I saved.
We wandered the drive with wads of bills in our pockets and change-makers on our belts. The job consisted of pumping gas, lots of it. Ninety-five percent our sales were cash. There was incentive to be precise. The manager, Bruce, did the books every morning. If the numbers came up short, all of us had to split the bill.
Mornings, I walked from my house the mile and some to the station. I’d walk down Stateline to 103rd Street, take a right, and walk past the shopping center and the McDonald’s. Car dealers now sprawl over the length of 103rd Street, but at the time I worked at the station, Indian Creek and woods bounded a long length of the street. By 8 a.m., a constant line of traffic would fill the street. But in those precious moments before I got to the station, the street stretched out empty in front of me. Owls hooted in the trees down by the creek in the twilight.
After a month or so, feeling of anticipation and dread accompanied me on the walk. I knew the day would be hot and long. I swung my paper lunch bag in one hand and a jug of water in the other. The jug, no matter how much ice I filled it with, wouldn’t last. By 9 a.m., that water would be warm. Then, by about ten, I would have drunk it dry, which meant I had to get water from the spigot on the outside of the bathroom. Not only was it hot, it tasted like rust and dead birds.
I always hoped for a busy day. There was nothing worse than whiling the day away having to look busy. We had to clean and sweep, that was part of the job. Those duties only took a few minutes. To make up dead time, we’d clean the windows in the doghouse, a little metal and class enclosure that stood in the middle of the pumps. We swept again. No one ever used the bathroom, but we cleaned it anyway.
Bruce never said, “Time to lean, time to clean.” But crotchety station owner or Bruce’s boss took up surveillance in the parking lots across the street. If we stood around too long in one place, Bruce would hear about it.
The station owner and Bruce’s boss constantly watched us to make sure we weren’t stealing gas. It was almost impossible, given the business at the station, which really picked up and had us jumping all day after 7 a.m. Still, they feared that we might get away with something. So, we stayed on our toes, sweeping and re-sweeping when the business was slow and huffing and puffing, running between pumps when we were busy.
I notice a couple of weeks after I started that I was losing weight. I shifted my diet from whatever I ate at the time to a quart of eggnog and a salad every day. The fat melted off of me. I started working at the station weighing 250 pounds. By the middle of July, I was down almost forty pounds. I remember because I weighed myself the morning of the Hyatt skywalk collapse. Bruce and I stood at one of the pumps listening to the news on the radio. My overalls, which once fit me tightly, hung on me like a sack.
The hotel disaster that killed 114 seemed to have occurred on another planet. The station was going to open, and we would have to pump gas all day. We kept up with the radio when between periods when cars lined up on the drive. We were gas station attendants. People wanted gas. We served it to them. The tragedy would have to unfold on its own.
I continued on that diet until the end of the summer. The first day of college that fall, I weighed in at 180.
Six days a week, my routine was the same. I woke at 5:15 and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. I made lunch. At first, it was a baloney sandwich with mustard and a baggy of chips. Once I got caught up in the euphoria of losing weight, I took an apple and an orange in my paper bag. I walked to the station and pumped gas for eight hours, the heat and the fumes staving off hunger. I arrived home again at 4 p.m. after closing out the shift. I took a nap and read the paper. Around 6, I made and drank my eggnog and ate my salad.
Every night, I hooked up with my friend Mark and headed over to Kansas to get a couple of six packs. We drank them hard and fast. I had to be in bed passed out before 10 p.m. if I was to get over the drunk and pump gas all day. How I lost all the weight drinking as much as I did was testament to how difficult that job was and how little I ate. How I was able to drink every day and still stand up in the heat for nine hours showed just what an 18-year-old body is capable of.
When I came out of that summer, I was a changed person. No longer the fat, lumpy lug in the mirror, I wore jeans that were several inches tighter in the waist. I had hardly talked to my family in three months. I was on my way to work before dad got out of bed and was gone on my night’s drinking binge by the time he came home. I can’t remember interacting with my siblings that summer. It’s as if they were part of a stage background. I learned how to work with a crew of equally exploited men. While I would go on to work a number of crummy jobs, this one transformed me.
I bounded out of that gas station on my last day full-time day. (I would work at the station for another year part-time.) I had been baptized in heat and gas fumes, in protestations from angry customers and overweening station surveillance. I went in one of end that summer a scared, overweight kid still dependent on his home and family. I came out on the other end seventy pounds slimmer. I had confidence in myself. I liked myself better.
When I took up my books for the first day of school, I entered my adult life. Gone was fealty to family and the feelings of inadequacy from four years of hellish high school life. I was an adult and nothing but myself could stop me.