During high school and college I worked at a gas station. This was down in Los Alamitos, an old aerospace breeding colony on the frontier between Long Beach and Orange County. After I finished my degree, I was elevated to the dignity of manager. I made nine bucks an hour, which seemed perfect because the low wage allowed me to defer my student loans for reasons of economic hardship. All the guys on staff were locals. I had grown up with most of them, and over the years I watched as they matured into juco flameouts who lived with their parents and dreamed of maybe someday getting around to starting auto detailing businesses. Not that I was any better. In fact, I was worse. I didn’t have dreams. Usually I worked the afternoon shift, so I could surf in the morning. I loved coming back from a day in the water, feeling exhausted and content and knowing I had nothing to do but go hang out at work.
We were an independent station. The owner, Bill Davenport, came by once a week to sign paychecks and drink beer with his dirtbag crew. We considered his dereliction a form of enlightened monarchy. There was no official uniform. Most guys showed up in board shorts and flip-flops, but something in our attitude, the way we slouched or gazed absently at the passing traffic, distinguished us as employees. There were two islands, each with regular, plus, and premium, and it was pump first—if a customer went over by a couple pennies, we’d let it go. By some miracle a bougainvillea had grown out of a patch of dirt at the side of the old garage, and in the late afternoon its purple, shriveled blossoms would flutter down in the breeze. Sundays were the best. I’d sit for hours in the shade of the canopy, reading the newspaper and listening to the Dodger game. The last bus passed at six, full of kids coming back from Seal Beach with boogie boards tucked between their legs.
It was a golden age—for me, at least—and it ended in 2003 when my mom died. She smoked Parliaments. As a child, sitting in her lap while she talked on the phone or watched TV, I would take the pack from her hands and stare idiotically at the royal blue insignia. I like to think that her habit had a positive and nurturing effect, preparing my lungs for August smog alerts and instilling my manners with a certain air of mellow sophistication, but all it did was kill her.
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