Most Epic Procrastination Ever

This is a story that I documented years ago, because it was frustrating and funny at the same time. Someday, David will be famous for his ability to turn a situation around for his benefit. After reading this, you will probably understand why!

In 2009 David had some homework to complete on a Thursday, because it was due on Friday morning. He was not yet 8-years old.  At the time my work schedule allowed me to pick him up at home and take him out to look for trains – along with doing his homework. Generally this method worked well; we both love trains and it was a way to keep him engaged. I tried to help him work at his own pace, while setting the goal that the work needed to be completed. The key with him is to maintain his flow rather than forcing my own. But on one particular Thursday, his flow became so funny that I started taking notes. It started when we got trackside in Seattle, at 2nd Ave S. and S. Horton Street at around 5:30pm.

Kurt: “Okay, now that we’re trackside let’s do some homework.”

David: “Not yet. I want to eat first. I want Burger King.”

BK is a mere block away from where we were shooting video. So we watched trains for awhile, went and got our food (Angry Whopper meal / Kid’s Plain Cheeseburger Meal) and went back to Horton. After eating our food and watching a few more trains, it was time.

David: “Not here. I want to do homework at Holgate.”

So we headed that direction, just in time to have a massive freight train go through the crossing. We parked along the side of the road and I shut off the truck.

Kurt: “Okay let’s get started.”

David: “No, not here.”

Kurt: “Why not?”

David: “Because we’re not at Holgate.”

He was right. I had parked on South Lander Street by mistake. So we headed north to Holgate and parked.

David: “I can’t work. The sun is in my eyes.”

Kurt: “Turn your back to it. This is where you chose to do homework.”

David: “…But I need to go to the bathroom.”

There isn’t a public restroom for miles in SODO. No parks.

Kurt: “Then we’ll need to go to Georgetown, mister. There aren’t any public restrooms around here.”

David: “Okay, I’ll start working on it. Can we play at the park after I do homework?”

Kurt: “Yes we can.”

So we headed south to Georgetown.

David: “Where’s my board?”

He was referring to the piece of wood he uses as a tabletop while sitting in the truck.

Kurt: “It’s behind the seat.”

David: “I can’t work without my board.”

We were almost there, so we parked the truck near the Georgetown Playfield. on a side street. I dug out the board from behind the seat. David looked down there and saw something else.

David: “I’ve got Hot Wheels down there.”

He tried to dig a bunch of stuff out.

Kurt: “It’s not time for Hot Wheels; it’s time for homework.”

He managed to dig something out anyway.

David: “Look…what’s this?”

He pointed a Potato Gun at my head.

Kurt: “I’ll tell you after you do homework. DON’T point that at people, mister. Even if it’s a toy.”

David: “Why? It’s not even real.”

Kurt: “Because it’s still not okay to point toy guns at people. Bad habit.”

David: “Where’s my pencil?”

He had managed to lose his pencil between Holgate and Georgetown.

David: “I don’t see it anywhere, Daddy. Did I throw it out the window?”

Kurt: “I really don’t know if you threw it out, mister. Here’s another one to use.”

I pulled another pencil from the visor.

David: “But my pencil had a Tiki eraser on it. I want that one.”

Kurt: “There are no choices here. That pencil is lost and I have another one.”

David: “Okay. What are you writing Dad?”

Kurt: “Nothing mister.”

I documented some more of our conversation on the back of an envelope. Then I went silent and looked out the window for the next 15 minutes, while David completed the three final pages. Total time involved to finish that last 15 minutes worth of homework?

1 3/4 hours.

Most Epic Procrastination Ever!

It’s Gotta Be An Oldsmobile

Olds 442

This story was written originally in 1991, then revised in 1993 – KC

“It’s gotta be an Oldsmobile,” Teddy explained when I asked how he liked my recently-purchased GTX.  “You ain’t nothin’ if you don’t got a 442, Larry.”  Of course, I didn’t like what he was telling me, but anyone who knew Teddy would say that his response was normal.  He had been like that since high school.  I should know; I’m his best friend.

In 1973, after years of college living, I was finally making enough money to get out of my college car.  My rust-bucket ’58 Chevy wagon had seen over 148,000 miles and countless clothes hangers, bungee cords, hose clamps, and retreads.  It made it to the East Coast in five days and on seven quarts of oil, carrying five drunk decision makers of the future.  It went to L.A. in ’71, serving as the Attitude Adjustment Project Vehicle for me and my roommates.  We drove straight through to escape Washington State University for spring break, and with the exception of five quarts of oil, two tickets in Oregon for doing 95, three busted fan belts, and a flat retread, the car made it without actually stranding us.  The Chevy was my only mode of transportation (and often my only source of headaches) for two years of high school and four years of college.  I knew every inch of that car intimately; every inch had needed repair at one time or another.

Because of its myriad of problems, it’s safe to assume that, by the time I graduated in May of 1973, I had made the decision to retire the Chevy. Me and all my college buddies had to drive the worst cars ever to roll down the roads of Western Civilization, and the Chevy was by far the grubbiest.  It only suited our purpose because of its size, and I only kept it because of my poverty.  But now, out of college, I felt compelled to get a car that had the great feature of dependability, with the option of getting in, turning the key, and driving away without going through some ritualistic series of whacks, adjustments, or pumps on the accelerator.   

I got a good job and started saving money.  Putting some away from each check was hard with rising gas costs, but my need to replace the Chevy far outweighed my hatred of paying the upward side of 45 cents a gallon. I didn’t care about gas prices.  The lines of cars that curled around the gas pumps and out into the street didn’t bother me either.  Bad gas mileage didn’t even bother me.  In fact, nothing could stop me from getting rid of that ’58 Chevy.

Combing the car lots, I found a beautiful three-year-old GTX.  The Plymouth dealership was practically giving the thing away.  $1495 was roughly a third of what it had sold for new in 1970.  Gas mileage was the issue of the day and a GTX with a 440 and digger gearing was on an economy death list.  Therefore, the dealership couldn’t unload this car no matter what they tried.  I was able to get my desired price because of this, and a decent trade-in on my rust bucket.  I didn’t care about OPEC; I just wanted something better than I had before.

Teddy disagreed.

It needed to be more than something better; it had to be an Oldsmobile.  He was like me when it came to the gas crisis, which meant he didn’t care either.  But what he did care about was whether or not it was an Oldsmobile.  He was weird that way.  Any time a buddy of ours would buy a car, Teddy would say “it’s gotta be an Oldsmobile.”  We could always tell if he liked the car by the tone of his answer; if his “it’s gotta be an Oldsmobile” had bubbly inflexion, we all knew he liked the car, but didn’t want to admit it.  If his “it’s gotta be an Oldsmobile” was under his breath or had no enthusiasm, we knew he didn’t like the car, period.  After scoping out my GTX for about 15 minutes in silence, Teddy let out a slightly enthusiastic “it’s gotta be an Oldsmobile.”  It was his way of telling me that, deep down, he liked my Plum Crazy B-Body Plymouth, but had too much conviction to say so.

Outwardly, Teddy was never the odd sort.  He was just like the rest of us, drinking the same kind of beer and throwing the same ounce of dart.  But his Oldsmobile fetish really put him on the wrong board.  His first car had been an Oldsmobile, a ’51 Holiday 88 2-door.  The back seat was the size of Rhode Island and was probably the main reason why he now has a daughter living somewhere in Oak Harbor with her mother.  That car was the biggest thing I had ever seen when he got it in ’67.  But as soon as he bought it, all his friends could see that Teddy’s personality was beginning to change.  It was almost evangelical; he would collect data and literature on Oldsmobiles with zealous enthusiasm.  Warthog, his ’51, had many rare and collectable parts installed as our years at Shoreline High School progressed.  She received a full set of Strombergs, side pipes, fire paint front covering a flat-black body, and eventually power steering from a ’63 Starfire.  Teddy, who was the type that never had to study, would spend every available hour on Warthog, before and after school.  It became his obsession, which received his loving touch end to end.  

A conversation with Teddy would eventually get around to Oldsmobiles.  I would be talking about a date or outing and he would usually interject with “what kind of car did he/she have?”  If it was an Oldsmobile, it was all over.  He would go in to something like how the Starfire had a special blend of paint, or how the 442 had a super-stiff suspension.  After his sermons, he was always euphoric, smiling and pliable.  Apparently, he saw something in their marquis that none of us could pinpoint; something called to him from behind the chrome and emblems, and he felt a need to indoctrinate his friends in the glories of his faith.  But Teddy wasn’t always a good orator, and could never make his true feelings known to us.  Therefore, it remained a message that none of us heard, but one to which Teddy had the right frequency.

Just before I left for college in ’69, Teddy began to collect more than Oldsmobile data.  He began to collect Oldsmobiles.  Storing Warthog for awhile, he bought a ’64 four-door 442, a car that was not only hard to find, but also unknown to many collectors.  Teddy’s was an ex-police car, the exact purpose for which the 442 was formulated.  It had a 330, a 4-speed, 4 doors, and about 120,000 cop miles.  When he brought it home from the Everett Police auction, he muttered a dreamy “it’s gotta be an Oldsmobile.”  To an outsider, Teddy’s infatuation with Oldsmobiles would have seemed physical in origin.  But physical love is so shallow and misleading.  No, Teddy’s love for Oldsmobiles was spiritual in nature, rooted far deeper than a lust after a physical body style.  

Something other than design drew him to the marquis.  

As Teddy pursued his own type of education, I struggled through classes that had no real-life purpose. I feel that way because I spent four years in confusion, not knowing when my next meal would be slapped aluminum first on the TV tray. When the stomach growls, the brain doesn’t think.  But getting an education meant more than just going to unnecessary classes and receiving a diploma.  It meant living like a rat for a few years and learning to enjoy it.

Teddy got a job at the local Oldsmobile dealership in the Parts Department right out of high school and quickly became the only one who could find rare or hard-to-come-by parts.  He knew it all.  The dusty parts books spoke to him clearer than to anyone else behind the counter.  

1969 was Oldsmobile’s heyday, the time for “The Newmobiles for ’69” and “Dr. Olds.”  Their 442s were running faster than ever, thanks to improved induction systems, and a little rule-bending from inside the corporation.  Even their station wagons could be purchased with performance options, under the guise of “towing packages.”  As a performance car manufacturer, Oldsmobile was climbing to the top.  Teddy’s knowledge of rare parts carried him right up the ladder with them.

All along, Teddy collected the cars and the data.  It was spiritual.  Each month, he would contribute 25% of his gross earnings to his cars and his acquisitions.  Every time I’d arrive home from school, Teddy would have another Oldsmobile or more parts in the garage of his home out in Bothell.  His third Oldsmobile was a close-to-new ’70 442 W/30 with only 3000 miles on the odometer and a toasted wiring harness from a severe electrical fire.  His dealership had taken it back on warranty and gave the owner a new one.  Teddy bought it for some ungodly low amount and towed it home.  Painstakingly, he rewired and stored the car, occasionally driving it to Oldsmobile shows.

He was a fanatic about restoration.  He would get into what we called “the restoration mode,” becoming a man of few words, and usually limiting a conversation to varied grunts and “uh-hums.”  For many nights at a time he would spend countless hours in the garage on one of his projects.  It was almost as if he was on a quest for something, to create in real life what only he could see in his mind.

Yes, Oldsmobile can be called Teddy’s devotion.  While our friends were experimenting with drugs or singing folk songs at church youth groups, Teddy was spending the wee hours of the night reading Oldsmobile Technical Service Manuals, and periodicals on Oldsmobiles.  He also combed the classifieds from several Washington newspapers, looking for Oldsmobiles and parts for Oldsmobiles.  He made a pilgrimage to Oldsmobile’s R&D Office, so he could see their research and development up close.  We jokingly called his home “The Sacred Shrine of Oldsmobile,” pointing to all the posters and amassed parts that cluttered his garage.  We also referred to Linda Vaughn, the bikini-clad spokeswoman for Hurst/Olds, as “Our Lady of Blessed Acceleration.”  When we bugged him, Teddy would shrug and explain in a determined tone “maybe you guys need to read up.  It’s gotta be an Oldsmobile.”

Since Teddy was so deep into Oldsmobiles, I have to admit that I considered getting one instead of my GTX.  I thought I was starting to see reasoning behind his obsession, and figured if they were good enough for Teddy then they would be good enough for me.  I had looked at a beautiful ’72 Cutlass Supreme before I got the GTX.  There was no denying that it was a really nice car, plush and comfortable.  But I just didn’t like it in the same way that Teddy did.  When I talked to him about the ’72, he replied, “Hey man, that’s a great car.  Rochester made a lot of changes to the Dualjet for ’72.  They ain’t as finicky to adjust no more.  And that 350?  What a puller.  Just watch out for that fourteenth lifter…damn thing gets stuck all the time…” and so on and so on.  Sure, I like the technical side of cars, but after strapping my ’58 together with Duck Tape for six years, all I wanted was a car that went fast and didn’t break down.  For me the Cutlass was too soft and too quiet.  I wanted rugged and loud.  Everyone has their preferences; Teddy’s doctrine wasn’t for me.

I guess that Teddy considered me a sinner after I bought the GTX.  But even some of Teddy’s hardest, fastest iron couldn’t come close to my 440 4-speed, except when he’d catch up to me at the gas station.  Every time I’d race Warthog (by now complete with a Dyer-blown 455) or against one of his 442s, Teddy would scratch his head, complaining “it’s gotta be an Oldsmobile,” which implied that he didn’t understand how my Plymouth could run as hard or as fast as an Oldsmobile, and not be an Oldsmobile.  He couldn’t see Plymouth as being a performance car, since his faith was in Oldsmobile.  Teddy’s sight was narrow and this overpowered Mopar was out of his vision.

Yet, he persisted in his obsession, like a bee against a window.  Flexibility was not his strong point when it came to cars.  He couldn’t visualize anything outside of Oldsmobile or why anyone would want to own anything outside of Oldsmobile.  Time and time again, he would point to the literature, saying “it’s all here in the book.  See?  Read this and you’ll see there ain’t no other choice.”  He refused to believe that my GTX was every bit as powerful, fast, loud, and unbreakable as any of his Oldsmobiles.  Teddy was obsessed, and felt his views should be everyone’s.  His faithfulness to Oldsmobile was getting the best of him, and pissing me off in the process.

But that message kept calling to him, though neither I nor any of Teddy’s friends could hear it.  His shrine grew as he acquired more and more Oldsmobiles.  He was still listening to that inner voice.  He knew something about his cars, but didn’t tell us what that something was.  He thought that his mystic vision was visible to everyone.  

As the years passed, and as he acquired more Oldsmobiles, Teddy began to collect only certain kinds.  One of the most specific was a ’78 Quasi-442, which had a 260 and a Borg-Warner T5 5-speed.  Teddy told me he wanted one for his collection, because its 5-speed was the same unit installed in the IROC-Zs of the ’80s and was worth a lot of money.

Money?

I had never known Teddy to be material.  He cleared it up for me.  “Some guy come by my place last week.  Offered me fifteen grand for Warthog.  I tell him it ain’t for sale but he can buy my big-block Vista Cruiser for seven.”  Teddy’s ’70 Cutlass Station Wagon had only 15,000 miles, and was powered by a 455 and a 4-speed.  “He told me my cars are worth a ton.  And he bought the wagon for seven.”

Then it occurred to me.  Teddy’s inner drive hadn’t necessarily been money, but rather blind faith in instinct.  He didn’t realize, until this guy’s healthy offer for Warthog, why he was collecting Oldsmobiles; he just collected them.  

Well, it’s 1993 and I still have my GTX.  The beautiful Plum Crazy paint job is now chipped and spider webbed.  In the 20 years that I’ve owned it, I’ve replaced the u-joints three times, rewired it once, and had the body straightened after two Seattle accidents, both which ironically affected the side of the car that already had the best paint.  The trunk leaks like a sieve and the windshield cracks up the middle every time I slam it into second gear at full throttle.  Even with these problems, I have to hide the keys from my 16 year-old.  To my son Jeffery, it’s not a well-used piece of crap; it’s a piece of crap with some abuse left in it.  I know that, at the hands of a teenager, my poor GTX would die a painful death pasted to a telephone pole somewhere in Lynnwood.  It’s given me almost 170,000 miles of faithful service since 1973; to have it crunched by Jeffery after that many miles would hurt far too much to bear.

This is why I considered selling it to someone who would restore it and treat it with some respect.  We are now living in an era when old muscle cars get top dollar.  Clean, low-mileage examples of my GTX get well over $10,000 with the 440.  If it’s an original Hemi car, don’t even bother looking at it if you have less than 30 or 40 thousand.  My GTX is no Hemi, and is neither choice nor low-mileage, but it does have the original, unrebuilt 440.  This means that as a restorable, it’s a great deal for someone who wants to take the time on it.  But I found out that it’s not near as desirable as any one of Teddy’s 442s.

Remember the W/30 he bought in ’70 with 3000 miles?  Well, it now has 8500 miles and is worth $35,000.  Warthog is worth about $20,000 (now sporting an alcohol-burning, injected and blown 455 that will lay molten rubber for an entire city block).  There’s no telling how much his collection is worth, considering most of it is stored and low-mileage.  His cars are in great demand because of their condition and Teddy’s devotion to detail.  He knows everything about every car he’s ever owned.  He can tell a guy what plant the car was built in, along with the exact month and day.  He sold his four-door 442 and paid off his mortgage, and then his ’78 5-speed to buy his daughter an ’86 Firenza as a college car.

Needless to say, I wanted this sort of stuff to happen to me.  My GTX wasn’t nearly as pristine as any of his Oldsmobiles, but it was complete.  I hoped there was someone out there who would want my car.

Teddy told me of a guy who was looking for a restorable muscle car and gave me his phone number.  Apparently, Teddy’s collection was too rich for his blood, because the demand and price for performance Oldsmobiles had gone through the roof.  This guy wanted something to restore that he could buy for less.

I could sense the inner voice now that Teddy had followed.  The voice that had pushed him on for all those years was speaking to me, and making me realize that it has to be an Oldsmobile to be worth something.  I listened to Teddy in high school, but didn’t hear what he really meant. His consistent comment didn’t relay all that it stood for.  But Teddy had listened to the voice; it told him to buy Oldsmobiles.  “Buy them for the future, because in a few years, your small investment and your annual 25% offering will become a fortune in your garage.”  That’s what the voice was telling him.  And since he blindly followed, the deities of his faith looked kindly on him and rewarded his efforts.  All this time, his quaint little phrase had more meaning than it seemed.  His collection was now worth big bucks.  Any performance or modified Oldsmobile was like gold.

Although I was sure that my GTX was worth something to someone, deep down I knew I would never be able to get as much for it what Teddy could get for any of his cars.  Still, as a restorable car, I was hoping to get some some good money for it.  I called the phone number Teddy had given me.

“Yeah, I’m looking for something restorable,” the guy said.  “But Teddy didn’t tell you.  I want to restore a 442.  They got that super-stiff suspension, and I already got a Vista Cruiser to use for parts.  The lines of the ’69 hardtop really put a hook in me when I was in high school.”  There was a short sigh of euphoria.

“Sorry, man, but I don’t really wanna restore a Mopar.  It’s gotta be an Oldsmobile.”

Replacing The Sky

E9 Final

Located in Deer Lodge Montana, this EMD E9 was a locomotive that pulled passenger trains for the once-mighty Milwaukee Road.

Bankrupt in 1985 and ultimately absorbed into the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Milwaukee left behind the legacy of a scrappy continental railroad that chose to do things their own way – along with miles of artifacts across the Western landscape. Depending on who you talk with, the demise of the Milwaukee Road was due to bad management or changing times.

Probably a lot of both.

In 2012 I read a blog post about editing interesting photos that had uninteresting elements (tried to find the article again but no luck). The case in point was a picture that the writer had taken of the Cyclone Roller Coaster on Coney Island; it had an interesting perspective, but because of overall lighting the sky was mostly blown out and had no detail. In the post he talked about how he could edit out the sky and replace it with something with more character, like dramatic clouds. The project got me thinking that in my archives there had to be a few shots that could be edited in the same way.

And the E9 shot was the first one I thought of.

The reason was this: the original photo was well exposed on the nose of the locomotive, but suffered from a very bright sky behind it. Not surprising, since the photo was taken with my camera phone. In any case it seemed like a good candidate to merge a couple of photos and make a good one. Adding to the fire was a fundraising campaign being conducted by the Cascade Rail Foundation, to bring a historic Milwaukee Road locomotive to their restored railroad depot in South Cle Elum WA.

I thought maybe I could create something to donate, so they could sell and benefit from the proceeds.

The biggest hurdle I had was trying to get rid of the old sky. Initially I first tried by changing the sky color to one hue and then setting the color to transparency; that didn’t work, mainly because it only made the locomotive transparent while preserving the color I wanted to remoe. I also watched a tutorial video on Youtube, where the person used the equivalent of an eraser to get rid of the stuff he didn’t want. That technique seemed to work for him but didn’t allow me enough control around the edges between the sky and the locomotive. I tried different file types and two different editors. Each tool had a different hurdle to overcome. Help Files for each program – GIMP and Adobe Photoshop Elements 8 – weren’t much help at all. I was either using the wrong verbage to search solutions, or didn’t know what I was doing.

But I sure knew what I wanted.

In the end – after nearly a full afternoon of trial and error – I was finally successful with the following steps:

  1. Change sky in train picture to a single color
  2. Open the cloud picture in GIMP
  3. Open train picture as a “Layer” over the cloud picture
  4. Use the GIMP “Fuzzy Selection Tool” to select the entire sky in the train picture.
  5. Choose “Color To Alpha” to remove the color from the train picture.
  6. “Flatten” image to merge the two layers together

After that I converted the photo to black and white using Pixlr-O-Matic, using one of the filters with extra contrast. The resulting image was then saved as a JPEG file at 360 dots per inch (dpi) to allow for larger prints.

Sure, if someone looks really close at the outline of the locomotive, a trace can be seen between the train and the sky. I mentioned it to a couple of people; one person said, “I see it, and notice that kind of thing in edited photos, but yours doesn’t bug me.” Phew. In a later revision I went in and softened the line.

16x20s of this improved train picture were ordered and looked great!

The Loyal Customer, The Afrikaner, And Other Stories

Old Lighting

For several months in 1987 I worked at a Unocal 76 station near North 130th Street and Stone in North Seattle.

The site of the station is no longer there, with its kiosk foundation and pumps overtaken by a massive retail building. I was qualified for the job because I had gas station experience. This was my third gas station job since late 1984, the two previous stations being farther north on Aurora Avenue N. I landed at the 76 station after working for minimum wage at Little Caesar’s Pizza, and not making enough for even the basics of life.

At $4.00 per hour, standing in a kiosk and taking people’s money paid way better.

Another qualification for working at the 76 was that I knew how to use a till (or “cash drawer”). Managing a till is becoming a lost art; how many people do you know who can count change back from a till without the benefit of a register to calculate the change amount? Years before I learned the skill – which I retain today for no good reason – when I worked for Minit-Lube. The job afforded me the ability to do my college homework while I manned the kiosk.  The work shifts at 76 adjusted weekly, which means that I was working evening shifts and overnight depending on the need.

The kiosk had heat and a toilet.

As I think about working there, it seems as that kiosk was central to where my life had been and ultimately where it was going. All the stories I remember from those days have become part of who I am – what I like, dislike, and consider as wisdom.

Here are some of the stories that make the place memorable:

The Owner

The station’s owner was a man in his mid-to-late 50s. He also had a station in the Redmond Overlake area, in a Sears parking lot on 148th Avenue NE. We didn’t see much of him in Seattle, because he preferred working the other station for one specific reason: “Because of all the cute Bellevue women in their aerobics outfits every morning.” Being attracted to someone is human nature.  The way he described his attraction – plus the look on his face – always creeped me out.

To my knowledge there was only one instance of a “gas-and-go,” where someone stole fuel while I was on duty. The Owner had me fill out a report and didn’t hold me accountable. Most customers were honest; at a job like this, a person saw all kinds.

The Owner’s Daughter

She also worked at the station, sometimes in slippers. She was a petite and attractive blond single Mom with light blue eyes and a yellow Corvette. Even though we were the same age, smoking made her voice sound a lot older. I asked her out occasionally, to meet up for coffee or a drink.  She declined each time.

The Hawaiian

The guy who trained me was a Pacific Islander from Oahu. He arrived in Seattle on UW Football scholarship, but as the story goes he blew out his knee and could no longer play. After trying to put himself through college for a year, he ran out of money and quit.

The Loyal Customer

One day an older gentleman was gassing up his car. He was slight in build and dressed in standard-issue retired apparel. This was long before the ability to pay at the pump, so each customer had to come visit me at the central kiosk to pay – either by cash or credit card (no checks…even then). The older gentleman presented me with his 76 card when he got done pumping; I looked down and noticed that he had been a 76 cardholder since 1939. When I mentioned my astonishment over his long-time membership, he quietly smiled and said, “Back then they used to send me hand-written bills.”

Name Brand Cigarettes

The profit margin on gasoline at a gas station is very low. Seriously. It is usually only a penny or two per gallon when all the bills are paid. Of course, gas stations get a differential if they are open 24 hours (which we were), but any good merchant will try to figure out how to maximize profit from the alloted space and product lines. Our station did that with cigarettes.

There was a spring-loaded reader board facing 130th Street that advertised Name Brand Cigarettes being sold for unheard-of prices (a number that is now lost from my memory). The sign was true; aside from carrying all the standard expensive brands, we also carried value-priced generic cigarettes from “Name Brand.”

Take it from me; they were nasty.

The Smoke Weasel

An entirely new world slides out on the street around 2:00am. One night a drunk total stranger walked up to the gas station kiosk and started making small talk like he had known me for 10 years. His game was very clear, at least to me. Nobody walks up to a gas station guy and starts buttering someone up unless they want something.

“Hey you think you could front me a pack of cigarettes? I’m good for the money…I’ll bring it back.”

I told him no, and his good-buddy tone got quieter before he walked away. I thought to myself after he left that it might have been a good idea to break open a couple packs of “Name Brands” and sell singles from a coffee cup by the till. The Owner said no.

Three years later I saw the single cigarettes being sold at 7-Eleven for 25-cents each. It is now against the law in Washington to sell single cigarettes in that manner.

Sticking The Tanks

Also becoming a lost art is the act of measuring the amount of fuel in the underground tanks with a large wooden ruler – a job called “Sticking the tanks.”  Every four hours or so I would uncork the tank, drop a stick into the hole, and then record the measurement from the hashtags on the stick.  During the same process I would also write down the meter reading on each fueling position, from a dial which looked like a little odometer on each side of the dispenser.  In a world before computer controls these jobs – plus counting the till money – all worked amazingly well to keep an eye on every penny that went through the station.  My end-of-shift worksheet would record and balance all the numbers, to ensure there was no theft.  The Owner wasn’t concerned if the tills or meter numbers were off by a few cents, but got concerned when there was more than ten dollars missing.  Thankfully he was never concerned with me.

The South African

A customer in a Jeep Wagoneer had trouble with her car one evening; at a time before cellphones were prevalent, she came to the kiosk window and asked in a noteworthy accent if she could use the phone. I obliged and asked her if she was from Australia.

“No, I’m from South Africa,” she said.

This was 1987, a time when Apartheid was all over the media. Add that to what I was studying in school: Afrikaans, which is descended from Old Dutch, and still spoken in many parts of South Africa. Being a somewhat unruly student of linguistics, I boldly asked her if it was possible that the use of Afrikaans as the official language was a way to keep the classes and colors separate and the people of European descent in power. “Hmm,” she said.  “I don’t think that is the case”

But her eyes spoke a different message: “You’re an idiot.”

One of the things I learned over the years is to never assume that I know what I’m talking about. I think this life lesson contributed to that idea.

The Old Friend

By 1987 our family had lived in Shoreline for 13 years. One afternoon a friend we had known all that time stopped by the station to gas up. Del was a tall mostly-retired Boeing engineer with a full head of hair and a deep love for God and Family that transcended all else. It was great to talk with him that day; he was upbeat and friendly, asking questions about my sisters, extending his greetings to my parents, and what I was taking in school. I enjoyed talking with him, even if it was for just a few minutes.  Del was receiving chemotherapy at the time for a battle with cancer.

He died within months of that day, and his visit to the 76 station was the last time I saw him.

The Bad Mechanic

Surprisingly, I had worked with this guy before at Minit-Lube up the road, about three years prior.  The station’s Owner hired him a couple months after I started. He seemed like a good kid – amiable, not too bright but willing to listen and follow directions.

But put him in charge of a job and things didn’t go well.

He did a brake job on his Monte Carlo one Friday night, and had worn through the front brake rotors by Monday; actually “worn through” is too light of a term; he obliterated the brake rotors with some unknown force, to the point that the car would no longer stop. He showed me the rotors.  I’ve never seen a brake job go bad in three days, and still have no idea how he could have done it so wrong.  Working at the gas station seemed to be going well for him, until he got fired – and probably charged with a crime – for taking money straight out of the till to buy cocaine.

I think every job a person does should be tackled with the best they can throw at it, no matter what that job might be. Even though I made little money at 76, I had what I needed in life. And what I didn’t make in money, I made up for in life lessons and also learned what I didn’t want to do for a career. I’m happy to have worked there, happy enough in fact to hold the job’s stories for 23 years and then write about them in a document form that hadn’t even been thought of back then.

Rest In Peace, Stone Avenue 76!

Eulogies and Enlightenment

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“So sorry for your loss,” I said while putting a hand on her shoulder. “I learned a lot about your husband today in the service.”

She smirked and looked away briefly.

“I guess we all did.”

While attending the memorial service for a friend’s father yesterday, I heard the wondrous tales told by friends and family, who described this man of 75 with warm tidings and funny stories. Big-hearted. Compassionate, Best Friend Ever. Excited about life. Epic Handshake. Devoted to God and family. Pinochle master. Hard working. An award-winning BBQ cook. Huge sports fan. Enthusiastic singer. Unwavering moral compass. To his friends, he was the guy who got them out of pinches, laughed with them about life, and dedicated much of his free time to teaching kids about baseball or umpiring for their leagues. Even in his last years, while fighting a multitude of illnesses, he went out of his way to help friends in any manor that his physical limitations would allow.

They were describing a man I didn’t know.

In the years that I knew him, I never saw any of those things. I wasn’t on the BBQ list. He had a tendency to bark at or ignore me when I was over at their home. I don’t think I ever experienced his Epic Handshake, or heard a kind word from his baritone voice. My only memory of him in the house was sitting in a chair watching a game. Any game. It didn’t matter what. I tried engaging him in conversation many times, but was shut out quickly – over and over. The reason he didn’t like me may be sad and simple to explain.

I was his daughter’s boyfriend.

While the eulogy at the service was read, and the friends shared their memories, I listened with an ear tempered by an odd combination of confusion and anger. I was perplexed because I couldn’t connect what I was hearing about this man into my own perception of him. Mad, because in a way I felt robbed of ever knowing the moral and compassionate side of him – a side which would have been far more enjoyable to me than the one he ever offered.

I wasn’t the only one.

The people he and his wife attended church or school with seemed to know him better than his own family. His daughter had no idea he had lettered in Football during high school, until the family started digging through his boxes – only to find the awards and trophies which marked his past as a noteworthy athlete.. When he died, friends from church and from the past seemed to spring out of nowhere – ready to share their fond memories of him with anyone who would listen. His daughter smiled wryly during the reception afterward as we talked about the stories.

“There was much left unsaid,” she commented. “He also had an explosive temper.”

It was that temper, along with some unresolved family issues, that made home life difficult for her. I was honored to be the one she called when she and her husband came to town for the memorial. “You were always there Kurt,” she said. “Through all the mess. It means a lot to me that you’re here now.” It was really the first time in thirty-plus years that we talked about those hard days, when the mere act of putting her in the passenger seat of my station wagon for a trip to Dick’s Drive In was enough to make the night a good night. It got her away from a brother who had difficulty expressing feelings in a constructive way. It got her out of the house, and away from a Mom who was very quick to interrupt her Dad any time he started telling stories about his life.

And it got her away from his temper.

While I wouldn’t say that my perception and that of others was an example of pure dichotomy, I would say that there was very little overlap between what I remember and what I was hearing at the memorial. So who’s right? I think everyone is. Their perception was based on years – sometimes decades – as his friend or coworker. One man – who had known him since grade school – described himself as “The Dash in that 1937 – 2013 on the front of the bulletin.” While many knew him during the later years, he was proud to say he knew him during the in-between ones – the “dash” if you will.

My perception of him is probably a product of circumstance or timing. I was “the boyfriend,” a symbol from which he felt compelled to protect his daughter. I also saw him at the end of work days; I recall cringing whenever his brown Ford pickup truck was in the driveway, knowing I would get some sort of grumpy comment when I came to pick up his daughter. These are my only memories of him, and I’m sad that they are.

During the service I determined that I was going to find some overlap, between what I knew and what his friends shared. In the end, after thinking long and hard about my own dealings with him, I could tell that he was fiercely devoted, dedicated to and protective of his family. He also stayed married to his wife for 49 years, even though it was a difficult partnership. I had personal experience with those two things. There was no point in discussing the less-than-stellar matters with people who were there to celebrate a life of someone they clearly cherished; it would serve no purpose other than to hurt feelings. In the end I saw that he had touched a lot of lives in positive ways, even if I wasn’t on that list. He made a difference for someone, and that’s a good thing. When I talked with family and friends at the memorial, I said simply that I “had learned a lot of about him today,” and that it was clear from my own experience that his family was very important to him. The enlightenment, while small, was enough to help me better appreciate some aspects of his life and service to the community.

I’ll keep that sense of robbery to myself.

Posterous Closed on April 30th

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In 2009 I began to use Posterous to blog pictures and share them to several sources.

It was a great platform, allowing me – from work – to post pictures on Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter in one fell swoop by simply sending an email. This was cool, because Twitter and FB are blocked on my office network. Almost two years ago Twitter bought Posterous, and I suspected changes would be coming down the road. But I didn’t expect they would close the platform.

That’s exactly what happened April 30th.

Not only did they close up shop and get absorbed into Twitter, but the the blogs aren’t even available in archived form. I was able to download the contents of all four blogs. Thankfully. I imported one blog – Rusty Camera – to WordPress, where I receive more feedback than I ever did on Posterous.

My primary blog – BelRedRoad – was moved to WordPress not long after.

Although I was able to download an archive of the original Posterous BelRedRoad blog, I cannot open it due to an error.  It means that I can’t extract any of it, and that I must start over.