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 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 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!