With gas lines considerably eased by rationing based on odd and even license plate numbers, the “shortage” of gasoline is basically over here in New York City and Long Island. Now, as we think about the insanity of those two weeks after Hurricane Sandy had battered our area and beat us into submission, it is fitting to take a look back at some stories that took place during that time. For me one that stood out was the tale of “Napoleon,” the guy who pumps gas in my local station.
Napoleon is not his real name. I think it is Amir, Jamal, or Hank, but I am not sure. This is because Napoleon wears jackets with different names sewn in a circle over his right breast. The reason I call him Napoleon is because he always has his right hand stuffed inside the jacket (holding his wad of money) the way the diminutive French emperor was depicted in paintings. This gas attendant also is short in stature, so the name seemed fitting enough to me.
Anyway, before the gas crisis, Napoleon always had a benevolent script that he followed. This basically involved a few lines of dialogue. “Good morning, my friend,” was his first line. The second was “Fill it up for you?” And the third line, after filling my tank and taking my money, was “Thank you for your tip.” Of course, the first time he said this, I was not prepared to tip him. The next time he washed my windshield without my asking him to do it, so I felt inclined to give him a little something.
My father taught me to always appreciate service, no matter how insignificant it might seem to someone else. I saw my Dad tip the guy in McDonald’s, the elevator operator, the doorman, and so on. He never missed the opportunity to recognize someone’s work and praise him or her for a job well done. With that in mind, I became a regular at this gas station and gave Napoleon a tip each time I gassed up.
So along came the gas shortage. This was a difficult experience for everyone. I had heard horror stories of gasoline attendants barking orders at customers, no doubt enjoying their unexpected and new found power. I tried to avoid sitting on line for four or more hours as everyone else was doing, and I passed my regular station with the line going on forever, but I noticed that Napoleon was allowing certain customers to come in the back way and get gas without waiting on line.
Since my tank was almost empty I was desperate, so I parked my car, walked up to him, and wished him a good morning. I immediately saw something askew in his face, as if he had become a different person. On this morning he was wearing his “Hank” jacket, and his right hand was stuck inside it as he pumped gas with his left one. I asked, “Is it possible for me to come in the back way and get a few gallons?”
Napoleon pulled out that right hand filled with cash and jabbed his thumb over his shoulder. “Get to the back of the line!” At that moment an older gentleman walked up to him with a plastic red gas can, and Napoleon screamed, “This line is not for you; go on the other side.” I stared at him and saw his crazed expression and realized he had become the embodiment of the name I had given him.
Without saying a word I turned, got back in my car, and drove away. A day later the odd-even rationing started, and I ended up getting gas in a different station. By the time I needed gas again today, the lines were gone and I pulled right up to the pump where Napoleon stood with his hand inside his Amir jacket.
Now he was once again on script, friendly as ever, saying his lines as he always had done. Gone was the little tyrant with fiery eyes. When I handed him my money, he said, “Thank you for your tip.” Napoleon looked down at his hand and saw that there was only the money for the gas. He glanced up at me as if he had lost his puppy and asked, “My friend, did you forget something?”
I started my car, shifted into drive, and said, “I left your tip at the back of the line.” I drove away, enjoying the smile on my face in the rearview mirror. I knew I would have to find a new gas station, but I didn’t care really. Ostensibly, I was condemning Napoleon to an Elba of my own imagination, and after all the worry about getting gas over those frenzied days, I felt completely justified in doing so. So I bid adieu to Hank, Jamal, Amir or whatever was his name, but in reality he turned out to be a real pain in the gas.
Now I figure the money I save on his tips can go towards a lottery ticket each week. As they say here in New York, “Hey, you never know.”
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