Monday, May 05, 2014

COLUMN: Gas Station

Note: NOT the actual milk-pourer person below. But this guy's clearly pretty awesome, too.
If you've ever wanted to take me somewhere depressing, look no further than your local library or bookstore. You might see a wellspring of knowledge, creativity, and eye-opening wonder. I just see hundreds of people who are way more talented than myself.

A part of me will always be obsessed with the romantic allure of one day becoming an acclaimed novelist. Heck, I'll settle for NON-acclaimed at this point. I just want to experience what it's like to sit at a desk, place my hands on a keyboard, and create my own little world that perhaps someday someone else might want to enter.

Too bad, then, that I'm pretty lousy in the world-creating department. I have nothing profound to say, no global issues I care to address, and generally not much in the way of original thought. I just like poking fun at life on a regular basis, which is great if you're a newspaper columnist, but not exactly a captivating pitch for a triumphant work of fiction.

Upon further reflection, though, maybe I don't need to be ENTIRELY original -- sometimes life is original enough without the need to embellish. Countless interesting characters, captivating storylines, and plot twists live in my neighborhood. Probably yours, too. Maybe YOU are the interesting character I could base a series of novels on. There are stories out there worth being told. It just takes ambition. It just takes a certain... thirst.

Specifically, the thirst for cola in the absolute middle of the night.

Last Saturday, I had a rare night off from my weekend DJ gig. Sadly, though, no one informed my insomnia. I'm used to late weekends, and even when I'm not working, it doesn't feel right to call it a day before the next day has moseyed in to say hello. That explains why I was wide awake sitting on my couch at 3 a.m. And I was thirsty. Trouble was, my refrigerator was plum out of beverages.

I've lived up here for over 25 years now, and I'm proud to call this area my true home. But as much as I love you, Quad Cities, your tap water tastes like feet. I'm sure that I'm just spoiled. I grew up on a farm with flawlessly filtered, refreshingly flavor-free well water. And while I'm sure that the fine folks at the filtration plants do their very best to meet whatever minimum regulatory standards are in place, the simple truth is that I don't trust water that's grey in color. For over 25 years, I've refused to drink it -- even at 3 a.m. with a scratchy throat.

My snobbery won out that night, but so did my thirst. This is my roundabout way of trying to justify why I set out for a gas station at 3:15 a.m. to buy sugary soda that's clearly worse for me than any sips of grey foot water.

The nearest gas station to my house is NOT in the best part of town. I wouldn't call it SUPER sketchy, but it's definitely not on Zagat's list of recommended places to visit at 3:15 a.m. But it's also AMAZING. My neighborhood gas station just might be the world epicenter of weird. Let's look at the evidence:

•• Once I pulled in to the lot to have a complete stranger leap into my car, look at me, and say "Let's go to Silvis!" (Answer: NO.)

•• There's a panhandler routinely positioned on the corner who always asks for exactly 37 cents.

•• One time I was in line behind a dead ringer for Mike Tyson, muscles and all. Not a dude to mess with. When he got to the counter, he accused the clerk of short-changing him. That's when the tiny wisp of a featherweight clerk screamed back, "HANG YOUR HEAD AND LEAVE IN SHAME, YOU STUPID MAN!" I firmly believe it's the only time anyone ever called this guy "stupid" and lived. Come to think of it, I haven't seen that clerk in a while...

•• To this day, the digital display on the gas pumps invites customers to come in and "cool off with our ice-cold chicken!"

It's truly a magical place, even when it's a tad scary. But nothing could have prepared me for what lurked there last Saturday night at 3:15 a.m.  As I pulled in, it was like a late-night double feature happening simultaneously and I couldn't decide which way I wanted to look.

On my left, a woman was walking around in circles, non-chalantly pouring two gallons of milk all over her head and face, as though 3:15 a.m. public milk showers were a normal sort of thing. It was as if she knew that milk did a body good, but she didn't know exactly HOW.

On my right, two guys were beating the heck out of each other. Disconcerting, yes, but not especially weird... except both were decked out in rather posh-looking formal tuxedos, slugging each other in the face like mad men.

For a guy who doesn't think he has the ability to write fiction, the plotlines came to my brain with white-hot velocity.

Perhaps it's Fancy Fight Club. The first rule of Phillips 66? Don't talk about Phillips 66. The second rule of Phillips 66? Tails and top hats mandatory. That doesn't explain the milk lady, though.

Maybe the whole thing was an art installation meant to challenge and bewilder. Perhaps I didn't stick around long enough to see Lady Gaga strutting down the chip aisle in a meat dress while Damien Hirst made a statue out of spam. Or maybe it was some kind of avant-garde political protest wherein the milk-dumping examplified the wanton use of hormones in genetic farming while the tuxedo fight symbolized Wall Street's plundering of America.

Perhaps I was witnessing the culmination of a long-standing feud between brothers, and whomever won got to marry the milk girl right there on the spot in appropriate formalwear. Perhaps she was dousing herself in the Milk of Human Kindness in hopes of breaking up the altercation. Maybe there's a secret society of tuxedo-clad milk worshippers that prowl our streets nightly.

Or maybe a wedding reception got a little too careless with the open bar while a girl accidentally got pepper-sprayed, which I think was the reality of the situation. The gas station was kinda spooky that night, but I suppose the real villain of the story is ME for just sitting there fascinated and not calling the cops.

It just proves that life is interesting enough to hand us exciting plotlines on a daily basis if we take the time to look. I'm not saying I'll be writing the epic bestseller "Tuxedo Fighters And The Milk Lady" anytime soon, but it's good to know that I'll never be 100% out of ideas for a good story. And that, friends, is more refreshing than any sips of foot water could ever be.

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