When the slightly rusted, older Ford Escort appeared opposite my pump at the Arco station, I glanced over at the very thin woman with wild gray-red hair, granny glasses and a wide skirt who emerged from it. I smiled when I noticed that most of her visible body was adorned with piercings and tattoos featuring animals and slogans. Her car’s exterior was equally enhanced, weighted even, with more than its share of campaign and cause slogans and messages. Some of the bumper-sticker truisms and exhortations were outdated or overlapped each other, making it hard to read them, even if one cared to take the time.
A few of them made me chuckle, though, such as: Give your kids a hug and disarm them, or Go to the beach and keep the whales off it. The last one seemed a little ironic: Keep the oil in the earth and not in your car.
I was filling my medium sized Japanese car with regular gas while smiling at the vision she and her car projected when I noticed that she had parked her car with her tank opposite to the pump side. The hose would never reach. Next, as she puzzled at the many instructions for payment, she waved her arms in frustration, setting off a cacophony of bracelets and spangles up and down her arms and on her hands.
“Can I help you?” I asked, trying to keep patronizing out of my voice. She shifted her glasses to look me up and down and take my measure.
“The younger ones back at the house usually do this,” she said, by way of explanation.
I imagined a well-populated neo-hippie commune with designated chores for all. Though it wasn’t rocket science, I appreciated how a person of her apparent age, I guessed to be early to mid-seventies, could find such things confusing. Especially if the younger ones usually gassed up the car.
“You should turn your car around so as to line up your tank with the pump,” I explained, maintaining a tone of helpfulness.
“Of course,” she said, as she moved back into her car with surprising agility, causing the twelve-tone adornment symphony to strike up its accompaniment.
Noticing her puzzlement while reading the many instructions at the pay station, I asked, “How will you be paying? You can use a credit or debit card, but you get a discount if you pay with cash. That’s my plan,” I added, trying to be helpful.
She gave me the once over again, while scanning my car’s meager adornments, which included an old Bush-Cheney bumper sticker. “Do you realize the damage he/they did?”
“I guess. So I’ve heard. I’m not political. Just a regular guy,” I said, following her gaze. “That was a different time.”
“Regular, huh?” she sniffed, while producing a card from a fold in her skirt. “See, Ethel Walker, Visa charge card.”
“It’s a debit card,” I said, looking over her narrow shoulder, answering her quizzical look. “Just put it in the slot and it will be read by the computer,” I instructed in the least commanding tone I could muster. My tank was full, my payment made, and I was ready to leave.
“Now what?” she asked with a somewhat imperious tone in her voice, one eye fixed on my old bumper sticker.
“They, it, wants your pin number, usually four digits.”
She scanned the card left to right through her bifocals, up and down in search of the selfsame pin number. “It’s not here. I can’t find the goddamn thing.”
“We usually memorize the pin. Maybe you have it at home,” I suggested, looking at my watch. “Do you have cash?” I asked, avoiding interrogation mode. “Or a check?”
“No, I don’t,” she replied, starting a new rhythm with her head ornaments and her arm spangles.
“Do you live far? Could you drive home and ask someone for the pin? Get help?” I had been cleaning off my windshield and the wing mirrors, and now had nothing left to occupy my hands.
“My goddamn gas gauge is on empty. Never make it back. I have to go shopping,” she answered, with a surprising poise in her voice and body.
“Listen,” I said. “Let’s use my card to get you enough gas to get shopping and home.”
“Hell, I got no cash, no check. Can’t pay you back. Why you doing this?” She was really puzzled now.
“I’m just a regular guy,” I said. “You can pay it forward.”
“What’s that?” she asked.
“You know, help someone else if you can.”
She looked at me. Then at the offending bumper sticker of Bush/Cheney.
“If you’re such a regular guy, why did you vote for them dopes?” she asked, jerking a thumb over her shoulder.
I shrugged, pulled my card from my wallet and punched in my pin number.
“Couple gallons should get you there, don’t you think?”
“Sure,” she said, exposing long, somewhat yellow teeth as she half smiled. She thrust her hand out. “Ethel,” she said without a trace of a smile, turned and moved toward her car.