First Day at the BA
It’s Valentine’s Day and it’s snowing. Sloppy wet flakes splash onto the roadway. I’ve come home to Maine after thirty years and can’t find a job. Forty job applications in two months and I’ve been passed over for everything, including chambermaid at a bread and breakfast, insurance clerk at a medical office, school secretary, funeral home attendant, Wal-Mart associate, and reporter for the local paper. And so it goes. No work, no prospects, no cash.
I pull into the local BA convenience store and pump eight bucks into my tank. I stand in line to pay, and then argue with the droopy-eyed cashier when he says my Mobil card is denied.
“Give me another card,” he says. His hand is out and his fingers snapping. He smells like stale sweat and used cigarette smoke. “You don’t have a good card, then give me cash. Hurry it up. It’s wicked busy in here today.”
The people in line behind me shift back and forth. “Come on,” one of them mutters. “Hurry it up. Hurry it up.” I hand the cashier a crumpled five and count out three dollars in quarters. “Trying to get rid of my loose change,” I say. In truth, this is all I have. On my way out I see the sign in the window: “Hiring Cashiers. Benefits. See Manager.”
I pull away from the pump and wait for the customers to leave. Embarrassed, I go back in. The cashier — his name is Rick — hands me a clip board with a two-page job application. A handwritten job description is scribbled across the top page: “Cashier. Pump upkeep. Wash floors. Shovel snow. Clean restrooms. Minimum wage.” I write down a few job references, but leave off the college degree and wages from my last job in Virginia.
Rick points to a door. “Give it to the manager.” When he speaks, I notice black nubs where his bottom front teeth should be. I guess the medical plan doesn’t include dental.
The manager is a tired woman of about forty with fawn-colored hair. Her name tag says Ruby.
I hold up my application. Ruby’s eyes cruise my body up and down. They linger on my short gray hair. She shrugs and nods toward a chair covered with stacks of crumpled paper and cash register receipts. “Push that crap onto the floor and sit down. I’ll be with you in a minute. I’m on the phone with the district manager.” For another five minutes Ruby talks into the phone about drive-offs, gas spills, and teenage loiterers from the nearby high school. Then she swivels around and grabs the application.
“The BA is the second biggest gas station chain in the state of Maine. We have almost eighty stores. This store is a prime location because it’s the first gas station in almost twenty-five miles after people leave New Hampshire. Right now I need a cashier for night shift. We close at 10:00 pm. Pay is minimum wage and it won’t go up unless you get promoted, which is highly unlikely. Are you interested?”
Ruby scans the application. “How old are you? Fifty-something? Never mind. I’m not allowed to ask you that. Can you lift thirty-five pounds without having a heart attack or stroking out? You need to lift a crate with four gallons of milk over your head. Up and down. Up and down. Up and down. Can you do that?” Ruby pushes her flabby arms up and down in the air.
I laugh. “Of course I can lift thirty-five pounds.”
“Awesome,” she says. She scratches the name of a clinic on a piece of paper. “This is for your physical this afternoon. If you pass, be here at 4:30 in the morning. Rick will train you. I’m working another store tomorrow.”
The physical takes five minutes. I lift thirty-five pounds above my head (Up and down. Up and Down.) while a scrawny nurse in wrinkled scrubs spots me. No blood test. No urine sample. No hernia check. The nurse signs a doctor’s name at the bottom of the form.
The next morning I wait for an hour for Rick to show up.
“I thought Ruby said 4:30,” I say.
“This job don’t pay enough to get here on time.” Rick fiddles with the door lock. “Stop talking and bring the papers in.” He points to the stacks of Boston Globes,Portland Press Heralds, and Sun Journals sitting under the gas island canopy. By the time I get the papers inside, Rick has brewed two carafes of Eight O’clock coffee. He’s taking doughnuts out of a bakery box and stacking them into a Plexiglas doughnut case. He sucks the frosting off his fingers.
“Jesus Christ. Don’t you wear gloves?” I ask.
“Not if the manager don’t catch me. Ruby left a shirt for you.”
The shirt smells like greasy hot dogs and somebody else’s sweat. There are old stains under the arms. I pull the bright red shirt over my t-shirt. It hangs almost to my knees. I pin the handwritten “Trainee Nancy” name tag over my right breast.
“No. No. No,” Rick says. “You’re all wrong. Corporate rule. You have to tuck your shirt in. They’ll fire you if you don’t tuck.”
I push the shirttails into my navy blue Dockers and the excess mass of red cloth cascades down over my belt.
“You have to wear black pants and black shoes. No jeans. Wear your name tag all the time. And it has to be on the left side. Above the logo.” Rick reaches out and pulls the name tag off my shirt.
I grab his wrist as he moves to pin the tag over my left breast. “What the hell are you doing? Just show me where the name tag is supposed to go.”
“I was just trying to be helpful.” Rick hands me back the name tag.
“For now, just watch me.”
I take out my spiral notebook and sit on the stool.
“Don’t let the managers catch you sitting down. The stool is not to sit on.”
I stand. “Then why is it here?”
“So that OSHA thinks we have a stool for our break. But we don’t get a break, so we don’t need it.”
Rick greets the first customer of the day, a log truck driver wearing a Carhartt work jacket and a blue knit cap. “Good morning. Welcome to the BA. How can I help you?”
“Coffee.” The trucker blows on his hands. “Been driving all night. Came down through Dixville Notch. Road’s a solid sheet of ice.” He pours a 24-ounce coffee and picks out two plain doughnuts. Rick charges him for the doughnuts. “Coffee’s on us.”
After the trucker leaves, I ask, “Why’s the coffee free?”
“The guy had a bad night,” he says. “But don’t let the manager catch you giving away anything.”
The next customers are the engineer and brakeman of the early morning freight train headed from Vermont to Danville Junction. The crew leaves the train idling at the crossing and runs across the street for a newspaper, coffee, and croissants.
“You’re the only place on our run where we can get coffee,” the engineer tells me.
For the next hour, the cow bell hanging on the door clangs every thirty seconds. The computerized cash register beeps when a customer picks up a gas nozzle. When the pumping is done, the computer beeps again, singing out “Fueling complete.” Every customer bangs through the front door because the outdated pumps don’t take credit cards.
Clang. Bang. Beep. Fueling complete. Clang. Bang.
Rick calls out. “Hello . . . . Good morning . . . . Hey, how are you . . . . Rough bit of weather we’re having . . . . How’s it going? . . . Have a good day . . . . Bonjour . . . . What’s up? . . . . Would you like a doughnut or newspaper to go with your coffee? . . . Good bye.”
I learn this is the standard routine. Hectic. Fast-paced. Noisy.
When business slacks off for a few minutes, Rick explains the constant chatter. The BA has a 30-second rule. When a customer enters the store, they must be greeted within 30 seconds or by the time they are 30 feet into the store. When the customer leaves, the cashier must acknowledge their departure by saying good-bye, nodding, or waving.
Rick tells me to use the breaks in customer flow to fill the coffee carafes, wipe down the counters, and restock the shelves.
“What if I run out of coffee during rush hour?”
“Don’t let it happen. When you’re not ringing up a sale, make a pot of coffee, or fill the coolers. Even if there’s nothing to do, don’t let them catch you frigging around. They want you doing two or three things at once. They got a word for it.”
“Multi-tasking?” I asked.
“Yeah, that’s it.”
Rick explains that six kinds of coffee are brewed each day. Each month there is a special. Usually the special has a holiday theme like Pumpkin spice, eggnog, peppermint patty, or blueberry. This month is February. The special is chocolate cherry. Rick confides that no one drinks the specials. “Only make it if someone asks,” he tells me. I ask Rick about the food. “Do we get a discount on sandwiches and soda?”
“No discount. Nothing’s free. Except coffee. If you buy something, you have to print a receipt and tape it to the item. The managers check everything. They fired somebody at the Railroad Street store for taking a sandwich outta the trash. Between you and me, at night you can eat stuff we toss out, but don’t let the managers catch you.”
I look up from my notebook. “What are you talking about?”
“The stuff we throw out each night,” Rick says. “It’s all written up as spoilage. Left-over doughnuts. Hot dogs and sandwiches we don’t sell. You can take them out of the trash and eat them if you want. There’s nothing wrong with them. Just don’t get caught.”
I ask him how much food we throw out each night. He estimates that the store trashes a couple dozen doughnuts, thirty hotdogs and sandwiches, and gallons of coffee each night.
“You know there’s nothing wrong with that food,” Rick says. “Working here for minimum wage, eating free helps a little bit. My girlfriend and I eat courtesy of the BA almost every night.”
He goes on to tell me that I’ll never be able to take a lunch break or a bathroom break. “You’re the only one here most of the time. You eat when you don’t have a customer. Same for going to the bathroom. You hear that bell on the front door tinkle, then you stop tinkling and get your ass back out here.”
Rick looks at his watch. “Time for a cigarette break. Do you smoke?”
I shake my head.
“Fill the cup dispensers while I’m gone? There are four sizes: 12 ounce, 16 ounce, 20 ounce, and 24 ounce. There should be exactly fifty cups in each dispenser at the beginning of the shift.”
Rick steps outside and lights a Marlboro. He pulls the squeegees out of the buckets and checks the windshield washer fluid levels. The cigarette hangs from his lip as he tugs the overflowing trash bags from the cans, replaces the liners, and drags the bags to the dumpster.
I watch him go pump-to-pump. He jiggles each pump handle to make sure it’s in a locked position. The cigarette dangles, losing ash onto the pavement beside the pumps. I write a note to look for emergency evacuation instructions.
When he comes in, Rick smells like gasoline. He wipes his hands on his pants and heads to the hot dog steamer. “I’ll show you how to set up the hot dogs. We sell the old fashioned red hot dogs. Maine is the only place you can get them.”
Rick pulls a box of Jordan’s red hot dogs from the cooler and drops it on the counter, slips a box cutter from his back pocket, slits open the box, and cuts the links apart with the box cutter. He holds up a hot dog and I see dirt and grease under his chewed fingernails. “You want me to throw in an extra for you. Free of charge since it’s your first day.”
“No. I brought my lunch.”
The rest of the morning Rick trains me on the cash register and explains the finer points of gas station security. “If someone drives off without paying, don’t chase them. If you’re robbed, give them the whole cash drawer, or whatever they want. If someone shoots at you, try to duck. If there’s a fire, leave the building first and then call the fire department. Turn off the gas pumps before you leave. And lock the door.”
I make a note to keep my cell phone on me. And my keys. I also check where all the exits are.
We squeeze in a brief lunch in the early afternoon. I drink a cup of coffee. It seems a safe bet that the hot water will kill any bacteria and germs. Rick eats an Italian sandwich rescued from yesterday’s trash. “Want one? They’re wicked good. Almost as good as Subway. I’ve got a bagful of them in the car.”
I shake my head.
“This afternoon we have the filling of coolers,” Rick says. “We have fifty different soft drinks and forty brands of beer. We run a beer special every week. This week is the Budweiser eighteen-pack with Dale Junior on the box.”
I have no idea what he’s talking about. “Who the hell is Dale Junior?” I ask.
Rick stares. “Seriously? You don’t know who Dale Earnhardt, Jr., is? He’s a NASCAR driver. Promoting NASCAR is a big part of this job. I think the BA owns a car or something.”
Rick explains all the rules, including which ones to ignore. The workload is overwhelming. “You can’t pace yourself because the managers will tell you, ‘The only pace we have is push.’”
At the end of the shift Rick tells me I’ll be ready to work alone by the weekend. I still have to learn how to close out the cash register, measure fuel in the tanks, clean the hot dog steamer, wash the floors and bathrooms, change the gas prices on the outside sign, and clean up an oil spill. These are tomorrow’s lessons. My back aches, my feet hurt, and a spot behind my right eye is pounding.
“With a bit more training, you’ll fit right in,” Rick says.
At that moment, I doubt it. But he is right. I am a good fit. I learn the ropes. I know the neighbors, their kids, and their dogs. When the next door neighbor’s three-legged dog comes to visit and beg for hotdogs, I bring him inside and call her. “He can’t afford to get hit by a car and lose another leg,” she tells me.
I know which elderly patrons need help pumping their gas and which ones can use a free cup of coffee. I know everyone who stops here: skiers, bikers, tourists, and locals. Everyone stops at the BA. I stay almost three years. At first, full time and then part-time, when I get a slightly better-paying job.
On Election Day 2008, Ruby calls me. “Did you vote?” she asks. “Who’d you vote for?” Then she tells me the real reason for her call. “They shut us down today. Two district managers and a guy from corporate walked into the store and closed it. Just like that with no notice. They ordered the cashier from behind the counter, took her store keys, and sent her home, and locked the store.”
The seven employees are told they can take jobs at other stores, some of which are thirty miles away. I turn down the offer. Ruby tells me that within an hour, forty local residents call the corporate office to complain. The company tells them the store isn’t profitable enough.
The store remains closed today. Sometimes in the early morning, my dog and I take a walk past the vacant building. If we have time, we sit on the gas station steps and wait for the early morning freight train. If the sun has risen and visibility is good, the train slows at the crossing, the window on the lead engine slides open, and the engineer leans out and waves as the train rumbles on to Danville Junction.