Getting Gas

The gas station was bright, the lights were on, but when I slid my credit card through the gas pump’s slot, an error message read, “Pump stopped.” Again and again, the words flashed at me, “Pump stopped.” It was after 9 p.m., but the gas station was just off the highway. It must be open. With only a quarter of a tank, and a rental car to return and a plane to catch, we needed gas.

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A car hurried into the station, and I watched the incredulous faces as the driver received the same nonsensical message. The lights were on, why weren’t the pumps working?

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When a mop carrying, curly haired woman moved up and down beyond the window, I drove out of the station’s parking lot, stopping at the nearby intersection, waiting for the light to change.

“The trunk is open!” my son yelled. With the car in park and the hazards on, I ran around the car, closing the trunk and the gas cap cover all before the green arrow signaled it was our turn to move. I turned the key. Nothing. The car wouldn’t start; I tried again. Nothing. Glancing in the rear view mirror, I was relieved to find no car behind me in the left turn only lane. I paused, waited a few seconds and tried again. This time the car started much to all of our relief. We turned left and onto the freeway.

Continuing south towards the city, I had an idea. Not far over the hill, lights blazed and cars turned. The gas price was low and, more important, the station was definitely open.

Being careful to pop only the gas cap and not the trunk this time, I swiped my credit card again and again. Another message flashed at me. “Card declined.” I tried another credit card. “Card declined.” Somewhat oblivious to the lights and noise, I dodged the incoming and outgoing cars and ran to the pay window. A man sat inside the locked, brightly lit store, his mouth camouflaged and muffled by a speaker. “You need to pay with cash,” he said. I ran back to the car and tried again to pump the gas. Nothing.

Back at the window, the man clarified, “You need to pay first.” But this is a rental car and I need to fill the tank and I have no idea how much gas it will take, I said. “I’ll give you change,” he responded.

Running back to the car, making sure not to make eye contact with anyone, knowing I likely looked like a crazy woman, I grabbed my wallet, found $40 in cash, ran back to the window and gave him the money. This time, the pump worked. I filled the tank and ran back to the window for my $4 in change.

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Several miles later, we neared the airport. The gas gauge still read full, but the minutes before our flight had decreased significantly. Knowing there was a chance the rental car employee would charge us double or triple for that extra gallon of gas, I decided to risk it. Who knew if there were any more gas stations open? And even if there were, I was out of cash. I knew from experience that gas stations near the San Francisco airport are few and far between.

After taking a wrong turn and driving too far to the rental car return, I noticed the gas needle had moved. Would we be charged? We emptied the car, scrambling to get organized, and I gave the agent the keys. Less than a minute later, he handed me the receipt with a smile. The total was zero. No extra charge. We made it through security and to the gate just as the plane was boarding. Next time I’ll add an extra half hour before flight time.

Trip taken April 2009.

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