Something everybody but me knows how to do


‘And what happened the one time I tried to do it’

I grew up in The Midwest, where people drive. A lot. I can remember all seven of us piling in the station wagon and making the more-than-six-hours drive up to my Gramma Peterson’s and back — for the weekend.

So yes, I know how to drive. I can handle not only one but two stick-shift cars (’91 Honda and ’98 Toyota, if you’re curious). And I have my motorcycle license, besides.

But — embarrassing though it is for me to admit — I never learned how to pump gas.

See, when I was growing up, there were people at the gas stations whose job it was to pump your gas. They also checked your oil and washed your windows. While wearing snappy uniforms. Seriously! Here, if you find this hard to believe, is a TV commercial from the Sixties that now, darn it, I can’t get out of my head: 

So, basically, during my whole Midwestern Period when I was doing lots and lots of driving, including when I was a Twenty-Something breaking into the Ad Biz back in Kansas City, Missouri, (where I drove a Mercedes 250 that an army guy sold me) — there was always a willing attendant to pump my gas.

(Remind me sometime to tell you about the other car I owned during this period: an Austin Mini sold to me for 800 bucks — cash — that the seller stashed in a Ritz Cracker box so her husband wouldn’t find and confiscate it. She was secretly saving up to leave him.)

After many adventures, some I’ve written about and some still to be written unless I run out of — ahem — gas, I sold everything, including that Mercedes, and made my Big Move to New York. Where, basically, nobody drives. That is, unless you’re a taxi driver. (Or, maybe an Uber driver).

You know that scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen’s character tries to drive the rental car and the convertible top keeps opening and closing? Well, I swear that could have been my boss, Harvey. Pretty much everybody I knew was like Harvey. Well, like him in the fact that they didn’t drive, anyway. My own daughter, The Child, doesn’t drive. Not really.

And if you don’t drive, you don’t learn how to pump gas. I didn’t even notice when gas stations morphed from merry-men-in-uniform pumping your gas and washing your windows to rows of self-serve pumps overseen by a surly money-taker-guy in a bullet-proof kiosk.

Eventually, as you know, I met and married The Dude. Who, though a New Yorker born and bred, drove — and owned — a car. He used it not only to make ‘house calls’ to a Bronx nursing home, but to visit Family out on The Island. He hated to drive, though. (Still does.) And I honestly don’t mind. So the deal was that I’d do the driving and he’d do the darned gas pumping.

This worked out pretty well for years. Even the times he wasn’t in the car for pumping duties. Because, basically I had pinpointed every single ‘full service’ service station between 68th Street and Amagansett. At one of these stations, a guy even washes my windows. (I’m not telling which one.)

And I would always — always — make sure I had at least a half tank of gas before driving any further than, like, the dump. (Er, ‘recycling center’.)

Oh, I got ‘caught’ a couple of times. Once I was driving to The City with one of my dauntingly-capable sisters-in-law — the one from California, where everybody drives — when I noticed the little red gas-pump icon pulsing red. I was gripping the wheel with white-knuckled fervor when Sis-in-Law asked what was wrong. When I told her I needed to get gas, she, quite reasonably, suggested we pull off at the next exit. You should have seen her face when I told her we couldn’t because the station there was only self-serve.

But that kind of thing didn’t happen very often. What did happen was that I was up in Maine for a very big, very fun Henry Family Reunion. (These are called ‘Henry Hoo-Hahs’; sometime, if you stick with me, I’ll tell you all about them.)

A scene from a Henry Hoo Hah. That's one of my dauntingly-capable gas-pumping sis-in-laws next to my Mom

A scene from a Henry Hoo-Hah. That’s one of my dauntingly-capable gas-pumping sis-in-laws next to my Mom. Who can pump gas too. Of course

I had traveled up to the Hoo-Hah with a batch of Henrys. Driving with them was fun till we hit a big ole August traffic jam. By the way, do you know what Mainers call vacationers from Massachusetts? ‘Massholes’. Got that Fun Fact from my Youngest Younger Brother Doug. Who lives in Maine and found the disused boys’ camp where we held our Hoo-Hahs.

Anyway. This one time, after hooing and hahing my little heart out for several days, I faced the prospect of traveling home. By myself. Because keeping me company on my drive back to Long Island would mean Henrys traveling with me in a direction completely opposite from the direction they wanted to go.

So. Since there was absolutely no way I could drive from Maine to Long Island without stopping for gas at least once, I got my other dauntingly-capable sister-in-law to take me to a gas station and give me a tutorial.

Fully tanked, with tunes cranked up, Adele and I were feeling pretty fine rolling along to ‘Rolling in the Deep’. (She’s a pretty darned fun car companion, as you know if you watched her turn on Carpool Karaoke.)

But, eventually, that needle started to edge dangerously down to the point when the little gas pump icon was going to start pulsing. So I pulled into one of those ginormous gas-station-fast-food places they have along major interstate highways. You know the ones; where they have separate entrances for trucks. And, if you have to pee, you need to walk, like forever to get to the restroom.

I got out, did the deal with the credit card as instructed, took off the gas cap (making sure I kept track of where the heck I put it), and proceeded to fill the tank. I was feeling pretty darned empowered, meager chest swelling with pride, when the gas clicked off. I stood there, frozen, trying to remember what came next.

I very gingerly lifted the nozzle out of the opening of the tank, then proceeded to spray gasoline all over myself. Basically everything from my knees down was saturated with the stuff. Horrified, I managed to get the gas cap back on, and the nozzle back in the nozzle-holder thingie. Then I had to get back into the driver’s seat and get the car away from the pump, since dozens of empty-tanked Massholes were lined up behind me impatiently waiting their turn at the pump. At least they weren’t honking. Yet.

Thank goodness I was wearing shorts, so there was one less thing to get drenched. I managed to get myself into the huuuuuge bathroom, and rinse off my legs in one of the sinks. I sealed my petrol-permeated tennis shoes into a plastic bag. Now flip-flop shod, and feeling rather like a human tiki torch, I drove myself home with all the windows open — good thing it was summer — to air out the car.

Interesting note. I was too tired to deal with my soaked tennis shoes (actually, classic low-top Chuck Taylor Converse) when I got home that night. So I just plopped them out on the deck so the smell couldn’t infuse the house. (Me, I took a long outdoor shower for just the same reason.)

When I checked the shoes the next day, they were not only perfectly fine, with absolutely no gasoline odor, they were perfectly clean — just like new.

When I showed them to The Dude, he remarked ‘Oh yes. Gasoline is a solvent. Didn’t you know that?’

I guess there’s a lot I don’t know about gasoline. Including — still — how to pump it.

p.s. I don't know how to use this either

p.s. I don’t know how to use this either

Amagansett, New York. August 2016




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20 thoughts on “Something everybody but me knows how to do

  1. What an experience! It’s always been second nature for me. Even before I started driving, I would sometimes do the gas for my parents– smugly thinking to myself, “Ha, these people probably think I’m the one driving!”

  2. I pumped my gas ONCE. I swear the germs of every stranger who’d ever used that hose migrated onto my hands. I’m currently praying that my tiny, almost run down gas station with the very friendly senior-senior-citizen of a gas station attendant, who compares my beauty to the majesty of the sun as he pumps my gas, will never go out of business.

    • Oh, Melissa! Wonderful to discover a kindred non-gas-pumping spirit! I too have a favorite pumper-of-gas, a young man of exotic Caribbean descent who does not, alas, praise my beauty, but who does wash my windows. xoxoxo

  3. Oh my Lord. I can’t imagine soaking myself (from the knees down) in gasoline! I guess it was lesson you never forgot, eh? I, too, one tried to drive away without removing the pump from my vehicle. The hose (fortunately) is made for idiots like that and it popped right off the pump and no gas came spraying out like a wide open fire hydrant. Never did that again! Thanks for the laugh! (Sometime I refer to Massachusetts as Massatwoshits)

  4. This was an interesting read! My dad had me pumping gas at 14. I worked at a gas station in college. Now I work in Environmental Compliance, monitoring the regulation of – what do you know! – underground storage tanks.

    I just recently read somewhere that you aren’t allowed to pump your own gas in New Jersey.

    But I am glad to hear your Chucks weren’t damaged 🙂

  5. Beverly

    From another midwest girl. I look forward every week to Lutherliar. you know I am also Lutheran and a Henry. Wish we still had Henry Reunions–they were so much fun. I too hate pumping gas but if you want to get anywhere in Detroit (no public transportation) you have to pump gas. Keep writing–LOVE YOUR STORIES1 Bev H. from Detroit.

    • Hi there, Midwestern Girl (and, to me, Aunt Bev!) I love hearing from you. And I love that you like my stories even more. Thank you! xoxoxo p.s. Glad I’m not the only one who hates pumping gas

  6. I can pump gas, but I resisted as long as I could. I still approach it as if diffusing a bomb. I’m convinced, every time I start hoisting around the nozzle, I’m going to spill some on the ground, it’s going to ignite, and the station and I are going up in a mushroom cloud.

    • Whew! So glad to hear that this is not strictly a ‘girl thing’. Thank you for sharing your Nozzle Fear. I’m here to tell you that yes you can indeed spill some gas on the ground — and all over your legs and Chuck Taylors too. I’m crossing my fingers I never have to try this again! Meanwhile, hope I don’t glimpse a mushroom cloud anywhere up your way (!)

  7. Oh, Alice. Do not be ashamed. You are not alone. (Not me, of course. I do know how to pump gas and put air in my tires.) But my friend, Nancy, she who is the most capable person I have ever seen, still does not know how to pump her gas – her beloved does that for her. She once sprayed herself and that was that. Now she knows which gas station is full service before she heads out to the highway. Love your writing. Never run out of gas in this life.

    • Oh my, so glad to know I am not alone. I suspected that there were others out there who planned their trips around full-serve stations. So glad you know two of us, and that, capable though you are, you still count us among your friends (!) Also so glad I continue to have an audience among discriminating (ahem) readers like you! xoxoxo

  8. Liz Henry

    Oh my!!! I’ve often wondered how you fared after our gas pumping tutorial!!! A very common rookie mistake. I once shot gasoline all over my shoulder padded power suit on the way to a teaching interview! I stunk to high heaven but still got the job so desperate were the schools for teachers!

    • Busted! I didn’t want to tell you because I was, um, embarrassed, but also because you were nice enough to (try to) teach me! As for your case, forget the desperation. They hired you because you can teach anybody anything. (Well, except me how to pump gas)!! xoxoxo

  9. I too have hated pumping my own gas. Especially since the day my sister Amy and I were cruising down 95 and stopped at the turnpike gas station in Delaware. We stood at the pump arguing over who would pay for the gas as I tried to swipe my card before she swiped hers. Finally I managed to swipe, pump, and triumphantly got in the car (while she was throwing cash at me). I was so distracted, I threw my foot on the gas and we tore out of the station. The car lurched, its front wheels practically coming off the ground. I forgot to remove the nozzle from my tank. I jumped out, yanked the offensive hose out of the side of my car and sheepishly took off to hide in traffic. Ever since, I have tried to make sure I travel (not too far) with a full tank of gas – that my own Dude fills for me ……always.

    • Omigod! What a great story. I love the part about you and your sister arguing about who pays. I do that with my sister all the time. Once, she refused to let me pay for something (gas, naturally!) so I hid some money in the pillowcase of the guest room. Well, that cash got washed along with the rest of the bedding. Duh. Oh — I also love the part about you driving away without removing the nozzle from the tank. But I bet you’d just as soon forget it! xoxoxox

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