Socially Awkward Moment

The other day I needed to fill up my car. Not a big deal really, as it happens every week or two. Today, however, I had just been handed a gas coupon after doing my groceries and decide that $0.07 / litre off is well worth it. So I head over to the grocery store gas station — all of the grocery stores in Canada have gas stations now, it is part of their "We sell fuel for your body, so why not your car." marketing strategies — and pull into the full service island for the first time in about three years. For the life of me, I can't think of what compelled me to go for full serve this time. Maybe it was fate.

So without much thought, while waiting for the attendant to appear, I pull out my Blackberry and check my email. After a few minutes, the attendant arrives. By this time, I am in the middle of a reply to a client and only quickly glance up and say "hello, yes please" when the attendant asks if I would like it filled up.

After about 2 minutes, I completed my email reply and notice that the attendant is standing back by my fuel tank. He appears to be trying to get the lid off and has yet to start pumping my gas. I think to myself, "Odd, no one has ever had trouble with my gas cap before."

As I think this to myself, I notice in the side mirror, that the attendant appears to be trying to get the gas cap off with some type of vice-grip. Again, I think to myself, "Why is he using a vice? Is my gas cap stuck?" and then, as my magnificent brain slowly processes the pictures being displayed to me from my side mirror, it dawns on me that this intrepid gas station attendant is missing both his arms.

My first instinct is to jump out of the car and help him. It has been about 5 minutes now and he is obviously struggling with the vertical angle of the closed gas cap. I'm also thinking to myself, "Dude. What kind of person would you be if you let a no-armed man pump your gas? Get out there and do it yourself!" However, as I'm reaching for my seat-belt clip, a thought flickers through the normally quiet part of my mind, making me pause to think that by my jumping out of the car, I am acknowledging his disability and taking away his right to do his job. Which in effect would be a form of discrimination, albeit unintentional. So I freeze, glued in place, struggling with my internal battle.

Well, now I'm stuck. I feel compelled to help as he seems to be getting no where, but I do not want to offend him by doing his job for him. So I sit, frozen. Watching in the side mirror and silently cheering his every effort. Finally. The gas cap is off and he is going after the pump. Relief fills my body as we are getting this done and all is well now that he has the pump inserted and going.

During my period of elated relief, I failed to notice in the side mirror that the attendant has gone for the squeegee. Picture, if you can, a man with no arms holding a bright red squeegee. It seems unfathomable to me that he can or would — or should for that matter — try to wash the windows of the car. That just seems so far above and beyond what would be expected of a man in his circumstances. I'm having trouble believing what I am seeing. Again, I'm frozen and just watching everything unfold. Unable to help or call off the window washing for fear of offending.

So far so good. The squeegee is out and ready. He gets to the windshield and ... things go poorly. The squeegee heads south out of his grip, off the hood and onto the pavement on the first pass. Again, I'm gripped with an urge to leap from the car and take over, or at the very least tell him that "It's ok. The windows are clean. Thanks though", but I freeze with indescision and do nothing. Again rigid from some basic desire and moral code to let him succeed. I'm also now stuck in that limbo state that comes from being in an awkward moment too long. Once you hit that cloudy feeling that this moment has gone to far and now your stuck in it, there is nothing you can do but hope something, someone, anything, magically appears to distract all parties involved and end the moment.

Undaunted, he retrieves the squeegee and continues with some success. He gets half a window clear before the squeegee takes a bit of a dive and has to be reset. Several minutes later, he is done. The window has been cleaner, but never has it been as brilliantly streaky as this day. Each left over line on the window seems to gleam with accomplishment as if to say, "We belong here. This is all right."

He returns the squeegee to the water pail, gets the gas pump out of the tank and gets things closed up. It has been about 15 minutes now and I'm still stuck in that moment. To make matters worse, when the attendant asks for my payment, I hand him my credit card and he heads for the station to process this transaction.

After another 5 minutes or so, a different attendant returns with my credit card transaction slip. I sign it and thank him. In retrospect, I'm not sure what I was actually thanking him for. It came across as a thank-you for the credit card, but I think it was really a thank-you for ending the moment. Relieved, and also a little ashamed, I head for home. I still feel like a failed some social and moral experiment that day, but my hat goes off to the attendant, who persevered through his disability. He is the stronger of the two of us through and through.

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