The relationship between petrol attendant and motorist has never been more complex. The wildly elevated price of energy today, caused by events far beyond the control and orbit of either party, has added emotional weight to an exchange that, in times of relative peace and manageable costs of living, has always had a light feel to it. Innocuous in nature, an interaction between attendant and motorist could or could not boil over into hearty, short-lived yet joyful, conversations on recent sporting results or the weather of the day.
It cannot be denied that the exorbitant cost of the substance of which the attendant is merely a conduit has profoundly changed these increasingly frequent encounters as those behind the steering wheels pay visit after visit to the petrol station unwilling to fill up in one go as they had done in the not-too-distant past.
“Let’s go for a 100,” is the new and sorry opening of the motorist and attendant’s time together. “Oil and water is fine.”
Petrol attendants have the choice to fulfil their duty – they may ask for the keys to the car or they may not – without another word spoken. Or they can sidle up to the motorist’s car with card machine in hand and prod their despairing customer to share their pain, much like the bar attendant prods the drunk at their bar counter folded over with sorrow. The petrol attendant might swipe or insert or tap the motorist’s card, and in the quiet moments that follow, not unlike the moments between bar attendant and drunk, ask the motorist what is the matter, which is not a question but an invitation to let it all out.
The motorist might very well take the attendant up on their invitation and commence with an outpouring of grief, a description of strife and a sudden and verbal cry for help that may very well shock the attendant anew, although he’d heard the same plight, differing perhaps in degree of severity and description of detail only, for what had seemed like the entire day.
The card machine might bring the sorry news that a successful transaction has been achieved and another huge amount of money has left the motorist’s bank account. The machine’s printer might start up and a slip might print out (first the merchant copy and then its twin for the customer to put away in their purse or their wallet only to relive the trauma of the purchase at a future point when said slip falls from its hiding place and is read in full).
The attendant might shake a head at the figures they see before them and tear both slips from the machine aggressively as if to indicate that it’s all too much.
“The world is the matter,” the attendant says with this action, silently protesting, except for the tearing sounds, against a society in which civilians are asked to plough their life savings into the effort to get from point A to point B.
Commiseration doesn’t require the commiserator to be in the same sorry situation as the “commiseratoree”. The attendant might very well make a living from peddling the very thing that’s causing your distress, but that doesn’t mean their behaviour is disingenuous. Compassion is a universal attribute found in anyone with a pulse and a good heart. The policy-enforced thank you from the enemy’s employee when you leave the petrol station will be heartfelt; the feeling of community between you very real.
Before you leave you might fumble to get the slip and your card back into your wallet or your purse – a tear might drop on your lap – and that’s okay. The car’s engine will start to eat up the petrol as soon as you turn the key. Unnecessary revolutions – your foot heavy on the pedal while still in neutral – will speed up the process.
The feeling now will be to shut the wallet or purse tight before any more funds escape. And that’s natural. But spare a thought and take a moment to dig out a coin for the person at your window smiling with hope in their eyes, the one who stood beside you and your car in your hour of need. DM168
Hans Mackenzie Main is a writer and columnist.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.