A bald man rounded the corner by the ATM machine. He was coming back from the bathroom with the look. I’d been at the gas station a couple months, so I knew the look. It’s a grimace with pursed lips that says: I feel dirty. We locked eyes long enough for him to shake his head. That little swivel filled me with anxiety. Our bathrooms weren’t filthy. For one of the busiest gas stations in Pittsburgh, they were OK. And no, that’s not good enough, but does an OK inner-city public restroom deserve a public shaming? Because that’s usually what accompanies the look, a cry of: That bathroom is disgusting! Then people within earshot make the look, too.
Expecting a scene, my muscles tightened as I rang up a customer. But the guy with the look didn’t embarrass me. He stood aside and waited. His blue, checkered dress shirt was tucked into khakis, and he sported a thin, whitish-blonde mustache that matched the ring of hair around his head. When the customer left, he leaned in.
“You need to clean that bathroom.” He raised his eyebrows and his forehead wrinkled. “It’s a mess. Big-time.”
I thanked the man and he left. The assistant manager was depositing money into the safe a few feet away. “Better go now,” he said, standing. He readjusted his glasses and checked traffic in the parking lot. “Go on, hurry up.”
Cleaning the bathroom quickly was imperative, but it was more complicated than the importance of sanitation. The gas station is located along Baum Boulevard, one of the East End’s main thoroughfares, and it’s one of those Exxon-McDonald’s-7-Eleven hybrids – café seating, sixteen fuel pumps, and 23 parking spaces. The kind of mega-station where you stop for gas and end up buying a Philly cheesesteak, chips and a large Pepsi because a sign on the pump reminded you: the more you spend on food, the more points you get on your fuel rewards card.
It was almost three on a hot summer afternoon. All sixteen pumps were being used, Baum had traffic, and we were understaffed. I was one of two cashiers standing inside an octagon-shaped counter with four registers. The assistant manager said he’d watch my line while I cleaned, but that was wishful thinking. The gas station was too busy for managers to stand still. My mission was clear: clean the men’s room and return before the other cashier was overwhelmed by customers.
This was frustrating because I wanted to do a thorough job. I hated having an OK bathroom. People informing me of messes was embarrassing. Most were trying to help. I know this because the gas station chain where I worked asked customers to speak up when the restrooms were disgusting. There were three signs inside each one proclaiming our dedication to cleanliness and encouraging customers to inform us when the facilities were not up to par. The signs, the look, my interpretations, it’s all connected to the strange relationship society has with gas station bathrooms, the most common public restrooms. Just say the words to someone, “gas station bathroom,” and they’ll conjure up a grotesque image and make the look. It’s a stereotype linked to a phobia about public toilets, but even if you encounter one with slick, urine-coated floors and poop-stained toilet seats, it is highly unlikely that it will get you sick.
Gas station companies used to take advantage of this fear by promoting clean bathrooms. Gulf started the trend in 1933, and the advertisements were so effective that Texaco, which was the first gas station to build public restrooms, launched its Registered Rest Rooms campaign two years later. Texaco pledged to send bathroom inspectors to each location, and women were the target audience (executives believed that, though men drove, women determined when and where they stopped). Full-page ads showed smiling mothers and children heading into “Registered” rest rooms, with the tagline: Something we ladies appreciate!
Gas station bathrooms aided mobility. Americans didn’t have to worry about where to relieve themselves while driving coast-to-coast for the first time. The stations promote cleanliness, and say, to men: Don’t pee in the alley! In some cases, the state of a gas station’s bathroom can speak volumes about the state of the neighborhood. If I worked at the gas station in the East End, then those bathrooms were the public restrooms for the fifteen diverse neighborhoods crammed into that corner of Pittsburgh. And they were just OK, which meant sometimes they were, in the words of the man with the whitish-blonde mustache who complained that summer day, “A mess. Big-time.”
When I heard that, I pictured a combination of things I had already cleaned up: an overflowing toilet, soiled underwear, and used needles. I pulled a mop bucket filled with hot, soapy water into the men’s room and looked around. I was incredulous. That guy had said “big-time.” Paper towels dotted the tile floor, a pile of toilet paper sat next to the toilet in the lone stall, the ground was wet around the urinal, and there were tar marks from dirty shoes. Did it need to be cleaned? Absolutely. But right now? I usually hit the bathrooms before my break, after the afternoon rush had died. This “big-time” mess didn’t warrant a change in routine.
As I swept, I cursed the man with the whitish-blonde mustache. His name is Chuck. The assistant manager said he had complained before. I got to know Chuck one afternoon a few weeks later. I entered the men’s room to check on its condition, and he was standing at the urinal. He did a double take over his shoulder.
“You guys gotta do a better job in here.”
Dirty shoes had created a trail that forked by the stall, but there was no preventing this; inner-city gas stations get heavy foot traffic. Everything else seemed normal, too: paper towels on the floor, snot rockets on the walls. It didn’t even smell that bad. Chuck advised me to watch the urinal flush, and then he stepped back. Water whooshed down as usual.
“See that?” He pointed to the floor. “The water pressure’s so strong it shoots onto the ground, then people come in here, see it’s all wet and think someone peed all over the place. So they stand a few feet back because no one wants to stand in pee, and then they miss, and you got a messy bathroom.”
I felt conflicted. On the one hand, complacency for the bathroom’s “normal” state was unacceptable. The sign promising cleanliness made me responsible, and I wanted the bathrooms to be spotless. (When I was a boy, my dad, a bank manager, flipped out when I didn’t do chores perfectly.) On the other hand, cleaning the restrooms was a Sisyphean task, and the gas station was understaffed. I couldn’t leave the register to mop the bathrooms once an hour. And why should I go above and beyond? None of my co-workers cared. We were getting paid $9.30 an hour, and the bathrooms weren’t that bad.
I had been struggling with this for a couple months, and I expressed my inner discord to Chuck like a typical grad student – with snark: “Wow man, you really know a lot about urinals.”
It backfired. Chuck had managed gas stations for 31 years. He retired and became an Uber driver, and whenever he stops at a gas station, he pays attention to cleanliness, especially in the bathroom.
“That’s how I get a general sense of what a place is like,” he said.
The more I saw Chuck, the more I liked him. He was a father who had coached his daughter’s softball team, and whenever he stopped to get coffee, he’d point out something wrong with the gas station: litter in the lot, how the Redbox kiosk blocked the doors. Then he’d leave with a big smile. Because he knew. Part of the problem was management, but most of it was the people above them. Corporate. One of the reasons he got out of the gas station game. His unwavering “this is how it should be done” view reminded me of my dad, and I eventually regretted cursing him earlier in the summer. That afternoon, I pinned open the men’s room door with the garbage can and swept the trash toward the hallway. The restrooms were so tiny that it was common to see people waiting in line, and sweeping in front of the sink, I blocked the urinal and the stall. A construction worker walked in and stopped short of bumping into me. He was a tall, burly guy, wearing a neon T-shirt, with a tribal tattoo on his arm.
“I’m sorry sir, but the bathroom—”
“It’s cool,” he said, shuffling past. “I’ll just be a second.”
The yellow cone in the hallway read: “Caution Wet Floor.” It didn’t say the bathroom was closed. I had tried to prevent him from entering because I didn’t want him getting in the way. But he was so dismissive. “It’s cool. I’ll just be a second.” Translation: You’re a loser. Get out of my way. I dumped what I had swept into the garbage and brooded over the lack of respect some people showed for my coworkers and me. Verbal abuse from customers was part of the job. The manager warns employees of that during the job interview. But he doesn’t say a word about the looks of pity you get as you ring up bottled water. Then there are the people who can’t even meet your eyes. Sometimes, the disgust on their faces has traces of resentment.
It wasn’t always like this. The relationship between gas station employees and the public has evolved with the industry. I felt compelled to research the history because photographs commemorating Pittsburgh’s role are plastered along the first floor of a closed Ford factory across the street from where I worked. The images were a daily reminder that on December 1, 1913, Gulf opened the world’s first architecturally-designed gas station at the corner of Baum and Saint Clair Street, about a mile away. Before the Gulf station, car owners filled up in gravel lots where shanties were thrown together for cover and fuel was stored in giant above-ground tanks. The lots and the men who worked them stunk. Homeowners called these early gas stations stink pits, eyesores. No one wanted one in their neighborhood. Not even those who could afford cars.
Gulf general sales manager W.V. Hartmann changed the industry – and American roadsides – by convincing his bosses to hire a professional who could blend the gas station into the surroundings. Architect J.H. Giesey drew the blueprint, and Baum was chosen as the site because, as part of the Lincoln Highway, it was already known as Auto Row, home to car dealerships and the Ford factory. Gulf’s station had a red-brick pagoda-style building shaped like an octagon. It blended in with neighboring homes, and on its first Saturday of business, Gulf sold 350 gallons of gasoline for 27 cents per gallon. The success sent other oil companies scrambling to imitate.
Gas station companies competed for territory, and quality customer service was promoted to lure motorists from competitors. With the help of ads like Texaco’s “Mr. Service,” the gas station attendant became an iconic occupation. When a driver pulled into a gas station, a crew of uniformed men pumped gas, checked oil and air, and washed windows. They also handed out maps and gave directions. Gas station attendants in each neighborhood were revered, not disrespected like today’s cashiers. After World War II, garage bays were built into store designs, and gas stations hired mechanics. In neighborhoods across America, men gathered at gas stations to learn how to fix cars. The bond between gas station employees and customers continued through the 1960s, but the industry changed again in the 1970s.
America had reached its peak with over 216,000 gas stations. But after two oil crises rocked the industry, chains scaled back in numbers. Gas station owners realized selling cigarettes, lottery tickets, and candy bars was more profitable than auto repairs. Self-service was the next big change. Attendants disappeared in the 1980s, except in New Jersey and Oregon where laws keep the job alive. In the 1990s, gas station owners embraced convenience stores, then fast-food, and the Exxon-McDonald’s-7-Eleven hybrids were born. The bigger gas stations got, the more their numbers dwindled. In 2012, there were just 156,065 fueling sites in the United States; this means gas stations have less competition and more vices to sell, and are busier than ever.
Studies have shown that the crazier a convenience store gets the less positive emotion is expressed by employees and customers. Tempers can flare in that kind of environment. Chuck said he didn’t tolerate mistreatment from either side of the counter when he managed. If a customer was rude to one of his employees, he asked the person to leave. “People you throw out usually come back in,” he told me over the phone. “And if you do it in front of other people, then they see what you stand for … But you have to show people respect whether they show you respect or not.”
My managers took a corporate, customer-is-always-right-approach, and preached having a thick skin. They said: bite your tongue. That’s what I found myself doing that first day Chuck complained. The construction worker finished urinating, washed his hands, and left. Now I was ready to mop. I wheeled the bucket into the doorway and set the Caution Wet Floor cone in front of that. Starting by the urinal, I plopped the mop onto the floor. Thwack! I was sliding the mop head around like a snake, trying to erase scuffmarks, when the bucket’s rusty wheels squeaked. Some guy was climbing over it. He wore a long, white T-shirt with blue jeans and had a Bluetooth in his ear. I told him the bathroom was closed.
“C’mon now, you telling me I can’t take a piss?” he said.
He cleared the bucket and entered the bathroom. I pointed out that the floor was slippery, but he waved off the danger.
“I can handle it,” he said. “Now watch out.”
I stepped back, and he slid across the floor like a child pretending to be a choo-choo train. His shoes left a black trail in his wake. Now I had to mop again. I wanted to scream. Curse. But I didn’t. I walked into the hallway to breath and was met by a teenager wearing a white tank top, shorts, and sandals. He asked permission to enter, and I waved him in. At the end of the hallway, the assistant manager had abandoned the other cashier, and the checkout line stretched to the fountain drinks along the back wall. The people waiting seemed frustrated. That’s a different look from the one elicited by a dirty bathroom.
* * *
This story was originally drafted as part of Creative Nonfiction’s Writing Pittsburgh project.