When I tried to pump my own gas in California last year I shoved my debit card straight up the slot that dispenses receipts.
The card went in with a gratifying lack of friction.
I stood there for something like half a minute, no doubt with an expression of exquisitely placid stupidity on my face, waiting for the nozzle to leap out of its cradle and insert itself into the filler, or anyway for something to happen which denoted progress in a task that many thousands of 16-year-olds accomplish every day.
Perhaps I ought to have recognized my mistake right off.
But perhaps the cretins who designed the gas pump could have avoided making the receipt dispenser the exact width of a debit card.
I suppose it might have been an innocent oversight on their part — a potential customer error so improbable that even the federal government, which must have approved the design and which can get hysterical at the notion of somebody sleeping on a tagless mattress, decided it was so implausible as to be well nigh impossible.
But at the awful embarrassing instant when I realized my gaffe, I was convinced that I was the victim of a conspiracy — and possibly that I was the sole intended target.
I suspected the Illuminati was involved.
As my card disappeared into the black slit it struck me, in the depressing way that characterizes such screwups, that there had been no telltale gentle tugging pressure, like a minnow nibbling at a hook, that indicates the machine inside has latched onto the card and will commence to pulling it the rest of the way in so that a clever identity thief can get his hands on it.
I had the brief hope that it was one of those mechanisms where you’re supposed to jab the card in and then yank it out as quickly as possible, as though you were executing a daring fencing move or trying to stab an attacker. But I had thrust the card so far in that I could no longer wiggle it back out anyway.
In fact I could no longer even see its thin edge. As far as I could tell, the card might well have plummeted to the bottom of the pump housing, and possibly into the storage tank itself.
(I know as little about the plumbing schematics as I do about the electronics of these infernal devices.)
Defeated, I trudged over to the bunker-like structure where the station attendant sat, doing whatever it is that gas station workers do in states where customers procure their own fuel.
He quickly quashed my forlorn hope that my gaffe was a frequent one, and that he had indeed been waiting to render aid as soon as he saw our Oregon license plate.
When I told him what happened I had to repeat myself twice. I don’t believe he was confused about what I was saying so much as he was skeptical that I wasn’t having one over on him.
His expression suggested that he was wondering not only how anybody could be so idiotic, but why that person would admit his ineptitude rather than simply phone the bank and order a new debit card.
The attendant wandered over to a shed and returned a minute later clutching a flat-bladed screwdriver and still looking vaguely amused.
He wedged the tip into the receipt slot and a few seconds later he turned and handed me the card. He looked sympathetic and frankly a bit curious, as though he wondered whether, after my adventures with the pump, I was actually going to try to operate an automobile.
I thanked him and gave the card to my wife, Lisa.
Once the attendant understood that I wouldn’t be touching the gas pump itself — and thus a preemptive 9-1-1 call probably wasn’t necessary — he returned to his bunker.
Lisa, who went to college in Idaho and so is not a complete neophyte with dispensing gas, deftly managed the fueling and the transaction and we continued on our way.
You’ll understand, then, why I reacted with a certain trepidation when Oregon lawmakers decided that the way California and 47 other states deal with the refueling of privately owned vehicles was perhaps not so asinine after all.
(Needless to say I was not consulted.)
As my experience in California indicates, I have an innate (albeit a well-founded) fear of unfamiliar machinery. I distrust my ability to decipher instructions that include not only words, which I usually understand, but also diagrams, which almost always befuddle me as thoroughly as trigonometry did the one time I bothered to even open the textbook.
(I slammed the cover shut immediately, as though I had seen a snake, potentially one with venom that causes your limbs to fall off randomly, coiled on the table of contents page.)
I break out in a flop sweat whenever I go to the store and am confronted with a card machine I have never used, and there are several other customers behind me.
Gas pumps only accentuate my anxiety, since their very purpose, even when operated correctly, is to spew at a rapid rate an intensely inflammable liquid.
The first few times we took advantage of Oregon’s more lenient fueling law I let Lisa handle the task.
Although this probably implies, wrongly, that I had any choice in the matter. She was, after all, a witness to the California debit card debacle.
But there came a day not long ago when I needed gas and my only passenger was my son, Max, who’s 7.
I briefly considered handing my debit card to him. I’ve watched Max assemble Lego kits in an hour — kits with instructions that to my eyes looked identical to that trig text — so I figured he could handle things. Also, most boys enjoy handling combustible materials of any sort.
But I mustered the courage — and clutched my card so hard my knuckles turned white — and managed to reach the blessed moment when the screen read “begin fueling.”
The actual gassing up is the least intimidating part of the job for me, mainly because the nozzle is designed to cut the flow if you do something stupid.
There is no such attempt to prevent mishaps with the card — to “idiotproof” it, to use the piquant, and appropriate, phrase .
Take a look at any gas pump island — the places are littered with crevices ready to accept a thin piece of plastic.
J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.