I was in my early thirties, driving home from
coaching a little league baseball practice early one
spring evening, my two young children/baseball
players in the back seat. I was low on gas, needed to
get the kids to dinner, myself to a rehearsal of
Edward Albee’s play,
The Zoo Story. I decided to stop
at a large Shell station at a busy intersection.
Although the station had several pump islands, there
was a crowd, short lines queued before each island. I
picked a line, two cars in front of me, slowly advanced
to the pump one car at a time.

As I put my Camaro in gear and started to take my
turn at the pump, a large Lincoln Continental came
speeding around the corner from a side street and
pulled up to the pump—“my” pump. There we sat,
bumper to bumper, face to face through our
windshields. From the backseat, I heard my daughter
say to her brother, “Uh oh. I bet Dad’s gonna get his
bat out of the trunk and hit a homerun on this guy’s

I was glaring at the other driver, no doubt, and I
admit the same thought had momentarily flickered
through my mind. “No, I am not,” I said, “but Mr. High
Roller Line Jumper and I are certainly going to have a
discussion about gas pump etiquette.” I turned, gave
them my best parental stare. “Stay in the car. I am
just going to talk to him.”

As I got out of my car and closed the door, the guy in
the pickup truck behind me stuck his head out the
window and yelled something to me about the line
buster that I hoped my children didn’t hear. It felt
good to know I wasn’t the only person upset with the
guy in the Continental.

Our bumpers, I discovered were touching, so I
tightrope walked across the two bumpers to get to his
driver’s side window, which was all the way up; his car
was still running. The driver was probably in his late
fifties, dressed in a suit, brief case open on the
passenger side of the white leather bench seat,
papers stacked and splayed across the seat. His
hands were white-knuckle gripped on the steering
wheel, his bald head rigidly fixed straight ahead, his
face apoplectic red, veins bulging on his forehead and

I tapped on his window; he ignored me. I tapped
again. He ignored me again. I tapped a little louder,
said, in a controlled voice, “What’s your deal here? It
was my turn. You line jumped, cut in front of me and
the other people who were waiting.”

I paused, but there was no reply, no acknowledgment
I existed, let alone mattered. There was no
movement, no change in body language. I tapped on
the glass, said, “I teach communication. I can’t talk to
you through a barrier. I need eye contact. Put the
window down. Please. Put it down.”

Still no reaction. I tapped again, said more loudly,
“Lower your window. I just want to talk. That’s all.
Just talk.”

In a few seconds, he moved his hand to the window
button and lowered the window a few inches.

He still did not look at me. He simply stared straight

“Thank you. But could you lower it some

After a few seconds, the hand slowly moved again.
The window went down a few inches.

“Take a big risk. Lower it all the way. Have a little

It took a while, but the hand moved, the window went
all the way down. He still stared straight ahead,
hands on the wheel. “I just want to know what gives
you the right to avoid waiting in line like the rest of
us. What makes you so special?”

I paused, looked at him; there was still no change in
his affect. I looked around to see if my children were
still in the backseat. They were, but leaning over the
front buckets for a better view. I also noticed two or
three people standing and observing.

What happened next was totally spontaneous. The
play I was rehearsing,
The Zoo Story, has a scene
where two strangers meet in a park and argue over
who has the right to claim a park bench as his own.
The bench is more symbol than park bench, but
humans, it is well documented, argue about the
strangest things (such as the right to pump gas). I
suppose all this was rattling around in my head, at
some level of consciousness.

Without conscious effort, I began to paraphrase some
of my lines from the play, simply substituting the
words “gas pump” for “park bench.”

“Tell me—do you know how ridiculous you look? And
tell me, this gas pump, this metal and glass and
rubber, this small space of concrete, the right to pump
gas before the other guy—are these the things men
fight for? Tell me, is this your honor? Your dignity? Is
this the thing in the world you’d fight for? Is this what
you would be willing to die for? Can you think of
anything more absurd?”

As I finished this paraphrase of Jerry’s lines, without
thought or premeditation—it was simply and purely
instinctual—I slowly extended my hand through his
open window into the space of his car. I placed my
hand firmly over his left hand on the steering wheel.
After a few seconds of silence, I said softly, “Pump
your gas and get out of here please. Then I can take
my rightful turn. I have a life to go to also.”

I turned to walk to my car when his voice suddenly
broke the silence, froze me to the concrete. “You are
right…about everything. It was your turn…and those
behind you. I know that. I just bullied my way in.
That’s how I live my life. I use people—my business
partners, my wife, my kids, my clients, even my
mistress. I use people. I walk all over them. No one
ever confronts me. I need to change. I really need to
change. I no longer like myself. I haven’t for a long

I turned, looked at him. As I stood staring deeply into
his eyes, he into mine, he began to cry. Streams of
tears ran down his face. He reached down, put his
hand on the shift lever. As the window began to
close, he looked at me, said, “Thank you…thank you. I
am going to be different. I’m going to change. Again,
thank you.” He put the car in reverse and left the gas
station much slower than he had entered a few
minutes earlier.

I stood there a few seconds before I finally returned
to my car, pulled up to the pump, bought gasoline. I
was numb. I don’t recall what I said to my children, I
don’t recall if anyone else said anything to me. My
entire focus was trying to process and understand
what had occurred. I knew it was an extremely
meaningful moment in my life, in the man’s life, what
writer James Joyce referred to as an epiphany. But the
precise meaning was nebulous, unfocused. I struggled
to wrap my mind around the significance of the few
minutes that would provide meditation material for a

I am still engaged in that process of trying to
comprehend the meaning of what took place that day.
I have spent many hours over the past thirty years
thinking about it. I wonder where the man went, how
his life changed, if at all. I wonder if anyone else who
witnessed the exchange felt its impact. I know with
certainty I never buy gas, never pass a Shell station
that I don’t get lost in thought. I laugh at the
stupidity of youth, how dumb I was to confront him,
touch him, invade his personal space. I sometimes
shared this story with college classes and workshops,
often joked I later had visions of him driving off with
my arm snagged in his window, me running down Oak
Park Avenue beside his car. In this more-violent era
today, it would be even more reckless. I probably
would be shot.

No doubt, the story of Peter and Jerry in Albee’s The
Zoo Story, and the story of Randy and Mr. X at the
Shell station carry significant messages beyond the
folly of youth, the testosterone-fueled defense of
some object or place which has been deemed
symbolic. We never know the impact we might have
on another person’s life, the significant impact of a
simple action, such as stopping for a tank of gasoline,
of connecting—no matter how briefly—with a stranger.
We never know how our actions impact and change
our own lives, often without anticipation or

I have often heard it said by folks older and wiser
than I that the events which would shape and change
my life would occur in the least likely of places and at
times totally unexpected. Those folks were correct. I
only hope to become one of them someday. Although
I am definitely older, the wiser part is most likely still
up for debate.

(Paraphrased lines from Peter’s comments to Jerry are from
memory. The edition I taught was Edward Albee:
The American
Dream and Zoo Story
. New York. Signet: 1961.)

Randy DeVillez is a retired college writing and literature teacher,
poet, writer, and art roadie (for his wife). He has recently
published poetry in Ardent and nonfiction pieces in Art Times and
Fine Lines. He has poetry and nonfiction pending publication in Main
Street Rag, The Writer, Fine Lines, and Fate. His textbook, Writing:
Step by Step, has been in print since 1976.
by Randy DeVillez