Paying at the pump

Friday, September 28, 2007

Happiness, as you well know, comes in all shapes and sizes.

My triumph of the week came at one of our local convenience stores where you can pay at the pump to fill up your car.

Even though I consider myself to be credit-card literate, I have never mastered the do-it-yourself checkouts of the world. Not at convenience stores. Not at supermarkets. Not at major retailers.

You've seen them, those automated checkout lanes where a computer sounding a lot like a French teacher I had in college guides you through the scanning of your purchases and courteously tells you important stuff like "Please try again." And again. And again.

I've noticed in the carefree world of automated paying, it appears everyone except me is doing it at gas stations.

A while back it was pouring down rain when I realized my gas tank was nearly empty because, once again, I had been surprised at how little fuel my vehicle uses because, once again, I thought the temperature gauge was the gas gauge. I should be consoled, I guess, that my car's cooling system works great. That needle hardly ever fluctuates.

So, with torrents of water falling from the sky, I pulled into my neighborhood convenience store where the pumps are sheltered under huge awnings. But as I reached for the nozzle I mentally gauged how wet I would get when I walked across the unprotected area between the pumps and the convenience-store entrance. I decided to try to pay at the pump.

You need to know that my reluctance is not due to fear of machines that both dispense explosive fuel and electronically suck up your entire credit history whenever you use a credit card. No, I'm afraid of paying at the pump because I don't want to go to jail.

Here's why.

A couple of years ago I got brave enough to try using my credit card at the pump. I put the card in just like the picture showed. I put gas in my car. I waited for a receipt but didn't get one. I got in my car and started to pull onto the street. That's when I remembered I was supposed to pick up a bag of ice. When I got to inside to pay for the ice, the cashier said it would be $28.33. For a bag of ice? No, the cashier said, for the ice and the gas on Pump 6. But I used my credit card. Well, it didn't work, the cashier said. It's a good thing I needed ice. Yes, the cashier said, I was dialing the police when you came back for the ice.

Dialing the police. The only way those words could possibly be more terrifying is if I was on vacation in Mexico.

As the rain continued to splash loudly on the concrete around me, I had to make a decision. Do I dare try to pay at the pump? Or do I get soaking wet by running to the convenience store to pay inside?

I stuck my credit card in the slot like I was supposed to. I filled up my tank. I didn't get a receipt.

Sound familiar?

By now I was in what might benevolently be called a grumpy mood. I made the dash. Dripping at the checkout counter, I informed the cashier that I tried to use my credit card, but I didn't know if it worked. It didn't, the cashier said, adding, "Good thing you came inside."

No problem. And just think: I will get wet again when I go back to my car. Why does "convenience store" suddenly sound like an oxymoron?

This week I told myself that not being able to pay at the pump like everyone else was a handicap, a sign of old age, possibly another indication that everyone else is smarter than I am. I didn't like that thought. So, even though my gas tank wasn't empty (or, quite possibly, my engine temperature was normal) I drove into the convenience store determined to pay for a full tank of gas with my credit card.

I did exactly what I've done before. When I put the nozzle back on the pump, a receipt appeared in the window. When I opened the plastic window, the receipt blew out and floated across the parking lot. I chased after it.

Yes, of course, it was pouring down rain. But I have not been arrested. Yet.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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