$1 a small price to pay for early escape to sanity

January 31, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The face behind the window wishes not to be seen. It's the face of an Asian woman who's working at a gas station off North Avenue, where a man out on the sidewalk's hitting his head against a sign and two guys come spilling off the No. 11 bus with their fists in the air, and those with stolen goods move randomly through the neighborhood and stop all who might have available cash and a touch of larceny in their souls.

The Asian lady wishes not to be seen because it's easier that way. She slips open a metal tray and swings it back and forth as I try to open the front door of the gas station. The swinging of the tray says: Don't come inside; just put the money here.

I want $10 in gas, so I count out five singles and a $5 bill to put in the tray. The Asian lady's face is visible behind tinted glass, but only momentarily. She turns away before eye contact can be made, and I walk back to my car and begin pumping gas when the clanging noise starts.

A man in a knit cap is thumping his fists against a gas station sign reading "Mechanic on Duty." Metal stripping around the sign's edges sends off a clanging in all directions. The guy's fists are a blur, all jabs and uppercuts, banging the sign until his arms are exhausted, at which point he commences hitting it with his head.

The hitting makes a pretty good racket, but nobody comes out of the gas station to protest. A couple of people stand outside little stores across the street, hooting at the guy. There's a big pile of trash in the gutter in front of them. Nobody seems to notice. Now the guy's arms are rested, so he commences punching again, and the clanging gets louder.

I'm looking at the numbers on the gas station pump and hoping to vacate the premises. A bus pulls up, headed north toward sanity, and two guys tumble out with their fists swinging, one of them backing out, the other lurching after him. Three people exit behind them, old folks, two of them with canes.

The old people keep their heads down and hobble away from the two combatants. It isn't pretty. One of the fighters launches a left hook that smacks against the face of the other guy, who swings a lunch pail in defense. A foot comes up kicking, and then another. I glance away to read the numbers on the gas pump. Still not my $10 worth. One of the guys picks up gravel and throws it. Nobody comes out of the gas station. The two guys turn and run up nearby 20th Street.

There's more hooting from the nearby storefronts. The guy punching the sign has been joined by another fellow, this one holding a paper bag with a bottle inside. The two of them exchange words, and then share a rickety laugh. A toothless guy with matted hair, sitting on a bench nearby, gets up and eases himself away.

I want to do the same, but my gas tank isn't filled. A guy in a Pittsburgh Steelers sweat shirt sidles up to me and asks if I've got any change. He says he's homeless. There's a guy behind him, wearing bifocals so he looks studious, who says he's got a bus pass I can buy from him.

"I don't ride the bus," I explain.

"Aintcha got a friend who does?" he asks.

I've been to this gas station before. Once, I saw a man argue over something with the Asian lady, who seemed to have trouble understanding him. The man's voice rose and rose, and the Asian woman shrugged her shoulders behind the tinted window. The man slammed his hand on a wall, and then he went away.

Once, while I pumped gas, a guy wanted to sell me a VCR. Another time, a radio. It's best not to ask where this stuff comes from. There's a drug program up the street, and several bars nearby, and folks tend to gather on the sidewalk, even on a morning like yesterday, with snow fluttering out of a grimy sky.

The numbers on the gas pump finally spin to a halt. Nine dollars, it says when everything stops. There must be some mistake, I think. I handed the woman a $5 bill and five ones, and I only got $9 worth. She must have counted incorrectly.

A few feet away, the guy at the sign is hitting his head again. The fellow with the stolen bus pass still wants to know if I want to buy it. The lady behind the window has a dollar's worth of gas she still owes me, and I need to go back and explain this to her.

Instead, I get into my car and drive north to sanity. Leave the poor woman alone behind her window. A dollar's only a dollar. Getting away is cheap at the price.

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