25 May 2017

Charles, the Petrol Station Grandpa

“I’m the kindest person you’ll ever meet”. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard that phrase in the mouth of some others. Yet every time I hear it, I don’t only want to believe the person, but I actually do believe them. Because I know I am imperfect myself: however hard I try to be kind and preach kindness in all circumstances, I still fail – and even hurt others. Consequently, I’m always on the unconscious lookout for better people, people who will inspire me, who will show me how to become wiser myself.

But here’s the thing: nobody is perfect, obviously. Sometimes, “I’m the kindest person ever” is wielded as a weak argument to impose one’s opinion onto others, or to justify one’s actions. Case in point: actions speak louder than words. And while there is no universal nor objective judge of those actions, in my books at least, I have to admit I am occasionally – okay, always – eventually disappointed.

Now this post is not one to feel sorry about myself but rather encourage you, my patient readers, to think about little gestures of everyday kindness. I want to talk about Charles, the petrol station grandpa. Encountering him a few nights ago prompted me to draft this post on my sleepless red-eye flight back from California.

It was almost midnight. I was heading back to my hotel from the office. Organised as I was, I thought I’d refuel the rental car so I wouldn’t have to do it the next day when heading to the airport to return the car. The wide multi-lane avenues were empty, unsurprisingly, in this sleepy, boring Silicon Valley town.

The petrol station was all lit up, white neons unmissable in that sea of orange street lights. Of course, it’s only after I had parked next to the pump that I realised the fuel tank was on the other side – a little bit like for USB devices one wants to plug in, one just keeps trying one side or the other, never remembering which is which. I fumbled to find the button to open the tank. Argh, I couldn’t find it! I remembered that one time when, with another car, I had had to look up on YouTube, while at the petrol station, to figure out where the switch was hidden (in the driver’s door). This time around, I couldn’t find it at all!

The petrol station manager, a white-hair slim gentleman in his late sixties or early seventies, just happened to head my way. He was actually asking if I needed anything from the store – I gathered midnight was the store’s closing. I said ‘no, thank you’ and mumbled some more words, requesting his help to find that $*£#$&!# fuel tank button! Armed with a torch, he scoured the car’s dashboard but promptly suggested that we should instead go examine the little door of the fuel tank itself. When he pressed it, it naturally opened – and I felt very stupid!

Ensued a brief conversation with Charles, my saviour, the petrol station grandpa. I talked about my work at Google. My heart softened when I saw him slightly bend over from his tall height, arching his hand over his ear, so he could hear me better. I was making sure I wasn’t speaking too quickly – one of my characteristic flaws. Charles was pondering the fact I had just shared with him, about my ten years of working at Google.

‘How old are you, Sebastian?’, he asked. ‘You must be in your, what, late twenties…?’.

I started laughing so he added: ‘early thirties maybe…?’. I had shaven a few hours earlier – the "weekly shave" – I knew that helped in making my face look younger. I told him my real age, he seemed surprised, I felt briefly flattered. I asked for his name and he explained how his name, Charles Brown, was the same as an old cartoon character, Charlie Brown and Peanuts (I had the singer of the same name in mind). It was endearing to see this old man’s face light up as he spoke.

When I went in the store to pay for the fuel, Charles asked me: ‘May I ask you a personal question?’

‘Of course, go ahead!’, I replied, tempted – but refraining – to add my usual, precautionary line: ‘but that doesn’t mean I will answer’.

‘Where are you from?’

‘Aha! Why don’t you make a guess?’, I asked in return.

‘Hmm… Australia?’, Charles asked.

‘Haha no, I’m French! But I lived a few years in London when I was younger’.

‘You have an excellent accent, Sebastian’.

‘Well, thank you, but unfortunately I’ve lost the British accent which I’m fond of, because people around me speak different flavours of English’.

We exchanged a few more amicable words. He seemed genuinely pleased to be talking to me. I don’t remember exactly how I was led to eventually jot down my Google+ profile address, after he handed me a piece of paper to write it on – maybe I had suggested that he shouldn’t hesitate to contact me, to which he had replied, ‘if you get an email from Charles, maybe you’ll remember the gas station guy!’.

Prior to writing my address, I did ask him if he was using the Internet. He looked at me as if I were speaking to an alien: ‘who doesn’t use the Internet these days?’, he burst out laughing. I guess I was being over-sensitive, wrongly assuming that this friendly old man working at a gas station may not be using the Internet at all. I laughed and couldn’t resist the debate: ‘well, you know, not everyone on the planet has Internet access, like in India’.

‘But we’re here, in Silicon Valley’, he rightfully replied, as I was interrupting him simultaneously with a statement that people in the American Midwest possibly didn’t all use the Internet. Clearly, I had lost the debate but I had at least made him laugh.

‘You’re a friendly guy, very nice meeting you, Sebastian. Next time you’re in town, do drop by and say hello’, Charles suggested.

‘I sure will!’.

I drove away. Thirty seconds later, as I was stopped at a red light, I suddenly decided to do a U-turn. I was on the wrong lane though. The traffic light allowing the U-turn would stubbornly refuse to go green, probably because I wasn’t in the correct lane and some sensor perhaps didn’t trigger the light to change. I carefully looked around and proceeded to do my U-turn nonetheless. I drove back to the petrol station. I could see an old car about to drive away. I got out of my car. Charles got out of his and asked if I needed any help. I simply asked him if we could take a photo together, so I would more easily remember him. That made him laugh – that’s the picture you see below.

Petrol station grandpa Charles & me (on the left!)

‘Hang on a second’, Charles said as he reopened the store. ‘Come on in!’.

He took another piece of paper from behind the counter and wrote down his email address, apologising for not using Gmail (how sweet of him to apologise for that!), so I could send him the photo we had taken together.

As we parted a second time, he added again: ‘You’re a friendly guy. Drop by next time, perhaps I’ll buy you some lunch!’.

Off I went. I was slightly cold, wearing shorts and flip flops in this dry 18-degrees-Celsius weather. I desperately wanted to shower after I had played some evening sand volleyball and smashed a few baseballs like a professional. I didn’t particularly feel in the mood to be chatty either (I had such thoughts in my mind instead). But I did that illegal U-turn and I’m glad I did. I bear too many regrets in my mind, for sometimes not doing even the simplest of things.

A smile to a stranger. A friendly handshake to your taxi driver after they dropped you off. A selfie even, with that street food vendor, just to make them laugh. That shop door you keep open for the person behind you. Some encouraging, if brief, words to a heartbroken friend. A handwritten thank-you note to anyone you feel grateful for. Truly, anything goes. Do that illegal U-turn if necessary (but be safe!). Don’t be shy (believe it or not, I am an introvert), it’s so simple. It all sounds cheesy? Perhaps. I don’t really mind. Just tell me afterwards how it makes you feel inside.

Update 6 months later

6 months after my first encounter with Charles, my friend from the petrol station, I returned to see him tonight.

'I never thought you'd come back!', Charles exclaimed upon seeing me enter his shop.

'Why wouldn't I?', I asked.

'Well I read your – what do you call it – blog and it seems like you're an incredibly busy man!'

That comment from Charles set me off – especially as I have an unfinished draft post on that very topic, which title may well be something like "Bored = Boring. Busy = Lazy. Start creating something beautiful".

He repeated the same thing – that I must be "busy" and that's why he didn't "dare" bothering me with a response – when I handed over to him a printed copy of the blog post. I had not heard back from him after I had emailed him the link to it, so I had assumed I hadn't sent it to the correct email address.

'Charles, I'm not "busy". I decide how I allocate my time. I'm in control.'

Every time I hear someone saying they are too "busy", it makes me think they don't have a grasp on the priorities in their life. They've lost control. If I'm "busy", it's because I have made choices. That's why I never respond "busy" when people ask me how I am – at the very least, I explain what I'm working on and likewise I try to steer away from saying I "have to" do such and such thing, instead opting for the more decisive I "want to". I'll get back to that notion in my post if I ever finish it, lazy bum that I can also be.

Customers kept coming inside the store. I stepped aside so I wouldn't disrupt the business or annoy the quiet customers who would mostly only buy a pack of cigarettes. My conversation with Charles resumed, with me talking about my surgeries, mentioning that I would see my grandfather in a few days for his 94th birthday (that's when I learned Charles is 65), and explaining what I was working on at Google... with Charles bursting into laughter when I asked if he knew what a smartphone was and if he had heard about Uber (to give an example of an app) – he had burst into laughter the first time I had met him when I had asked him if he had ever used the Internet. His laughter made me laugh in turn as I reminded him of my naive question the previous time.

I eventually dared asking him what he would do for Thanksgiving (in 3 days). I could detect a very faint hint of sadness as he replied that he would be working that day and possibly having lunch with friends. He quickly repeated the same promise he had made last time – and which I had forgotten: that he would buy me lunch next time! Truly, I should be the one buying him lunch.

I filled the gas tank of the rental car and came back to the store to say goodbye.

'Thank you for putting a smile on my face", Charles said. 'I hope your grandfather lives until at least 100'.

'Likewise, thank you, Charles! I'll see you next time!'

This time, I didn't forget to take a photo before leaving. Here it is below.

Keep smiling :).

6 months later