Panic at the pump

Panic at the pump


I’m afraid of salad bars and gas stations.

There. I’ve said it.

A couple of weeks ago, I read a “Dear Abby” column that consisted of three letters entirely about people’s fears and neuroses. One letter, in particular, broke my heart. It came from a poor soul in Montana who described being terrified of driving on interstates and said that the phobia was preventing him or her from going places and doing things. The person believed that no one else in the world had such a fear.

But I can relate. When I first learned to drive, I was afraid of merging. Once I made it onto a freeway I was fine, but the act of merging was nearly incapacitating for me. Shortly after I got my license in San Jose, I was driving with my friend Carolyn to the movies in my 1971 Toyota Corolla. Our younger sisters were in the back seat. As my sister Janine reminds me, we were on the freeway on-ramp when I freaked out and stopped cold, on the ramp, screaming that I was too terrified to merge. Carolyn had to leap out, race around, jump into the driver’s seat, and get us to the theater. There must have been some very patient drivers behind us.

I’ve conquered that fear, thankfully, but it has been replaced by a raft of others.

The common denominator of my phobias seems to be a general terror of being tasked with figuring out how to do something new. What are the rules? Will my impracticality prevent me from following the simplest of directions? Will my fear of embarrassing myself paralyze me?

About 20 years ago, there was a salad bar on 2nd Street south of Market, near my workplace. This was long before the techie migration to the City – long before the emergence of artisanal brewpubs featuring hand-massaged beef and French fries made with specialized potatoes grown only in the Kennebec region of Maine. No, the whole restaurant was just a salad bar, full of fresh and delicious items that ranged from healthy vegetables to caloric pasta salads. As much as I loved that place, though (primarily for the enormous fried-in-butter croutons), I was filled with dread every time I ventured inside. There were so many ways to mess up. In the first place, I was never sure about the etiquette. I zoomed around the salad counter at a pretty quick clip, but there were many customers who lingered over every item. They would debate for what seemed an eternity about what kind of sprout to get. And I never knew whether it was ethical to jump ahead of them and head for the pasta, so I suffered in silence. Then there were other issues. For example, the price of the food was based on the weight of the salad (which meant that my salads were always very, very expensive). But it also appeared that customers were entitled to free bread. How many slices were we allowed to take? More importantly, were we supposed to put the bread on top of the salad, which would greatly increase the weight? Or could the bread be carried separately? Similarly, were the little Saltine cracker packages free, or did we have to disclose them? And what about the soup? How did people carry that back to the office? (I ended up never getting soup; it was way too stressful to think about it.)

You get the picture.

I don’t know whether there are salad bars like that around anymore, so I no longer have to worry myself to death over that particular scenario. But one fear that will affect me until I no longer drive a car is my abject terror of gas stations.

I believe the underlying principle is the same: I’m worried that I won’t be able to figure out the “procedures.”  Nowadays it seems that there is often an enormous set of complex instructions greeting you at the pump. Does the station take cash, regular credit cards, oil company credit cards, or some combination thereof? Do I have to wander inside and pay first, or can I pay right at the pump?  If I have to go inside, how do I tell them which car belongs to me? Do I leave my card with them and then have to retrieve it later? And how does the pump itself work? Are there handles I have to position a certain way before the gas comes out? Do I have to hold the nozzle the whole time, or is there a little lever I can flip so the gas flows on its own? Do I have to wait for the pump to tell me to “remove credit card quickly,” and if so, do I really need to yank it out violently, or can I just remove it at whatever pace I prefer? And God forbid I need to put air in the tires. Do I have to relentlessly stuff quarters into the air machine while trying to inflate four tires? Or is the use of the air free for customers, in which case do I go inside and tell them that I just paid for a tank of gas? If so, how will they know I’m not lying? (And by the way, do other people find it really hard to stretch that air hose all the way around the car to the tires on the opposite side? I feel like I have to muster up herculean strength to do that, and then I’m always afraid the hose will snap out my hands, whip across the car, break all the windows, and tear up the paint. Plus the whole process takes forever, because I always seem to let out more air than I put in.)

My solution to this problem, my friends, is that for decades I have gone to one gas station, and one only. In the entire world. It is the Chevron station at the corner of 19th Avenue and Ortega Street in San Francisco. I have been a customer of this one and only gas station for 25 years. And I know all the procedures.

One might wonder how I have managed to get gas at only this station for most of my life; I mean, I’ve traveled by car through all 50 states except Alaska and Florida. Well, when we need fuel and we’re in another city or state, Julie gets the gas. It’s that simple. Our road trip to Kentucky? Yep, she fills up every time. Inclement weather? Julie has to be the one to brave the elements. There’s no sense in risking my having a nervous breakdown over a tank of gas.

Then one day it happened. Julie and I were driving by the 19th/Ortega station when, as she describes it, I actually gasped, screamed “No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!” and threw myself against the passenger window, my face and hands plastered against the glass, my mouth open in shock and horror. I had just seen some barricades and a sign that the station was closed for renovation. I never could have imagined such a thing. Poor Julie had to put all the gas in our car for the two years it took for my beloved Chevron station to open back up again.

I don’t know why it freaks me out so much to deal with the unknown, or with change of any sort. We learned recently, for instance, that Julie has to go on a business trip to Denver the day I arrive home from my train trip next month (if this *&^%$# chronic vertigo even allows me to go). So she can’t pick me up when I arrive in Emeryville as we had planned. When I heard that truly devastating news, I panicked and could hardly sleep that night. I mean, I can change my ticket so that an Amtrak bus brings me from Emeryville into San Francisco. “But then what?” I cried plaintively. “How will I get home? I can’t get on a Muni bus with multiple suitcases at rush hour! I’ll be all alone on the Embarcadero and have to sleep on the streets!” Julie very calmly asked whether I had perhaps heard of something called a taxi. Oh.

I’m so grateful that Julie understands my phobias and does not laugh (outwardly) at them or force me to confront my phobias if they are only negligibly inconvenient for her. She knows that I have powered through my fear of flying many times over the years because we were visiting her family. But the gas station aversion doesn’t really bother her. Thank goodness I’m not dating anymore: “Hi. Before we go out, let me show you a list of all my neuroses. I’ve typed them out on this 10-foot scroll. Plus I have toe fungus.”

I wish I could tell the poor sweet Montana interstate-phobic person that he or she is most definitely not alone. I believe that all of us have fears of some kind (except maybe Sully Sullenberger). There are the standard phobias, and then there are other terrors that we’ve developed over the years for one reason or another. And we can’t necessarily get over them very easily. As my sister says, “There’s no applying logic to an illogical fear.”

Isolated fears also don’t mean that we are weak. We can be brave in many respects and anxious in others. I had a friend ask me why I wasn’t afraid of traveling alone across the country. That has never occurred to me. Some people fear surgery or anesthesia, but I’ve never been a bit nervous about going under the knife. If you want to operate on me, have at it! But don’t ask me to summon a taxi.

I just read a funny little book by Nora Ephron called I Feel Bad About My Neck. She says, “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you; but when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh. So you become the hero rather than the victim of the joke.” It’s always a good practice, I believe, to own our fears, our mistakes, and our shortcomings. Talk about them.

You are not alone, my friends. I promise you.



Well, I can’t restrain myself any longer. So far, I’ve avoided using Monday Morning Rail to rail against anything at all. But the escalating misuse of one particular word in the English language has gotten me so worked up, so incensed, so indignant that there is no containing my rage. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, and I am FURIOUS.

So what’s the offending word?


I normally don’t notice, or care about, people’s word usage. That’s the honest truth. Sometimes my friends tell me that they hesitate to write to me for fear that I might secretly cast judgment on their grammar or spelling. In reality, though, I hardly ever notice such things. You can “ain’t” me to death and I won’t even wince. And you’ve all seen my typos; my writing is riddled with them. The older I get, it seems, the less likely it is that an error will jump off the page at me. So don’t worry – I’m really not conscious of anyone’s mistakes.

(On the other hand, I do admit that I once told my father that I found myself wildly attracted to anyone who used good grammar or an uncommon word. He said that he completely understood.)

The reason that the misuse of “humbled” drives me so utterly bananas is that it really is emblematic of the societal trend that is most disturbing to me: people’s compulsive need to trumpet their own wonderfulness to the masses.


Okay, let’s start first with the general meaning of humility. The 10-pound Webster’s Dictionary sitting on my desk says that humility is “the quality of being without pride; voluntary self-abasement.” That seems a bit overboard to me, so I prefer the Oxford definition, which is that humility is “a modest view of one’s own importance.” Many religions of the world – Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and others – go a bit farther. They teach that humility is a virtue, and that to attain it requires a recognition that one’s individual place in the world is subordinate to a higher power and is no different from, and no loftier than, anyone else’s.

I believe that true humility is a goal we should all pursue. Now, I’m not talking about abdicating all sense of pride or worth in ourselves, because that’s just counterproductive. (In fact, I know from experience that my own personal insecurities can even be annoying to others. After our last rehearsal, my bandmate Dina said to me, “If you would just get over all of your ‘isms’ and phobias, you could actually be a good drummer!” I’m still laughing about that one.) Anyway, what I’m talking about is realizing that we are all much too besotted with our own perceived greatness when in fact, as the Firesign Theatre so deftly put it, we are all just bozos on this bus.

All right, that’s out of the way. So, now, what does “humbled” mean? In its most extreme definition, it could mean being debased or demeaned. I prefer to define it as the state that occurs when people are made to feel less significant or important than they thought they were.

For example, let’s say a braggart boasted that he was the best in the world at something, and then he entered a competition and came in last. He would be humbled.

Here’s a gentler version of that – a true story that happened to my brother and me. When we were teenagers, my father wanted to teach us what real work was like – you know, the kind of work his own father had done in the poultry business when he settled in San Leandro in the early part of the last century. So Dad arranged for Marc and me to work one weekend for a kindly, elderly family friend named Joe Gallo who had a small ranch in San Jose. Our job was to cut apricots and lay them on pallets to dry. That’s all we had to do. We were put to work under an outdoor canopy with a gaggle of older women, and we looked around at them and thought that we were “all that and a bag of chips.” We would leave these ladies in the dust, we assumed, with our apricot-cutting talents because they were so ancient and tended to yak amongst themselves the entire time. Two days later, our hands were crisscrossed with knife slices. We were hot and we were sore. Our technique – which essentially was “keep sawing keep sawing keep sawing keep sawing, ok, one apricot done” did not compare to the ladies’ technique, which essentially was “slice, done! slice, done! slice, done!” They cut roughly 20 pallets to every one that we did. On Sunday afternoon, we went up to Mr. Gallo to collect our pay, which was based on the number of ’cots we had cut. With great solemnity, he presented us with our checks: $3.75 apiece, for two days’ exhausting labor. That, my friends, was humbling.

So what is going on with the sudden, pervasive misuse of “humbled”? Well, one of the corruptions of the word involves its substitution for the words “honored” or “grateful.” If someone were to ask me, for instance, to host an awards ceremony for local heroes, I would say that I would be honored to do so. This would mean, “I am thrilled to be asked and I am full of respect for what I am being requested to do.” And I would be grateful to have been the chosen speaker.

Or if I were to win the Pulitzer Prize (which is a reasonable bet), I would say that I was honored to be among the many talented writers who have received that award and grateful to have been chosen.

However, when the great baseball slugger Jim Thome was awarded a plaque on the Philadelphia Phillies Wall of Fame last month, he said he was “humbled.” No, he wasn’t. He undoubtedly deserved a place on the wall; after all, he hit 89 home runs in his first two years with the club. So he may have been honored to be there among the other Phillies greats, but the accomplishment certainly did not humble him. This word-substitution problem seems to be really prominent among athletes who may have simply won a game or title of some sort (“I’m so humbled to have thrown the game-winning pass in this [meaningless] regular-season game!”).

But I have left the most egregious offense for last. What I really cannot abide are people who are simply out for self-aggrandizement and have begun to use “humbled” to somehow indicate that they’re heroic for touting themselves!! For example, they tweet something or post something self-serving on Facebook, then tack “humbled!” onto the end to make themselves sound virtuous!


“One of my clients just told me he thinks I’m terrific. Humbled!”

Of course, it’s very convenient to claim that you are humbled when what you really want to do is announce to the entire world that you’ve just been given some sort of trivial accolade – either by someone else or by your own puffed-up self!

Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!



I think I will jump on the bandwagon, and I encourage my readers to comment with their own “humbled!” statements.

Here are mine:

My Uncle Dave, who was a professional baker, said my molasses cookies were “quite tasty.” Humbled!

The hairdresser just told me I have a thick head of hair. Humbled!

I finally figured out what a Dutch oven is. Humbled!

Not to boast, but my boobs haven’t started to sag yet. Humbled!