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August 23, 2014

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Ice Ice Billy

Finding value at the gas pump

The thermocouple on my water heater had to be replaced this week – on Wednesday to be exact – in that sliver of time that fell between returning home from a day at the office and the scheduled dinner at a friend's house at or about 7:30 pm.

As any incompetent, male do-it-yourselfer can attest, when pressed for time and in need of a 3/4-inch wrench, one realizes there isn't one. When in a hurry, reading the instructions is not an option. And one discovers that the final, critical screw has been cemented to something or another by rust.

But at least there was the presence of mind to have my wife, Erica, watch from the front yard as the water heater, located in the garage, was relit after the repair as to avoid the dangerously long delay to discover my smoldering body – resembling the cartoon version of a blown up Inspector Clouseau – alone on a singed garage floor at about 7:18 pm.

With the water heater seemingly fixed and posing no combustible danger to my dog, Kimi Räikkönen, while we were away for dinner, we climbed into the car. The fuel light on the dashboard lit and a tone bonged signaling that we needed gas, because we were already late.

A mile down Durango, I pulled the car into a gas station that earned our business by virtue of being on the most convenient side of the road. A credit card was approved, and the pumping began.

Pumping gas is one of the few remaining respites in the responsible man's life. It's a mindless chore that comes to the luckiest of us about once a week. It is at the gas pump where passers-by can see men, usually between the ages of 40 and 60, staring aimlessly into the sky as the meter clicks up towards $50. There is no work here, no responsibility.

Give me the peace that 91 octane provides.

We pause at the pump to reflect on the Armstrongs of the past week, and without a conscience invitation, consider the validity of Cyndi Lauper's conjugation of the verb "bop." It's this stream of consciousness that caused me to miss that a man at a parallel gas pump was yelling in my direction, and into a phone.

"Your house just blew up!" I imagined the white noise to say. But once I purged a mind that had moved on from doping, moon shots and onto the melody of True Colors, I quickly realized I was being set up.

"You took my truck?!" the man heaved into his phone for me to hear. "You know my wallet's in there so how am I going to get home? I asked a guy for $20, he said, 'No,' and I'm out of gas!"

This too, probably, because we were running late.

I moved to the passenger door of my car, opened it, and leaned into Erica.

"We have to have a conversation now," I said. "I'm getting set up, and am about to get hit up for cash."

We made up awkward dialogue with phrases such as, "Please don't come over here," and, "Oh, jeez, he's coming over here."

My acting busy did not deter him. He brought his conversation to the gas nozzle that was in my car and said, "I gotta go, here's a guy that might help me."

"Hey, ya gotta minute?" he asked.

"No," I thought of saying. "That's why I had to fix my water heater, borrow a wrench from my neighbor and stop for gas, because I don't have time."

"Man," he said. "My name is Joe and I'm an engineer." He flashed his worker identification for a high profile Strip property as a credential. "My (expletive) wife took my truck and my (expletive) wallet and I don't have money for gas to get home. I have money, I'll give you $100 for $20."

I thought that if it wasn't for the dog-and-pony setup, I'd be completely sympathetic and kick him some money to get home. But as with many things, suspect presentation can overshadow legitimate content and awaken the cynical heart. Nevertheless, I was involuntarily put into a position to not be a good guy, and despite his act seeming to reach the heights of scripted improvisation, I was game.

I looked at his truck and gathered it might get 15 miles to the gallon, maybe 20. Certainly, I thought, a $5 donation gets him home.

"Where do you live?" I asked, prepared to do the math.

"82 miles away, bro," Joe said.

Of course he lived 82 miles away. Nobody ever asks me for a $5 fix.

Nonetheless, I offered him the largest bill I was carrying, ironically $5, and uncharacteristically gave him my Las Vegas Wranglers business card.

"I'll send you $50," Joe said. "I got money."

It was odd, I thought, to offer a massive interest payment as a reward to someone who only got them 67 miles short of where they needed to be.

"No, just send me $5," I said. "You have my address now."

Joe shook my hand, muttered something about his wife, and I returned to my car. I shut the door and started the engine.

"So what did you do?" Erica asked.

"I just bought a blog," I said.

Billy Johnson is the president and chief operating officer of the Las Vegas Wranglers.

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