Freshman at the Pumps
Starting off my underclass year at Beloit College I decided I needed a job. I found a gas station not far from campus in need of part-time help and signed on for two shifts or about 16 hours a week. Clark Super 100 had eight pumps and a small box-like office full of stacked oil cans. No garage, meaning no work on cars.
So much for being a college student. My uniform, a white shirt with black piping and an orange logo, together with my usual straight look, transformed me into a typical townie. I soon met Bob and Larry, the other two attendants, who were friendly and didn’t care what I was. The boss, Bo, was affable and worked easily with the men. He was tolerant of my early mistakes, like trying to handle too many cars at once. I fit right in, and making a whole dollar an hour, I left college behind for a few hours.
Seeing the books I sometimes brought in, the guys asked what I was studying, so I explained it was sociology, the study of human relationships, whatever the hell that meant. What they didn’t know was that I was studying them. I didn’t get into their personal lives but confined myself to what they did and said at work. I was interested in the customers too, and I did a lot of covert listening and observing, until much later when I would blow my own cover in an audacious and spectacular fashion.
But first I had to learn the run of the pumps. The drill was to crank the pump back to zero, put the nozzle into the pipe, and set the automatic shut-off trigger. Then you asked if the driver wanted the oil checked and, if so, threw open the hood and read the dipstick. Meanwhile another guy washed all the windows and then we collected money. There were very few credit cards at the time and no cash register, so we made change on the fly, working with a shirt pocket stuffed with cash and a heavy coin dispenser on our belts. Once in a while we’d tally up the bills and slide some money through a slot into a safe in the floor.
Occasionally only one guy was available and the work got harder, so we cut a few corners, like only washing the windshield. At the end of the shift, we read the pumps, counted the oil cans and cigarettes, and tried to balance the total sales with the cash we had. Usually it worked out, and we got to rely on and like each other.
Without their knowledge, I was trying to work the psychological theory of cognitive dissonance on Bob, Larry, and Bo. The theory was developed in the 1950s by the social psychologist Leon Festinger and, in this case, worked more or less as follows: Bob, Larry, and Bo [who are all white] all like each other but dislike Black people. Then they meet Roger [also white], who proves to be a lot like them and is a good guy. But they find out by casual conversation that Roger doesn’t use the N-word. In fact, he has nothing negative to say about Black people, talks to them when they’re customers, and speaks well of Black leaders like the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Time passes and the men get to know each other better. But the first three notice that Roger doesn’t take part in conversations about race and sometimes walks away.
The theory predicts that a certain discomfort, or dissonance, would develop between the first three guys and Roger and it would intensify with time. Eventually the men have to resolve the dissonance one way or another. They may simply get to dislike Roger and shut him out of their social relationship. Or else, in the less-likely scenario, they may change their long-held feelings about race.
I tried for over a year to make this outcome possible. But their racist attitudes stayed the same and they didn’t shut me out. I concluded that the theory had a hole in it. There was in fact a third resolution to dissonance: compartmentalization. The guys chose to ignore the parts of me they didn’t like while keeping the core values of our friendship. They simply decided, “He’s that way, but he’s all right.”
On a day when particularly racist comments were flying back and forth, I got the idea that if the subtlety of cognitive dissonance couldn’t change attitudes, maybe Richard Wright could do better by charging in head-on. So, I brought in my copy of Black Boy, chose the chapter where he’s defending himself with a steel bar against two attackers, and said to Bo that if he read it he might not feel the same way. Looking back, I doubt his attentive reading changed his attitude, but I did feel a certain satisfaction that I was out there on the pumps while the boss was in the back room reading Richard Wright.
When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, millions of people felt shock and outrage. But I wondered to what extent this was true in Beloit. I decided to find out. A few days later, I was working alone, and I asked every customer a simple question: “What do you think of King getting shot?” I asked casually while washing the windshield. One hundred twenty-three cars came in that day, and I tallied the responses on a scale from horror to approval. “Horror” meant “It’s awful” or “It’s terrible” or “It’s a tragedy.” “Approval” meant “It’s good” or “He had it coming.” In the middle were “I dunno” or “Who gives a damn?” or “It don’t bother me.” At the end of the shift, I found that only 25 people, or about one in five, expressed horror. Most were in the middle, and 10 approved.
I wrote up my survey in a letter to the editor of the Beloit Daily News. They made it a front page story with a big headline: REACTION TO MURDER: BELOITERS POLLED ON KILLING. They even gave me a byline. I presented my results and concluded with this sentence: “If we recoil when Black militants call us a racist society, we might do well to consider what our real attitudes are.”
Surprisingly, there wasn’t much of a reaction. The boss said people could easily identify the gas station and the publicity was bad for business. This proved not to be true. My sociology professor said I’d taken a “button-hole sample,” not at all random, and of dubious validity. Still, it had anecdotal value — I heard what I heard.
My work after that was anti-climactic and lasted only a few more months. I came in a few minutes late one day and charged into the back room to change. “HEY! YOU CAN’T GO BACK THERE!” someone shouted.
“Yes I can. I work here.”
“No you don’t. It’s company-run now. You guys are all fired.”
Apparently, Bo had not generated enough money for the parent corporation. Now he’d lost his job. I promptly walked across town and signed on for two graveyard shifts each weekend at the other Clark station. But sociology at work was over. My cover was blown for good.
Roger Tulin’71 wound up working in machine shops all his life. He earned a Ph.D. in the sociology of work but never joined academia. The author of A Machinist’s Semi-Automated Life, he is retired and lives with Marie Remanjon Tulin’71, his wife of 50 years, in Lexington, Mass.