I awoke to the sounds of cheering and clapping. I looked up to see the number of waiting cars had grown so that the line stretched around the block. My own vehicle was boxed in on all sides by a new crop of cars that arrived as I slept. I checked my watch: it was after midnight.
The cheering came from the dozens of motorists who all stood outside their parked vehicles, watching in ecstatic joy as a giant tanker truck slowly inched its way onto the sidewalk and stopped along the edge of the station. Several motorists held up their camera phones to record the moment. The cheering continued even after the truck shut down. Much to my dismay, the tanker only carried gasoline and not diesel. I sighed and resigned myself to simply remaining in my van until daybreak if necessary. It was then that I realized I hadn’t showered in nearly two days.
The truck driver opened the cab of his vehicle, and as he stepped down several women actually ran to him and greeted him with hugs. Many of the onlookers laughed at that display, and the clapping and cheering suddenly increased with a pronounced measure of good natured laughs and innuendo to its tone and intention. The surprised trucker played along with a great sense of humor and posed for several photographs as the two women continued to hug him at his sides and as the crowd continued to cheer.
The convenience store clerk jogged out from the store and greeted the driver with a handshake. That handshake prompted an even more powerful eruption of applause.
After another few moments, the cheering finally subsided. Total strangers began talking amongst themselves with a degree of warmth not typical in the City of Brotherly Love. More camera phones got brandished, focusing upon the chatting store clerk and truck driver.
We all watched the clerk and the driver pantomiming to each other in total cooperation about the truck, the hoses and the feed ports. I knew it would be at least half an hour before anyone could possibly get any fuel into their vehicles, and yet I feared few others in the crowd likewise understood how much time it would take for the tanker to offload, and for the convenience store clerk to reset the pumps. The entire process of refueling a gas station was always such an invisible process to the vast majority of the public that any familiarity with it was almost nil. Maybe they’d be good sports about it, or maybe their patience was at an end. The crowd seemed in good spirits, but I dreaded their reaction to the news of how long off-loading might take.
As the clerk and the driver chatted, and as the crowd buzzed with anticipation, a surprising development unfolded before my eyes: four military Humvees pulled into the gas station and a squad of National Guardsmen all jumped out of the vehicles.
The crowd shifted from congenial anticipation to breathless nervousness. One Guardsman walked straight over to the clerk and the truck driver and spoke in earnest tones to them. Another stood up atop his vehicle and addressed the crowd:
“Ladies and gentlemen!” he shouted. “I need your attention!” The crowd remained almost silent with just some residual whispering. The many camera phones continued to be held aloft to record everything. “I know some of you have been waiting here for several hours, but this tanker load of fuel was not supposed to be delivered to this station. And my unit and I have come here tonight to rectify that delivery error.” The entire crowd groaned in disapproval at that outlandish claim. I stiffened in a quiet fear because I knew those soldiers meant business. The same Guardsman continued with his speech undaunted: “This tanker load of fuel is now being commandeered by the National Guard, so it will NOT be offloading here at this station.”
The entire crowd booed him unmercifully. Some people raised their fists in the air and shook them. Some gave the “thumbs-down” signal to the soldiers. Some even flipped their middle fingers at them.
I watched the same coffee-drinking SUV driver in the jogging suit step forward and raise a cautious hand to the Guardsman.
“Where is this fuel delivery being diverted to?” he demanded.
“I don’t know, sir,” the Guardsman shook his head. “I was only ordered to apprehend this delivery and then await my next orders after the load was secured.”
“I’m a lawyer,” the man in the jogging suit continued, “and I specialize in Constitutional Law. And this sort of an act whereby private property gets seized by the US military is not legal unless the United States is at war.”
The crowd -- while I suspect half of them didn’t truly understand what all that meant -- immediately latched onto this and started to cheer on the lawyer and his effort to combat this veritable hijacking of the fuel.
“We are at war, sir,” the Guardsman said. “We’re at war with Afghanistan. And we’re also fighting the War on Terror.” More boos from the crowd. The Guardsman continued: “And as of ten hours ago, the Governor of Pennsylvania declared a State of Emergency, and said State of Emergency is still in effect. And since Philadelphia is at the heart of that State of Emergency, the National Guard has been dispatched into Philadelphia, and therefore the National Guard is perfectly within its rights to commandeer a Philadelphia fuel shipment during this emergency.”
The crowd again booed. But the lawyer in the jogging suit raised his hands in an act that beckoned for silence. The crowd strangely obeyed his beckoning.
“Well then,” the jogging suited lawyer shook his head, “you need to give this truck driver a receipt for the truck and for the entire shipment. Otherwise he could get fired for turning the vehicle and its cargo over to you without proof of who took it and why. The receipt will allow him to explain to his employer what happened, and it will also allow his employer to get properly reimbursed by the National Guard for the price of the goods and the equipment that have been seized.” The crowd remained somewhat silent, possibly confused that the lawyer was giving in so easily. “And if you don’t give him a receipt with today’s date, the time of day, and your name, rank, and serial number on that receipt, along with the name of the commanding officer who ordered the seizure of this shipment, you’re not acting according to the guidelines set out in the Federal Codes that govern Declared States of Emergency. And that would make you nothing but a highway bandit and a common thief.” Everyone cheered again. “So you had better give this truck driver a receipt. And I personally would like to inspect that receipt to make sure it’s in good order.” More cheers from the crowd. “And if it’s not in good order, I will personally see to it that you and your entire unit are court martialed.” The crowd exploded with the most avid applause so far that night.
The Guardsman stood there in quiet hesitation, staring down the defiant lawyer. He next glanced around at the dozens of witnesses and their many camera phones being held aloft and pointing right at him. Finally, as the cheers started to die down again, the Guardsman shouted: “Sergeant!”
Another Guardsman, presumably a Sergeant, came rushing forward. “Yes SIR!”
“Get this man a receipt!”
The lawyer made quite a show of it, scrutinizing every last detail of the receipt, playing to the crowd and the cameras. After putting the entire squad through lawyerly hell, he finally said the receipt was in good order and advised the truck driver to release the truck. The crowd again booed. The truck driver handed the keys over to the Guardsmen.
The soldier who took they keys got into the cab and started the engine. Again the crowd booed and then the truck began slowly backing up into the street, it’s back-up beeper loudly echoing through the gas station parking lot. Someone threw a half-full cup of convenience store coffee at the side of the tanker where it burst into a small transparent stain of dripping brown liquid on the tank’s shell. As the truck backed away, the crowd mirrored the vehicle’s slow backing motion by inching forward at an identical speed, shaking their fists at its departure.
Once the truck was fully in the street, the back-up beeper ceased and the gears loudly shifted from “Reverse” to “First.” The giant front wheels cranked their orientation into the other direction and the truck roared forward in lower gear. More boos and more tossed cups of coffee and even tossed Hot Pockets followed. The truck lumbered away with the Humvees following. At last the crowd turned their angry backs to the departing Guardsmen, sulking toward their lifeless vehicles in bitter frustration.
Many motorists asked the truck driver if he would let them see the receipt. He obliged. Each person took less than thirty seconds to behold the receipt. Some people looked at the receipt simultaneously in groups, standing tightly clustered together to behold it. Some people with the camera phones even took close-up video footage of the receipt. The lawyer in the jobbing suit and the white tip on his hair shooed away most of the people and told the truck driver it was critical that they take some photocopies of it. Together the lawyer and the truck driver went into the convenience store to use the public photocopier inside.
I watched the crowd mull around for another ten minutes. Then some of them departed. Things seemed calmer now. I decided to stick around and wait for a diesel delivery. I again fell asleep.
I woke up at dawn on Sunday morning right as another tanker rolled into the half-full parking lot. This time it was a diesel shipment. When the lingering motorists realized it was “only diesel,” many of them gave up and drove away.
I exited my van and wandered into the convenience store for a microwave breakfast, terribly self-conscious of the fact that my body odor was turning unsavory and I’d been wearing the same clothes for over thirty-six hours. I did my best to stand as far away from others as possible to prevent them from catching a whiff of me.
Back in my van I ate a sandwich of a cardboard-like English muffin and a rubbery yellow circle of egg product. I watched the tanker offload its shipment into one of the many round in-ground fuel ports. After more than twenty minutes, the delivery was done and the hose got pulled out of the ground again. I waited another five minutes as the clerk squared up the paperwork with the truck driver then reset the diesel pumps. At last I refueled.
I made it back to my work yard before eight AM. Philly was always dead on Sunday mornings, so cross-town driving at that hour was a total breeze.
After I secured the van and locked the gates, I retrieved from the office the same street clothes I’d worn back on Friday during my breakfast with Catherine. I tossed them into a bag, and headed for Locust Street. As I walked the streets I slouched, ignoring the tolls of Sunday morning church bells.
I entered my apartment and looked around at it. It’s not that bad, I told myself again then headed straight for the shower.
As I stood under the hot water I found myself -- for the third time in my adult life -- crying.
-------------------End of Chapter 21--------------------