The Philosophy of Hot Dog Service Stations and Shopping Carts

Faye Seidler
29 min readJan 29


Photo by ODAYAKA GUREI on Unsplash

Gas Stations: The Pátopolis of Modern Life

Philosophy has historically been based on trickle down thoughtonomics. The scholars and the rich are free to theorize the ways of the world from the height of their acropolis, far removed from the everyday person and struggles.

The Pátopolis becomes the dark bottom, the street philosophy that originates from Gas Stations, broken dreams, and survivors of the bizarre construct of reality other people agree on. The world according to the riff raffs and scallions and outcasts. Every real thing you can learn about the world, you can learn by paying serious attention to gas station hot dogs.

However, I’m not here to talk about mystery meat or how gas stations serenade their hotdogs in so much time they start accruing stock options, moving to Florida, and having strong opinions about other people.

No, we’re looking just adjacent to the rolling hot meat conveyor onto the condiments we garnish slabs of meat that tastes like condense soul, grease, and sin.

What we are talking about is the service station. The minced pickles, mustard, cheese, ketchup, and whatever else your gas station offers as mercy and flavor to your life choices. The truly deluxe gas stations for the richly poor allow nacho cheese and chili. We may not have healthcare or social mobility, but we can still live like gas station kings, queens, and mischief royals.

To understand hot dog service stations is to understand the root unit of morality, governance, society, and ethics.

All big ideas you may have, all personal theory, all dense text books and thesis are just fancy garnish on the absolute truth we find living and breathing inside of gas stations, about both ourselves and our world. To understand society do not look in parliament or to college or to the words of ancient philosophers, instead look to our gas stations and you might actually learn something.

When you consider yourself a good person, don’t think about how you treat your friends and family or how many shopping carts you return, think about how you treat the gas station clerks and denizens. And when it’s all over, what mercy they will feel inclined to show you.

Gas Station Philosophy

You see, my local gas station, the one I allegedly write all of my articles from, has a hot dog machine and a rather brilliant full service station next to it. This particular gas station has a make-shift deli, a deep fryer, all the caffeine in the world and booths to sit down and think about life. Really think about it.

When you sit in a gas station you sit outside of time. It is a superliminal space where the performativity of reality stops and you can take a long sigh and deep breath as you rest behind the curtains, knowing you’ve finally found a place where truly nobody will expect anything of you. If hell is the constant expectation of other people, gas stations are heaven.

A lot of people write in coffee shops and that’s a disservice. There is no truth in coffee shops, there is only the sardine packaging of paraprofessionals drugging up to keep the codes that run our world spinning. If you don’t believe me, sit in a coffee shop for eight hours and count the kids. Observe the diversity. Observe the dress, actions, and vibe of the hipsters and suits. See who is missing and what parts of life don’t get to exist there.

Coffee shops are the sitcoms of life, horribly gentrified and quite a production, but offering nothing more than caffeine and the middle class+ view on life. Exceptions exist, absolutely, but you’d be hard pressed to find a gas station with airs about it, it’s already too heavy with the smell of gasoline and body odor to pretend it’s something it’s not.

The Different Kinds of Gas Station

Every time I walk into a gas station, I unconsciously look around to see if it offers hot dogs or not. I see if maybe they have those tiny pizzas that taste like sweet warmth and make me nostalgic for the time someone else showed me kindness. I like the ones that offer cheap and timeless toys that no child could possibly want. I love the ones with strange knick knacks that make me think curiosity shops simply evolved and never truly went away.

Personally, beyond all that, the way I relate to gas stations the most is memories of buying two brats, a bag of vinegar chips, and an energy drink on my way home from work every day.

It was a kind of afterwork ritual that felt pleasantly self-destructive and it’s only today that I suspect ritual is too accurate a word. I’ve already used superliminal, curiosity shop, and the backstage curtains of reality to describe this place. Who knows what eldritch power really lies here, but what I can tell you is that while writing this article I found out I was born on the 500 year anniversary of the Frankfurt Sausage. This means something, damnit.

My idyllic gas station is any with a hot dog service stations. Drifting between poor and working class my entire life, what else could feel so much like home? But, I have respect for all gas stations.

Especially the ones with crammed isles and a person behind a counter that’s strapped in like they’re piloting a star ship. The ones that still smell of smoke, even though it’s been banned for more than a decade. The ones that smell like old newspapers have the best charm. And we can’t discount the ones with decades of grime, dim lights, and if they could speak, you know it’d be a gravelly voice that had years of alcohol and screaming behind it. Think Mac’s mom from Always Sunny if you can.

I also have respect for the brightly lit and polished corporate gas stations that are like if a gas station put on a suit and tried to get a job at Microsoft.

I know they’re just trying to survive and beneath that suit and golden shine they’re still the same garbage as the rest of us. And they all operate under the same principle of meating our needs.

How Gas Station Meat Our Needs

Gas stations by their nature convert chaos into logic. The whole world is a mad and impossible scramble from point A to I’m fucking tired — and gas stations make it all work. Fill up your car, fill up your life, get your coffee, get high on sugar, vomit any and everywhere, take a dump (toilet optional), have risky sex, rob them/get robbed, get lottery cards, die, give birth — you can do anything there so long as you have a shirt and shoes.

Gas stations convert that unlimited chaotic potential of the universe into a transaction and get people going on their day. Gas stations see everyone except the exceedingly rich and within gas stations you see what diversity of life really means. You want to shut down the world, get gas stations to strike. (If you want to take over the world, militarize Waffle Houses. They have more natural disaster active duty training than most of the world’s armies put together.)

And why am I waxing poetic about gas stations so much? Well, here I am, sitting in my booth trying to write my article on Mort. It’s Pratchett’s fourth book and it’s about the absolute certainty of death. I’d recommend ten and up for reading. Lots of funny jokes, coming of age sort of affair in a fantasy world. It also deals with the concepts of justice.

As I’m working on this, I see a woman in her early twenties cultivating a colon bomb of nacho cheese over slowly roasted slabs of soul. Nacho cheese as a concept cost a dollar here. They don’t sell by pump or volume nor is it a slot machine you pump quarters into and roll a winning cheese hand every time.

In theory one could come here with an empty plastic gallon jug and single handedly evolve the English language to include the phrase “cheese taxemia”. And while my home slice was certainly working her way into more of a hot dog enchilada situation, she was likely to survive. In fact the best way to describe someone with her behavior is probably “surviving”.

At immediate glance anyone could see she was abusing the system, but she’d pay her dollar and go on her way. The garnish? The Ketchup? The Napkins? They’re all free. And while theoretically you’d be stopped if you simply walked in every day and took their entire supply, there aren’t explicit rules against this. It’s a nebulous code of honor existing somewhere between the social contract and capitalism’s sharp teeth. So, the question is why don’t we abuse this system? What is in it for us to be “polite”?

Capitalism: No Free Condiment/Don’t Download Ketchup Packets

Economists will tell you there is no free lunch, but they never consider how much toilet paper you can steal from the bathrooms if your purse is big enough. Fools. There is soap that can be harvested too. There is water to drink and fill bottles with. I honestly wonder how long a person could survive in a gas station without a dollar.

Think about the movie Terminal, except have it star the exceedingly poor or I suppose a closer connection may be economic social strata immigrants? You know, people who are American, but can’t prove their wealth and can be deported from public property.

We all know the malarky I describe above can only last a short time, because it’s extremely rude to be poor and have needs. If your needs become great enough the cops show up and give you more needs, like where you need to go and where you need to not be anymore and if you get upset you’ll find you need to go with them. In our society needs may not be met, but they’re certainly handed out.

In my area a man was arrested for taking a second helping of free samples. If that sounds alarming that’s because you haven’t clicked the link there to discover they arrested him in a sweat lodge ceremony and also got very rough, fined him 400 dollars, and made him spend two nights in jail.

I used to work in a Deli and have seen more than one white elderly person get their daily calories met by parking outside the free sample sections. It remains mysteriously okay for them to do it. I’m sure folks outside of the Florida education system can offer some guesses.

So, who really gets to take advantage of those free services? Who gets an annoyed eyebrow raise of an employee witnessing a nacho crime and who goes to jail after being pulled from a religious ceremony for a double helping of free food? And at the end of the day who should respect the Nacho Cheese laws?

To understand this, we can look at a popular meme around the shopping cart theory. Except, we can make it bold and alliterative. Make it sounds like a thesis, but also silly. While we go down this road, it will be important for you to accurately visualize a shopping card. If you’re cold, they’re cold and you need to bring them inside with you. Preferably to your home and under the cover of your sheets.

Do not touch this without a W-dimension enhancement.

The Governance of Grocery Garts

So, a very popular thought experiment over the last few years is the Governance of Grocery Garts. This is the notion that returning a grocery cart is the most basic form of self governance as it has the least consequence and benefit to a person to operate within the orderly logic of a society.

If a person can’t spend the 30 seconds it often takes to return their cart, they have effectively wiped their ass on society and thrown the soiled paper next to the toilet we call life.


At this point, you may be wondering where we are going here. Or even where we are. We’re in Medium and a voice that sounds like your own is reading the words of someone you probably never met. You’re going through a gas station style journey through Truth to learn broadly about the social contract, morality, and what governs the rightness of action within free transactional space.

And you’re thinking, Faye, articles don’t have “intermissions”. That is not a real thing. Where have you narratively trapped me, ma’am?

And that’s good, that’s a good thought to have. Understanding and asserting reality is a key tool in maneuvering through…well imagine me broadly gesturing at life.

But I’m just here to give you some reassurance! We’re already 2000 words into this article! And we’re so close to talking about Candy and Marshmallows before we take a very sharp turn to discuss a very specific episode of House. It’ll be wild and you’ll love it! We’ll also need to talk about cops’ role in society for a hot second and then a special guest comes on!

And you’re thinking, Faye, how could any of these things be related? Isn’t this like… I don’t know, a gas station article? Wait, why am I reading a gas station article. Didn’t you have an editor? Like the ninth editor, I remember them from a while back. Oh, dear reader, ha ha ha!

Returning to The Big Shopping Gart Theory

People focused on cart theory because of the lack of reward gained for returning the cart. How it didn’t actually really matter, with the slight exception of getting a quarter back in some cases. Returning the cart just means you are a good and moral person! Isn’t that neat! Five carts a day and you get a ticket to heaven!

They say the reason returning shopping carts is such a good baseline tool to know if someone has a soul is because there is no real benefit to you for the action, however the theoretical framework attaches a moral benefit. So, what most people don’t realize is that they’re effectively arguing around the same lines of the Candy Experiment shown below.

But the Candy Experiment is actually just the Marshmallow Experiment. And the Marshmallow experiment was one of those studies that made us think we knew a lot about behavior and how it correlates to success.

One could consider this one of the fundamental bootstrap experiments, because the results were read to say personal will power was a determinant in success. And once you make that logical connection, boy howdy do you become comfortable letting people die.

I mean, it sounds great, doesn’t it? You have control over your life! You can do anything! And if you don’t. You personally have failed. You only needed to have more will power.

Millennials complain about being poor, but they’re drinking coffee instead of investing that into some high yield return. They “practically” deserve to starve. We aren’t going to say that though, we’ll simply present both facts next to each other and let the person die. That’s much more polite.

Any rational person should be putting every penny and drop of sweat into their compound interest account, that they researched from the library when they were eight. You basically have to actively avoid these incredibly simple opportunities to bootstrap your way out of wealth inequality, so the only conclusion is…people must be really lazy and deserve it!

Are you complaining about being poor, while still budgeting for food? That’s insane. You can just get nice enough looking clothes from the homeless shelter and not be poor person security checked while scarfing down free condiments for the middle class! At this point I think it is pretty obvious how impolite and lazy poor people are being, when they don’t choose to be wealthy.

But dear reader, sooner or later, the gas station comes for us all.

The Moral Failing of Poverty

When we start to understand the absurd basis of these experiments and what they say about a person, the Governance of Grocery Garts falls apart. I’m not the only person to see this, Biocatch has a blog about this and then it turns into describing in detail the problem with Money Mules for some reason?

And what’s interesting to me about the whole shopping cart theory, as it is officially and lamely called, is people look at that and think they are looking at some real truth in the world. It’s neat, it’s logical, and it’s easy to understand. It’s good coffee shop talk. But it’s fucking terrible gas station talk and understanding that is understanding the importance of the self service station, because it operates under the same rules.

Are you a good person or a moral person for returning a shopping cart? Are you a good person for doing free labor for a company? Are you a good person for having the ability, time, and energy to do this labor? Are you a good person because you didn’t take the last ketchup packet? Are you a good person on a scale determined by how many onions you put on your hot dog? What part of your moral character is determined by how much you take or don’t take from a service station that isn’t intrinsically tied to abstract values of wealth and worth in society?

Or to ask this in another way, how evil are you for having needs? These thought experiments are a joke.

You learn nothing from shopping carts except how polite and respectable a person is in a system that is nothing but horrific to so many people in it. Further, we have a moral imperative to never return any cart. Because that generates free labor and value for a company and means they do not have to hire someone to return the carts.

This is less money the company invests within communities and leads in some small part to devaluing the safety net of your city. The experiment itself increases shame for disabled people without the ability to do it and helps thought police and shame the disenfranchised into feeling guilty over something that does not matter and only serves the benefit of a company.

Why didn’t that single mom with three kids return that cart? She is fucking exhausted. Why didn’t that man return it? Because he has mobility issues and walking anymore than he has to is painful. Why don’t people return carts? Because they have better things to do. That’s it. Truth uncovered. Upload that to Wikipedia.

What’s next, the moral governance of cleaning your table before leaving a fast food restaurant? The great character of people who use self-checkout lanes? The virtue of pulling product forward to make shelves appear full? The divinity of giving free feedback data on products? The mind spins with possibilities for civic duty and morality being tied together to produce free labor.

Remember that scene in Clerks where a customer pretends to be an anti-cancer activist? He goes on and on about how bad smoking is and leads the charge for everyone to switch to gum. And then it’s revealed he was actually a gum salesman? I’m sure that’s relevant here, I’ll let you connect the dots.

And to clarify, don’t honestly believe some grocery store rep devised a meme to shame people into returning carts to improve profit. I’m sure it was just a neat accident.

The interesting thing for me isn’t the shopping cart theory designed to extort labor from people. I’m just using the theory to help people understand how we can examine theories that are fundamentally about how we relate to society, because a lot of them are extremely biased, make false correlations, or are lowkey propaganda.

When you understand how these things all break down, you can better understand the points we want to make with the gas station service station. Because from a moral and ethical standpoint, why should we respect any social contract or code of honor when it comes to nacho cheese on our hot dogs?

These are the questions Plato was too much of a coward to pretend Socrates asked. Please spend all the time you need with that question.

Once you’ve taken all the time you need with that question, please say the answer you have come up with clearly into your computer at a spoken word rate of less than 50 words a minute. While it may feel silly to do, I assure you it is.

After you have finished that, we will be looking more seriously at nacho cheese and shopping carts. We’ll get dead serious about them!

Why the Man Was Right to Hold Doctor House Hostage

I will be talking about the ninth episode during the fifth season of House. I again feel extremely silly to describe a loose plot of this episode, because I’m sure each of you remember it vividly.

The episode is called Last Resort (as you all know) and features a man coming to the hospital with an undiagnosed condition. Throughout the course of the episode he holds the doctors hostage at gunpoint, but finds out he had an treatable illness that would’ve killed him had he not done what he did.

As I’m sure you all know, this was a very compelling episode and has the hallmark of great writing that asks us to explore deep questions of morality and ethics. So, let’s quickly look at the reviews of this episode:

Oh wow. Huh.

Those last two are especially interesting, 6 out of 10 from a person who liked it and from someone who thought it was the worst in the series. And I understand this, the worst make-out session with a femboi Link cosplayer is still probably a seven out of ten if you think about it.

Look, if that doesn’t float your boat, you’re welcome to think about your partner dressing up as any character from the Zelda franchise. I am not one to judge. I mean, is femboi Link the David Bowie of modern sexuality? I’m not one to say. I couldn’t say. This is still all in your hands, dear reader. I just report on the Truth.

But I digressed.

Moral Philosophy: Individual Vs. Society

When considering moral philosophy and making value judgments about the correct actions people can take, we can agree the man with a gun was morally wrong to take doctors hostage. He was morally wrong to endanger other people’s lives. He was morally wrong to effectively go above the systems of governance we have in healthcare, push everyone else down, heavily disrupt the health system for everyone else, and maybe even indirectly cause people to die or experience harm.

But, he would be dead if he didn’t do this. So, what did he owe society? What do you owe society?

Why should society get to at all times benefit from the actors within it? And why should we make personal sacrifices, even to the point of death, for the value it has on society and those in it? Why sacrifice yourself for a country that is not sacrificing itself for you? What dignity and value is there in life where all you become is another cog lost to turning the gears of capitalism?

Regardless of any moral framework of what is right or wrong, it is insane to ask or expect anyone to work against their own interests when the cost/benefit is so severely stacked against them. What interest does a person have in returning a shopping cart? What interest do they have in skimping on toppings for their hotdog? Why shouldn’t everyone treat the world as a toilet or their own oyster?

Well, there are a lot of compelling reasons to work together and have a functioning society. If we all wrecked the hot dog service station, then nobody could use it. When it’s unusable nobody benefits from it anymore. Anarchy loses any benefits of a society and those benefits often can serve directly to protect the most marginalized.

Often a society is to the greatest benefit of the weak, newborn, old, or disabled people. People who need the benefit of others or help to manage in their own life and to keep dignity within that life. Society protects against the total abuse of those with power on the weak. Unions and Osha keep workforces from truly dehumanizing or converting people’s lives into money through advanced alchemy.

A society is worth investing in, but if society is not properly taking care of the individuals with in it — then the contract is broken and following it makes you a tool. If society is harvesting all of your value and giving you no protections, it isn’t your moral operative to follow its rules or social contracts. It’s your operative to survive.

I’m not saying a person should or shouldn’t rebel. I’m just saying that logically a person won’t follow the social contracts when there isn’t a benefit for them to do so.

The tension happens when society starts to benefit less and less people. Jobs that go nowhere, rent you can’t afford, healthcare you can’t access, kids you struggle to take care of, hours that drain you, chronic pain from work, and a life ending with nothing to pass on.

But no, just keep going to work. Be nice. Be polite. Don’t protest. It’ll get better…eventually! Just keep your head down, don’t shake the boat, and return that shopping cart! Have conversations in the coffee shop about how it all works or should work! When the gas station truth of the world is our society is horribly immoral and unethical.

It’s a sort of Titanic played out over a few hundred years, where the bar of income required to be above water is getting ever increasing. Middle class disappears to the soggy bottoms of the working class, while the poor are holding their breath with bodies all around and the only thing left to give is their air.

But fear not. Society is not irredeemable nor is it static. It will work towards solving these problems the way it knows how! More police!

Officer Huggems

Somehow Tying this Article All Together

Not returning the shopping cart is implied to be the smallest increment of moral fiber or consequentially the smallest increment of moral failing. We tested kids with candy and marshmallows to see if they can follow rules or the most basic version of laws. And then we determined that some people are just good people with will power and other people are just bad apples.

Should I talk about Uncle Buck again? I mean it’s all always about Uncle Buck. But I won’t.

And if this bad behavior like not returning carts or taking free things from businesses is a moral failing and not an indicator of society failing to give people realistic investment or opportunities to succeed — then we need to punish them for being, I don’t know, evil…inconvenient…poor…traumatized?

So, you have a whole sector of folks who are doing well. Who have good finances, money, opportunity, and coffee shop discussions. They go to the good grocery stores and eat five pounds of free donuts and think life is magical and full of abundance for everyone. The view is pretty good from their section of the ship.

And because of this they falsely attribute this success to how they followed the rules. They cannot conceive the impact of stress, economic insecurity, or generational poverty has on executive function, opportunity, or how it may make people less invested or engaged to follow the social contracts and rules of “polite” behavior in society. And they think if everyone simply followed these rules, everyone would have a cupcake!!

And the people who don’t have their kind of life? Bad choices. Terrible people. Evil people. And those folks who make a mess? Leave carts? Take more than one free sample? The ones who drown their hotdogs in cheese and chili? The ones who protest? Who stop ambulances? Wow! You idiots! You’re ruining the perfect life (for me)!

The deep irony of the world is that people often construct moral frameworks purely to justify either their own immorality or societies. And they are often positioned to conveniently justify everything a person wants to do anyways. The complex abstraction of sins and virtues gets cognitively gerrymandered until whoever you happen to be is inherently a good person.

It is much easier to feel comfortable with your privileges when your logical process naturalizes them as just how the world works or should work.

As gas stations it doesn’t matter if you’re a good person, on the bottom we’re all surviving. If society has given you no avenues, investment, or hope then you don’t really owe society or those in it anything. From a moral and logical framework, it makes no sense to participate in a society that is attempting to break you into a gear.

And while we can understand this easily through a lens of privilege and poverty, these same mechanisms are radicalizing men who feel disenfranchised by systems where they’re told their opinions don’t matter, life is easy for them, and they’re not allowed to have feelings.

And when we look at how to operate a society, we have two ways to solve this conflict. We make society something that meaningfully invests and engages with its citizens or we force them into compliance. You’ll never believe what we chose!

Solving Social Unrest

I think it’s actually really interesting that police are a response to this conflict that arises from society failing individuals. Even outside of anti-police or pro-police narratives, there is a lot to learn from listening to just how cops understand their own role in society.

They understand their role is not to solve the root causes of disenfranchisement, but that they do respond to the consequences of it. They are not social workers. They are not advocates there to help people. They are there to enforce the laws of the system, often to the people who the system benefits.

It is worth noting police have a very high level of suicidality as the work can be as traumatizing for them as the people who are impacted by police. And while that doesn’t mean much to a person killed by them, it does show how traumatizing the work is for everyone involved in it.

So when, at time of writing, President Biden expanded millions of dollars to the police. What we’re solving isn’t systemic issues often impacting minoritized communities — we’re funding a means to stop trauma induced behavior from disrupting everyone else’s life.

An easy way to understand this is that we’re not putting out the fire, we’re tackling the people who are on fire and beating them until the fire goes out, so they don’t hurt anyone else. We’re responding to social unrest with power, control, and force — rather than opportunities to invest in communities, heal, and invite opportunity and growth.

Our current approach doesn’t stop social unrest or the root traumas creating it, so it becomes an ever escalating conflict. More funding is needed as more people are failed by, traumatized within, or give up on society.

So, the enormous expanse of police, correlates to a recognition that a historically high amount of people are getting failed by our systems and getting more radicalized towards them. As police respond to this, that creates further community trauma, requiring more police to respond, so on until something collapses.

Police are a coping mechanism in society, but like alcohol or other substances, they’re not solving depression or anxiety. We need more and more to feel okay and in control or make it through the day.

Police don’t solve the root cause of problems, but by force they do compel individuals to act and behave in accordance with the law, by chilling action through progressively more severe consequence. They create consequences for people taking more free food than is polite or for attempting to hold a doctor hostage.

The man who attacked House was morally right to do so. Society has its own moral imperative to stop that man. So, we recognize inequality, we recognize we’re displacing people, we recognize that everyone is becoming less invested with the social and legal contracts of our society, but our solution to it is funding more force to metaphorically numb the pain.

In a coffee shop you could talk about state rights or violence or the role of police or any other fun truth you want. In a gas station, people disappear or die or both. In a gas station, we recognize the poor get arrested for having needs above their station. In a gas station, we recognize if you look different, you’ll have half a dozen eyes on your back, making sure you behave long before a badge is involved. There are not sundown laws for the poor, rather just a bunch of polite, well meaning middle-class folks who are helpful to show you the nearest exit.

And it is worth noting this isn’t in a judgmental framework. I’m not suggesting what the police should do or if this action we’ve taken is correct or not. But, police don’t prevent crime, they at best stop it after it happens or serve to punish the people who committed them. How you feel about that is up to you.

If we want to prevent crime, we need to invest in schools, healthcare, housing, and food for all people. We also have to better understand and implement plans that involve racial justice and intersectional approaches.

Crime doesn’t happen because a person is just evil and doesn’t return shopping carts. It happens because people are failed by the system and have no reason to respect it. It happens because like in Breaking Bad or Weeds, they don’t see other options.

When people break the law, they don’t sit down and weigh the cost/benefit analysis of their actions. People break nacho cheese law because they stop caring about consequences, because they’re too miserable or hopeless to care anymore. And at a certain point it doesn’t matter if the consequence is a ten dollar fine or execution, you’re gonna yolo cheese.

The hot dog service station is a reflection of how invested a person is in society and what needs they have. When we understand this, everything else becomes easy. But there is always more to understand.

The Retired Soldier

“I agree with ya,” a man said wearing a military style flight suit like he just walked out of the set of Top Gun. His nametag identified him as Yossarian.

He was sitting in the booth a few down from me, slicing bits of apple with a pocket knife. He had a few glasses of wine in front of him and the aura like a collection agency was probably calling him every day trying to collect on past due fucks that he was never going to give.

“Excuse me?” I asked, not knowing if he was even talking to me or not.

“You talk out loud while typing. Heard your entire piece. I tried ignoring you, out of politeness, but you laugh too much at your own jokes,” He offered absent mindedly while chewing.

“Oh, I’m sorry…you’re not like a dead ghost author I need to worry about or a fictional abstract concept given material form?”

“No, I’m just another man trying to live forever or die in the attempt. I’ve made a pretty good go of it so far,” He said. He looked old and distorted around the edges, but you could tell there was still vitality and strength to him.

“Huh, mind if I ask you some questions?” I said while moving over to his booth. He shrugged and I took it to mean indifferent acceptance. I went on, “You Air Force or something?”

“Retired actually. Clothes are comfortable enough. It’s basically a onesie, but people respect you more in it.”

“How was service for you?” I asked.

“Eye opening. Met a man who bought eggs for about a dime and sold them for two cents and made a profit. Now eggs are five dollars and he probably owns a country.”


“You know humans aren’t naturally inclined to kill each other? It’s like trying to intentionally piss your pants, you can do it, but it’s hard. Lot of soldiers report they fired over enemy heads. Reports can’t capture that, but the real battle is a bunch of victims and a few psychopaths. I spent all of my time trying to leave it.”

“Huh, that makes me think about how much conditioning it takes for landlords to stop treating tenants like humans. A lot of crypto investors were really concerned some of their profits went to a good cause or charity. Like most of us know how terribly harmful these systems are, but are given helpful cognitive tools to be okay with the harm or abstract it away.”

“It’s all fucked up, always has been. Why you writing in a gas station?” He asked.

“Well, I like the smell I guess. I’ve been working on an article about Death, it’s a Terry Pratchett Book that kind of instills the notion of death being the only absolute truth.” I said.

“That’s good, too many people hide from death. Don’t understand at the end of the day humans are just meat. We’re ripe and sooner or later we all spoil. Except me. Been drinking preservatives since the 40s. Anyways, once you learn those secrets, a whole lot of stuff you thought mattered, stops mattering. A kid named Snowden taught me that.”

“The famous hacker!?”

“No, some young, misguided kid who spilled his guts to me one night about what it means to die.”

“Oh. That I guess makes more sense, I’m sorry.”

“You know in my day there was a catch. If you were crazy you didn’t have to be in the army. But if you wanted to leave the army, that indicated a sane and rational response to the danger you faced. Nobody could leave and the entire situation was crazy.”

“Sort of like disability today? Huh? If you can get disability, that means you’re able enough to go through the gauntlet to get it. So, clearly you’re not disabled and don’t need it,” I stated.

“Yeah, they call it ‘means testing’ today. Used to be called Catch-22 in my service days. All it really means is we aren’t going to help you and it’d be impolite if you keep trying. A real inconvenience actually. A Major Major problem.”

“Kind of like how you’re not supposed to protest in the streets, because it’s too disruptive and will just make people hate you. But if you’re not disruptive they’ll just ignore you?” I offer.

“That’s a good one. You’re young, but all my life I’ve been told to vote for a guy because he’s the lesser of two evils. Now we’re thanking Christ that the guy who kicks puppies is still on the ballet, because he’s got a good chance against the child killer,” He said.

“That’s bleak. I always thought it was kind of funny. Vote for our guy, because he isn’t their guy. Sounds great right? Like, it feels like I’m really voting for my own interests, but then I get two people who don’t represent me or have any reason to and then people blame me for their guy losing or their enemy winning.”

“Enemies are anyone trying to get you killed, never forget that.”

“I think I have a lot of enemies.”

“Eh, that’s how it works.” He said drinking from his glass of wine. He offered me the other one at his table. I didn’t get the impression that had put it out for me, he just simply had two glasses. I could see the bottle next to him, just the neck of it sticking up. The booths we sat on were looking out windows, so anyone in the world could see him drinking in public and in a gas station.

I was finely living out that scene in Sideways that I always talk about. Except it just made me feel comfortable in real life.

With the drink in front of me, I had to wonder the legality of drinking it. If I took a sip, would some invisible protection keeping me from jail evaporate? Was I already in danger for sitting here with him? And for this would all my freedom and agency be taken away?

He didn’t care.

He didn’t have anything to lose. He was gruff and distorted in the way that makes him an exception to the normal rules of life, unless he shook the boat too much. Some people are too much hassle or too well armed to enforce the law with.

And in that space is the uneasy compromise. The invisible set of secondary rules where we stop caring about the pedantic and have a gentleman's agreement that if you don’t mess with us, we don’t do anything too bad. But it isn’t just one set of secondary rules. It’s not the social contract, it is the social contracts. Some have teeth and some have guns.

I couldn’t drink the wine.

“So, what do we do to like actually improve life?” I asked.

I was very uncomfortable with how deeply and at what length he laughed at that. He kept pointing at me and shaking his head. He even slapped his goddamn knee, like it was an old comedy sketch.

“You’re just a kiddo. No offense or anything girl. It is just that as you get older you see how shitty the world is, if you weren’t born into the shit anyways. All those problems you were typing about, that’s shit I screamed at my commanding officers in the forties. I’m sure it’s what they felt in World War One. I’m sure it’s what the armies of ancient nations felt too.”

“Okay, so in your opinion how do we make the world better?” I ask.

“Why would I care?” He asked.

“I don’t know, because it’s like…the world?”

“I’m a realist. Fast-forward five hundred years and I may or may not be here. You’re not here. This conversation has disappeared. All impact we have is gone. Even if we from this point on live our best life or worst life, it’ll be practically gone in a generation. So, who cares?”

“So, you think it’s hopeless to make change?”

“No kid, change will just happen. Life will get better, it’ll get worse, it’ll disappear for a while and probably come back. Maybe it won’t. We’ve been telling ourselves to learn from history for thousands of years. We ain’t doing it. So, don’t get too big on life philosophy. Just live it.”

“What if everyone did that though? You know, not try to make life better?”

“Then I’d be a damn fool to do anything different, wouldn’t I?”

“Sounds like you have your own catch-22, huh.”

“Never thought of it that way.”

“I don’t know either, I’m not a realist, I’m a pragmatist. If we aren’t learning from history, we need to do something else. If this is what our world looks like through every effort we’ve tried so far, we need something new.”

“You got answers on that doll?”

“No, but I’m reading a lot of literature from good authors and I’m writing gas station stories. That has to be something.”

“No, I don’t think it is.”

“That’s fair. I appreciate this conversation, I’m going to go finish a book about how there is no justice in the world, just us. I think I like that better.”

Little did I know at the time what would be waiting for me at home.



Faye Seidler

I write essays on literature, pop culture, video games, and reality. A throughline of my work is metanarrative horror and defining what it is to be human.