I remember my father teaching me how to open a bag of chips. You take the little flap at the back and you pinch the front and you pull and the seam parts and you inhale the sweet salty flavor of whatever is inside. You get orange “cheese” dust all over your hands and you peer over the top of the dashboard with your orange mustache as he pulls the car out of the gas station parking lot and the crunch crunch of the flavored corn puffs makes it hard to hear.
You had stopped to use the restroom and the attendant above the counter in the green smock handed down a big grey plastic cylinder with a small key attached and you clumped in the snow boots you are still growing into to the grey door with the chipped paint and you managed to open it and it shut behind you with a thunk. You had a vague idea of who else might have been in this bathroom, the yellow tiles and the flourescent light and the streaks of unused stray toilet paper on the floor and the grey baby changing station with the broken strap. People who were neither here nor there, visiting this bathroom, leaving behind their sense of desperation. It is only one of the hundreds of gas station bathrooms you will visit in your lifetime but for some reason it will leave an impression on you and you will think of it every time you think of a gas station bathroom. They will all blend together, and no matter what else you encounter this is always what you will expect: the narrow, green and yellow tiles, the rattling fan in the overhead light, the grit, the squeaky faucet with only cold water, the feeling as you leave that washing your hands wasn’t enough.
I wonder now what a new gas station bathroom is like; there is a universal law somewhere that states that gas station bathrooms must all have at least one piece of extra toilet paper in the corner and rust on the paper towel dispenser and a water stain on the paper on the back of door with the custodian’s signature reminding you that the bathroom was cleaned only two hours ago, which seems improbable. So how soon does it begin? Is it pre-installed, the sick chemical cleaning smell, the bleached grey tiles, the busted soap dispenser? Does anyone ever walk in and think “oh wow, this bathroom is really clean,” or do the staff intentionally make it sort of depressing in there because they know you only came to use the facilities and aren’t going to purchase any gas (though you might grab a bag of cheetos for your kid) and they will do whatever it takes to make sure you are in and out of there as fast as possible, yearning from the moment you set foot in the place to be back on the road, heading for your real destination? Or is it that first customer, the rushed commuter, angry at the traffic, who jogs heavily from his dusty car, already late for work, to relieve himself, and punches the shiny new soap dispenser as he shakes his hands before drying them and leaves sweaty, flustered, swearing?
And who invented bags of chips anyway? And how did they figure out that you could get them open like that?
None of these things cross your mind as you chew, though. You are more interested in making shapes with the artificial cheese sticks before eating them, and finding new things to wipe your sticky hands on. Something important is happening as you munch, otherwise, why do you remember this moment so clearly now, fifteen years later?
I’m still not sure.