After spending a day working as an attendant at a petrol kiosk, it became clear to me that car owners are just a little mad.
I saw adults who rock their cars from side to side while fuel was being pumped in. I saw people who wanted precisely $22.50 worth of petrol, not a cent more, not a cent less. There was a man who wanted a dash of one fuel mixed into a tank of another kind of fuel – a tasty petrol cocktail, if you will.
I suppose it makes sense. Owning a car in Singapore is like being a member of a religion with a very odd set of beliefs. Buying a car here makes no financial sense, but people with vehicles will argue that it does. We should not be surprised that being superstitious – rocking cars, mixing up gasoline cocktails, installing rear spoilers that could shade a village – comes with the territory.
My handler here at the Shell station in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 6 is manager Charleston Soh, 39. He explains customer behaviour to me while I pump, wash windows, check radiator coolant and battery water and shine tyres.
Some people believe that bouncing a car up and down and side to side while fuel is being pumped in will expel air bubbles. In other words, its fuel lines are like a baby’s digestive system. Both need burping after a feed.
The chefs de forecourt who enjoy a splash of petrol mixed into their diesel, or who desire a soupcon of high-end V-Power with their cheaper FuelSave 95 like to think that they are getting a taste of the pricier fuel’s engine-cleaning magic without the cost, Mr Soh explains. People who drizzle truffle oil on their french fries will understand.
I forgot to ask him if rear spoilers or stickers with Japanese characters made cars go faster, but I think I know what his answer would have been.
I did ask him about the taxi driver who needed exactly $22.50 worth of fuel. Why such a weirdly precise amount?
“Oh, he’s just ended his shift,” says Mr Soh. Cabbies need to hand their taxis to the next driver. They want to fill up their share of the tank to just the right amount, not a cent over or under.
Mr Soh has had spells in stations near the Causeway, and there, everyone driving to Malaysia aims to make the needle line up with the three-quarter tank mark with a precision that would make an Olympic Games scorekeeper weep with happiness. There would be cars queuing, each with drivers who wanted only half a squirt of the pump.
A litre of the cheapest stuff now costs more than $2 and it makes people behave in strange ways.
On the days leading up to a promotion, says Mr Soh, drivers become just a little obsessed. They will fill up with eyedropper amounts and drive around with needles close to zero. The goal is to drive up on the discount-fuel day with tanks drier than a pubgoer’s mouth after a bowl of salted peanuts.
Besides making drivers go a bit weird in the head, the high price of fuel has had another side effect. It has caused the pump auntie or uncle, once a common sight, to become an endangered species. When fuel became expensive, discounts and points-based loyalty programmes became important.
Attendants now have to be able to guide drivers through the thicket of promotions – Should I get a full tank today or wait till next week? Should I upgrade to a premium fuel for the extra points and should I swop the points for a fuel voucher now or later? – and the retirees decided they had it up to here with breaking down percentages and decimal points. The mathematics wore them out, not the windscreen-washing.
There is also the service interaction script where I have to suggest, “V-Power for you, sir/madam?” Not one person is moved enough by my performance to upgrade to the pricier fuel, oddly enough.
As an attendant, I ask what kind of fuel the customers want and how much of it.
They say something like, “Iwanninetyfivefiftydollars” or “gimmeninetyeighteightydollah”. I need to repeat the order to the driver, who must acknowledge. But there is one problem: My brain can handle only so many numbers. I am soon jogging after them as they walk away.
“Er, did you ask for the 95 or the 98? Did you say $80 or $50?”
I overfill one car because in my number-addled state, I forget to punch in the dollar amount. It is $2.80 over, an amount I am ready to cover out of my own pocket but the driver is nice enough to pay in full. Whew.
Other than Mr Soh and me, there are two men, hired from China and one uncle working today. We are not too busy this Wednesday afternoon. The really hectic periods are Friday evenings, and during promotions, when cars can form lines going down the street.
Mr Soh fills me in on the safety rules, which I, of course, help to break almost immediately. I do not notice that a man in a small green car has not turned off his engine while I refuel it until Mr Soh tells me.
“He has kids inside and he doesn’t want to shut off his air-con,” he says. It is a fairly common infraction. So is using a cellphone at the pumps, which again I do not notice a man is doing until Mr Soh points it out.
Washing windscreens turns out to be an education in itself. Master Soh takes me inside The Way Of The Superior Squeegee. He is like Mr Miyagi in The Karate Kid. The enemy is the Wet Streak and he must be defeated with the Graceful Wrist, he says, demonstrating the move. He does not quite tell me to bend like a slender bamboo in the mountain breeze, but he may as well have.
This is all well and good until a black SUV drives up. It has a windscreen the size of one of the smaller American states. My arms stretch out as far as they can but they are about 20cm too short to cover the centre portion. I am taught that it is okay to step up on a fender to reach a spot, but I have to ask for permission to touch the body of the car first.
As the sun sets, I swop my red- and-yellow Shell colours for my civilian clothes and say goodbye to the attendants and my squeegee master Mr Soh.
The evening rush is just starting but I think they can cope without me punching in the wrong numbers or leaving windscreens with dirty patches in the middle. Me, I am happy to go.
I will, however, send a suggestion to Shell that octane 95 and 98 be renamed to something a little easier to remember, perhaps “Shirley” and “Mildred”. People like me need all the help we can get.