It happened to "sign me Olivia" in Wheaton on a Thursday. It happened to "my name is George" in Alexandria on the following Monday. It could happen to anyone in this modern world of bared fangs.

Olivia and George had mechanical emergencies while at suburban gas stations. Those aren't bad places to be if automotive misfortune strikes, since car-savvy people and telephones are almost always around.

But both readers ran into humans masquerading as concrete walls.

Olivia, whose car had conked out, asked for help. That's all. Just help. She owned a set of jumper cables, and she just wanted one of the two attendants on duty to help her attach them.

"No," both said. Not even "Sorry." Just no.

"Don't either one of you have a car here to help give me a jump start?" Olivia asked.

"I have a car, but I'm not going to help you," one man said, with breathtaking directness.

Olivia finally got help from a fellow customer. But she says she was almost sorry when a tow truck arrived to yank her ailing car away. She was enjoying the fact that it had blocked an entire self-serve lane for nearly an hour.

George ran into a double dose of incredible selfishness. His car started to make funny noises while he was driving along Duke Street. He made it as far as a gas station near Interstate 395 before the car sputtered and expired.

This happened to be one of those stations where the only visible human sits inside a Plexiglas cage. George asked if the man could come out and look at the car. The man refused.

George asked if the man would be kind enough to call AAA for him. The man refused.

George asked why. "Because this is a business phone," the man said. "But I need to do business," George said. "Not with me," the man said.

Exasperated, George walked to the far end of the station, where there was a pay phone. But George didn't have any change.

Back to Mr. Wonderful in the cage went George. He asked for change for a dollar. The man refused.

"May I ask you why?" George demanded.

"I don't have to tell you why," the man replied.

This story, too, ended relatively happily. George obtained change for his dollar from the next customer who pulled in.

AAA was on hand within 20 minutes. All it took to rejuvenate his buggy was a jump start. (Apparently the problem was condensation caused by a rainstorm earlier that day.)

George wonders wryly what will happen if the man in the cage ever has any automotive misfortune. "He'd better not ask me for help," George says.

What amazes me about these two stories is not man's inhumanity to man. It's that the owners of these stations don't understand what it takes to build (and retain) a successful business.

Sure, the neighborhood gas station of the 1950s has gone the way of pterodactyls. But even today's quick-visit stations depend on repeat business -- and much of that business lives within two miles of the station.

Olivia, for example, said she has been patronizing the station that mistreated her for many years. Same with George. But because of rigid people, each station has now lost a customer. And when Olivia and George have finished telling their stories to their neighbors, the total of lost customers will be in the dozens.

At the very least, gas stations should leave a dollar's worth of change where anyone can get at it. That will take care of those who need to make emergency phone calls. As for helping with a jump start, what does that require? Two hands and 20 seconds. Everyone has both.


Here in Money-Raising Central, we are not proud. To send nearly 1,000 kids to summer camp between now and mid-August, we need lots of dough. We'll accept it in any form, for any reason. And some of the reasons are dillies.

Lisa Dauernheim supplied an unusual reason. She made a $20 gift to our cause because she used to be Lisa Ratkowski.

"I recently got married," Lisa writes, "and I've been trying to use up all the checks with my maiden name printed on them. I hope you don't mind."

Not in the slightest, Lisa. Your dollars get us that much closer to the goal we've been chasing since early June. Thanks for helping needy kids.

How about you? Your gift is welcome, regardless of marital status. Our annual drive has less than three weeks to run. As you can see below, we're still far short of our goal. Won't you help kids have a better summer?

Our goal by July 30: $550,000.

In hand as of July 6: $196,405.89.


Make a check or money order payable to Send a Kid to Camp and mail it to Bob Levey, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C. 20071.


Call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 on a touch-tone phone. Then punch in K-I-D-S, or 5437, and follow instructions.