For Want of Two Dollars

On Nov. 28, 2021, I pulled into the local gas station to fill up the tank. Because debit card-skimmers are frequent enough concerns around San Diego, I always pay with cash and usually even bills (e.g., tens or twenties). But uncharacteristically, I only had two fives and eight singles—or so I thought.

I counted in the car and then on the way to the Valero’s door. When handing the money to the cashier, I stated the amount and pump number. Outside, filling stopped at $16—and I thought: “How unusual to top off at an even number”. I walked inside for my change, but there was none.

“You gave me sixteen dollars”, the attendant asserted. When I started to object, he interrupted: “I counted three times”. He repeated. I spun about and walked out, certain that I handed him 18 bucks. I have absolutely no doubt.

But I doubt his sincerity and honesty. Because:

  • He stared directly at me the whole time, which is characteristic behavior of someone who is lying. People think keeping eye contact is sign of honesty, when it instead reveals deception.
  • He was overly emphatic, and unnecessarily so—like he was trying to proactively shut down any resistance or disagreement. Liars do this.
  • He clearly prepared what to say rather than to spontaneously respond, “counted three times”, and repeated the statement, which all are lying indicators.
  • His demeanor and vocal intonation was contemptuous, which is yet another sign of deception. He spoke before I could—another tell.

The perhaps 15-second exchange, if that, meant to make me doubt that I gave the guy $18. My certainty of the amount never wavered. I have remarkably good visual memory and could still see the bills in my mind’s eye.

But I exited swiftly, nevertheless, because I had perishables in the car and his demeanor indicated that no resolution in my favor was possible (he had staked out territory that wouldn’t be relinquished).

I debated whether or not to share this story, which is why the delay doing so. On one hand, the retelling could be construed as my being petty. On the other hand, it’s an incident I want to document as part of our time here in Southern California—and my longstanding habit is to publicly post.

My wife and I discussed the incident and we agreed to no longer gas up at the Valero, even though it is our neighborhood station. If the cashier is willing to bully an old guy out of two dollars, what else goes on there? The amount seems so trivial, except isn’t that the point? Small sums add up and individually wouldn’t be overly suspicious, particularly when the customer either wouldn’t see for lack of paying attention or could be convinced that he or she is at fault—in my case counting wrongly.

I used iPhone 13 Pro to capture the Featured Image later in the day. Vitals: f/2.8, IOS 32, 1/1043 sec, 77mm; 12:15 a.m. PST.