For a long time, I’ve been gassing up my car at the Empire Gas Station on North Main Street in East Hampton. It’s not because of the price of gas there. The prices are about the same as those offered at other gas stations. Instead, it’s because of this man named Val who pumps the gas.
Val is about 35, he’s movie star handsome in a sort of rough way and he always greets me by name when I go there. Also, he seems to be always there. I don’t go there on a regular basis of course. I go there when the needle points toward empty. But no matter when, whether during the week or on the weekend, there he is pumping the gas and keeping order between the various cars that come in. He’s there during snowstorms, hard rains, blazing heat waves, at seven in the morning and at 10 at night. As a matter of fact, I never see anybody else there with him. He’s running the place.
For a long time, I was just glad to see him. I figured he was the owner. He would have to be the owner, or the manager. Nobody else would work like this.
On a warm day last fall, I asked him about it. There were no other cars at the bays at the time.
“Owner? Oh no, not me. I just work here,” he laughed. I didn’t pursue the matter.
On another occasion, I stopped in because I had been unable to find the device I use to take air out of the tires of my Tahoe. I was headed for the beach. He offered to do it for me, but I told him no. Just lend me an air gauge, I said. And so he did.
At a certain point, we struck up a conversation while he pumped the gas. It seemed to me he was an American, though I had never seen an American work these sorts of hours. I asked him if he was from around these parts.
“I’m from Turkey,” he told me.
“You don’t have any accent.”
“I know,” he laughed. “But that’s where I’m from. Antalya.”
I knew Antalya. I had traveled through Turkey for a month a number of years ago. Went to Ankara, the Capital, where Ataturk, the Turkish George Washington is buried in a mausoleum. Spent time in Istanbul.
“We traveled down the west coast,” I said. “All the castles and fishing villages. Ephesus, Bodrum, Antalya. A tornado hit the hotel we were staying at in Antalya while we were there. It was quite something. All the broken glass in the lobby.”
“I think I was there then,” he said. “It knocked down the new bus station?”
“That was it.”
“Didn’t kill anybody though,” he said.
“Lucky,” said I.
I told him I loved the Turks. I had been to Greece the year before, and found them standoffish. In Turkey, I was treated as a member of the family.
“Are you going back there?” I asked him.
“Some day,” he grinned.
Last Friday, I read in Newsday that the owners of all the 14 Empire Gas Stations on eastern Long Island had been investigated by the U.S. Department of Labor and had agreed to pay more than $583,000 in back wages to 35 current and former employees who worked at their stations. The main office for Empire is in Riverhead. The owners are Ali Yuzbasioglu and Sukru Ilgin. Curious, I read other accounts of the agreement elsewhere.
In another publication called CSD, Convenience Store Decisions, I read that the Department of Labor had spied on some of the stations while conducting the investigation of this company. Very likely, they had secretly observed Val. And me. The Department of Labor had filed a lawsuit, alleging that employees often worked between 84 and 114 hours a week and were often either paid off the books or without overtime. The settlement was that they should pay $544,900 in back wages and interest to the employees, and they should pay a fine of $39,077 in civil penalties and interest to the government for the violations. The company had agreed to pay a grand total of $583,977.
Wow, I thought. Val may be in for some money.
My first instinct was to go down to the station and congratulate him about it. But then I thought, this was really none of my business. I’d bring it up the next time I brought the car in, which, as it turned out, was three days later.
I pulled in. Somebody other than Val came out of the office at the station.
“Where’s Val?” I asked.
“You know Val?” this man said as he began gassing up the car. He had an accent.
I told him I did.
“Yeah, he had to go back to Turkey. Something about his papers not in order, I think.”
“Is he coming back?”
“I don’t think so. Maybe. Maybe sometime.”
“He may be owed a lot of money,” I said.
This new guy said he didn’t know anything about it. So I told him.
“Well, I don’t know anything about that.”
“Well, if you hear from him,” I said, “tell him about it. It’s quite a bit. Maybe he got it.”
The new man finished filling up the Tahoe and I paid him. He was nice enough. I drove off, looking both left and right for anybody from the Department of Labor.
There’s a U. S. law that says no matter what, no matter if someone is here illegally or legally, whether they have the right papers or not, you have to make Social Security and Disability deductions and otherwise pay them for their work according to the law.
It is not for me to know the intricacies of this situation.