Jesse Smith can't fall asleep until after midnight, but two or three days a week he's up early enough to open the Westside Phillips 66 station by 6 a.m.
"Getting in here early, it's not too bad," the 21-year-old Lawrence High School graduate said this morning. "People are usually in a hurry."
Smith said the morning rush typically begins around 7:20 a.m. Today there was a steady stream of customers buying gas around 6:30 a.m. It was dark outside, the gasoline pumps lit by the station's red neon outdoor lights, the interior of the station's convenience market bathed in dim fluorescent light.
A radio whispered softly behind Smith's post at the cash register.
"The radio kind of passes the time some days," he said. "It's about the only way we get the news during the day."
Other than the customers, that is.
"One thing I hear every day is the weather report from a lot of different people. You keep repeating yourself all day. But with this station, we have a lot of regular customers, so we can have an actual conversation."
One after another, the cars pulled up to the pumps. One woman paid for her gas with a credit card and paid cash for three bottles of apple juice. A man bought a bottle of orange soda as he paid for his gas. The station sells lots of drinks, Smith said.
Other items for sale: coffee, cigarettes, 5-inch diameter cookies with chocolate chips, chocolate chunks or M&Ms; assorted muffins, chips, pretzels, single dose packets of aspirin and cold medicine, cough drops, maps, windshield cleaner, oil.
Smith has worked at the station for two years. He learned some auto repair at Lawrence High School but learned most of his repair skills on the job at the station, 2815 W. Sixth.
"I've met a lot of nice people from Lawrence," Smith said. "Some days they've got their good days, some days not so good. The worst part is we stay really busy most of the time. Some days it's pretty stressful."
The pace picked up around twenty past seven, just as Smith had predicted. The first repair job came in, a car needing an oil and lube job and some bulbs replaced. Today the shop had 14 cars scheduled to come in for work, mostly oil changes, and Smith expected five more to be dropped off during the day. He said a mechanic is usually on duty until around 9 p.m. for minor repairs.
At 7:25 a.m. a car pulled up to one of two full-service pumps. Smith went out to fill the car with gas. He also washed the windows.
While Smith was out Linda Lee took over at the cash register. She wasn't terribly talkative so early in the morning. It was still dark outside, the sky starting to glow gray.
Smith opens the station three days a week. He makes sure the repair shop is clean, works as a cashier until Lee shows up, and then he works the rest of the day in the repair shop.
Today, however, was different. At 7:30 Jesse Smith was anxiously waiting for another mechanic to show up. Smith had planned to take the morning off to take a college entrance exam.
"People like working here and usually don't quit unless they've finished school or are going to school somewhere else," he said. "I'd like to go back to school, to KU."
The exam began at 8 a.m.