Shell Games

Maybe there’s still a bit of debate on the medical merits of catharsis, but Bobak Bakhtiari could be the man to put the issue to rest.

"Does it further ignite aggression?" asked Bakhtiari, a former counselor at a California psychiatric facility who now runs Tanforan Shell, his family’s convenience store and carwash in San Bruno, Calif. "I always opened my anger management groups with a one-minute rant where my clients were given an opportunity to complain. They can’t throw chairs, but they can go as far as they want in terms of emotional or verbal commitment to their anger."

It worked more often than not. "I’d say nine out of 10 rants resulted in the person achieving a more peaceful state," Bakhtiari said.

So consider this: California consumers are rather committed to their anger these days, shelling out about $4.60 a gallon for fuel. To Bakhtiari, it seemed catharsis—a puritanical purging of inner demons—could work just as well outside a locked facility as it does inside.

Bakhtiari spent four years heading up mental health therapy at that secure psychiatric ward in the Golden State, but left the gig last year to help manage his family’s Shell station. In the past year, he’s watched as consumers’ tempers rose in tandem with gas prices.

"A couple of months ago, I began noticing a lot of hostility and aggression toward our cashiers," Bakhtiari said. "I kept wondering if there was anything we could do."

And then came the epiphany. "It just randomly popped into my head," he said. "I had this image of a Shell employee being dunked into a dunk tank, and thousands of people cheering and being gratified."

On a sunny June Saturday, Bakhtiari hosted the first of what’s shaping up to be many popular "anger-management" Saturdays at Tanforan Shell. About 100 people showed up on the first day to chuck balls at a pivot arm on a dunk tank in hopes of dropping a c-store employee dressed as a Shell oilman into a watery grave. It was carnival meets convenience.

"I just feel oil companies have remained mute about the dramatic shifts in lifestyle, and blood pressure, as a result of these rising gas prices," Bakhtiari said.

The stress-reliever included live music and refreshments. "I thought since people are filling up their tanks and it’s costing them anywhere between $80 and $200, they should be getting some live music at least," Bakhtiari said.

"We also tried to address the animosity toward the cashiers in the food mart." Each customer was invited to unload a 30-second tirade on a cashier who had prepared mentally beforehand. "If it was a genuine rant, they got a free carwash," Bakhtiari said.

By the end of the day, dozens of customers had cleansed their souls…and their cars.

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