Unfolding the Map
The demise of the full service filling station is the subject of this post. We have just sailed in to Orient, New York on the ferry with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) and are back in New York for a quick trip through before beginning the trip west and back to the beginning. Do you remember full service filling stations? I miss them. To find Orient Point, click here to see the map.
"If you want to hear distortions and misconceptions laced with plenty of dogmatic opinion, you have a choice of three places...bars, sport arenas, and gas stations....As filling stations cease to be garages and community centers, as they become nothing but expensive nozzles, they too are losing ground. But, in the past, an American traveler depended on the local grease pit boys to tell him (a) the best route to wherever; (b) the best place to eat...; and (c) what the townfolk thought about whatsoever....
"Orient Point, Long Island, was a few houses and a collapsed four-story inn built in 1810..."
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 7
Orient Point, New York
While visiting my hometown recently, I had an experience that was so unique in this day and age that I took note of it. I had to stop for some gas, and pulled into a station on the main street to fill up. As I got out of my rental car to open up the gas tank, a guy came out of the office and said "What do you need?" Puzzled, I told him I was going to gas up. He grabbed the nozzle and asked what type of gas I needed. Then, he gassed up the car. After he was done, I handed him my credit card, and he took it back into the garage, and then brought the credit card and slip out for me to sign on a clipboard.
He didn't check the dipstick under the hood, but I bet if I had asked him, he would have.
I remember when, and it seems like a long time ago, gas stations regularly provided that type of service. When I was growing up, someone employed at a gas station always came out and filled the tank as well as looking under the hood and adding oil or water or wiper fluid as needed. They also washed the windows, put air in the tires if needed, and sometimes gave your car a wash or a detailing. This was the kind of service provided in 1963, the year of my birth, when gas cost 30 cents a gallon.
Now, as I write this, gas currently averages $3.51 in New Mexico where I live, and the most expensive state to buy gas is California, where I grew up, at an average $4.12. And yet, when I pull into the pumps, I have to get out and fill up my own tank. I have to check my own oil, and if I need some, I have to buy it and put it in myself. If my tire is low, I have to pull the car over to the air compressor, if the station has one, and pay 50 to 75 cents to get the compressor started. If my windshield is dirty, I have to hope that there is fluid in the containers provided near the pumps, or that there is a squeegee to use.
I'm told that self-service gas stations are convenient, but it seems to me that it was more convenient to sit in my car and listen to the radio while someone else did the work. I'm also told that self-service gas stations keep the price of auto fuel down, but then again, gas prices have risen anywhere from 1056-1323% since I was born. Thirty cents in 1963, according to an inflation calculator which calculates at the average inflation rate of 4.18%, would have the same buying power as $2.23 today. So gasoline has become more expensive yet less convenient over time, and I'm not sure what the savings has actually been.
But convenience and pricing isn't the only reason I'm writing about this. LHM also points out that these businesses were an integral part of the community fabric. People met at the gas station, not only to fill up but to exchange news, gossip and opinions. Station attendants saw everyone in town and were often the source of important information. Not only that, but they knew your car personally. Did your car have a funny knock? They knew which gas would minimize or eliminate it. Did your car have a leaky hose but you didn't have enough money to replace it right away? They could help you nurse it along until the last minute or until you could the money together to fix it.
When I go to fill up my car now, it's such an impersonal experience. Gas stations have become pumps that sit outside small convenience stores. It is rare to find a garage attached to a station anymore. The convenience stores are usually staffed by clerks who seem to rarely smile (and would you for the paltry pay?) and who rarely even look at you.
I've written about this before in my posts, as have others who have bemoaned the loss of community in our country. Today, people rely on their smart phones to get directions, on the internet for restaurant reviews, on Google to find anything and everything and on Facebook to share what they've found. People socialize over the Web, buried in a wall of sound on their headphones in the middle of a crowded coffee shop, oblivious to each other and only aware of what is on their screen and in their ears. We don't socialize with each other, but with a virtual community that can always throw information at us from behind its electronic walls, but can never provide us with real face-to-face contact and authentic human interaction.
And yes, some of these advances are convenient, and I use them. But I don't think it's hypocritical to say, even in the midst of human advancement, that I miss some things about the past. And one thing I miss, even as I bemoan that we rely so much on fossil fuel today, is sitting in my car like I did as a little boy and being fascinated as attendants so quickly and efficiently provided service to my parents' car and with a friendly wave sent us on our way.
I found a fun and funky song called Service Station Song (Let Me Pump Your Gas) by Mean Gene Kelton and the Die Hards. I wonder what the song is getting at? Unfortunately, Mean Gene is no longer with us.
If you want to know more about Orient Point
Next up: Greenport, New York