Saturday, April 26, 2014

In Search of America - Service Stations

There are exceptions to every rule, so there are probably some gas stations that still have uniformed mechanics on duty and free maps. But for the most part, gas stations today resemble convenience stores more than a one-stop haven for all things automotive. Some changes are for the better, but there are some amenities that are missed.


Gas stations used to properly be called “service stations,” and that’s because the majority of them had at least one service bay equipped with the tools necessary to do everything from oil changes to brake replacements and complete engine overhauls. Such stations often posted a “Mechanic on Duty” sign out front to alert motorists with car trouble that assistance was available.


When gasoline reached the unfathomable price of $1.00 per gallon, station owners had to retro-fit their pumps with a piece of adhesive tape to reflect the increased cost. Pumps at the time only had space for three digits in the price-per-gallon slot, and one of those digits was reserved for the 9/10.


Pump jockeys used to be as well-dressed as police officers and firefighters, right down to the snappy hat and bow tie. The uniform shirt usually had the company logo stitched on one breast pocket and the employee’s embroidered nameplate on the other. The attendant also had a roll of fives and singles in his shirt pocket so that he could make change. That wad of cash made every kid in the family station wagon aspire to work at a gas station one day, because just look at all the money those guys had!


Black rubber hoses used to snake across the pavement at every gas station. They were hooked up to a bell inside the building and the “ding-ding” signaled for an attendant to dash over to the driver’s window and ask, “Fill ‘er up?”


Attendants not only pumped gas; part of their regular routine was to also automatically check under the hood (water, battery, oil) and wash the windshield. Every attendant had a huge rag hanging out of his back pocket that he used to wipe the oil dipstick. Then, much like a sommelier proffering a sample of a vintage wine, he’d present the dipstick to the driver for his inspection. He would then wield his squeegee with the skill of a surgeon, carefully cleaning those panoramic windshields of the era with just a few expert swipes. All this whether the customer had purchased 50 cents worth or a tank full of gas.


Back before gas station employees were simply cashiers tucked away behind bullet-proof glass, lost motorists could pull into any service station and get detailed, accurate directions. The attendant would often mark on a road map as a visual aid and then let the driver take it with him, free of charge. In fact, it was expected that gas stations in any given area had a rack full of complimentary road maps.


Prior to 1971, automotive engines were equipped with "soft" valve seats and leaded gasoline acted as a lubricant to prevent excessive wear. Beginning in 1973, however, the Environmental Protection Agency began imposing limits on the lead content in gas and newer model cars were equipped with catalytic converters (which required unleaded fuel) as pollution-control devices. By the mid-1970s, instead of “Regular or Ethyl?,” attendants regularly asked customers, “Leaded or Unleaded?”


Even before self-service and “pay at the pump” card swipers, customers could still use credit cards to purchase gasoline. The attendant took your card (and most oil companies had their own cards) inside to process it and brought the slip back to your car on a small tray along with a pen for you to sign it. Eventually stations got high-tech and had portable manual imprinting machines that the attendant would “kerchunk” immediately, no waiting necessary.
Cedar's Take: my first job was at Starmount Gulf Archdale Drive and South Boulevard. Hubert Blanton said he'd hire me if I got a haircut. So I rode my bike down the street and went from hippy kid to grease monkey in about ten minutes. I returned to the service station and got a well damn, ok you can start now. That summer I learned about perverts, racists, stealing from your employer, how to mount a set of tires and pretty much fell in love with cars of all makes and models. 
It wasn't a great job, the pay was not even minimum wage and I worked ten hours from 11 a.m. until the 9 p.m. closing. I had Sundays off because we were closed Sundays and Holidays. 
My first experience with a hand gun happened in back of the station. Motor-mouth Carl the station's 6-3 uniformed attendant asked me if I could shoot a gun, pointing to the chrome 38 revolver under the cash register. We took the gun out back and he put a bottle on the fence, stepped back a dozen feet and put six holes in the fence, leaving the bottle standing. Laughing at his poor aim he took a bullet from his pocket and loaded it into the gun handed it to me. I took aim, then lowered the gun and took aim again, I took me nearly a minute to steady myself when I lightly squeezed the trigger and recycled the bottle into a hundred pieces. 
I'm not sure what Carl's instructions were, but I'm sure it included the "N" word and some encouragement for not taking so long to aim.
I suspect Hubert and Motor-mouth Carl, Shemp the mechanic, and Jim who cleaned the bathrooms are all gone now. But they live on in the echoes of gas station bells of long ago.


Anonymous said...

The gas pump attendant continues in a few States, to my understanding. New Jersey and Oregon, by State law? Do not know if there are any more.

Anonymous said...

Great op-ed. That set up was SAFER than now too. How many people hung out at full service stations robbing, Harassing, or begging from folks getting gas put in their cars? None. The attendents would tell them to GTFO of the property..

Anonymous said...

6:10 I never gave it much thought but you are so right. Wonder how much we have forgotten or are too busy to notice.