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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Extinction of a species

When I was a kid, the words 'Gas Station' and 'Service Station' were interchangeable   It was a rare thing indeed to see a gas station that didn't also have a couple of service bays where hydraulic lifts magically lifted cars so burly men with noisy pneumatic tools could work underneath them.

To a little kid a service station was a distinctly masculine place, coated with grease and grime, smelling of gasoline, exhaust and stale cigarette smoke, and staffed by large men in stained uniforms with their names sewn over their shirt pockets.

Even though a service station existed entirely in the realm of the grown-up world, a kid might visit one for any number of perfectly legitimate reasons, including getting air for his/her bicycle tires, using found couch change to pull a bottle of Orange Crush or Grape Nehi (depending on where you lived) out of the hinged door of the vending machine, or asking one of the mechanics for an STP sticker with which to decorate a new bike seat.

But somewhere along the line, the bean counters began to weigh retail businesses on the amount of profit they could generate per square foot... and in response, gas station owners began casting a greedy eye towards the potential profitability of those service bays which took up most of their property's footprint.

One by one all of the big chains came to the conclusion that even a busy service center couldn't produce nearly as much profit per square foot as a mini-mart packed with snacks, candy, drinks, cigarettes, auto supplies and other impulse items.  Not only that, they soon realized they could pay a cashier a heck-of-a-lot less than a mechanic... cutting 'overhead' even more.

This transition took place during a time when I was just learning to drive, so the excitement of my new-found freedom must have muted whatever misgivings I might otherwise have had about this trend.  And besides, it was a time when my parents were responsible for getting the cars serviced, so other than the need to occasionally fill the tank, I didn't spend much of my teens thinking about gas stations.

For the past few years I've been filling up the family car at a grimy little gas station in Beer Sheva.  I tried a few of the shiny new stations first because of deals they were offering such as free car washes (with fill-up), and the convenience of being able to buy a cold drink for the ride home on a hot day.  But one day I started driving home and belatedly noticed that my gas gauge was deep into the reserve zone.  Not wanting to turn around, I pulled into the first station I saw and began filling up.

While the tank was filling, I looked around at the dingy little station around me.  It was the first I had seen in ages that didn't have a shiny new mini-mart and cases of bottled water neatly stacked on the pump islands.  It looked like once upon a time there had been a single service bay.  But that side of the business had long since been abandoned, and the darkened bay and attendant's office stood partly filled with trash cans and a few oily 50 gallon barrels that might once have held waste oil.

The gas pumps had been brought up to date (almost certainly in response to environmental and safety requirements), but the rest of the station could have easily been from any period in the last 50 years.  In fact, other than the pumps, the only other modern fixture in the entire place sat on a table out front.  It was an electric 'Barad'  (Hebrew for hail) machine like you might see in a typical 7-11 (think 'Slurpy'), whose agitator arms continuously stirred two different flavors of frozen slush in a hypnotizing circular motion strangely reminiscent of a mechanical salt-water-taffy pull.

The shiny slush machine seemed so out of place in this grimy little gas station that I couldn't help but ask the attendant about it.  He just shrugged and said that the owner had put it in the previous year, and that his job was to keep it filled, and make sure it was emptied and cleaned once a day.

Looking at the unkempt pump jockey I had serious doubts about the efficacy of whatever daily cleaning the machine might get, but I was thirsty so I asked how much a cup of Barad was.  He pointed at a new sleeve of small disposable plastic drinking cups and said, "It's free... help yourself". 

From that day on, whenever I needed gas, I drove past all the shiny filling stations with their well-stocked mini-marts and made a bee line for this dingy little place with its free Barad dispenser.  The flavors were usually apricot and raspberry... but occasionally strawberry or lemon made an appearance.  And in the winter they replaced the Barad machine with a small hot water urn and a box of generic teabags.

Each time I would pull out of that gas station with a cup of slush or a hot tea in my hand, I couldn't help but marvel at the business acumen of the owner.  The cost of the free beverages he was providing was negligible, but because getting refreshments (or anything!) for free was so uncommon in this day and age, there was nearly always a line of cars waiting to fill up.

Then one hot day a few months back I pulled in to fill up my car (and get a cup of Barad, of course) and saw that, not only was the Barad machine gone, but there were workmen actively knocking down walls and jack-hammering the floor of what had once been the station's office and service bay.  When I asked the attendant about it he gave me his characteristic shrug and offered a single word, "progress".

Since then I have continued to buy my gas at this station, more out of habit than loyalty... but each time I pull in I've been saddened to see that what had once been a dank office and service bay were being quickly transformed into another cookie-cutter mini-mart. 

Thinking about it rationally, I realize that it is no longer enough to get people to buy gas.  The big oil companies are the only ones making a decent profit on the stuff coming out of the pumps.  The only way the station owners can make a living is to maximize their profit-per-square-foot (or meter) and relieve the motorists of as much of their hard-earned money as possible before their tank is full and they drive away.

I can't fully explain why this has made me so sad.  Certainly I can well afford to buy a cold or hot drink when the mood strikes me.  But there was something charming - nostalgic, even - about paying a regular visit to a little gas station where something simple was being given away for free.  Having that replaced by a vapid counter girl pulling espresso shots with her lacquered claws nails just seems... wrong.

In truth, service stations have been absent from the landscape (but for a few privately owned exceptions) for a generation or more.  But finding this little place which had yet to be scrubbed, polished and converted into a sterile, over-lit convenience store, had been a novel experience for me... like spotting a leopard in the Judean desert years after the naturalists had reported their extinction. 

Not that he'd care...but I wish I could tell the owner of this gas station how sad he's made me.

Posted by David Bogner on November 24, 2009 | Permalink

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Somehow I see a father-son trip down Route 66 in your future...

Posted by: Ben Chorin | Nov 24, 2009 3:47:11 PM

I remember asking you a few years ago if you had seen Pixar's Cars. You hadn't then - have you since?

Posted by: Dave (Balashon) | Nov 24, 2009 4:31:42 PM

Ben Chorin... As you know, I already did that trip on my 40th brithday. :-)

Dave (Balashon) ... Yes, it is in regular rotation on our DVD (Yonah loves it!)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Nov 24, 2009 4:36:19 PM

what struck me so much about this post - is that just as i started to read it my phone rang. it was the mechanic from the service station down the street. They are fixing one of our cars today.
While they do sell some candy (kept in boxes on the counter) and oddities like a small display of cheap sunglasses - it is a true service station. three bays. and cars parked all around the sides and the back waiting for service or perhaps even up for sale.
oh and - there is a fellow who works there that we went to high school with! Life has clearly been hard on him - but he's been a steady attendant there for several years now.
How small town is that? :)

Posted by: weese | Nov 24, 2009 4:53:44 PM

Weese... There was a place like that on Stratfield Road in Fairfield not far from where we used to live. But that was the exception... not the rule. But now you have me curious about our old classmate. Obviously don't post his name online... but shoot me an email with your contact numbers. It's been far too long since we've talked.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Nov 24, 2009 5:09:44 PM

I get that same sort of feeling when a gas-station attendant squeegees my windows and windshields while the gas is pumping. When I started driving, that sort of customer service was expected. Nowadays, it's rare enough to make me notice when it happens.

Posted by: psachya | Nov 24, 2009 6:27:31 PM

Gosh, golly! This post makes me nostalgic for when you'd get a gift after filling up.... Any one else remember those Noah's Ark animals from the Aarco stations?! They were so much fun to collect. :-)

Posted by: zahava | Nov 24, 2009 6:42:21 PM

Maybe it is time to switch to a cleaner form of transportation, like a bike.

Posted by: Jack | Nov 24, 2009 7:48:36 PM

I was amazed to see hard liquor for sale behind the counter at Israeli gas stations. Now I don't think that that was *ever* the case in the U.S.!

Posted by: Drew | Nov 24, 2009 7:52:46 PM

Jack - Maybe it is time to switch to a cleaner form of transportation, like a bike.

Um biking everyday from Efrat to Be'er Sheva would be difficult at best. Likely impossible. :-) [yeah, yeah, I know, public transportation exists.]

Drew - I was amazed to see hard liquor for sale behind the counter at Israeli gas stations. Now I don't think that that was *ever* the case in the U.S.!

A few years ago at a highway gas station in Italy, I was shocked to see a bar serving alcoholic drinks. I was even more shocked to see a bunch of folks sitting there drinking! And this was at about 9PM! Of course in the spirit of "hevay dan lekaf zechut", my colleague and I assumed that those guys were truckers planning on sleeping there all night.

Posted by: Mark | Nov 24, 2009 9:31:05 PM

Wow, that was an ancient post. You were married to Cheryl and home was the East Coast. And the World Trade Center was still standing, at least for another few days.

Posted by: Ben Chorin | Nov 24, 2009 10:34:11 PM

reminds me of the drive-in theatre i try to patronize in Riverside, CA THE VAN BUREN DRIVE-IN, for anyone withing driving distance.

or the late, lamented SILENT MOVIE THEATRE in LA on Fairfax, which still shows some, rarely, but you have to really watch the calendar (see website).


Sigh.

Posted by: Wry Mouth | Nov 25, 2009 6:53:28 AM

I remember when we lived in Troy, NY and the gas stations were giving away those rubber clowns that you could punch and knock over and they'd roll back up to a standing position. Sunoco. And they also had those tractor trailor trucks.

Though Dad always stopped there to get gas, we only got 1 of those trucks. Luckily, since you were just a baby, I got the truck! ;-P

Ah... good times, good times.

I loved the post...

Posted by: val | Nov 25, 2009 7:05:28 AM

What if that bike has a motor?

*creeps away before Zahava reads this*

:)

Posted by: Karl Newman | Nov 25, 2009 1:23:43 PM

You left something out of the boyhood gas station experience, the tool calendar.

Posted by: lrg | Nov 25, 2009 4:36:36 PM

One of the little "moments" I enjoy in the movie Back to the Future is when Marty McFly (who has just arrived from 1985) is wandering around the Hill Valley town square in 1955 and sees a car pull into the Texaco service station, whereupon it is immediately attacked by a swarm of attendants who wash the windows, check the tire pressure and oil, and gas up the car. He is, of course, flabbergasted.

Posted by: Elisson | Nov 25, 2009 10:51:51 PM

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