Self-serve: It's not exactly a gas anymore

Kevin Cowherd

September 07, 1992|By Kevin Cowherd

A few years ago, apparently faced with way too much free time on my hands, I wrote a poem about self-serve gas stations entitled "Pump Or Pay First?"

Like most of these stations themselves, the poem was joyless and confusing.

In addition, it contained all sorts of stylistic blunders (attempting to rhyme "gas" and "morass," using premium lead-free as a metaphor for spiritual cleansing, etc.)

God, it was awful. I showed it to one person and he said: "You know, I have an uncle in the catering business. He might be looking for help if you're ever tired of writing."

Looking back on it now, the poem was simply a way of expressing the frustrations of modern life. Plus my Toyota had thrown a fan belt at a Hess station and the 17-year-old Metallica disciple running the place, irritated at having his phone conversation interrupted, said: "Dude, I don't know anything about cars . . ."

Which, of course, is the whole crux of the problem.

At the self-serve station that I stop at regularly, you can buy soda and donuts and newspapers. You can buy Popsicles and salted peanuts and Oriole squeeze bottles.

You can even buy condoms (and to think these places used to give away free Disney glasses starring Mickey and Goofy.)

But there is not a soul there who can tell you anything about your car.

I was reminded of this the other day during a disturbing conversation with the cashier, a small man with empty eyes named Vinnie.

For some reason, after handing Vinnie $15 for gas, I felt compelled to say something about my car.

"She's throwing a lot of oil," I said.

"Having a sale on Diet Coke," Vinnie replied.

"Hope the crankcase isn't cracked."

"Two-liter bottles only 99 cents."

"Maybe it's a problem with the filter."

"Tastykake pies only 69 cents, boss."

"That seal on the filter looks bad."

"Did I mention Jell-O pudding pops are on sale?"

The bottom line is, I never did find out why the car was throwing oil.

On the other hand, I walked out of there with a deal on Duracell AA batteries (4-pack, $2.59) that -- and Vinnie was right about this -- you couldn't beat with a stick.

It seems hard to believe now, but there was a time in this country when gas stations were run by thick-knuckled men steeped in automotive knowledge -- men with greasy brown overalls and two-pack-a-day habits who lived for their customers' mechanical problems.

You'd pull up to the pumps and a little bell would herald your arrival. (I don't know . . . the bell alone somehow made you feel, well . . . special.)

Soon an old guy with a cigarette dangling from his mouth would come shuffling out of one of the bays, squinting into the sunlight and wiping his hands on a rag.

As the cloud of smoke around him lifted and he extinguished his butt so that all of you wouldn't be blown to kingdom come, you could make out the name on his work shirt -- "Carl."

"Help you?" Carl would say before launching into a dry, hacking cough that would last the better part of 30 seconds.

Then Carl would pump your gas. Carl would check your oil. Carl would clean your windshield -- front and rear -- taking great pains not to let the dirty water run down the hood and trunk.

And if you said to Carl "Boy, she's throwing a lot of oil," Carl would not answer: "Carton of Marlboro Lights, regularly $15, now $13.29."

He would not say: "You folks given any thought to our lunch special? Two hot dogs and a soda for just 99 cents. Tell me that's not a deal."

No, Carl would say none of those things.

Instead, with a quiet, "Let's have a look, chief," he would pop the hood again.

Then he'd start poking around with his nicotine-stained fingers, pulling wires and checking plugs and doing his level best to find the cause of the problem.

Now the service station industry is dominated by these self-serve places -- huge, amorphous, impersonal bunkers that squat by the side of the highway like ugly toads, staffed by thousands of vacant-eyed people like Vinnie.

God forbid your car breaks down at one of these self-serve hellholes.

Throw a rod at one of the pumps and Vinnie will say: "Forget the engine. Pringles potato chips, 99 cents for a 6-ounce can."

Burst through the door all weepy-eyed over a blown transmission and Vinnie will drape an arm around your shoulder and whisper: "This should make you feel better. Twenty-four exposure Kodak Gold -- was $11.29, now $9.47."

Thing is, I can get the same film for a buck less at Rite-Aid. Although that's another story altogether.

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