What happened to the service at service stations?

April 23, 2001|By Phil Perrier

LOS ANGELES -- Once upon a time, there was a place called the gas station.

When your car was running low on fuel, you went there. Gas stations were simple places; a couple of pumps out front, selling regular and high test, an air hose, a water hose, a Coke machine and a garage with a small office attached.

When you pulled up to a gas station, an attendant would come out, usually the owner's son, or dimwitted cousin, and he would pump your gas. Then he would clean your windshield and offer to check your oil. You knew the attendant's name because it was embroidered on his greasy blue jumpsuit. "Chuck" or "Jimmy," it would read. If your car was making a funny noise or needed some type of mechanical work, Chuck or Jimmy could actually fix the problem.

If you needed to go into the office to look at a map or ask directions, you would find it to be covered by a layer of primordial grease and dirt, from the floor to the hands of the man behind the counter. There would be a calendar on the wall, a small selection of automotive products, maybe a candy machine. Gas stations always smelled of a combination of gas, oil, transmission fluid and Vitalis.

If you needed to use the bathroom, the owner would hand you a key attached to a two-by-four, presumably to prevent someone from stealing the key and using the bathroom for after-hours parties. Gas station bathrooms were invariably filthy and dark and usually had a machine dispensing condoms and other assorted marital aids, obtained by holding two quarters together then inserting them in a slot.

My dad sometimes used gas station employment as a threat, as in: "You keep getting report cards like this, and you'll wind up pumping gas."

Apparently, these threats worked, because today almost no one pumps gas. Chuck and Jimmy are gone, just like drive-in movies and drug store malteds.

Today, we fill our gas tanks at big shiny places, with dozens of fuel pumps. These places are connected to giant "convenience" stores displaying rows of snacks and groceries and espresso machines and a deli section and an in-store Taco Bell and a bank and a small Merrill Lynch office.

There is no garage attached to the places where we buy gas today. In fact, service of any kind is conspicuously absent. If you asked the girl behind the counter to check your oil, she would look at you as if you had asked her to drink anti-freeze. You are on your own. If you pulled into one of these places and your car was on fire, the most anyone would do is point toward a pay phone.

Now you can rent a video at a gas station, but if you want some air for your tires it will cost you a quarter. And the bathrooms are clean and bright. Too clean and bright. In fact, the whole place is clean and bright. And it smells like, well, like nothing; no grease, no oil, no transmission fluid, no Vitalis. It's as if some horrible soulless alien came down from another planet and sucked all the character out of everything and left a cold, sterile version of hell where once there were germs and smells and life.

Those old gas stations were dirty and smelly, but you got the feeling the people who worked in them actually knew what they were doing. When they popped your hood, they looked at your engine with hard faces and steely eyes, betraying a deep understanding. Their look reassured you, told you that everything would be all right.

Their hands were calloused and scarred from years of fixing things. They had grease under their nails. They would always have grease under their nails.

Phil Perrier is a stand-up comic and free-lance writer who lives in Los Angeles.

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