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The 20th Century Gas Station: Refuel, Repair, Reorient

August 28th, 2019 · No Comments · Journalism, Long Beach, Newspapers

When considering the industries and local businesses that mostly disappeared, ahead of the 21st century, I tend to focus on newspapers.

That’s what I did for a living: Newspapering.

Papers were important to readers, back in an era when not everyone was online, and they made a lot of money for their owners. Also, journalists got to work in an industry most of us loved, most of the time.

A cartoon I noted in the New Yorker today reminded me of another industry I knew fairly well, another that bears almost no resemblance to its established past and seemingly secure future, back then. And that is/was the gas station.

In my youth, my father operated a Chevron station in Belmont Shore, a trendy neighborhood near the ocean in Long Beach, California.

What prompted me to think about this, some 45 years since I escaped the gas business, was the cartoon. In it, a small girl and boy are playing with toy cars, and to the left is the unmistakable form of a toy gas station — pumps out front, an office with a glass door, hoses to transfer gas from underground tanks into thirsty fuel cells.

And the caption on the cartoon shows the girl saying: “Maybe we should ask for directions.”

It occurs to me now that the cartoon is a take on the oft-noted propensity for men never to concede they are lost. The boy’s companion probably is correct in thinking her friend is lost but she may not be up to speed on the near-certainty the probably-lost boy, even in the 21st century, when machines offer us directions, will suffer from bruised feelings.

This seems to suggest the cartoon is aimed at readers of a certain age, who might look at it and think: “Well, sure, lots of people would pull into a gas station and ask for directions.” This was before GPS, of course, back when pump jockeys were expected to know the neighborhood.

A couple of times a day, someone would drive onto the lot of the gas station, and one of us kids up front pumping gas (the adults were in the back room, where repairs — and money — were being made) and ask how to get from Point A to Point B.

It always seemed like something of a challenge. “Do you know? How are you with maps? Are you going to dispense directions to the best of your knowledge?”

Generally, the answers were “yes”, “pretty good” and “yes”.

We had maps on the premises, road maps, on paper, that could be offered at no charge to customers taking on big loads of gas (all American cars were gas-hogs, back then). The customer then could fold up the map and place it in the glove compartment for future use. (Note to Millennials: Your grandparents may well have carried several maps in the car, just in case. It did not make them weird.)

Generally, the direction questions did not require a map or test me too severely. “How do I get to the freeway?” I could do that. Back on the road you came in on, make a left on Livingston. Take it downtown and look for the 110 signs.

I was always pleased if I was certain of my directions but also feared the return of someone who had not gained from my knowledge. Rarely happened. (A lost guy probably would not be able to find the gas station that gave him bad information.)

Giving directions was just one of many services any driver could expect, 50 years ago. Your car windows would be washed, you could ask the attendant (me) to open the hood and check the oil level. Or put more air in the tires. You could use the restrooms I cleaned up every night.

Service stations really did offer services. Right up to taking the car into the garage area and doing repairs on the spot.

Now, the hydraulic lifters in the garage area … long gone. No repair work goes on. And the area where gas is pumped … 99 percent of the time customers are on their own.

The office where the station owner once sat now is several times larger and offers mini-mart things like food and drink and snacks and takes the cash or credit cards for those pumping their own gas.

Turns out, and we did not see this coming, in 1975, that customers preferred cheaper, self-pumped gas. Just as air travelers now cede basic human dignities on planes if they can save a few bucks on the ticket fare.

The cartoon reminded me of a time, seemingly long ago now, when “service station” was not an oxymoron. And the cartoon’s author must hope his/her readership is equally aged to make sense of the seemingly innocuous suggestion that the female child makes — asking her male friend to ask for help.

No matter the changes in technology, that young man no doubt knows exactly where he is, and he will tell you so.

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