Nothing is as constant as change. I know that. Sometimes I see it happening, sometimes I don’t, and sometimes it sneaks up on me and takes me by surprise, even though I had been watching it happen all along. This occurred yesterday, when I had occasion to use the term, “Pump Jockey,” and then had to explain its meaning.
A Pump Jockey is a guy (it was almost always a guy) who pumped gas at a gas station. And a Gas Station is a gas station, just like always. Except it isn’t.
When I think of a gas station, I have a specific picture in mind, and until yesterday, it never occurred to me that what I thought of as a gas station no longer exists.
There are, of course (and for now) places that sell gasoline, but they are not gas stations. They are small supermarkets that also happen to sell gas. The people working there are not pump jockeys, they are cashiers.
Before I move on, allow me to speculate about the near future. It will not be long before electric cars are the norm, and the gas station will disappear altogether. Although, this merely means that the gas pumps outside the small supermarkets will be converted to electric charging stations, a change which may come about so slowly and unobtrusively that people will hardly notice. Then, some years after that, my great-grandchildren will ask my son if he remembers actual, gas-powered cars. “Yes,” he will tell them, “they ran on gasoline, and the gas was fed into a piston and set on fire so it exploded, pushing the piston, which provided the power.” His grandchildren will then ask, with their eyes wide in wonder, “Wasn’t that terribly dangerous?” To which my son, if he is honest, will answer, “Yes.”
The gas station of my memory is a ramshackle building, with a greasy, cluttered service bay on one side and a slightly less greasy, but no less cluttered, office on the other. A hollow, rubber tube snakes out of the service bay—where an old Studebaker is up on the hydraulic lift—and stretches across the forecourt, where the gas pumps are. This is not a fanciful imagining, this is Charlie Barton’s Gulf Station on Rt 9H, about a quarter mile from my house.
When a customer pulled into the station, they would drive over the rubber tube, which would ring a bell to alert Charlie. He would then amble out of the office or the service bay, in his greasy coveralls, to ask what you wanted, regular or premium (there was no such thing as unleaded back then, nor were there diesel cars; diesel was used only for agricultural vehicles and tractor-trailer trucks, and it cost pennies a gallon). He would then pump the gas, wipe down your windshield—and often your side and back windows, as well—and check the oil. If you needed air in your tires, he’d do that for you, and put water in your radiator if you needed it.
There was no mini-mart attached to the station, just a soda machine, a small selection of candy bars, a rack of road maps (all free), and, of course, a cigarette vending machine.
At that time (early 1960s), cigarettes cost 25 cents a pack, and gas was 35 cents a gallon.
All of these things—the station and all that was in it—have disappeared over the years, often without my having noticed it.
Cigarette vending machines used to be everywhere. In gas stations, bars, lobbies of restaurants. You want cigarettes? You got a quarter? Put it in the slot and pull the handle. So what if you’re only 11, you’re buying them for your dad, right?
The free maps were a joy. I spent many years trying to collect one from each state. During my trip to Mexico in 1973, I did pretty well, as we travelled down the east coast, across the south, then up through the central states. I don’t know when they stopped being free, but I do know when they disappeared altogether. I was making my usual visit home. This was in the early years, around 2006, when I still felt confident that I knew my way around, before they started making so many changes that my home began to feel like a foreign country. We were on our way to a friend’s house, and I soon realized I had no idea how to get there, so I stopped at a Stewart’s Gas Station, where I could get coffee, sandwiches, all manner of groceries, gas, oil and other accessories for my car, but no maps. The startled cashier told me they didn’t exist, and seemed surprised that I couldn’t just use my phone.
The other, more useful item was the soda machine. As I recall, it was blue, and the soda was lined vertically on one side. You put in your dime, opened the door and pulled a bottle out. The bottles were made of glass, but they were thick, so they wouldn’t break, and they were sealed with a metal and cork cap that you had to pry off using the handy, built-in bottle opener on the machine. (Bottle, and can, openers were ubiquitous back then. You were never far from either, and you were always in need of one.)
We visited Charlie’s Gulf Station a lot. We waited for the school bus there, and were dropped off there in the afternoon. And it was also where we took our bikes if they needed a tire patched. Charlie had two methods of patching a bike tire—a cold patch and a hot patch—depending on…something, his whim, I imagine. Of the two, the hot patch was the most fun to watch.
Charlie would take the tube out, inflate it a bit, then dunk it in water to find the leak. A cold patch was simply glued on, but a hot patch required a bit more work. The tube was dried, deflated and the area around the hole scuffed up with a rasp that was built into the kit’s cover. Then a patch was put over the area, clamped down and set on fire. This was great fun to watch. When the fire burned out, the patch was done and he’d put the tube back into your tire, inflate it, and you were on your way.
If he wasn’t working on our bikes, he was fixing a car. Mufflers, brakes, head gaskets, lube jobs, radiator flushing, replacing a starter, changing the spark plugs, re-setting the timing chain—all these things, and more, were done in the service bay. These days, half those jobs don’t exist (when was the last time you heard of someone gapping a spark plug or using a grease-gun on their ball-joints), and the ones that do, you have to go to a Kwik Fit or a Jiffy Lube or some other, similar specialty shop for.
The changes came about slowly, but by the time I left my teen years, gas stations sold gas, and you serviced your car elsewhere. The Pump Jockey’s job, however, remained the same, and that was when I became one; I worked at the Kayo Oil Company (a gas station on Rt 9 in Greenport, New York) from the 6th of March to the 10th of April 1975, when I was twenty years old.
It was a miserably cold spring, complete with snow, and I had to go out—without gloves on, so I could manipulate the pump and make change—and talk to customers sitting in their heated vehicles who always managed to comment on how cold it was outside. No shit! Then I would have to pump the gas, with my hands practically freezing to the pump handle, an put oil in their engines if they asked. After a month, my boss—an unctuous, overweight man who always struck me as a bit creepy—told me I had come up $20 short (that was a lot of money back then) and, rather than turn me in or fire me, he offered to allow me to quit, no questions asked. I knew I had not come up short on the cash, and my co-workers—the only two who had been there longer than a month—told me that this was what he did. He’d hire someone, allow them to work for a month, steal $20 from their till, then talk them into quitting.
It was nice to know, and it didn’t bother me a bit—I hated the job, and I was glad to be rid of it.
After that, I became too preoccupied with adult things—like raising children and other incidentals—to notice the disappearance of service stations or the rise of mini-marts, until just the other day, when it suddenly dawned on me that what I knew of as a proper gas station no longer existed.
I suppose I should start paying more attention to these things. Maybe I’ll go downtown to the Soda Fountain, play a few tunes on the Juke Box and have a think about it.