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Nostalgia January 2013

Evolution of the American Gas Station

By John C. Liburdi

I felt quite the adult as service station attendants scurried around my car: “Fill ‘er up sir?”  Clean your windshield sir?  “The oil is down half a quart sir.” Not only was I being addressed as sir, gas was only 26 cents a gallon and air was absolutely free!

ps_liburdi2Gas stations have always been an important element of my life. This began in my childhood days when I received a toy gas station for Christmas. I loved that massive tin model, with its gas pumps, grease pit and car wash. Pushing the brightly colored plastic cars through each phase of servicing was lots of fun.

Later, I began to visit real gas stations. That is, I’d run over to the nearby Sinclair station the minute I received my half-dollar allowance. That’s where they had the nickel coke and nickel candy bar machines. My one dark secret in life is that I’d often steal an extra Clark Bar by giving the candy machine a perfectly timed kick.

Then in my early teens, I got one of those lightweight bicycles, the one with extremely skinny tires. The frame-mounted tire pump went missing, so I’d often stop by the gas station to put air in a low tire. On one such occasion, the pressure gauge on the station’s air hose wasn’t working — so everyone there heard a resounding “BLAM” when the tire’s overinflated inner tube blew out. Equally embarrassing were the times when I had to rush around to the side of the gas station building while carrying the restroom key that’s attached to a huge silver hubcap.

Of course, both high school dropouts and college-bound guys would get jobs as gas station attendants. At the big-name stations they wore pristine, military style uniforms; at the off-brand stations they usually opted for stained coveralls to achieve the classic grease monkey look. In either case, befriending those guys allowed me to peek at “dirty” pinup calendars in their offices. That was truly inspiring stuff. In fact, the decreasing popularity of such calendars is surely the root cause of today’s low testosterone epidemic in America.

When I finally got my driver’s license, I enjoyed hearing the loud “ding-ding” of the customer arrival bell as my rusty 1952 Mercury rode over the rubber hose at the gas station entrance. I felt quite the adult as service station attendants scurried around my car: “Fill ‘er up sir?” Clean your windshield sir? “The oil is down half a quart sir.” Not only was I being addressed as sir, gas was only 26 cents a gallon and air was absolutely free!

Yes, gas stations have really evolved over the years. Now they’re essentially convenience stores with gas pumps outside, and everything is self-service. The first challenge is to find an open pump. Fellow customers often leave their cars parked in front of pumps as they enjoy a leisurely shopping spree inside, causing my blood pressure to skyrocket. When I finally go inside to pay for my gas, I occasionally get stuck in line behind a hugely obese woman wearing spandex tights, and big curlers in her hair. She keeps the cashier monopolized by cashing in a stack of scratch-and-win cards and slowly selecting new ones.

But in all fairness, the new gas stations are critical logistics hubs in our society. They’re one-stop-shops for everything essential to mankind: FBI and CIA ball caps, cheap fishing rods, all forms of tobacco, X-rated movies, wine and beer, and even stale coffee and donuts. Obviously, those narrow-minded gas station owners of yesteryear had it all wrong, selling stuff like whitewall tires, fan belts and car batteries.

I suppose I’m doing all this reminiscing because we’ve now reached the point where I no longer need to stop for gas. My new driverless car is smart enough to autonomously start up and cruise over to the station by itself whenever it needs gas. My wife’s around-town car simply plugs into an electrical outlet to charge up, right inside my garage. And much to the delight of starving kids in Third World countries, her car can’t even use distilled corn as fuel.

Today, my wife had a $70 win and a couple of $3 wins in the Powerball lottery — hurray! Of course, she discovered this while my car was off filling itself up and her electric car was just starting its charge cycle. Prompted by my wife, I dusted off my lightweight bicycle and raced over to the gas station to cash in the lottery tickets and buy some more.

Now I’m stuck in line behind another one of those busy scratch-and-win fanatics. And wouldn’t you know it — a giant muscle-bound, tattooed-up construction worker got in line right behind me, just to pay for his fill-up. Wow, that’s one mean looking gorilla; hope he’s not in too much of a hurry today.


Liburdi's recent book "Italian American Fusion: Italy's Influence on the Evolution of America" is available at on-line bookstores and the Kindle Reader.

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