They Also Wait Who Stand and Serve Themselves

Anyone interested in the future of American commerce should take a drive sometime to my neighborhood gas station. Not that it is or ever was much of a place to visit. Even when I first moved here, five years ago, it was shabby and forlorn: not at all like the garden spots they used to feature in the commercials, where trim, manicured men with cultivated voices tipped their visors at your window and asked what they could do for you.

Sal, the owner, was a stocky man who wore undersized, popped-button shirts, sagging trousers, and oil-spattered work shoes with broken laces. “Gas stinks" was his motto, and every gallon he pumped into his customers’ cars seemed to take something out of him. “Pumping gas is for morons,” he liked to say, leaning indelibly against my rear window and watching the digits fly on the pump register. “One of these days I’m gonna dump this place on a Puerto Rican, move to Florida, and get into something nice, like hero sandwiches.”

He had a nameless, walleyed assistant who wore a studded denim jacket and, with his rag and squeegee, left a milky film on my windshield as my tank was filling. There was a fumecrazed, patchy German shepherd, which Sal kept chained to the air pump, and if you followed Sal into his cluttered, overheated office next to the service bays, you ran a gauntlet of hangers-on, many of them Sal’s brothers and nephews, who spent their time debating the merits of the driving directions he gave the bewildered travelers who turned into his station for help.

“I don’t know,” one of them would say, pulling a bag of potato chips off the snack rack, “I think I would have put ‘em onto 91, gotten ‘em off at Willow, and then —Bango!—straight through to Hamden.”

Sal guarded the rest room key jealously and handed it out with reluctance, as if something in your request had betrayed some dismal aberration. The rest room was accessible only through a little closet littered with tires, fan belts, and cases of oil cans. Inside, the bulb was busted and there were never any towels, so you had to dry your hands on toilet paper—if Sal wasn’t out of toilet paper, too.

The soda machine never worked for anyone except Sal, who, when complaints were lodged, would give it a contemptuous kick as he trudged by, dislodging warm cans of grape soda which, when their pop-tops were flipped, gave off a fine purple spray. There was, besides the snack rack in the office, a machine that dispensed peanuts on behalf of the Sons of Garibaldi. The metal shelves along the cinderblock wall were sparsely stocked with cans of cooling system cleaner, windshield de-icer, antifreeze, and boxed head lamps and oil filters. Over the battered yellow wiper case, below the Coca Cola clock, and half hidden by a calendar from a janitorial supply concern, hung a little brass plaque from the oil company, awarded in recognition of Salvatore A. Castallano’s tenyear business association.

I wish for the sake of nostalgia that I could say Sal was a craftsman, but I can’t. I’m not even sure he was an honest man. I suspect that when business was slow he may have cheated me, but I never knew for sure because I don’t know anything about cars. If I brought my Volvo in because it was behaving strangely, I knew that as far as Sal was concerned it could never be a simple matter of tightening a bolt or re-attaching a hose. “Jesus,” he’d wearily exclaim after a look under the hood. “Mr. Ward, we got problems.” I usually let it go at that and simply asked him when he thought he couid have it repaired, because if I pressed him for details he would get all worked up. “Look, if you don’t want to take my word for it, you can go someplace else. I mean, it’s a free country, you know? You got spalding on your caps, which means your dexadrometer isn’t charging, and pretty soon you’re gonna have hairlines in your flushing drums. You get hairlines in your flushing drums and you might as well forget it. You’re driving junk.”

I don’t know what Sal’s relationship was with the oil company. I suppose it was pretty distant. He was never what they call a “participating dealer. ‘ He never gave away steak knives or NFL tumblers or stuffed animals with his fill-ups, and never got around to taping company posters on his windows. The map rack was always empty, and the company emblem, which was supposed to rotate thirty feet above the station, had broken down long before I first laid eyes on it, and had frozen at an angle that made it hard to read from the highway.

If, outside of television, there was ever such a thing as an oil company service station inspector, he must have been appalled by the grudging service, the mad dog, the sepulchral john. When there was supposed to have been an oil shortage a few years ago, Sal’s was one of the first stations to run out of gas. And several months ago, during the holiday season, the company squeezed him out for good.

I don’t know whether Sal is now happily sprinkling olive oil over salami subs somewhere along the Sun Belt. I only know that one bleak January afternoon I turned into his station to find him gone. At first, as I idled by the nolead pump, I thought the station had been shut down completely. Plywood had been nailed over the service bays, Sal’s name had been painted out above the office door, and all that was left of his dog was a length of chain dangling from the air pump’s vacant mast.

But when I got out of the car I spotted someone sitting in the office with his boots up on the counter, and at last caught sight of the “Self-Service Only” signs posted by the pumps. Now, I’ve always striven for a degree of self-sufficiency. I fix my own leaky faucets and I never let the bellboy carry my bags. But I discovered as I squinted at the instructional Sticker by the nozzle that there are limits to my desire for independence. Perhaps it was the bewilderment with which I approach anything having to do with the internal combustion engine; perhaps it was my conviction that fossil fuels are hazardous; perhaps it was the expectation of service, the sense of helplessness, that twenty years of oil company advertising had engendered, but I didn’t want to pump my own gas.

A mongrel rain began to fall upon the oil-slicked tarmac as I followed the directions spelled out next to the nozzle. But somehow I got them wrong. When I pulled the trigger on the nozzle, no gas gushed into my fuel tank, no digits flew on the gauge.

“Hey, buddy,” a voice sounded out of a bell-shaped speaker overhead. “Flick the switch.”

I turned toward the office and saw someone with Wild Bill Hickok hair leaning over a microphone.

“Right. Thanks,” I answered, and turned to find the switch. There wasn’t one. There was a bolt that looked a little like a switch, but it wouldn’t flick.

“The switch,” the voice crackled in the rain. “Flick the switch.”

I waved back as if I’d finally understood, but I still couldn’t figure out what he was talking about. In desperation, I stuck the nozzle back into my fuel tank and pulled the trigger. Nothing.

In the office I could see that the man was now angrily pulling on a slicker. “What the hell’s the matter with you?” he asked, storming by me. “All you gotta do is flick the switch.”

“I couldn’t find the swatch,” I told him.

“Well, what do you call this?” he wanted to know, pointing to a little lever near the pump register.

“A lever,” I told him.

“Christ,” he muttered, flicking the little lever. The digits on the register suddenly formed neat rows of zeros. “All right, it’s set. Now you can serve yourself,” the long-haired man said, ducking back to the office.

As the gas gushed into my fuel tank and the fumes rose to my nostrils, I thought for a moment about my last visit to Sal’s. It hadn’t been any picnic: Sal claimed to have found something wrong with my punting brackets, the German shepherd snapped at my heels as I walked by, and nobody had change for my ten. But the transaction had dimension to it: I picked up some tips about color antennas, entered into the geographical debate in the office, and bought a can of windshield wiper solvent (to fill the gap in my change). Sal’s station had been a dime a dozen, but it occurred to me, as the nozzle began to balk and shudder in my hand, that gas stations of its kind were going the way of the village smithy and the corner grocer.

I got a glob of grease on my glove as I hung the nozzle back on the pump, and it took me more than a minute to satisfy myself that I had replaced the gas cap properly. I tried to whip up a feeling of accomplishment as I headed for the office, but I could not forget Sal’s dictum: Pumping gas is for morons.

The door to the office was locked, but a sign directed me to a stainless steel teller’s drawer which had been installed in the plate glass of the front window. I stood waiting for a while with my money in hand, but the longhaired man sat inside with his back to me, so at last I reached up and hesitantly knocked on the glass with my glove.

The man didn’t hear me or had decided, in retaliation for our semantic disagreement, to ignore me for a while. I reached up to knock again, but noticed that my glove had left a greasy smear on the window. Ever my mother’s son, I reflexively reached into my pocket for my handkerchief and was about to wipe the grease away when it hit me: at last the oil industry had me where it wanted me—standing in the rain and washing its windshield.