Friday, June 8, 2012

Relics: "Ding ding," or the full-service filling station

If you grew up before the 1970s, you probably remember full-service gas or filling stations. When you pulled into the station, your car’s tires ran over a hose stretched across the driveway that emitted a sing-song “ding ding’ for each axle, alerting the attendants, or “gas jockeys,” that they had a customer. One of them would come and fill your tank and, if you wanted, clean your windshield and check your oil and your tire pressure. Until the oil crisis of 1973, gas appeared to be plentiful and cheap, and drivers like my dad would call out, “Fill ‘er up, Joe!”

Many of the attendants were uniformed young or middle-aged men with their first name sewn on their uniforms. If you went to the same gas stations out of habit as my dad did, you might even come to know a little about them, like which towns or neighborhoods they were from and how many children they had—and if the kids went to school with yours. It could feel like a little more than just a simple transaction.

We lived near a gas station, and mostly I’d carefully step over the hose so I wouldn’t bring out the attendants to yell at me. If I did set off the “ding,” I’d run off or pretend I hadn’t. I’m sure it fooled no one and that they were used to people stepping on the hose accidentally (or kids like me not so accidentally).

Today many gas stations are the model of self-serve convenience and efficiency. Some allow you to bypass the cashier when you use your credit card; in Illinois, the posted penalties for taking advantage of this by driving off are stiff. Many people do go in to the store to pick up drinks and snacks; we’ve become used to refueling on the go. I’ve seen a few of these gas station stores promote their stock of beer (“beer cave”), which is striking given that the primary market can’t, or shouldn’t, buy and consume it on the road like they would a soda or a bag of chips. As for the cashiers, I’d guess the commitment is low and the turnover high. I wonder how often they come and go and if they become fixtures in the neighborhood.

As for full-service gas stations, they’re not gone completely—thanks to state laws, they’re holding on in New Jersey and Oregon. I wonder if I—or my dad—would recognize them.

Here’s a 2012 farewell to the last full-service station in Lufkin, Texas. And here are some more memories.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Dreary 1970s Chicago

In the credits and the background of The Bob Newhart Show, Chicago is invariably dreary, with uniformly gray skies. It's as if the show were set in a perpetual early winter, after the autumn is bright with color and before the winter is bright with snow.

This is how Chicago really looks in spring and parts of summer:


or this:


and, all right, occasionally this: