Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Lou's Amoco

During my childhood and adolescence there was a neighborhood gas station about two blocks from our house - an Amoco station operated by a fellow named Lou. It was classic in size, smell and architecture including a small office filled with a counter, cash register and cigarette smoke, a two bay garage and a couple gas pumps always manned by Lou or his assistant. There were also a few older cars perpetually for sale parked at the side of the lot. Lou had lots of faithful customers. But this was more than just a gas station and mechanic’s shop; it also served as a gathering hall for local guys who stopped by for a free cup of coffee, a few smokes and a good chat about The Eagles, The Phillies, The Steel, the dethroning of The King by The Bear, the Kennedy clan or the increase in crime on hot summer nights in The Projects just down the road. These conversations were not at all like those we now hear on The View, The Bill Maher Show or Oprah. Rather, they were raw, insightful, perfectly and politically incorrect – full of hard reality and lower middle class angst. My dad was a regular.
In the years that have passed since the relative innocence of the early 1960s establishments like Lou’s Amoco have slowly disappeared. There are, I suppose, myriad reasons for this alteration of our nation’s landscape: the slow but deliberate mergers of multi-national oil companies (in most states Amoco no longer exists as a stand-alone company,) the concept and proliferation of the gas station/convenience store (an ugly and ubiquitous phenomenon,) the development of national tire, brake and battery stores, drive-through oil change shops and big lot retailers specializing in auto parts and the subsequent difficulties created by these developments thrust upon guys like Lou trying to maintain a small business like a corner garage. For many I’m certain these changes have been welcomed providing goods and services at a reduced price. But consider this: have you ever asked a convenience store clerk for a funnel, a tire gauge or a hose to fill your radiator? How often have you pulled up to a pump and found free air for your tires or window washing solvent and implements? Ask a 17 year-old counter worker directions to this or that high school or church and that’s when you get the Real Big Gulp. Do you know the name of the guy who just did that 6-minute oil change? How often do you really take advantage of those free rotations promised when you buy 4 new tires at the chain store and, if and when you do, how much glee registers on that guy’s face?
There are a few holdouts. I am delighted that there is an owner-operated garage in my neighborhood and I have been dedicated to having all my work done there for the past 30 years. They know my name and phone number. I receive preferred treatment – a reasonable perk for my continued commitment. If I or my wife or children stop there for any reason they drop everything and turn their attention to us. They call me and give me an expected cost before doing any major work. 
But there are other reasons for the demise of the neighborhood gas station with its dank and greasy environs. We, as a culture, have turned our backs on the men and women who have strived to make a living doing an honest day’s work with their hands, their backs, their knees and the sweat of their brow. We have raised generations of young people and urged – in many cases demanded – that they go to college and get an education – in the process even ridiculing the concept of a working class by stating, ‘You don’t want to end up like your father working on car engines your whole life, do you?’ So, as directed, we went out and got educations and made some money and now we are above the notion of hanging out in a nasty gas station office with a dusty fan and a rinsed out mug of coffee when we could be sitting in an air-conditioned Starbucks with a $4 latte or grazing through a posh cigar or wine shoppe spending $20 on a CAO or $120 on a bottle of Lagavulin. We’d also rather talk about the stock market or the new driver we just bought for $450 (it was a bargain) or the new BMW 700 Series we’re leasing with the 100,000-mile warranty (it’s a good thing – you’ll need it.) Our nails are clean and our knuckles are not scraped. We drive late model foreign cars 18 miles into the suburbs 3 times a year for maintenance checks at the dealership and we sit and wait in a room filled with art, stuffed chairs and proper lighting or we are escorted to our offices in chauffeur-like elegance. We have risen above the working class and my intuition tells me my generation has cut all ties to it. This is a sad and frightening development. Yes, we are educated; yes, we are well prepared; yes, we have succeeded; yes, we cannot use a Crescent wrench; yes, we cannot change a tire; yes, we are useless.
Given a modest amount of time I could give you the names of 100 lawyers, bankers, brokers and insurance salesman – some excellent, some not so.  On the other hand, I know one reliable plumber, one honest mechanic and one great housepainter.  So my advice to high-schoolers everywhere: go get an education and while you’re at it learn how to use a hammer, a Skil saw, a paint brush or a set of wrenches.  They will serve you well.  You may even enjoy it; you may even choose to pursue a noble vocation crafting cabinets or re-building transmissions.  That’s good stuff – that’s art - that’s a very worthy way to make a living.  I’ll stop by your shop for a cup of coffee.  ‘How ‘bout them Phillies!’


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