Gather ‘round kiddies, I’m here to tell you what it was like working at a gas station in 1979. Unless you live in NJ (or OR?), you probably have no idea what it was like to pull into a “Full Service” station to get gas.
In 1979 I was about to enter my senior year of HS and I had a car that drank gas like a modern day SUV. If I wanted to keep it rolling, I had to get a job. I applied for a job at a Mobil station at the end of my street and they hired me. It was my first non-paperboy job.
In those days, when customers entered the lot their car would go over a rubber hose filled with air which made a bell ring inside the station to let us know a customer was coming. They would pull up to a pump and wait for someone like me to trot out and ask them what I could do for them.
With gas less than a dollar a gallon, it was not uncommon to have people buy $5 at a time. But being “Full Service,” we had to be ready to do anything else the customer needed. Check the air in all your tires? Sure! Check your oil? I’ll get right on it! And of course, we washed the front and back windows with a squeegee.
Customers would routinely not remember which side of the car their gas tank was on. I guess if you aren’t pumping the gas yourself, it doesn’t register the same way. They’d also pull up ten feet from the pump and shut off the car without wondering if the hose would reach. More than a few cut it too close and got so close I had to ask them to fire the car up and move it over a few feet so I could actually access the pump.
We’d sit in the little office area and wait for customers. We’d have to dress for the weather so if it was winter, we’d be bundled up. Summers weren’t bad unless it was raining.
We didn’t have credit card readers so we had to take the card inside and clunk it through the impression-maker and then take the receipt out to the customer to sign. Every now and then a customer would show up and act surprised that we didn’t take Diner’s Club or some other card I’d never seen before.
I eventually learned to plug flat tires (I still carry a tire repair kit in my truck and repaired a flat as recently as last summer) and even drive a tow-truck. Winter months would bring rafts of dead-battery calls and cars-in-ditch calls. There’s nothing more fun than going to jump a customer car and having them freak out when you tell them the “wrecker call” was $35. In 1979 dollars that was a lot, apparently. Yanking the car from a ditch cost even more - with corresponding vile epithets thrown my way.
We even had the towing contract for the local police department and got to tow wrecked vehicles from accident scenes. I’ve talked about that before but that was an odd period of my life. I’d be jolted at 3 a.m. from a sound sleep and just be waking up as I pulled up to a surreal vision of a car someplace it shouldn’t be, or of injured people pulled from a wreck, sitting among broken glass and car parts. More than a few times I went back to bed after towing the car and wondered how real it had all been when I woke up the next morning. But when I showed up at the station, there would be a wreck or two I had dragged in the night before.
I can still picture the more horrific wrecks more than 35 years later. The Camaro that hit an oak tree so hard the engine was pushed through the firewall. A little green sports car with the driver’s teeth lodged in the dash padding. Another little car with two distinct dents in the windshield but only one occupant according to the person the police found sitting in the car (the driver was drunk and told the other person to get into the driver’s seat and lie - and then ran away).
The only down side was when it rained while I was on pump duty. We did not have a roof over the pumps and more often than not someone would pull in to the farthest pump from the building at the height of the storm. And then get $3 worth of gas. Most of the work was easy, though. And the station had regular customers from the neighborhood. Some stopped by the same time each week, mainly just to say Hello.
Eventually, I went to college and then had jobs where I worked indoors. But I look back fondly on the time at the station. I got to work on my own car when there was no other work to do and I got to work around other people’s car and get paid for it. If there were full serve stations around here now, I would patronize them just for old time’s sake. And really - what better job is there for a teenager than working around cars like that?
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Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 24 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. His Dodge Daytona & Plymouth Superbird: Design, Development, Production and Competition was published this week.
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