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In our brisk new self-service world, taking time to stop and smell the gasoline cents

“Forgive me if I’m wrong,” writes Jess W. Robinson of Rancho Palos Verdes, “but you don’t seem like the kind of guy who enjoys pumping his own gas.”

He’s right. When my wife is with me, she gets out of the car and pumps the gas, to save money, but when I’m alone I always choose to pay for full service.

It isn’t that I’m lazy. It’s just that I have always believed in paying for services that others can do better than I can. I’m a journalist, not a service station attendant. Ergo, why should I pump my own gas?

I wouldn’t try to remove my own appendix. I wouldn’t try to defend myself in a libel suit. I wouldn’t try to work up my own income tax return. And after that recent misadventure with my wife’s toilet, which cost me $516.72, I wouldn’t try to do my own plumbing.

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So why should I pump my gas?

Robinson says he used to think the same way, until a recent experience made him see the light. Although his dashboard is equipped with state-of-the-art digital instrumentation, Robinson is not responsive to all that razzle-dazzle. Consequently, he sometimes runs out of gas.

The other day he pulled into a gas station almost empty. “All the self-service pumps were in use, and there was quite a long line of cars in front of me. The full-service pumps, on the other hand, were both conspicuously vacant and immediately available--so I drove up to one and told the attendant to ‘fill ‘er up.’ ”

While the attendant went back to his gas tank, Robinson found himself studying the price signs. Unleaded gas full-service was $1.399 a gallon; unleaded gas self-service was $.739 a gallon. He figured he was paying 66 cents for the luxury of full service.

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“Then it hit me: The difference wasn’t just 66 cents. It was 66 cents per gallon! Which meant that I was paying someone $13.20 to fill my 20-gallon tank with $14.78 worth of gas!”

When the attendant returned to ask whether he wanted his windshield washed, Robinson said, “You bet! Check under the hood, too, and don’t forget my transmission fluid.”

He was determined to get everything he could. While he waited for his “full service,” he wondered what his $13.20 was paying for:

“Put nozzle in tank and turn on pump, $1; wash windshield, $3; wash rear window, $2; open hood, $2; check oil, $1; check transmission fluid, $1; look under hood for potential problems, $1; remove nozzle and turn off pump, $1; four paper towels, $.80; wear and tear on the squeegee, $.40. Grand total: $13.20.”

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Then he thought about what he could get for less than $5 at a car wash. “The automobile will be run through a very expensive machine and bathed with gallons and gallons of precious water; a group of eager workers, ranging in number from three to as many as six, will dust, vacuum, hand-wipe and dry the car. And when the job’s finally done, an attendant can be expected to hold the door for the departing driver.”

His outrage grew:

“If a car wash can provide so much service for a relatively modest fee, why are we letting gas station operators get away with what amounts, quite literally, to highway robbery?”

Robinson suggests that for a flat fee of $2 or $3, gas stations should be able to provide the same service they once provided for free, and with a smile.

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He observes that the present rip-off dates from the gas shortages of the ‘70s, when we found ourselves meekly lining up around the block from gas stations, creeping to the pumps, paying prices that doubled and doubled again, and watching the services we once took for granted vanish.

“Thus were born the no-service stations, cash-only stations operated by a single cashier, locked away behind bullet-proof glass; stations without service bays or customer restrooms, stations that dispense air and water through coin-operated vending machines; stations where customers are required to make full payment in advance; stations where credit card customers must present a driver’s license before the pump will be turned on. . . . “

Yes, full service with a smile is gone forever. I remember when the attendant not only gave you a smile, but washed your windshield, inflated your tires, checked your water and oil and your transmission fluid as well, and screwed the caps off the battery to check the distilled water level. They would even give you a free map if you needed one. It was all included in the price of the gasoline.

But in the ‘70s the gas companies discovered that an automobile-dependant society needed them more than they needed us. They found out that Americans would line up for gas, beg for gas and pay for gas dispensed not only without a smile but with indifference.

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Not all gas station attendants are like that. Most are friendly. They smile, they say thank you; they will help you if you need it even if you’re in the self-serve line.

But the system doesn’t give them much chance. The system makes us pay for service; and the more gas we buy, the more it makes us pay. Surely it doesn’t take any more effort to pump 20 gallons of gas than 10.

But I’m not paying as much as Robinson for full-service. At my Mt. Washington station the difference is only 34 cents a gallon, not 66. Of course Rancho Palos Verdes is a more expensive neighborhood.

I just wish they’d check my tires.

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