Self-Service Usually Comes Without a Smile

Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Oops. I have to stop to buy gas.

I know I need gas because the needle on my fuel gauge dropped down to "E" three days ago. But I didn't bother to buy any then because I knew that unless the little picture of a gas tank on my dashboard lit up, I still had at least 2.3 gallons left.

The light came on a day and a half ago, and I really should have stopped then, but it just wasn't convenient. Besides, the little light did go out now and then when I went around corners, so I knew there had to be something sloshing around in the tank.

But now I have no choice. So instead of getting on the freeway and rushing off to whatever I'm late for, I'll pull into one of those handy places that offer gas for less and everything else for more.

I'll have to circle at least once--and may well have to do some more complicated maneuvering--to get my car lined up at the pump and aimed in the right direction so that I don't have to drag the hose around to the opposite side. That's partly because so many of my fellow drivers pay no attention to the signs that say "Please pull up to forward pump." It's also because my gas cap is on the left, and most everybody else's seems to be on the right.

Then I'll have to get out of the car, walk across to the little building and stand in line to hand $10 to the guy behind the counter. After that, I'll have to go back out to the car, unlock the gas cap and pump my gas.

If I'm lucky, I won't spill any on my shoes, but in any case, my hands will smell like gasoline all the way to my destination.

I could make it easier on myself, of course, by pulling up to the pump marked "Full Serve" and simply saying, "Fill 'er up." But that would cost me several dollars more on a tankful, and I somehow just can't bring myself to pay it.

That's because I'm old enough to have memories of a time when all gas stations were "Full Serve" and then some. They were called "service stations" back then, and in addition to pumping the gas, the attendants would wash your windows, check your oil and put air in your tires, no extra charge. They would tell you when your fuel pump was going out, and they could handle the repair there. Not only could they give you directions, but they handed out free maps.

Give me that, and I'll give you an extra quarter on the gallon.

I know, I know, those days are gone forever, although vestiges do remain in some places. A friend of mine in New Jersey points out that self-service isn't even an option at gas stations there, and, while prices aren't anywhere near as low as the good old days, they're about even with self-serve rates here.

But I still feel a mixture of nostalgia and resentment every time I have to gas up. That's one reason for my bad habit of running on empty. But I'm pleased to hear that Life on Wheels readers are more careful than I am.

Terri Lavoot of Anaheim, for example, hasn't let her needle drop below the halfway mark in 30 years. That's because she did run out of gas once: in 1959.

It was the day before Thanksgiving, and Lavoot was driving from Boston to Brooklyn, N.Y., with her parents.

"Several times I suggested we get off the highway to refuel," she says. "But Dad kept saying, 'You can make it to Brooklyn.'

"Lo and behold, I ran out of gas on the Westside Highway in the passing lane at 5 p.m. Fortunately there was an emergency phone within sight. But with the heavy traffic, it took the auto club two hours to get to me. And in between, I had to endure the dirty looks and comments as cars tried to change lanes. Even New York's Finest asked me how I could be so careless." After the ordeal, Lavoot promised herself, "Never again."

Cyndie Gonzalez of Orange fills up frequently, too, but for a different reason. "I don't want to be a woman stranded somewhere on the highway," she says. "I worry about that enough already because my car is kind of old and has had some problems. I just feel a lot better if I know I have plenty of gas."

Lee Ann Stone of Irvine follows a schedule. "I fill up once each weekend," she says. "There are no gas stations readily accessible on my way to work, and on the way home, well, I just want to get home. I go self-serve all the way, and the cheapest possible. This may change, though, when I trade in my 13-year-old car for a new one at the end of the year."

Stone says she misses the old "service station" days, too. "The one thing I want back at gas stations? AIR!!!"

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