Sunday, November 20, 2016

A TALE OF TWO GAS STATIONS

THE 1960's


Once upon a time, there were two gas stations in my life.




PENN-PITT:   My Dad, Joe, (commonly referred to as 'Joe R') had a gas station in a pretty rough section of Brooklyn called 'East New York'. It was on the corner of Pennsylvania and Pitkin Avenues and so it was called 'Penn-Pitt.' The neighborhood was white, black and hispanic (generally referred to as 'Puerto Rican at this time) but it didn't matter what race you were because if you were at the gas station it meant you had a car. and in some strange way that car was your race and your religion. And on top of that, this was Brooklyn and everybody was a character. Everybody!

STATE PARK: The other gas station was my brother Don's (with his partner Mendy). It was not in New York City, but in Valley Stream, just blocks outside of the New York City city line in Nassau County. It was called 'State Park Service Station because it was across the road from 'Valley Stream State Park'. Compared to Penn-Pitt it was rural, But the biggest difference was that you could drive in Nassau county at 16. Sixteen! You had to be eighteen in New York City and when you're sixteen those were two very very long years. 


PENN-PITT: Penn-Pitt started off as a small corner station and eventually grew to be a block long, the second biggest gas station in Brooklyn. My first summer job was, of course, pumping gas. First of all you gotta understand that having a car in New York, especially in this part of Brooklyn, was an incredible luxury. It was expensive, you had to deal with parking and maintenance, you didn't really need a car to get around, and the winter was a bitch. Also because most people lived in rented apartments, a car was probably the biggest 'thing' you actually owned. The only new cars I ever saw in this part of Brooklyn were cop cars.

STATE PARK: If Brooklyn in those days was MEAN STREETS, State Park was BETTY AND VERONICA. Now, don't forget I'm only pumping gas in the summer but seeing a convertible (a convertible!) with four teenagers was, after Brooklyn, just like Archie Comics. Kids. All white and clean and happy, going someplace, having fun. I thought that was a myth. And one of the girls was a blonde. A blonde!

PENN-PITT: So Joe R. had three mechanics working for him. 'Rogers' was black, 'Jesus' (who I only knew as Hey-soo) was Puerto Rican and 'Sam' was a white Protestant. The place was always busy. When I said everybody was a character I meant it. Penn-Pitt was it's own Universe. The customers were of every race, religion, shape and size all connected by their car. It was its own asphalt island in busy Brooklyn. It was like the United Nations but with more yelling and more color and more motion and louder. It was a man/machine symphony and Joe R. was a great conductor.

STATE PARK: 27 9/10.  That was the price per gallon on the Tokheim pump when I started  pumping. The pump had a glass bubble on it filled with gas and a little propeller that turned when the gas was flowing. It always seemed dangerous to me. These were the days whengas pump nozzles had no automatic shut-off.  When someone wanted it filled up you had to listen for the sound of the gas coming up the fill tube and shut down before it gushed out, all over you and the person's car. I tend not to always pay attention so more than once I was rinsing someon's car down with the water can, assuring them that the gas wouldn't hurt their paint, knowing they didn't believe a word I said. Neither did I. Note the maximum dollar sale was 9.99


PENN-PITT: I've regretted many (many) things in my life and one of them was not photographing the incredible reality of daily life at the gas station. Even when I was in design school I wasted my time photographing inanimate objects when right in front of me was all the human visual drama and beauty that Brooklyn and cars in the '60's could offer. Just a photo of my Dad's desk, piled with a mountain of papers, strange greasy auto parts and various other stuff...and you know, in all those years I never once remember my dad actually sitting at that desk.

STATE PARK: In the '60's foreign cars were a rare sight. Occasionally in the summer in Valley Stream I'd see some foreign sports car pass by but on a regular basis there were only a few volkswagons around and they were always a curiosity with their air-cooled engines and gas tank in front. On a regular basis we had one customer who drove a Volvo, but he was Swedish so the whole thing fit together nicely. He also put that little line thru his 7's when he wrote the number. 

PENN-PITT: Since I was in school I pretty much worked only during the summers and the August summers in the city can somedays be brutal. Hot and humid with the sun beating down on everything. But what I remember most was that occasional warm short summer shower, heaven sent to briefly cool things off...and when it passed there was this unique aroma and vapors rising off the oil-soaked black asphalt of the gas station. Perfume.

STATE PARK: One day a guy drives in and his car is sputtering and missing badly. He leaves his car with my brother to fix and I noticed when my brother opened the hood and checked things out out he just re-connected some wire and the car started running perfectly. Later when they guy returned my brother charged him fifteen dollars or so and the guy went happily along. Fifteen dollars wasn't a lot of money but it seemed like a lot just to put some wire in it's place. So I asked him about it. "Ah", he said,"I didn't charge him for putting the wire in it's place, I charged him for knowing what place to put the wire in". I learned a lot from my brother.

PENN-PITT: I have to remind you, and myself, that cars were 'simpler' machines back then but also much less reliable than they are now. Things regularly went wrong. If you had a car your relationship with a gas station was probably one of your most important relationships, especially in the winter. 

STATE PARK: My brother Don somehow figured that renting trucks to people would be a good new business. I asked him why trucks. He said that if you rent a guy a car he goes out and has a good time, but if you rent him a truck he goes out and does some business. That's what I recall. This was a LONG time ago when the idea of renting itself was new. So he and Mendy became MENDON and I was there when they rented their first truck, a step-in, to a local kid, Jimmy McIntire, and then it seemed like they waited around the whole day for him, and their only truck, to safely return. They both did. The business grew.

PENN-PITT: For many years PENN-PITT was the only gas station on the intersection of Pennsylvania and Pitkin Avenues. Then one year a new gas station was built caddy-corner from my dads. Now there were two basic kinds of gas stations; owner-owned, like my dads and company owned like the new one across the street. Owner-owned is pretty self-explanatory; my dad had a deal with Flying A to supply gas but it was his station to run, to hire and fire, to make a profit or not. A company station was owned by the giant oil company. They hired a manager and paid him a salary. An oil company had endless monies and the station they built was big, beautiful, spotlessly clean and orderly. Compared to them PENN-PITT was barely controlled chaos, with cars and trucks everywhere. My dad knew I admired the neatness of the company station. "Let me tell you something Stanley," he said, pointing across the street. "The reason they can be so neat and clean is that they don't really have customers or much repeat business so if you're ever looking for a good mechanic, look for one whose busy, and probably greasy, not clean." Smart man.


                                                            TO BE CONTINUED... 


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