Holy Gas-Glut Batman! 99 cents per gallon?

For younger readers whose parents or grandparents are boomers, let me take you back to yester-year and explain how jaw dropping this is.

There was a time in the 50’s and early 60’s when asking about a car’s MPH was for losers, when salesmen (always men then) usually had to ask someone for the answer. What they did know was how fast the car could get t0 60 from zero. Thus cars were measured by Horse Power, the higher the better. TACS were lusted after. Cylinders? Always 8. Maybe a 6, but that was because the car was cheaper to buy. A “real car” could “lay rubber” at the flooring of the pedal and a really good car would give you some tail-wagging along with it. Those were the days! So how were those days possible and what happened to them?

Understand that Detroit was then king. Posted in a Bethelem Steel HQ parking lot was a sign, “If you own a foreign car, you can’t park it here!” There were seemingly endless numbers of models; kids collected hood ornaments, which of course they stole off the tops of parked cars.

It was gasoline that made all this possible. There ware gas stations seemingly on every corner. They were all full-service–in case you’ve never been to one of those, a full service gasoline station had people who actually came out to your car, put the hose in your tank, and cleaned the car’s windshield, often front and back, checked the oil, showed you the dip stick, all while the car was being fueled. Almost every station had at least two mechanic’s bays; everyone had their favorite mechanic and shooting the breeze with one was a neighborhood norm. And all of this for 17 cents a gallon!

Not only 17 cents per gallon, but come-ons to get you to fill up with one station over another. It was the age of come-ons. Banks gave away gifts–piggy banks, toaster ovens, sets of glassware–if only you’d open a savings account. And so did gas stations. A person could walk into a friend’s house for a snack or meal and instantly know where they banked and from whom they bought their gas. It spawned the famous joke from Jewish comedian Myron Cohen about the two elderly ladies having tea. One says to the other, “What do you think about Red China?” The other replies, “It don’t go so good on a yellow table cloth.” What middle class America got for free they used. Martha Stewart was still taking Home Ec classes in high school, so the plate and glasses police were no were to be found.

To pull into a gas station in those days would have been a “Back to the Future” adventure for today’s younger readers. Something to drink? There usually was a coke machine, a bottle of coke cost a dime. Something to eat? Not unless the mechanic was offering to share his lunch. Some snacks? Maybe some gum, a Hersey’s Bar, Clark’s Bar and Three Musketeers. ‘set  you back a nickle. Tea, iced or hot? Forgedaboudit! Coffee? Sometimes a pot for customers with coffee so strong one’s teeth could be felt disintegrating from the acid as the “j\Joe” passed through them on its way to causing massive acid indigestion. Oh yes, Tums and Rolaids were usually sold as well.

The goings-on outside were just as bazaar. Some kid, often someone the kids in the car went to the same school with or who were the children of neighbors, would sprint towards the car, that’s sprint as in actually run to give quick, friendly service. I don’t have enough space to try and explain the concept of “quick, friendly” service, but there was once such a think in this country. In some stations, usually on the highways, attendants actually wore uniforms! Before being gassed up, one was given a short multiple-choice quiz (Hi-test or regular?)(both came packed with lead) and then began the pump-slinging. The gas hose was snapped off the pump and often the gas was pumping before the nozzle nestled into the tank. Cars weren’t “topped off” the hose just pumped until gas sloshed out of the tank. No automatic shut-offs on the hoses. As the attendant snatched the hose from the tank and arced it back to the pump, one often saw an arc of gasoline flying into the air and landing on the ground.

This type of activity gave the gas station several unique characteristics. The first was smell. If you were on a block that had one station per corner it was like being trapped inside a bottle of Eau de Esso (now called Exxon). The second was psychedelic color patterns. The mixture of gasoline flying from pumps, oil dripping from not quite empty cans filling the crank case, and assorted amounts of coke, water, and coffee created amazingly beautiful patterns on the cement. Add a mist or a light drizzle and one could have an LSD trip just by looking down. That’s a literary assessment, I of course would actually know… The last characteristic was the potential for bodily injust.

Walking across the pump area to the office was a trip worth one’s life. Most everyone knows from an early age this scientific fact: oil and water don’t mix. Everyone knew that save the folks at the local Flying A (now Amoco) station. It one were day dreaming in the psychedelic patterns on the cement, or in a hurry, and not tending to the actual mechanics of walking, no less running, one could end up going ass-over-tea kettle and landing hard, very hard on the cement. Aside from bruises and embarrassment, this meant that until home was on the horizon, one smelled like a gas pump and once home, one’s clothes would present a titanic challenge for the box of Tide or Oxydol sitting next to the washer.

Then came OPEC and it was over. In no time gas ran up from 50 cents, to 75 cents to 99 cents a gallon and seemingly in months the stations were all buying new signs, ones that could accommodate 3 numbers instead of two. Away went the gifts. In fact not only were stations not giving away gifts, they often didn’t have enough gasoline to sell courtesy of our best friends the Saudis who created with OPEC an oil embargo. Lines would wrap around the block; tempers would fray. Eventually most states went to “even-odd” license plate numbers for days when you could buy gas. Sometimes even on those days one could only buy 10 gallons of gas. Most stunning of all? Gas stations began going out of buiness!

Trickery, thievery, cunning became part of the process. Suddenly there was a hot market for gas tank locks and the next year car companies were providing tank covers that first came with a key and later locked on closing and were opened by a button inside the car. You dear reader take that for granted now, but in those days it was a function of self-protection.

Here’s a brief personal anecdote. I lived in Connecticut and my mother was in the hospital in Brooklyn. There was an emergency and I had to get to Brooklyn immediately. But it wasn’t my day to buy gas. I had to beg a neighbor to siphon out some of his to get me there. To get back, I waited in a 3 hour line the next day when it was my turn to buy gas.

Then came two years ago when gas passed from two dollars fifty, to three dollars, onward and upward in some places to five bucks a gallon.

And now? 99 cents in some little town in middle America and a mere buck seventy four most everywhere around me. Almost overnight America became oil self-sufficient, everyone in the Middle East that had oil was dumping it on the market, Venezuela is going broke because its whole economic policy was oil under-pinned, and regardless of what one thinks of the Iran deal, it means even more oil coming to a gas station near you.

So what? Well I’ll tell ya. Enjoy it while it lasts. Get serious about renewable sources of energy. Remember what goes up must come down? The flip side is what comes down eventually goes back up. In the meantime everyone is into SUV’s, trucks, and getting back to HP over MPG’s. The one thing we have lost sight of is that faster we pump, the sooner there will be no more, which may be a good thing, but only if we are ready. ‘want an interesting exercise? Look up how many products have oil as an ingredient. You don’t want to live in a world where there is a scarcity of oil and no alternative ready to roll out to replace it.Trust me on that. Then five bucks a gallon will seem like the deal of the century–at least from my perspective.




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