Requiem for the old dirty gas station

Photo by Dion Ogust

Quick Chek has changed the game. Anyone who’s been to one knows how. There’s a sandwich counter; a real one, not a fleshy menagerie of Z-grade meat sandwiches hanging out in a mini-fridge under the cash register. There are aisles. Organized aisles. The green, white and beige motif is held up throughout the store. The gas pumps outside are held under a pavilion that you could almost call art deco. I mean, this place is just about as nice as GAP.

This is alarming. This is not what I’m used to. I’m used to apathetic gas station attendants. I’m used to dreary sojourns into Stewart’s to pick up food at low, low prices and long, long shelf-life. And now I’m thrust into a world of fluorescent legitimacy, smiles and friendly service? A world of consistently edible gas-station food? A world of free in-shop ATM transactions?

That dog won’t hunt, monsignor.

I spent days trying to get in touch with Quick Chek’s corporate office, attempting to secure permission to write an in-depth piece. I got in touch with a guy named Bob. I think his name was Bob; he sounded like a Bob. Bob took down my cell number and e-mail address, or at least verbally played me with the “I’m repeating everything you say very slowly to make it seem like I’m writing something down” shtick. Every time I went to Quick Chek they’d promised me they’d never heard of me, and that Bob, their admitted master, had never mentioned me. Is Quick Chek hiding some sinister secret? Is their corporate office as disorganized as a chimpanzee’s desk? Or is it possible that inquiries made by a sometime-reporter for an unknown weekly paper in the Mid-Hudson Valley do not rattle through the halls of petrochemical/deli power?

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Well, the fact is Quick Chek doesn’t really need me or my thinkpiece. It will, I fear, soon blow my beloved gas hovels out of the water, and with extreme prejudice. Of course it will. It has to. It can be no other way. How can they compete?

But it still doesn’t feel right. A gas station should be a dark, impersonal place where you can put twenty dollars on pump three and pick up a Mr. Goodbar without missing a beat, roust the surly clerk from her endless cell phone conversation long enough to make the transaction without any pleasantries, and, if God forbid you need to use the facilities, you should be compelled to hold your breath.

One of my greatest memories is the first time I was ever punched in the face outside a beat-down Getty, whose convenience store stock was three fourths alcohol, one fourth candy, and had a smattering of yesterday’s newspapers. The lone attendant was draped over the counter with his face in his hands as if he were praying. He heard the bells ring as I busted through the door. I’d been jabbed in the right cheek and my braces were hooked to the inside of my mouth.

“Do you have any cotton balls?” I asked the guy. He kind of giggled to himself and told me to get out. It wasn’t a happy moment, and it wasn’t a moment that I expected to remember forever. But in that exchange between a gangly gas station attendant and a wounded 13-year-old (me), I learned something about the human condition best not contemplated or forgotten.

Another time, waiting in line to buy candy, I saw a guy in a white t-shirt, suspenders, and a Yankees hat flipping through a Playboy, which he had discretely snipped out of its plastic wrap . We made eye contact, and didn’t break it for a few seconds. I was frightened of him then, but I realize now that the dark and cruddy gas stations of America are the last place where a hard-working, hard-lottery-ticket-scratching-off man can have a seat and a ninety nine cent cup of coffee and flip through a half-stolen gentlemen’s magazine. Could you do so in Quick Chek? Does Quick Chek even carry Playboy?

Dirty, dank gas stations are nothing to write home about. Still, I’m going to miss the miserable gas station for the same reason my dad misses his Ford Pinto. I think it might be a truism: over time, we let the crummy attributes of things we miss melt away into friendly quirks. Driving the Ford Pinto was a constant gamble because the gas tank was placed just south of the bumper; you could get completely obliterated for being in a forceful fender-bender. Looking back, it’s fun to say that you drove a car that could have exploded under you at virtually any moment. My visits to Quick Chek, with all of its newfangled roboticisms and its glowier-than-thou color scheme and its actually palatable hot food won’t be able to supplant horrible places where I spent my formative years loitering. There, I was free to pass the lazy afternoons, looking mad, and hammering back way too many energy drinks, get punched in the face without compassion, and come to the realization that I don’t have the body type to do tricks on one of those flippy little BMX bikes.

What will kids do when they don’t have a sidewalk to hang out and drink Arnold Palmer on? What’s going to happen when all of our convenience stores become glowing, unbearably cheery affairs? It’s part of being a kid; doing bad things, playing Nintendo, living life and learning to swear in front of the Getty or the Sunoco or the Stewart’s, where you figure out how to be how to be bad from the older boys and you learn how to be good on your own.

You know what? Maybe I’m reading into it too much. All hail our new copacetic and clean overlord. He’s unnaturally clean and smells way too nice for what he is. All hail the new boss, not even close to as charmingly crappy as the old boss. l

 

There are 2 comments

  1. C store guy

    What you have discovered is a retailer (petropreneur, actually) who is growing, and fast. New money always looks, smells and feels nice. But staying power and commitment are what keeps the fire going. In my experience in convenience retailing (and it is plentiful, working for the biggest of big throughout the Northeast) you will find that QC will lose it’s luster. I have yet to see a c-store chain keep up that pretty and new feeling outside of a year or two with the exception of two companies. One is Wawa, the other is Sheetz. Quick Trip is a close third if I had to add one. QC has not proven to keep up the pretty face after the first year, based on my personal and professional experience. Youll see what I mean.

    But, alas they are the future. Cheap, unbranded fuel to drawnus in to buy the high margin stuff inside where they make the real money. At least that’s the idea.

  2. JR

    My father had “his” garage/gas station. He was so loyal to the owner that it is a wonder that he stopped for gas on trips that took us outside of town.

    My impression was that it was a place for men: men who knew each other, men who knew each other’s secrets…men who had fought in WWII. There was a pistachio machine. It was not the place for women, nor for children, and the restroom had the air of a back room that required a secret knock in order to gain entrance.

    Not much has changed today. The sole-owner garage/gas stations that remain have inherited that intrigue. They remain places for men, (no matter how much work a woman might have done herself on her car), ‘secret’ signals — a zone off-limits to women.

    The gas/convenience stores, on the other hand, have as much to do with the mechanics of vehicles as the ubiquitous rotating pizza warmers have to do with tire pressure. It’s quite the case that the only thing we can be assured of after we pay up is gas.

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