March 2014

Old-fashioned inflation

By David Feela

After loading my groceries and starting the engine, I checked to see if I had enough gas to get home. How the fuel gauge managed to do this trick I’ll never understand, but it reported – trimultaneously – that my wallet, stomach, and gas tank all hovered near empty.

The grocery market’s gas pump was the most convenient. I pulled up and stepped out of the car, when I noticed my rear tire also needed inflating.

I looked for an air pump and saw a shiny metal box beside the curb. AIR!, it announced, in big billowy letters. So I filled my gas tank, climbed back in, and parked at the air dispenser, only to realize four more quarters would be extorted to fill my tire. I’d just spent over a hundred dollars on food, and another fifty on gasoline. What else did they want, a quart of my blood to lubricate this fragile economy?

So I headed south a few blocks, where I often go when the discount gas lines are too long. I knew the air was still free there. But damn. They’d replaced the hose that used to stick out of the back wall with a shiny new box, a clone of the one I’d just left. It was beginning to look like a conspiracy.

Is there a gas station left in America that still dispenses courtesy services for their customers? We are urged to frequent their premises, join their value clubs, listen to their yappy promotions attached to the side of the pump, and then, as if we haven’t proved ourselves by our patronage, like them on Facebook!

I live in a small town, which makes for an easy drive to check out the air situation. I know, I should have deposited the quarters at the first stop and purchased a few psi, but my judgment was clouded by frustration and I swore (to myself) that if I found a gas station that still offered free air, that location would become my permanent fuel provider. What I ended up doing was pulling in at my regular tire dealer, feigning a shopper’s interest in their current “Deals on Wheels” promotion and using their air hose on my way out.

I’d been raised in the Midwest, where children are taught to always count their fingers after shaking hands with a stranger. It’s a terrible thing to grow up suspicious, especially since my dad was one of those Texaco owner/operators back in the 1950s who you were encouraged to trust with your car. He was the man who wore the star.

But that was when pulling up at his service- station pump rang a bell inside the garage and he would appear beside your window to dispense the gas, check your oil, and clean the windshield. There was no need to step out of your car, though the store had a few shelves of convenient groceries and treats which my mother presided over. People became regular customers because they either fancied the couple that ran the place, or maybe they thought the kid stacking the oil cans like building blocks near the center of the service island was especially adorable, one could only hope.

I also used to play with my toy trucks in the gravel near the restrooms and when customers wandered over to use the facilities, they’d say something to me (which I never heard), but my mother would beam like a gas-station goddess from the window above me, thanking them for their kindness and their business.

It’s the assault of discourtesies that rankles these days. The “No Public Restroom” sign when you’re about to burst, or a toilet that’s so disgusting from customer abuse and a lack of service that you became discouraged from ever using a public toilet again, for the rest of your life.

I know, my experiences from the 1950s sound pretty silly, and perhaps a bit idyllic, but being appreciated tends to spawn that sort of memory.

Henry Clay said, “Courtesies of a small and trivial character are the ones which strike deepest in the grateful and appreciating heart.” As a 19th century orator and politician, Clay was dubbed “the Great Pacificator,” a reputation for compromise which led to his eventual selection as late as 1957 as one of America’s five greatest senators – granted, a long time to wait for it, but a courtesy he would have appreciated.

I like to think what Henry Clay was trying to say is that a little free air goes a long way.

David Feela, an award-winning poet, essayist and author, writes from Montezuma County, Colo. See more of his works at