NOW WE WILL ALL BE SELF-SERVING
Another cornice is chipping off the corner of Maine civilization as we pre-Range Rover residents know it. On June 15, Paul LeBourdais will shut the last old-fashioned full serve gas station in the area, leaving us to help ourselves and pick up a quart of milk on the way out.
Had LeBourdais Service Station on Maine Street since 1945 been a car it would now be a genuine antique and we’d happily preserve it. But it is just a business and our culture so compulsive about self-help and self-serve won’t make it our business to let full service be. Paul hung huge banners advertising the station for lease but nobody in this world so desperate to be carefree spoke up to take care of it.
Admittedly, the fatal do-it-yourself plague at the pump did spread slowly through our territory so famed for self-reliance. Its first victim was old Ben who used to leave the light on for you at his Mobil Station first thing out on Pleasant Street, knowing you might come ripping up from Portland or Boston round midnight, breathlessly close to empty. Other oases of humanity along that street fell behind while LeBourdais downtown stuck it out, the steady Sunoco on Maine at the threshold of the perpetually morphing supermarket.
In an era when everything else was stubbornly changing too, beyond the responsibility of getting personal, you could depend on LeBourdais’ to be the same old same old. Paul and most of the fellows like Bobby and Dave who worked long hours for him knew your name, your dogs in the back, the kinks in your car, the month for your inspection and where to get cheap and competent the repairs they could not handle. And in the best tradition of real neighborliness, they waved goodbye as you drove off.
Paul and the other gashops were in fact why the place was called “service” station. Out they came in rain, winds, heat waves and snows to fill the tank, wash your windows, check the oil, kick your tires, confirming you as good to go. If perchance you weren’t, they were troubleshooters. Holistically, they took care of you.
Pumping gas is of course not exactly rocket science and in terms of tech it’s about as low as you can go. But stations like LeBourdais’ were the super high way, for having people cater to such a simple need with a wipe of the window and a swipe of chat is first class. Paul made it a luxury we could afford and a real labor saving device to boot, especially to ladies who don’t fancy having gasoline on their hands or the smell of it on their dresses. Best of all was his downtown location which let you multitask, leaving your car to be filled or tweaked or inspected while you hotfooted it off for groceries or stamps, birthday gifts, perhaps an outdoor latte.
Paul hung on talking about maybe becoming a social worker while day after day he stood out on Maine Street grumping of course but steadily dispensing that antifreeze called civility and high-octane fuel called help. His gas station gave our community community, making it a different and better, a full service place.
To those returning from California where it costs 50cents per gallon to have someone serve you gas or Arizona where it’s all help yourself at any price, the station Paul inherited from his father has been the last reminder of a kinder, gentler time when it was not de rigueur to be lean and mean and self-serving. It is a treasure that is going to be buried. Should we be proud of that chip off the old block? ###
This first appeared on the Op Ed page of the Bath Brunswick Times Record, June 5, 2002.
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