Paul Vlachos is a New Yorker who understands The West. And he is a New Yorker who understands New York. Wherever Paul goes, he finds signs of life…
1. There’s a big, slow curve as you come in to Bishop, California from the north, on U.S. 395. It’s a beautiful highway and, by the time you have gotten to the outskirts of town and need to start slowing down, you have already passed through a few classic speed traps. When you hit this curve, you’re almost on the main drag and you should be doing no more than 30 miles per hour. People seem to obey that speed here, so I can only assume that there has been ruthless enforcement in the past. This Shell station is the first gas on that side of town – there’s a Shell station on the south side of town that used to be a Texaco. There’s also a Giggling Springs market that sells gasoline AND has free wifi you can jump on to, but that’s in the middle of town and it’s more of a hassle to park there. This Shell station is not the friendliest, but it’s easy, there are working restrooms, and it suffices if you are looking for a bit of privacy. Or, simply, if you’re feeling anti-social. It’s easy to speak to no one at this gas station. I’m dedicating this first photo to all the lonely late night filling stations, which is what this installment of photos in this very issue of the Zephyr is about. This photo is from 2007.
2. Another Shell station, but halfway across the country and further south. This is on the outskirts of Montgomery, Alabama. This day had been a long day in May. That’s one reason I like to take road trips in May and June – you get so much daylight. I was trying to not be my usual, fanatical drive-all-day self on this trip out of respect to Meghan, my girlfriend and passenger, but this was the run home and we knew we’d have to do a few long-haul days. This was one of them. We got up at dawn, possibly in Texas, I don’t remember exactly, and we drove that whole, long summer day. By the time we got to Montgomery, it was dark, we were tired, and we just wanted to find a nice motel for the night. That turned out to be more difficult than I had planned, which sometimes happens. It was a bit too warm to sleep in the van, so we ended up hitting more than a few exits on the interstate through town. I won’t go into the sordid details of what we saw in some of these places, but I’ll share this photo, which I had to stop and shoot even though I was exhausted, and I’ll post the next one, which is from the next exit down and near where we actually stayed.
3. Yes, this was the next exit down from the previous photo. The clouds look similar if you squint hard enough. They do to me, at least. This is also from 2013 in Alabama in the United States of America but, aside from the modern architecture and technology, it could really be any late night gas station in almost any decade. The simultaneous beacons of hope and alienation are both glowing into the night. The pause, when you’re on a trip and you pull into one of these places, the pause can be so many things, but it’s usually just a pause – you’re there for gas, for a bathroom, for a coke, to stretch your legs. Then you move on. When you’re working in a place like this, though, it’s different. People are popping in all night. You know some of them, but most are strangers and they move through quickly. I have not worked in a gas station, but I did work in my share of register jobs and late-night joints and I can only say that I would go into a certain kind of protective shell and become kind of robotic in my interactions with people, not due to fatigue, but more to protect my psyche. You can only be so nice and so real to so many strangers during any given shift.
4. Austin, Nevada – 2010. Austin is a very small town on Highway 50, for those of you unfamiliar with the place. It can feel a bit remote, even though you can now get cell signals in Austin and you can even pump gas at night, when the station closes. This was not always the case, even at the beginning of this century. I have a bit of a survivalist’s mindset, I cannot lie. I’m not sure where it came from, but I like to stock up on stuff that I need and stuff that I enjoy. I can go into more details, but it would get dull rather quickly. I mention it, though, as a preface to stating that I always like to top off on gas. I could wax on about how it’s nice to take a break while driving, how it’s a fun way to see the country and, justifiably, how it’s a necessity for any photographer who likes to photograph gas stations. I could go on like this for a while, finding more reasonable justifications for why I like to top off on gas but, honestly, I just like to know that I always have a full tank of gas. I ran out of gas once, with my father, when I was 11 years old and we were in a rental Ford Pinto on the New Jersey Turnpike. I cannot pin this compulsion on that one episode, even though it made a big impression on me. No, I just like to top off. THAT BEING SAID, Austin is so remote that, even if I have half a tank left and I know that Fallon is just 2 hours west and Eureka is only an hour east, I will still breathe a sigh of relief and pull into a station in Austin to get gas. It’s almost always THIS station, on the western edge of town, just after you have climbed the curvy hill where they shot a sequence from the original “Vanishing Point,” in 1971. That was always a favorite movie of mine and, when I realized one day in the 90’s that they had shot that scene in Austin, it made me smile. There’s another station in town, but that one doesn’t do it for me.
5. Hondo, Texas – 2005. It was late – again – and I was tired – again – and I was also a bit tickled to be staying in a place named “Hondo.” It was as certain a sign as any that I had finally crossed that invisible line on the map and in the psyche that divided east from west in this country. I had just driven about seven or eight hundred miles and checked into a motel called the “Whitetail Lodge.” It’s no longer named that, but the motel still exists. It was a bare bones place, but clean. And it was right next to this Exxon Station. I took a short walk to shake out my knees and lugged my camera along. When I saw the big puddle, itself a bit of a rarity in that part of Texas, I decided to take a few shots. Nothing special about this gas station. Whoa. Let me back up. I just realized what I wrote and then I realized that I don’t know anything at all about that gas station, so how could I say there’s nothing special? Am I speaking from my small photographic frame of reference? Even that is bull. Maybe I’m channeling the fatigue I had that night before I hit the sack, happy after the third or fourth day of long-haul driving in my brand new Toyota Tacoma pickup, which I had loaded to the gills and in which I was rolling west. Maybe I’m just tired now, but surely I have no right to say there’s nothing special about that station. The following morning, I do remember waking up and getting some breakfast at a local Mexican restaurant before heading on. I have passed through Hondo about four or five times since then and my appreciation for this train stop of a town has only grown each time. I’m going to finally stop and get gas there the next time I go through, whether I need it or not. Besides, I like to top off.
6. Brooklyn, NY – 2013. Under the Gowanus Expressway, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Trite as it may sound, this late night gas station is as lonely as any Gulf station parked on an interstate exit in the Great Plains or out West. Maybe more so, as it’s so easily overlooked and bypassed. It’s hard to go by a gas station at night on the plains or in the desert without at least giving it a passing thought. Not necessarily anything deep but, at the very least “do I need something there?” or “I wonder what’s happening there?” This station, though, is almost invisible unless you need gas. That’s true with a lot of big city gas stations. I frequent this particular one a lot as it’s on my way to a standing engagement, but I would not even think about it if not for that. In fact, I’m not sure why I go there, but I am a fierce creature of habit. Their air pump never works, the store, itself, is often locked at night due to the crime and, when you do go in, it’s a depressing store, even by mini mart standards. Very much a feeling of “nobody cares about this place.” The money comes in. Selling gasoline, after all, is a penny business. By the time the station owner gets his cut, it’s just a fraction of what you paid for the gas. If you can get by and pay the bills simply from people coming in and pumping their own gas, why improve the market? You’re not really competing for the food business, like some gas stations in this country. The bodegas are beating you on that count. So just get your gas and get back to wherever you’re going, whether it’s on to Staten Island, deep into Brooklyn, or making a U-turn and heading back through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to Manhattan. And, by the way, I refuse to call that noble tube by its new name – the “Hugh L. Carey Tunnel.”
7. At the Blue Whale Market in Salvo, North Carolina, deep in the Outer Banks. I love this gas station. Two pumps on each side, that’s it. If you go what seems like a few hundred yards in either direction, you’re in the ocean. The mini mart – it is an injustice to call the Blue Whale a “mini mart,” actually – the market inside is pretty comprehensive, as it needs to be to serve a community year-round. Yes, the locals will travel half an hour to get their groceries at the Food Lion in Nag’s Head or Avon, but are you really going to drive for a half hour if you just need some milk and mustard? No, you’ll go to the Blue Whale and be a little pissed that you forgot to buy it at the supermarket, but then you’ll be happy to shoot the breeze with the crew at the Blue Whale, so it all works out. And don’t forget the tourists. They’ll come here for all kinds of stuff. I like it for the quiet and the ocean air, gently mixed in with a hint of 87 octane regular.
8. Hilo, Hawaii. It’s not difficult to get good shots of the sky in Hawaii, and there is something about the current Shell livery, the standard architecture, which changes every 20 years or so – I hate the word “branding” – there is something about the yellow which works well against a purplish sky. I was just thinking, earlier today, about how the yellow awnings on so many delis and bodegas in New York City draw me in. I’m sure there is some science or neuroscience to all this. Then again, I doubt there was science to it way back when Shell came up with their original logo, which does have the same basic color scheme as it does today. One thing I liked from the very first time I visited Hawaii was how, even though you were clearly in a tropical place that was very different from anything on the mainland, there were little touches of America, such as mailboxes. It seemed a bit incongruous. It no longer does to me and a Shell station in paradise no longer seems out of place.
9. This little station, tucked between a few buildings way up in Harlem, on 145th Street in Manhattan, is not that different from most of the cookie-cutter Shell stations you find in any state. The main building is obviously older, but Shell’s station rehabiliation team did a pretty good job getting the signage up to date and getting the canopy to fit in. I guess what I like about it is how the canopy just fits in. Like everything else in Gotham City, there’s not a lot of wiggle room. When did big canopies become de rigeur? Did some bean counters discover, at some point in the late 20th Century, that people were more likely to buy gas at a place where the rain didn’t hit them? It makes sense, of course. Or did it coincide with the disappearance of full service, of attendants who’d pump the gas for you while you remained in the car? As far as I know, there are only two states in the country where you are not allowed to pump your own gas – Oregon and New Jersey. I have heard a couple of apocryphal stories about this, but I have yet to read or hear about the true reasons.
10. Saugerties, New York – We passed through this place during daylight hours. Meg went inside while I got gas. She came out complaining that there was a really bad vibe in there, that there were some bad dudes hanging out. I always take her seriously, as she has been in service stations from Del Rio to Daytona Beach, from Provincetown to Pomona, and usually there is nothing but the endless fascination of people-watching and the usual weirdness. So, when she said this place verged on evil – my words, not hers – I made a mental note. I went back a few nights later, just to see how it looked at night. I am in the middle of a long “Nighttime Gas Stations” series, so this was a slightly selfish errand. I didn’t really stop long enough to get the photo I absolutely wanted. That would have required my super-wide lens, as opposed to the merely “really wide” one that I had on me. A tripod would have helped, as well, but I was in a hurry. You see, when I went to the end of the station to turn around, I spotted a low and evil-looking trailer, along with about 10 men sitting around on chairs and cartons, looking like they were looking for trouble. Then again, it could be that I intruded on an outdoor prayer meeting, but I don’t think so. It didn’t feel that way. They looked at me, at my van, rather, then I did an awkward 5 point turn and got out of there, away from those men who lived at the gas station. At first, it reminded me a little of a Depression-era shantytown but, in retrospect, it had more of a Big Tuna, Texas flavor, but with less glamor.
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