Hiding in the Open
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ROGER ROSENBLATT: The subject is gas stations, how the American gas station has changed in the past 30 years from a multi-layered symbol of American life to merely another place to shop. The key difference is self-service. As soon as gas stations started to post the self signs as distinguished from the “full” signs, an idea disappeared. Self-service gets us in the act. We are forced to notice what a gas station is.
Not so 30 years ago. The gas station was the place one hardly noticed as one moved on. It was, in fact, the place not to notice–a hiding place for those who deliberately sought to run away from society, or to establish themselves as outside society. It was the place where one went to go nowhere. The gas station was where one hid in the open. In the film noire movie “Out of the Past,” Robert Mitchum tried to obliterate his former identity by hiding beside a pump.
ROBERT MITCHUM: (scene from movie) Hello, Joe. Wish it was nicer to see you.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Who would notice another grease monkey in a gas station? That was the basis of the symbol. America, relentlessly on the move, pulls up, fills up, and drives away. And left behind is the anonymous character in the anonymous place. In a gas station, a character could do the impossible, lose himself in America. Obscurity, inviability, anti-individualism too–just another jockey at the pump, a replaceable part. In Steve Martin’s hilarious early movie “The Jerk,” the jerk is deliriously happy to land his first job in a gas station because he sees it as the place to make his mark. He aims to please. He strives to be noticed in a gas station. That’s the joke. Obscurity, invisibility, anti-individualism, and a sense of darkness and dread as well.
ACTOR: It was on a side road outside of Los Angeles. I was hitchhiking from San Francisco down to San Diego, I guess.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: The gas station was often depicted as sinister, full of strange shadows. And it was explicitly sexual. It was a gas station that the old man ran in the “Postman Always Rings Twice.” In James M. Cane’s story and the movie made of it, the old man and his beautiful wife were going nowhere. The wife’s young lover was going nowhere. The murder that was supposed to take the pair of illicit lovers somewhere got them nowhere. All that the two of them could do was to service each other in the service station, their filling station, among the hoses, the nozzles, and tanks. At the end of the story, after all that sweating, nobody moved.
That was the multi-layered icon a gas station used to be. Artists could not take their eyes off it because everyone else did. Ed Roushay made photographs of gas stations; so did Walker Evans again and again. Stewart Davis made paintings, so did Conrad Kramer. Edward Hopper was captivated. He had to stop and stare. Hopper’s painting, “Gas,” done in 1940, showed the round tops of three pumps lit like signal lamps against dark, ominous trees behind them. Three luminous spirits of America, like a trinity of human heads lit from the inside.
The surreal red Mobile Oil horse–the gas station as the pump of the Industrial Revolution–it resists the trees, resists the falling night–and the blond man in attendance, almost hidden in the hiding place that propels the country forward. Now we notice gas stations more because we have to work there ourselves. But it makes them less interesting. We have to serve the self. We have to concentrate on the task at hand which takes away the essential nature of the place as the hidden symbol behind the civilization that must never run out of gas. Years ago, the gas station was the indispensable institution we never saw. We acknowledged the symbol but ignored the place. Now we see it, now we don’t.
I’m Roger Rosenblatt.