Gas Stations at Night
This one's dedicated to all those lonely late-night filling station clerks...
1. There’s a big, slow curve as you come into Bishop, California from the north on U.S. 395. You pass through a few speed traps by the time you get here. When you hit this curve, you’re on the main drag and you should be doing no more than 30 miles an hour. People seem to obey that speed here, so I assume the police enforcement is ruthless. This Shell station is the first gas station on the north side of town.
There’s also a Giggling Springs market that sells gasoline AND has free wifi you can use, but that’s in the middle of town and it’s got a tiny parking lot, so it’s more of a hassle.
This is not the friendliest Shell station, but it’s easy and it has clean restrooms. You can avoid human contact at this gas station. I’m dedicating this first photo to all the lonely late night filling stations, which is what this column is all about. This photo is from a trip that took place during the longest days of the year, in late June.
2. I was trying to not be my usual, drive-all-day self on this trip out of respect to my dog and my girlfriend at the time. Still, we were heading home and knew we would have to do some long-haul days. This was one of them. You can look at those long-haul days as a burden or as an opportunity, a way to get the free hallucinations you can get with a bad fever. Weird stuff can appear out of the blur. As long as you take a lot of breaks and drink coffee and monitor your eyelids, it’s okay to drive for a long time.
We got up at dawn, possibly in Texas, and drove that whole, long hot summer day. By the time we got to Montgomery, it was dark, we were tired, and we just wanted to find a decent motel for the night. That turned out to be more difficult than I had thought.
It was too warm to sleep in the van, so we tried a few of the exits on the interstate through town. I won’t go into the sordid details of what we saw in some of those places, but there were nasty motels and bodies for sale on the off-ramps. I took this photo and the following one on our long search for a decent motel room that night.
3. Architecture and technology aside, it could be any late night gas station in almost any decade. The twin beacons of hope and alienation both glow into the night. It just happens to be Alabama in the year 2013.
You pull into one of these places for a moment and pause in the middle of a long drive. You’re there for gas, for a bathroom, for a coke, to stretch your legs. Sometimes you just need to clean the bugs off your windshield. Then you move on. When you work in a place like this, though, it’s different.
People pop 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 worked in my share of counter jobs at late-night joints. That was before the internet or smart phones, so I would just listen to the radio and wait for the next customer to come in while the clock hands slowly turned.
I would retreat into a mental shell on the overnight shift, a robot with the customers, not due to fatigue, but to protect my psyche. You can only be so nice and so real to so many strangers during any given night.
4. Austin is a small town on Highway 50. It feels remote, even though you can get cell signals out there now. I have a survivalist mindset and like to top off on gas every chance I get. I always feel better when I have a full tank of gas. This could go back to my childhood, but it doesn’t really matter why.
Austin is remote enough that, even if I have half a tank left and I know that Fallon is two hours west and Eureka is an hour to the east, I still breathe a sigh of relief and stop for gas every time I arrive in this town at the center of the Great Basin Desert.
The station I use is almost always THIS station, on the western edge of town, at the top of a curvy hill where they shot a scene for the first version of the film “Vanishing Point” in 1971. That film blew my mind when I first saw it, as an adolescent, on the “Late Late Show” on some New York TV station in the 1970s. I always stay at the Pony Canyon Motel, next door.
There’s a diner in town, but I usually pull in late and leave early, so food doesn’t come into play. If I’m hungry, I’ll eat some food from this station. There’s another station in town, but I’m loyal to this one.
5. It was late and I was tired, but excited to be in a place named “Hondo.” The name, alone, was a sure sign that I had finally crossed the invisible line on the map and in the psyche that divides east from west in this country. I had just driven eight hundred miles and checked into a motel called the “Whitetail Lodge,” a spartan place, but clean, next to this Exxon Station. I took a short walk to shake out my knees when I saw the big puddle and decided to take a few photos.
I don’t remember using a tripod, but I probably did. I don’t remember if I bought gas or anything else there. I was exhausted after driving hard for three straight days. I don’t remember the room, my dinner, what I did that evening, or much of anything else about my night in Hondo.
I do remember waking up and getting some breakfast at a local Mexican restaurant before moving on. I have passed through Hondo many times since then and my appreciation for this train stop of a town has grown each time. I’m going to stop and get gas the next time I go through Hondo, whether I need it or not. I like to top off my tank.
6. This gas station under the Gowanus Expressway is as lonely as any Gulf station on an interstate exit in the Great Plains or out West, maybe more so. It’s hard to go by a gas station at night on the plains or in the desert without giving it a passing thought. This place is easy to overlook.
It is almost invisible unless you need gas. That’s true with a lot of big city gas stations. The air pump never works, the store is locked at night due to crime and, when you do go in, it’s a depressing place, even by mini mart standards. It feels like nobody cares.
Gasoline is a penny business. If you’re the station owner, you get your cut and then trim your expenses. If you can survive and pay the bills by selling gas, why improve the mini mart?
You’re not going to compete for the food business, like some gas stations in this country. I always buy my gas and move on to wherever I’m going, whether it’s Staten Island, Brooklyn, or back through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to Manhattan.
7. The Blue Whale Market, deep in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Two pumps on each side. That’s it. If you walk what seems like a hundred yards in either direction, you’re in the ocean. It’s an injustice to call the Blue Whale a “mini mart.” The market inside is pretty comprehensive, as it serves the 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 off 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 come here for all kinds of food and beach paraphernalia. It reminds me of the general store in Halcott Center, New York, where I went as a kid. I like the Blue Whale for the quiet and the ocean air, gently mixed in with a hint of 87-octane regular.
8. Hilo, Hawaii. There is something special about the current Shell livery, the standard architecture, that changes every 20 years or so - something about the yellow that works well against a purple sky.
I was thinking earlier about how the yellow awnings on delis and bodegas in New York City pull me in. There must be some science or neuroscience to all this. Somebody already must have come up with a unified theory on color and attraction.
Then again, I doubt there was science to it back when Shell came up with their original logo, which has the same basic color scheme as it does today. Some person probably thought, “Make it bright. Try yellow and red.”
Even though Hawaii is tropical and drastically different from the mainland, it has little touches of America, such as mailboxes and UPS trucks. The trade winds and the fragrant local breezes used to seem foreign to me. They no longer do. A Shell station canopy against the Hawaiian sky at night no longer seems alien.
9. This station, tucked between two buildings up in Harlem, on 145th Street, is no different from most of the cookie-cutter Shell stations anywhere else. The main building is older, but Shell’s station rehabilitation team did a good job when they updated the signage and installed the canopy. I like how the canopy just fits in. Like everything else in Manhattan, there’s not a lot of wiggle room. It reminds me of a model railroad, where you place all the buildings in with a set of tongs.
When did big canopies become the norm? Somebody in the twentieth century must have realized that people were more likely to buy gas when they could stay dry. It makes sense. A big canopy is useful in other ways, as well. I once escaped baseball-sized hail under a canopy in Oklahoma.
Maybe the change coincided with the disappearance of attendants, who would pump the gas while you stayed in the car. I believe there are only two states in the country where you’re 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 about or hear the true reasons.
10. I was hanging out for a few days in Saugerties, New York, staying in a cabin on the Esopus Creek with my girlfriend. It was the one chance I ever had to use the life vest I owned for my 13 pound dog, Elko. We would canoe on the Esopus and then just lie around on the couch in the cabin. Or we would go to Woodstock and buy food, then come back and hit the couch. There was little nighttime photography in Saugerties on that trip.
I headed out for gas one night. She went into this Mobil station to buy some snacks while I filled the tank. She came out and said there was an evil vibe in there. I filed that comment away. Then we went back to the cabin and lay around some more on the couch, doing little.
I came back without her the next night to shoot this photo. I went around the back and had to pull a five-point turn in my van. I saw a trailer and maybe 9 guys outside of it in various postures - from standing to sitting to squatting. They stared at me as I pulled the endless maneuver. I stared at them. Nothing else happened. I drove back out front and got my shot, then went home. They felt like an evil bunch.
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Paul Vlachos is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. He was born in New York City, where he currently lives. He is the author of “The Space Age Now,” released in 2020, “Breaking Gravity,” in 2021, and the just-released “Exit Culture.”