Sunday, September 2, 2018

Gas pump strikes fear in heart of modern man

      Technology actually hasn't been changing as fast as it used to. Cell phones are more than 30 years old. Personal computers too. The Internet has been a public commons for more than 20 years. Changes now seem slower, more incremental. 
    It's hard to recapture the anxiety that all this stuff originally created. I was searching for something else, and happened upon this column from 1997.
     As a guy who used to watch the attendant at the Clark Station check the oil and hand sticks of gum into the back seat to us kids, notice my terrified approach toward a gas pump credit card reader, and my wonder at the cleverness of "swiping." To be honest, at 58, I feel far less angst about shifting technology than this young man of 36 apparently felt. So that's good.

    I used to worry that if I beeped the car horn too hard, the air bag would explode in my face.  
     Thus I always tried to gently press the horn, and not hit it sharply, so as not to antagonize the thing and get it mad at me.
     The concern was that the air bag would deploy, scare the bejeezus out of me, drench me in talcum powder and maybe even cause an accident.
     The bags use talcum powder for lubrication, I heard once.
     I have since learned more about the bags. So now I worry that I'll beep the horn too hard and the air bag will deploy and kill me.
     That's progress.
     Some days life seems like a grim plodding from one vague technological dread to another, wrapped in a patchwork of half-knowledge and doubt woven out of the dubious information washing over us daily.
     Is the nightstand clock throwing off a low-level, cancer-causing electric field, or did that turn out to be a myth? Will the whiff of fumes when I remove the dry cleaning bags from my clothing aggregate over the years and bring hideous death? Is coffee good or bad this week?
     Modernity has always been daunting and scary. A hundred years ago, James Thurber's aunts also worried about electricity leaking out of empty light sockets. His uncles treated those newfangled automobiles like a particularly stupid brand of horse. The toaster was a menace.
     Thurber himself was forever struggling, with automobile tires and telephones and all the trappings of the brave new world of the 1930s.
     How would poor, half-blind Thurber make it today?
     Not too well, I'm afraid.
     We've moved away from balky manufactured objects—stubborn umbrellas, blenders that don't—into an incomprehensible digital world.
     Last Wednesday night was a perfect example. I was dog-tired, dragging home about 8:30 p.m. The "EMPTY" light had been burning on the dashboard for two days. Time to fill up the tank.
     I stopped at a gas station on La Salle Street. Just another pasty-faced guy after work, his tie knot slipped down to his sternum.
     A gaunt bum with a squeegee shambled over. I was about to wave him away automatically when I realized the windows were, indeed, dirty.
     "Go ahead," I said.
     Normally I go in and pay—clinging to the transaction, a vestige of all the jogging Texaco men from lost days. But I was short on cash, so submitted to the seduction of the credit card slot in the pump.
     Whoops, backward. Finally got it right. Don't use these much.
     I began pumping gas, keeping a close watch on the squeegee guy. Sometimes those squeegees have a sharp edge, and can scratch your car.
     The tank was filled. The windows cleaned. I checked to see that the gas cap was on. Checked the pump to see if it still had my credit card—no, it was one of those swipe things. Clever design, I thought as I returned the pump nozzle. No chance of leaving your card behind.
     I gave the squeegee guy two bucks—tried to make a little small talk, to be a human. He said he was using the money to take a bus to a shelter. I mentioned that I've eaten at the Pacific Garden Mission, and the food was hearty. He said the food there aggravated his ulcer.
     I pulled out of the gas station. Whoops, lights off. Hadn't checked those. Turned the lights on. Maybe a minute later I was driving up La Salle Street, when a thought struck me: I hadn't ended the gas transaction, hadn't gotten a receipt, hadn't pressed a "STOP" button. The squeegee guy must have rattled me.
     I tried to push the thought away and continue home. Those pumps have got to have some sort of mechanism that resets themselves, either after you return the nozzle or after a brief idle span. They can't just sit primed with your credit information, waiting to dispense more gas to anybody who happens by.
     Can they?
     The image formed immediately. A long line of cars, snaking down La Salle Street, forming in front of the Free Pump—already an urban legend. Some feckless victim put his credit card in and didn't get a receipt. The next guy just picked up the hose. Word spread. By morning I would be a "bright," an amusing little story used to fill out columns in every paper in America:

"CHICAGO -- Bar patrons occasionally buy a round for the house. But gas station customer Neil Steinberg accidentally bought a round of gas for some 200 grinning customers -- at a cost to himself of nearly $ 4,000 -- at an Amoco station here after inserting his credit card into a pump. 'He's an idiot, and we're going to make him pay his bill,' said Visa spokesperson . . ."
     Sighing, I turned the car around and returned to the station. There was already somebody at the pump —a young guy on a motorcycle. I pulled over to him and rolled down my window. What to ask? "Hey guy, are you paying for that gas or stealing it from me?" That wouldn't do. I was at a loss. He seemed to be pushing buttons. A good sign.
     Wordlessly, I pulled out of the station—again—and headed home, resigned, weary, at the mercy of giant forces I could barely understand, never mind conquer.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times April 6, 1997


  1. I'd be more scared of the card getting hacked, as gas pumps are the preferred way credit card thieves do it.
    Most times they manage to get inside the pump housing & put a card reader in the wiring, but I read a couple of weeks ago, now there are wireless units for that!
    My family goes to Costco & gets cash cards inside the store & then pays with that at the gas pumps. You don't even need to be a Costco member if you have a member buy the cash cards for you.

    1. Clark St.: So you're opposed to card hackers, yet OK with using the discounted gas prices provided to those of us who pay an annual Costco membership for such privelilge..? Just checking.

    2. That's the most bizarre crap of whataboutism I've ever read!

      And if you read my comment, you can just give $100 [or anyamount above that] to anyone you know with a Costco Card & they will get you a cash card that anyone can use to buy gas at Costco. You can also use that card to shop at Costco without being a member. Many people give them as gifts. The same for Sam's Club.

  2. Hardly the point of the article, I realize, but I never knew before about James Thurber's vision problems. "[P]laying a game of William Tell" at the age of seven, according to Wikipedia. Ouch. Interesting how he drew his cartoons later in life.

    I appreciate how your columns can send me off on a sideways quest.

    1. Coey--Thurber wrote a charming little essay, "The Admiral on the Wheel," about what it was like to have to go without his glasses for a few days after the maid broke them. Here's a link, although I'm not sure if there's a paywall:

    2. Thanks for that! There was, in fact, a paywall, but I was able to find a bootleg PDF.

  3. Your fear of technology has blinded your sense of economics. Living in the suburbs, why would you ever gas up in the city and pay the extra tax. I know it's small potatoes in the long run, but since I go to Lake county regularly, why wouldn't I buy my gas there? Also, beeping your horn will not set off the airbag, but using it to get the attention of the attendant checking your oil will set him off.

  4. "A round of gas for some 200 grinning customers -- at a cost to himself of nearly $ 4,000" -- that works out to maybe twenty bucks a customer. That would be $1.33 a gallon if they each filled up, but some probably already had quite a bit in the tank, so it had to be more. Wasn't a gallon of gas already over two bucks by the late Nineties? Four grand might be getting off easy.

  5. In the late-19th and early-20th century, as electricity became the norm, people were afraid to use electric lights on Christmas trees for fear of fire. Of course, these were the same people who put lighted candles on their trees. Go figure.

    I wouldn't use ATMs for cash withdrawals at the beginning because I heard of people who didn't get their cash, got too little or too much. I had to be dragged into the 1980s technology. I just lost my ATM card and am waiting for the replacement. Oh crap, I may actually have to walk into the bank to make a manual withdrawal and I'm not sure I remember how to do that.

  6. One of life's imponderables is the frequent impossibility of explaining just why a Thurber cartoon is funny. Blindness evidently didn't hamper his technique too much. Famous story about a cartoonist rejected by Harold Ross who companied that he still printed a second rate artist like Thurber. Ross' reply: "Third rate."


  7. Good recycle from 1997. I smiled reading this. Technology has continued to grow especially in areas like the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence. These advancements have made our lives easier-if you want to use them. I started my first engineering job with my slide rule and a drafting table and there’s been a lot of productivity advances since then. Now that I’m retired, I don’t follow the advances very closely, but I’m impressed by how efficient we can be in areas such as energy usage and communication. I still use a drafting table to design my woodworking projects and stay away from Facebook and Twitter.

  8. I have toured industrial sites and know first-hand how huge and heavy those coils of sheet steel really are. As a youngster, my eye was always drawn to what my mother called the "squibs" in the Daily News...those tiny two-sentence "blurbs" about far-away disasters: "32 Die in Leftbackistan Bus Plunge." I definitely remember one a couple of graphs long, headlined "Coils Of Steel Kill 8 In Cars" happened near the Ohio-PA border. Probably early or mid-Sixties. Seeing those behemoths on long-haul trucks has always bothered me ever since.

    Yes, technology is grand...trucks can go to all the places the railroads can't or won't or don't. But shit still happens. Should those coils ever break loose while in transit, disaster will follow.


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