The more I ponder this contemporary craze for security, the more astonishing seems how my favorite uncle, my father’s older brother Frank, operated his Mobil station, Shurgot’s Service Station, at the corner of Fillmore and Delavan from the late 1950s to the early 1960s. Frank was a burly, cantankerous, Polish-Ukrainian bear of a man who didn’t much care what anyone thought about him or how he conducted his affairs.
Frank’s station was always busy, not only because of its strategic location but also because Frank was a crack mechanic. When Dad and I visited him on Saturdays, the place was crammed with cars and impatient customers, and every week Dad chastised Frank for not implementing a reservation system. To placate his customers Frank offered free coffee. Every hour Dad refilled a greasy coffee pot and then poured into cups last washed in the 1940s a thick, black liquid verging on toxicity.
Frank also had a Coke machine, but eventually he instructed Dad to open the machine and hand out free Cokes. When Dad reminded Frank that he lost money on this arrangement, Frank’s response was always, “Ah, the hell with it!” Pleasing customers mattered, not a few bucks from selling Cokes.
At 484 East Delavan, across from Frank’s station, stood Strinka’s Bar, a classic Buffalo watering hole. I have often wondered, but will never know, whether Frank bought his station because of or in spite of its proximity to Strinka’s. What I do know, however, is that Strinka’s became a convenient annex to Frank’s station. Starting around noon, many of his customers wandered across Delavan to imbibe spirits and watch a ball game while Frank repaired their cars. Then around 5 p.m., his repairs done, Frank, Dad and I headed there ourselves for a beer (or root beer) and a beef sandwich.
But when we headed for Strinka’s, Frank did not close the station. Instead, he put a hand-lettered sign, “Leave Money Inside,” on top of a gas pump and left the station wide open! For an hour or two, regular customers pumped their own gas and left their money on the table next to the cash register. Security? An 85-pound German shepherd named Captain, whom Frank kept at his station day and night. While we sojourned at Strinka’s, Captain roamed inside the station, greeting customers and guarding the till.
Captain was formidable; Frank’s station was never robbed. However, whether everyone who pumped his own gas actually paid for it Frank never knew. He simply trusted that they did.
Certainly no sane person today would operate a business as Frank did; his methods were as bizarre as they were hilarious. But just as certainly, more’s the pity. Ours is a far less trusting, far more paranoid time, and perhaps now and then we ought to reflect on how we might regain even a modicum of Frank’s trusting attitude in our own lives. For within his apparent naiveté may actually lie profound wisdom. Swirling cameras and armed guards will never replace our ability to trust one another.