Gas Stations And Whalesongs

A couple days ago, I mentioned an essay of my old high school friend Charlie Burleigh. That got me to thinking and I dug around in my old files and I found the essay in question. I want to share it because I think it is one of the best essays I’ve ever read. He doesn’t know this, but in large part it inspired me to be an essayist.

Charlie and I were eighteen when he wrote this, back in 1983. It was intended to be a college entrance essay. The copy I have is from a student literary publication called “The Dubious Muse” that my school published occasionally.

The piece calls up E.B. White in some of his more reflective moods.

I have looked for but cannot reconnect with Charlie. If you find this, Charlie, I would love to get in touch.

Anyway, here is the essay:


The following item appeared in the New York Times Business Section on March 6. 1983:

“Gasoline stations have become something of an endangered species. Many were forced out of business as prices soared and gasoline supplies dried up. But lower prices and a glut of crude oil will not bring them back. Instead, their number is likely to shrink still further. Industry estimates place the current number of service stations at about 130,000 down from about 170.000 in the early 1970’s. Experts say the decline will probably not halt until there are fewer than 90,000. Among other reasons for the continuing shrinkage: new cars have lower repair and maintenance needs, and their gas mileage is far better than yesterday’s clunkers.”

Sitting in Birmingham Colonial Standard on a Saturday morning, it is hard to get the feeling that one is dealing with an endangered species. Looking at the Felix the Cat clock, the steaming coffee pot, the chairs, the dirty fake hammerhead shark on the wall, and the people standing around in conversation, one can feel very at home and not at all threatened by the outside world. One senses that the business here is more than gas sales and work orders.

This feeling is reinforced by the type of problems the regulars bring in. “You wanna check the drivers side front tire’s valve core. I think it lost a couple pounds this week.” “Do you think it’s time for an oil change and a lube?” “I wonder if my timing’s off and I need some door grease.” These regulars, men, executives and chemical engineers, appear nearly every Saturday morning to buy time along with their door grease. As one confessed, “I wish he wouldn’t work so fast. This is the only time all day I can get away from my wife and have a cigarette. She thinks I quit – hell – it’s time for spring cleaning.”

As a place for escape the gas station is nearly perfect. It provides its own excuses and its own rules. The car can always need to be filled up or fixed. “It’s not safe to let this kind of thing go on without attention.” There is also no doubt about who you are at the station. The customer is always right and the mechanic always knows best. As long as no one infringes on these simple rules (e.g. as when the customer watches the mechanic too closely) there is no reason for dispute.

Escape by Saturday morning errand could also be found at a shopping mall, except for one thing, conversation. The verbal give and take is what changes the gas station from merely a place to get away from the job and the wife to a place that feels truly comfortably.

This talk, which may begin with the weather, progresses to nearly anything. Discussion can be about the hangover or world events, about who got any last night or the new model cars, about recent sports or how slow business is going. The range of topics is as open as the range of common experiences.

While this communication lacks predictable subject matter or direction, it would be too hasty to say that it has no purpose. A study in the 1970’s by a group of marine biologists and linguists seems to provide the purpose. The object of the study was to look at humpback whale songs, separate out the elements used in sonar and see if in the clicks, cries and rumbles that were left there were any repeated linguistic elements. What they found was that while one song could be identified with one whale at a given time, every song was subject to change when the whales communicated. They found further that there was no predictable subject matter or direction and no one song had any special significance. Indeed the scientists concluded that these complex signals were only sent to convey one message during the vast undersea migrations of the whales:


The effect of this simple communication is to overcome isolation, to encourage the traveler. And even if all the general stores are now shopping malls and all the gas stations become self service, we will still need stations for this service.

By Charles Burleigh

A belated thanks, Charlie, for a great piece.

Published by

Brad Rourke

Executive editor of issue guides and program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

3 thoughts on “Gas Stations And Whalesongs”

  1. I agree; truly a great essay. It also makes me wonder about the relative number of gas stations. The kind of part gas/part repair shop place that he describes is definitely rare now, (I only remember seeing them while driving through small towns) but there are places that sell gas everywhere. And they are always combined with places to buy junk food and beer. I doubt there are many good conversations there.

  2. Yes, I think the species turned out to be endangered after all, at least around big cities. Now that I live out west, I stumble onto places like this all the time, like the one in a small Wyoming town I drove through around Thanksgiving, where all five pickups in the lot had their engines running (diesel + cold temp, etc.), and five guys leaned on a counter near the coffee machine, apparently in no hurry to go anywhere.

    Anyway, as a wannabe essayist myself, I also really admire this one. Simple in form, ambitious in the connections it makes, evocative yet informative. A mind on the page, just what good writing should be. I wonder if this guy is a writer today?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s