Tuesday, May 11, 2010


People driving “hybrids” brag about how rarely they have to visit a gas station like an old man bragging about how he doesn’t have to visit the bathroom at night to pee.

“Once a day, and I’m good. Maybe, twice. Okay, three times. But never at night!”

I’ve heard about, I don’t know, some “booster” thing you can install in your “hybrid”, that makes your mileage even better – a hundred, a hundred and fifty miles to the gallon. Soon, people will be driving by gas stations the way bald people drive past barbershops. They remember them, but they don’t need them anymore.

This new bragfest reminded me of a story I once heard on the Jack Paar Show. Paar was The Tonight Show host before Johnny Carson, who was The Tonight Show host before Jay Leno, who was The Tonight Show host before Conan O’Brien, who was The Tonight Show host before Jay Leno. (Jay Leno is the Grover Cleveland of Tonight Show hosts, a presidential succession reference I thought you’d enjoy.)

Along with the ubiquitous celebrities, who came on to flog whatever, and to boost the show’s ratings, Paar also invited, who I assume, were his friends, all of whom were magnificent raconteurs. You probably wouldn’t know their names, but there was Oscar Levant, (who wrote Memoirs Of An Amnesiac), Alexander King (who wrote May Your House Be Safe From Tigers), and Jack Douglas (who wrote My Brother Was An Only Child). All of them were originals, uniquely funny, and maybe a little twisted. Even as a kid, (the show ran in the fifties), I recognized kindred spirits.

I believe it was Douglas who told this story. He lived somewhere outside New York City (where The Tonight Show was then produced) with his Japanese wife, Reiko, who occasionally also appeared on the show, cracking up the audience with her either calculatedly hilarious or “she can’t help herself” fractured English.

This was the story:

When they first became available, a neighbor of his purchased a Volkswagen, the Prius of its day. Not in its technology, but in the fact that the German import got considerably better mileage than the American gas guzzlers which, at the time, enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the car market. There were Merecedes here and there, and the odd Jaguar, but those were for rich people. Regular people drove American cars.

After purchasing his new Volkswagen, the neighbor could not stop bragging about the mileage he was getting – forty miles to the gallon, sometimes, even more. He would claim that he now visited his gas station so infrequently, the gas station attendant had forgotten his name. (If you frequented the same gas station back then, they’d remember your name.) That was his little joke. “The gas station attendant has forgotten my name.” It was not surprising for a geek who bought an unattractive car for its mileage to consider that hilarious.

Finally, his neighbors, fed up with the man’s bragging, decided to take collective action to get him to stop. They would do this by messing with his head.

Taking turns, one of the neighbors would sneak over to his house late each night with a five-gallon can of gasoline, and under the cover of darkness, he would refill the tank of the man’s Volkswagen with gas.

Over time, the Volkswagen owner found his gas mileage miraculously shooting up. He was now getting three hundred miles to the gallon! It was amazing, he ecstatically proclaimed. Instead of visiting the gas station every two weeks, he didn’t need to visit the gas station at all!

Finally, after weeks of surreptitiously filling up his gas tank, the neighbors switched their tactics. They now sneaked over to his house, and siphoned gas out of his tank. Suddenly, the man found himself visiting the gas station every day.

Almost immediately, he stopped talking about his mileage.

The story reflects different times. In those days, foreign cars were seen as an insult to American know-how. Good gas mileage was something you made fun of, rather than something you wanted to get in on. People’s garages were left unlocked.

But most telling, for me I think, was the fact that neighbors back then actually did things together.


Anonymous said...

I remember hearing that story! My dad thought it was hilarious and kept that in his storyteller's cache to repeat many times. He was always in awe of a good scam (uh, practical joke).

Tim Susman said...

I also think it harkens back to a time when gasoline was so cheap that nobody thought twice about just giving someone five gallons a couple times a week (that's $30-40 now!) or taking it away...

Great story, and kudos for the Presidential Succession joke.

Fred said...

I agree with @Tim, pretty impressive you (a Canadian) can make a Grover Cleveland joke. I can't make any Canadian Prime Minister jokes, but I used to wonder (when I was in high school many years ago) if the prime minister was somehow related to the creator of Doonsbury. They aren't, are they?

P.G. said...

Loved that story! It seems to me, however, that rich Americans (and some rich Canadians, too) drove huge Cadillacs. On a visit to The Concord in the 60's with my sister and her in-laws, we drove down in the dad's Caddy and there was more than enough room for all 6 of us and our luggage. The back seat was like sitting on a living room couch. When we arrived, there was a long line of Caddy's, nose to nose, in the driveway, disgorging their passengers. Each one was a different colour and had enormous fins and lots of chrome. Now, those were automobiles!