Sunday, May 18, 2008

Everybody’s Dancin’ Those Late John Garfield Blues (¡Leo Gorcey Es Tu Papá!)

Some genius has gone and done it: combined Americans’ two insatiable addictions---watching TV and filling their gas tanks---into one unholy consumer experience. We’re sure this isn’t a brand new phenomenon, but we first encountered it late Friday afternoon at the Hugo Chavez Fill-Er-Up around the corner from our house. We wondered why everyone was staring up toward the tops of the pumps---perhaps gas had already hit $4 a gallon and we missed it, or maybe the face of Jesus had been rendered visible behind the glass---then noticed that each and every gasoline dispenser was newly crowned by a small, two-sided flat-screen TV! We caught the eye of the Hispanic wrecker driver at the next pump, who was chuckling and shaking his head: “Man, they’re making so much money now they got their own TVs!” he observed. “Yeah,” said we, “maybe they got cable, and we can just walk over here at night and catch HBO.”

Alas, the offerings of “Top Pump” TV (or maybe it’s “Pump Top”), as we noticed it is called, were not as riveting as premium cable. It was very thin sopa, sort of like what you get on an airplane before they show a bad movie or a Mork and Mindy rerun (as we noticed they were actually doing on the last United flight we took). While we kept one eye on the pump ($3.62 per, on the cash card), the other eye was treated to a five-day weather forecast, an ad for a financial services company we found easy to ignore, and a snippet of E!-style “news” reporting not the latest U.S. fatality count from Iraq but that “Drew Barrymore had a hard night when she was rear-ended by a hit-and-run driver in Hollywood.” The fetching young actress was OK, however, and “had the presence of mind” to get the license plate of the other driver (what presence!). “Yeah, we’d like to rear-end Drew Barrymore!” we shouted at the wrecker driver (we are truly beyond embarrassment). The driver only smiled thinly, leaving us to worry that he was perhaps a born-again Christer and thus offended by our misguided attempt at male bonhomie, or that his pump was not tuned to the same “channel” as ours, or that he had taken us literally and was preoccupied with the fantasy of driving recklessly to the scene and hauling off the disabled vehicle of a comely movie star.

In any case, we assume this placement of TVs atop the pump is a simple but likely ineffective way to get the customer’s mind off his or her soaring gas tab. Desperate times call for etc. (yeah, we know gas is cheap as dirt here compared to what they pay elsewhere in the world). Just the other day we heard a story, second-hand and uncorroborated (very), of a chance encounter between two shoppers at the Neighborhood Wal-Mart that ended with one, a middle-aged African-American lady, confiding that she and members of her church congregation were now joining hands around the pump and praying for prices to fall.

After we had filled our tank three-quarters up with $30 on the cash card we went home for some more TV watching, taking in a DVD that included an old John Garfield movie, the Busby Berkeley-directed They Made Me a Criminal, which featured an early appearance by the Dead End Kids/Bowery Boys, so early that “Slip,” the Leo Gorcey* character, was still known as “Spit” and actually spat on people. It is the dream of Spit and his somewhat reformed fellow juvenile delinquents (who are in the process of being redeemed by falsely accused and on-the-run boxing champ Garfield) to open a gas station in the Arizona desert because, according to the Billy Halop** character, “they make good money.” To illustrate---or perhaps debunk---that notion, Garfield and the lads stop at the only nearby station to gas up their jalopy. “Lessee: eight gallons … that’ll be $1.30,” says the grizzled proprietor. By our ’rithmetic that’s about 16 cents a gallon. According to one of those on-line services that calculate the “relative” value of old money (for yuks, we guess) the $1.30 paid by John Garfield in 1939 was worth $19.41 in 2007, at least as measured by the CPI (not always the most reliable measure, according to the learned Web site we consulted, but what the hell). That’s around $2.43 a gallon.

Yeah, we remember $2.43 gas.

*According to the authoritative Wikipedia, “Gorcey was removed from the cover of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album after his agent demanded a payment of $400.” We believe our copy includes Mr. Gorcey’s mug, and we will make it available to you to have and hold for, oh, $400.

**According to Wikipedia, “Diminishing film work, marital difficulties, and a drinking problem eventually ate away at Halop's show business career.” And: “Halop married seven times.”

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