The Shell service station and a thoughtless comment | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

The Shell service station and a thoughtless comment 

It was the summer of 1956, and I was already driving my 1954 Ford, but playing occasional band gigs on Saturday nights was my only source of income. My dad mentioned that Abe Borkin was looking for a part time employee for the summer at his Shell service station at 49th and Center streets. 

I drove down there the next day and met Abe. He was a friendly guy who looked like he needed a shave and told me the job involved pumping gas, helping with car washes, assisting with tune-ups, grease and oil changes, and repairing flat tires. I would learn so much from him and his full-time employee, AV Williams. Abe paid a dollar an hour and was interested in a young person willing to learn and be completely honest and trustworthy. Sounds like me! I was very interested not only because it paid well for the time but gave me a chance to learn much more about cars and how to maintain mine. I asked if he needed references; he shook my hand and told me my dad was the best reference there was. 

I showed up on day one and was given an orange set of coveralls with the name of the station on the back. He added that he would have another for me in a few days and we went to the two sets of gas pumps in the front of the station. Each set had a regular as well as an ethyl (high test) pump. There was a small hand crank on the side of each pump that adjusted the gallons used and the cost. He began to tell me where the gas fillers were on cars, most of them on the left or right side of the rear fenders, some behind the rear license plate and the Cadillacs had it behind the left rear taillight. Abe went out to the customers with me a few times, introduced me as “Sonny” and showed me how to quickly pop the hood, check the oil and radiator fluids, check the tires and finally clean the front windows, all while the gas was being pumped. There was no automatic shut off and he taught me to listen as the gas was pumped for the sound of a fully filled gas tank. As he watched me work, he offered advice and suggestions to go faster and more thoroughly, in that most customers expected this full service regardless of how much gas was pumped. Yes, I was nervous at first, but Abe was a great teacher and answered questions as I worked. Before closing the hood, he had me take a look at the engine and how to distinguish regular dust, dirt and surface oil from serious oil leaks. So much to learn and AV usually followed up while working in the two bays with hoists. AV taught me how to drive a car onto the hoists and the rules for elevating cars for grease and oil. So much to learn … 

We were not to service cars until 8 a.m. and not after 9 p.m., even if customers asked us to. Abe insisted I be respectful and attentive to all customers, “even if they are disrespectful to you.” He said, “You just don’t know what tsuris folks carry around with them.” I tried to understand what he said. 

Abe insisted that if we were threatened in any way in a robbery attempt, to open the register and give them whatever they wanted. He said he hadn’t ever been robbed but the chance was always there, especially when we were the only business in that area of Center Street open till 9 p.m. “No one can be replaced, and I have insurance to cover a robbery, so no hero stuff. Understand?” 

The summer went by quickly and I so enjoyed the work and camaraderie at the station. Abe and AV had a great relationship and played off each other in fun and mischievous ways. They often spoke Yiddish. AV said that he had been with Abe for many years and picked up Yiddish easily and enjoyed speaking it, although it always had lots of English mixed in with it. 

I remember a warm Saturday morning when the front office door was propped open, and I could hear Abe and AV talking back and forth in their form of Yiddish. A car pulled in and the driver asked me to fill it up. I had just opened his gas cap when he said to me “Listen to that. A shv***za speaking Yiddish.” I saw red. I wasn’t just angry at him, I was sad that AV might have heard this and his feelings would be hurt, and scared that Abe would fire me for what I was planning on saying. Yes, I was worried that Abe would be unhappy that I confronted the customer. Nevertheless, me being me, I went to his open driver’s side window and told him never to insult AV again.  

“I didn’t mean anything by it.”  

“Then why did you say it?”  

He said he was sorry and wouldn’t do it again.  

“OK, let it be.” 

The customer then reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out two single dollars and gave them to me. I told him that was unnecessary, but he insisted. “I will take these and put them in the pushka on Abe’s desk” and he said fine. I filled his tank and he told me to put it on his credit and drove away. I walked back into the office with my knees shaking. AV followed me to the bay area and told me that he took it in stride because he no longer had a need to feel bad about such words. Later, Abe said I did the right thing because AV did not deserve to be disrespected. I knew Abe insisted I be respectful to customers, but this was so wrong and uncalled for. Besides, Abe had focused on possible insults to me, but not insults to important others such as AV. “Sometimes, good people are hurt by unkind words and deeds,” Abe said quietly. 

I listened and tried to understand. Being young and inexperienced in the world, I wondered why a person, any person, would be hurtful to another person, any person, regardless of who they were. After these many years, I still wonder. 

When it was time to leave it was a mutual decision — the band business was really picking up, Abe had a nephew he wanted to bring into the station, and the end of summer was fast approaching. Abe brought a chocolate cake from the Chicago Bakery down the street and the three of us kind of stuffed ourselves and our mouths were covered with excess chocolate. These two guys were just terrific to be with. I told them that not only had I learned so much about cars and some things about the service business, but I was so impressed with how important relationships really were. They said that they hoped I would remember them. 

Some years later I heard the bad news: Abe had sold the Shell station and he and AV bought another station closer to downtown. One night there was an attempted robbery and Abe had been shot and died from his wounds. Abe had run the station by himself that night when two men tried to rob him, and he was killed. I was stunned and shocked. Abe was 66 at the time of his death. 

While I actually worked with these two guys for just a summer, they influenced me in so many ways. I have never forgotten them and now you know them too. 

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Yiddish words 

Tsuris: Trouble, distress  

Pushka: A small box, bottle, or tin can be placed on a counter or shelf and a little spare change gets dropped in there. When it’s full, it goes to a good cause. Also called a tzedakah box.  

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Click here to read One more Shell story, on race in America.