by Larry Floersch
Since the time it was invented, some folks have complained about how television is ruining human civilization. It was over 50 years ago that Newton Minow called TV a “vast wasteland.” OF COURSE it looked like a vast wasteland to Minow! He was a fish. And he was probably angry because “Sea Hunt” with Lloyd Bridges had been cancelled.
Look how far TV has come over the decades. I now have over two hundred channels on my TV and some evenings I get to flip through every one of them looking for something to watch. And TV has gone beyond the living room. It’s in sports bars and restaurants, where perfectly positioned TV screens can help you avoid those awkward interactions with your friends or spouse. I can even watch TV at the gas pump. Yep, that’s right, the gas pump. That immense void of waiting for the gas pump can only be filled with culture by a truly great civilization.
I’m sure some of you remember the bad old days. You would pull up to a gas pump at a “service station,” and an actual young human guy in a uniform sporting the logo of the brand of gasoline offered by the station would come to your car window and ask you what you needed. He might even have his name embroidered over the pocket on his uniform, something like “Sluggo.” And because Sluggo had been back in the garage in the middle of replacing the stock intake manifold in his ’55 Chevy with an Edelbrock performance manifold and had to drop everything except the large and lethal-looking wrench he had in his greased stained fist and was not in a good mood, the correct reply to his question was “Fill ‘er up!” And if you were really feeling flush and wanted to impress Sluggo and show him that you too were into cars, you might add the command, “Ethyl!” Since we are talking about TV, this “Ethyl” should not be mistaken for Ethel Mertz, the Ricardos’ neighbor on “I Love Lucy.” The ethyl here is short for “tetraethyl lead,” which was an additive that boosted the octane of gasoline to give your car more power. No guy who was really into cars would use regular gas. Only ethyl would do. And if you were lucky and it was the right day of the week, you might be rewarded for filling your tank with a free “Davy Crockett” glass for your kids so they could collect and trade them with their friends and occasionally drop them and end up sobbing in the middle of the kitchen. It was therefore critical, before making your choice about which gas to buy, to look for service stations with a lot of flags and balloons flying over them and maybe even surplus World War II carbon-arc searchlights blazing away into the night sky. Otherwise you might not get your glass and end up with a back seat full of whining kids. And when you were done, you would give the actual young human guy actual real money, which, back then, might amount to a total of something like $5.25 for a tank of gas, but you’d better have that cash in your pocket because there were no ATMs.
Television has fortunately removed all this dramatic human interaction at the gas pump. A few weeks ago I stopped at a local minimart to fill up. There was no actual real human attendant. That was probably because there was no garage in which to replace intake manifolds. After I inserted my debit card into the slot on the pump and, following the instructions on the pump, contorted my body like Quasimodo seeking sanctuary to hide the entry of my PIN, I inserted the gas nozzle into my car and squeezed the handle. The pump suddenly began talking to me. And a video screen in the middle of the pump began displaying images. This was, I was informed by a perky woman’s voice from the pump, “Gas Station TV,” and it encouraged me to “Enjoy a new and exciting experience every time you pump!” Gas Station TV then began a news program that gave me ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL information, not about depressing things like North Korean missile tests or the nation’s unemployment rate, which obviously was not looking good for actual young human guys in uniforms sporting the logo of the brand of gasoline I was purchasing, but about the love lives of some young starlets in Hollywood whose names were not familiar to me. This news was interspersed, during the three minutes it took to fill my car, with advertisements for Mountain Dew, Starbucks coffee products and Red Bull energy drinks, all of which were readily available inside the minimart. My only complaint was that just as I was about to learn what Ms. Looks-Absolutely-Stunning-in-a-Tiny-Bikini and her handsome and tanned boyfriend named Speedo did while skinny-dipping at the beach on the island of Bora-Bora, the pump kicked off . . . and so did Gas Station TV. And I got all this news, entertainment — and, sadly, frustration — for a mere $43.70.
On a more recent occasion, Gas Station TV, after the obligatory “Enjoy a new and exciting experience every time you pump!” thrilled me with another essential story. This one was about the cancellation of Justin Bieber’s tour of China. The video showed Bieber cavorting about just being his amusing and lovable Bieber self. This was interspersed with shots of adoring fans and, of course, ads for Mountain Dew, Starbucks coffee and Red Bull Energy drinks. I waited for more new and exciting experiences, but the pump kicked off before they came on.
So don’t tell me civilization is going down the tubes because of TV. I’m enjoying a new and exciting experience every time I pump. Still, I must admit, I kind of miss those Davy Crockett glasses.