It was 40 years ago this week that we were hit with the first Arab Oil Embargo. I was working at a service station at the time, a unique perspective from which to view an event of global and historic proportions.
I already had a bachelor’s degree in English and had spent a year in graduate school before I decided to drop that to pursue some vague and undefined other option.
So, for my post-grad work, I wound up as a gas station attendant in Metairie, an interim job before whatever would pop up next in my life.
Working at a service station during the embargo was both a blessing and a curse.
The blessing was I could fill up my own car without waiting in long lines.
But I had to do so surreptitiously, because as soon as anyone saw a car at a gas pump and someone in a service station uniform pumping gas into it — well, you can imagine what happened after that.
And no, I didn’t get a discount, unless you consider it a discount to be able to fill up your car before you raised the prices that day.
The other blessing was, though we may have had an intense few hours when the pumps were open and drivers lined up, the rest of the day was low-key.
No longer was there the distraction of the bell ringing throughout the day to let us know someone had pulled up to the pumps.
The pumps were blocked, and there were signs telling people not to bother, in so many words, except for that short, intense period when we opened the pumps again.
This was back in the days when service station attendants still pumped gas for you, cleaned your windshield and checked your oil and tires.
But those niceties went out the window when impatient drivers were lined up down the block waiting for gasoline.
All we had to do then was pump the gas, collect the money and get the driver out on the road again.
The downside, of course, was the anger of the customers, directed at us, the front-line employees who had to be the enforcers of when people could get gas and sometimes how much they could get.
One day, a strange vehicle pulled into our service bay, either to get a lube or a tire repair. It definitely didn’t need gas or oil; it was a car that some guy had created in his garage, all-electric, powered only by a battery.
I thought I was getting a glimpse of the future of automobiles, not realizing that future would still be elusive 40 years later.
So much of what the embargo brought is still with us.
We’ve got mileage standards on vehicles as a result of that time, fuel-cost adjustments in our electric bills so that the big utility companies don’t lose money if gas or oil gets too expensive.
Meanwhile, we’re still trying to thread the needle in the Middle East, looking for a path that lets us continue to support Israel without also angering oil-producing powers such as Saudi Arabia.
In the process, though, we’ve lost too many American lives, from Lebanon in the 1980s to Iraq and Afghanistan in this century.
As I pumped gas and dealt with angry customers at that service station in the suburbs back then, I couldn’t have conceived we were on the cusp of a major change in all of our lives.
Dennis Persica writes about life in New Orleans each Thursday. His email address is email@example.com