The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Thursday, March 19, 2020
Personal Reflections ... Practical Advice ... Society ...

I believe that there is currently a wide-spread desire amidst younger people to do more in life than fight for their own welfare; they also want to help change the world for the better. And yet, not a whole lot of young or middle-aged people from affluent urban or suburban regions want to take jobs working in low-income, under-priviledged urban neighborhoods and providing human services to people and families in need. But there are some people like that, and in many cases, such people train to become social workers or counselors, or maybe nurses or other medical trades. This morning, while I was at the service station where I have my old Corolla repaired and maintained, it occurred to me that a gas station owner could also be an urban social service provider.

The gas station that I go to is in East Orange, NJ. The owner’s father emigrated from the Middle-East and started the station many years ago, when the neighborhood was largely working class, and when there were many manufacturing plants in the area. Over the past 50 years, during which time the current owner inherited it from his father and kept it in business, the nature of the neighborhood has changed quite a bit. Employment and income levels dropped, crime levels increased, buildings and homes and streetscapes are not cared for very well. There are now gangs and drugs and murders happening quite regularly in the vicinity. And yet the owner keeps on opening the place every morning, providing vehicle repairs and servicing on weekdays, gasoline all week into the late night.

I stop by for an oil change every 6 months (and if something in my car isn’t working right, I will be there during the interim). They usually get the oil change done within an hour, so I bring something to read and just sit in the front office. I usually chat with the owner for a few minutes, then let him get on with running his business. People come in dropping off their cars, and my friend usually gets into detailed discussions with them to determine what their problem is and what their options are. They sometimes mention the bad consequences that a breakdown will have upon their lives. He has similar conversations on the phone, as the morning progresses. I try to listen in on these conversations.

The owner has a nice way with his customers. He knows that for most of these people, their lives depend on their cars, and they don’t have a lot of resources to cover unexpected breakdowns. He knows that they have to get to work or take care of kids or relatives, and that a rattling noise or a coughing engine or a warning light is a major challenge. He knows that these people face enough problems with the neighborhood such as it is and with the system of work, school, medical care, government offices, etc. that shape the course of their lives. He knows that they do not have sympathetic bosses who will give them a break when they are having troubles, they don’t have options if they don’t get their kids to school or daycare, that using Uber for a few days is going to stretch their ability to pay the rent or pay the utility bill. He knows that the local bus service doesn’t always go to the right places and is too often dangerous. He knows that they are depending on him to get things fixed as quickly as possible with as little damage to their wallets as possible.

And he seems to be doing a pretty good job, judging by the fact that his neighborhood customers keep on coming. There are some “carpetbaggers” like me from outside the neighborhood who also use his station (I was referred to him and his station by a co-worker at my job, who has known him for many years). But there aren’t a whole lot of faces like mine coming through that gas station (yes, this is a minority neighborhood, and yes, I am an Eastern European-heritage white guy). I may be a customer, and I get good service from my friend. But in another sense, I am just a visitor. The owner does not live in this neighborhood, but he seems to be very much a part of it, at least 8 hours or so a day.

So . . . for any young person who wants to go into a less affluent part of an American city and help to serve those who have suffered from economic and social deprivation, social work or health services might be a good option. But if you are handy with mechanical things and interested in cars, and if you can raise enough money or get a matching loan to start a small business, then perhaps you might want to emulate what my friend has done. OK, he inherited the station from his father, but he has intentionally resisted the temptation and opportunity to sell the place and open up a new station out in a safer suburban neighborhood.

In order for someone with appropriate talents and resources to emulate my station-owner friend, they probably could not build a new station along a crowded main drag out in “the hood”. But there are various closed stations or service stations with owners looking to get out in these areas. You wouldn’t get rich, but you will become very necessary to the life of the community. You will likewise share in their struggles (the owner admits that every few months he has to deal with a crime incident, and he has been held-up; you will have to develop survival instincts). You can reside in more comfortable circumstance outside the neighborhood, but you will still very much become a part of it.

In closing, I take my hat off to Mister Ike, my gas station guy. I owe him for helping to keep my old car running, and doing so in an extremely fair and honest fashion. That in itself brings an auto repair person to the gates of sainthood. But in extending the same ongoing courtesy to the members of an extremely challenged community, such as East Orange is today . . . well, Mister Ike clearly enters the pantheon of unsung heros!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:20 pm      

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