Dec 23, 2008

Christmas Eve at Louie's...

When I was growing up in Schenectady, I worked part time pumping gas.  I worked for Louie Brzoza, who owned a Sunoco service station at 844 Union Street.  It was an odd little place for several reasons.

When curbside gas pumps were outlawed sometime back in the dark ages, the state legislature had "grandfathered in" those gas stations that had existing curbside gas pumps.  So we still had two pumps -- one for regular, one for "high-test" -- right on the curb.  People would simply pull over from traffic and buy a tank of gas.

Another odd feature was that Louie and his wife Jennie and son Jonathan lived in a house on the property.  Their driveway was the route back to the service shop and storage garage that were situated behind the house.  Their front porch had an odd little glassed-in booth at the right end that was where the cash register was located along with a little counter and a telephone and a stool on which we sat when we weren't pumping gas.

I believe my brother Bill and I were paid the handsome rate of 35 cents per hour.  But part of our compensation was the opportunity to learn about cars and engines from Louie, who had been an army mechanic during World War II.  I was probably around 8 years old when I helped rebuild my first Model A Ford engine.  Bill and I both learned a great deal in the little shop that sat at the end of Louie's driveway.

One of my fondest memories of the station is the annual Christmas Eve visit by the subpoena server.  I don't recall his name, but one of our regular customers was the man who served subpoenas for the local courts.  Every Christmas Eve, a ritual took place.  We would knock off work around 3:00 PM.  A group of friends -- Louie, a few customers, my brother and I -- would pull up chairs around the big cast iron stove in the shop.  Somebody would tell a story about their favorite Christmas, another story would follow.  Jen would bring some hot fudge or cookies and hot cocoa out from the house.  And then the subpoena server would show up.

He inevitably had a paper bag that contained a bottle of Jack Daniels that he would share with Louie and any other adults in the gathering.  But our hero was kind of a melancholy drunk with a great burden on his heart, so before long the tears would start flowing.  "I just can't do it," he'd declare.  "How can anybody serve a subpoena on Christmas Eve?"  Every year his lament was the same. And every year Louie would console him.  The subpoenas never got served.  And some poor family in Schenectady was granted a temporary stay of execution.  And the ritual was repeated every year that I worked in that gas station. The Spirit of Christmas even permeated the legal system in those days.

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