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Carolyn’s Last Stand

Tuesday, about noon, Carolyn Short, pumped the last gallon of gasoline at the Boonville service station she and her late husband Jeff had begun 37 years ago. Jeff Short had pumped their first gallon the morning of December 2nd, 1961. Thirty-seven years of old-fashioned, wash-the-windshield-check-the-oil-and-tires full-service had been bureau-cratted right out of existence. Jeff’s Chevron was no more. 

For nearly four decades this classic mom-and-pop service station has functioned as a combination life raft, pit stop, emergency repair center, and welcome wagon for thousands of travelers, and not a day in all that time did Jeff and Carolyn fail to have their pumps pumping and their smiles on for four generations of the passing parade.

Jeff passed away six years ago, but Carolyn worked on, her slim, energetic form a part of the local landscape.

“Carolyn’s the first life you see when you come into Boonville from the city end of town,” is the way one local put it the other day. “And she’s just about the last of the old Boonville businesses. Only the Rossis have been downtown longer.”

Every morning, Saturdays and Sundays included, she’s walked maybe fifty yards from her home on Haehl Street to her business, arriving promptly at 6 and staying until it got dark or until somebody was finished needing something. 

“We opened up on December the 2nd, 1961,” Carolyn remembers, as always keeping one eye on the pumps outside the station’s office. “We never dreamed it could come to this.”

A less resilient, less determined person might have misted up at the recollection, might have gone a little muckel-mouthed at her last day at the old stand, but there doesn’t seem to be any self-pity in this lady, no bitter looks back.  

Offhandedly, Carolyn reveals the source of her stamina. “I was raised up workin’ hard; it’s all I’ve ever known. There’ll still be plenty to do around here. Jeff and I both always felt that you’ve got to make your own business.”

They made a good one. Paid off the business and the ground it was on, raised a son, and paid off the house on Haehl Street too.

Ten years ago, a federal law was passed that said the country’s old underground gas tanks had to be stopped from leaking. It was time for America to clean up. In Mendocino County the owners of about a third of some 120 tank sites have spent the thousands of dollars to upgrade. To get into full compliance with the law, a service station must either line or replace its storage tanks, fasten leak monitoring gizmos in the tanks and the gas lines leading to the pumps, protect the tanks and lines from corrosion, and install automatic shutdown devices on the gas pumps.

But if you’re at a time in your life when a lot of your contemporaries are passing by in the Seniors’ bus, you don’t need a fancy cost-to-benefits analysis to tell you $150,000 in upgrades aren’t coming back to you in this world.

“I’d need $20,000 to take my two tanks out,” Carolyn says, fully aware that Anderson Valley’s other two service stations have spent small fortunes satisfying a dozen or so tax-supported agencies to stay in business. In the down home accents of “the old country” — her late husband’s description of the couple’s rural Arkansas origins — Carolyn puts the bureaucratic infestation more succinctly. “All these people getting paid to stand around and look at a pile of dirt.”

The small army of people standing around looking at dirt have put hundreds of independent service stations throughout California out of business. Federal law says the independents have got to replace their underground tanks, or plug their leaks. Or go out of business. The dirt watchers often can’t decide among themselves if a tank is leaking or not. In which case another cadre of dirt watchers is summoned to watch dirt. Watching dirt in rural California pays well and is a lot more fun than watching city dirt.

Carolyn Short, like almost all the other independents has decided to go out of business. And her tanks don’t leak, a fact she has paid out thousands of dollars to prove and proves daily by her own observations. 

“My tanks don’t leak. I stick the tanks every day and I would know.” Stick the tanks is to measure their contents, but the days officials might have taken the word of an honest independent are long gone.

The federal fuel tank law passed ten years ago was supposed to protect the environment from leaking fuel and the new fuel additive, MTBE, that was going to clean up the urban air. The dirt watchers are still arguing about MTBE. Is it dangerous or is it not? 

Big Oil’s franchise operations enjoyed the help of their always flush mother companies in complying with the tank clean-up law. Independents, without a mom to turn to, were compelled either to take out great big loans to get the cleansing work done or hope someone in the great chain of authority stepped forward for the little guy. Nobody stepped forward for the little guy. 

Some counties have passed resolutions urging the state government to make loans on better terms to the fading independents, but Sacramento never got out more than a few consoling paragraphs of “Sorry, Mom and Pop” rhetoric. Mendocino County’s famously oblivious supervisors never stirred themselves for even a helping rhetorical gesture. 

“There’s no need for me to go out and get a loan for $100,000 to put new tanks in. I’d have to upgrade everything,” Carolyn points out, suggesting that at her age it would be foolish to take on debt that big. “You’re tied up by the federal government, your county, your state, your supplier.”

Hustling around the station as she talks, the one-woman whirlwind invokes her late husband. “As Jeff used to say, men have connections that can get them on through problems like this. They can wheel and deal and make deals where women can’t. But you can’t let it get to you ‘cause it’ll drive you crazy.”

Carolyn Short’s too busy to go crazy. She’s also looking ahead. She’s always looked ahead. A couple of people are interested in the property for purposes other than a service station, and she’ll be there early every morning like she has for 37 years.

“There’s so much I’ve got to take care of right here. I’ll be plenty busy for a long time cleaning everything out, closing accounts, stopping the insurance on the business. I’ve been here all these years but it seems like I don’t know what to do first,” Carolyn says as she moves briskly from one task to another without any wasted motion anyone can see.

It’ll take a lot more than government dirt watchers to get this lady down.

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