COMING OF AGE: Life in Fort Hunt

Full Service at the Gas Station

Stories by Fredrick Kunkle, Washington Post Staff Writer | Photos by Carol Guzy - The Washington Post
AUDIO SLIDESHOW: Hollin Hall Automotive Service Station
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Frank Brown, 66, has worked at Hollin Hall Automotive Service Station for 16 years. Every morning he helps owner Ruth Ann Harvey up the hill to work. Harvey comes to work the register six days a week and knows most of the customers of the station. "I enjoy every minute of it," Harvey said. (Photo by Carol Guzy - The Washington Post)

At 6:35 a.m. on a hot, sticky day, Ruth Ann Harvey, 84, parks her car at the Hollin Hall Automotive Service Station and walks a little shakily over the oil-stained cement toward the building, her purse tucked under her arm.

Frank Brown, 66, an attendant at the gas station for 15 years, meets her halfway. Brown takes her hand, and they walk past a huge smiling portrait of her near the door and over to a stool behind the cash register.

This is where Harvey will preside for the next six hours or so, just as she has been doing since her husband, Frank, died in 1966 and left the business to her and their seven sons. It has become an important fixture for other seniors, not just for those who stop by to chat with Harvey, but for their vintage Cadillacs, Lincolns, Buicks and Oldsmobiles.

Three full-time attendants, in bright white shirts with green name patches and matching caps, go to work whenever a car pulls in, pumping gas, cleaning the windshield, checking the oil level. Inside the garage, several mechanics labor over cars, often while a white-haired customer hovers. If elderly customers need a ride home while their car is in the shop, an attendant does it.

Several years ago, after self-service became the standard, the Harveys noticed that elderly customers were having trouble putting gas in their cars and employees were spending a lot of time helping them. So they got rid of the self-service pumps altogether.

"They're very, very thankful they have a place where they can get gas without getting out of the car themselves," says owner Tom Harvey, 57, one of Ruth Ann's sons. "Seniors look at their cars as their lifelines. The older they get, the more concerned they are. They have a fear of being stuck in their homes."

When nasty weather is forecast, Harvey says, senior citizens flock to the pumps and top off their tanks with as little as $2 before going next door to the Safeway for milk. But he says the extra service touches also take more than a little extra work, and there are times when the generation gap creates misunderstandings.

This becomes apparent the next day when Robert Claydon eases his 1991 Olds 88 into the service station for a brake adjustment. He also asks for a "lube job."

Claydon, a former government employee, hands over the keys to an attendant, then reflects on the neighborhood he has resided in for 38 years.

"We've still got friends around," says Claydon, 78. "But we've seen a lot of them die. When we moved here, everybody was young, and nobody got sick."

While he is talking, however, the mechanic has greased the axels but also changed the oil. This annoys Claydon because he had just done that job himself.

"Frankly, I don't trust anybody to change my own oil," he says, a little crossly to the mechanic, using his thumbnail to pry off a speck of mud from the blue finish.

Out pops a young manager, who explains that when seniors ask for "lube jobs," what they often expect is an oil change too. The manager apologizes and tells Claydon that the oil change will be gratis.

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