In an episode titled “Pine Barrens” during season 3 of The Sopranos, Paulie Walnuts and Christopher are driving to South Jersey to finish off and bury a Russian gangster who is in the trunk of their car. They stop midway and Christopher fills the gas tank. Wrong: You can’t fill your own gas tank in New Jersey. We are one of only two states among the 50—Oregon being the other—where self-service gas is against the law.
But why? That’s what I’ve always wondered while sitting in my car awaiting the attentions of a gas jockey.
Turns out that, in 1949, the state Legislature decided the dispensing of gasoline is too dangerous for motorists to pump their own. Given that New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the country, that danger might be acute here. The prohibition continues to this day, even though gas pumps have been made safer. In 2006, Jon Corzine, then governor, floated the idea of doing away with the ban, but the notion was denounced in a blizzard of e-mails and calls. Governor Chris Christie has refused to revisit the issue.
So what do people in other states think of this practice? One wag in a website chat room wrote New Jerseyans are “too dumb” to fill their own tanks. Another wrote we are “too lazy.” But, of course, New Jerseyans who travel out of state likely fill their own gas tanks as ably as anyone else.
Admittedly, it’s a plus having someone else fill one’s gas tank when it’s pouring rain or it’s a freezing January day, but it does irritate me that gas pumps continue to be labeled “full service.” What does “full” include these days? It almost never includes someone cleaning your windshield, checking your oil, telling you that one of your tires looks low on air, or even just engaging you in conversation. As far as I can see, “full” only includes someone filling your tank. The sullen guy filling mine on Route 130 recently not only didn’t respond when I said “good evening,” but had a lit cigarette hanging off his lips.
I’d had a tough day, and wondering if me, my car and the gas attendant were about to get blown up didn’t improve my mood. But at least he, unlike most other attendants, didn’t insist, after the pump clicked off, on topping my tank to the nearest dollar (so I could drip wasted gasoline as I drove away). Nor did he forget to replace my gas cap, as happened in another station a year ago—you wouldn’t believe what gas caps cost—or neglect to squinch the cap tight, which happened in yet another station six months later. This made the yellow “check engine” light come on, which kept me in a state of anxiety for weeks. These experiences made me wonder some more about the merits of full service.
Granted, the prohibition against filling one’s own tank creates jobs—no small thing in today’s economy. But if time is money, might not waiting for someone to fill your tank, when multiplied by millions of motorists, also be a negative factor in the economy?
Some think getting rid of gas-station attendants might make gasoline cheaper in New Jersey. Maybe so, but gas is already less expensive in New Jersey than in neighboring states.
Maybe we’d better just leave things as they are. Barring us from pumping our own gas might just be one of the anomalies that make New Jersey, well…New Jersey. Deep down I kinda like those anomalies, or at least complaining about them.
Michael Aaron Rockland is a professor of American Studies at Rutgers. His recent books include The George Washington Bridge: Poetry in Steel; a novel, Stones; and a memoir, An American Diplomat in 1960s Spain.