Dirty words and dirty hands: pumping gas on Bayview

Can you spot the Esso station, where Terry Fallis worked? It was located on the south east corner of Bayview and Millwood. Bayview Avenue. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 516, Item 2.
Can you spot the Esso station, where Terry Fallis worked? It was located on the south east corner of Bayview and Millwood. Photo: Bayview Avenue. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 516, Item 2.

I’ve already written in this space about my first part-time job at Gyro Motors when I was 15 years old. So why not leave it there when I could carry on and regale you with stories of my second part-time job? Well, there are plenty of reasons, but with my deadline approaching, I’m turning a deaf ear to all of them. (See https://leasidelife.com/january-1975-and-my-first-part-time-job/.)

Those Leaside veterans among you may recall that during the ’70s and into the early ’80s, the intersection of Bayview and Millwood sported not one, but two gas stations. There was Don Verity’s Esso on the southeast corner, and a Shell on the southwest corner duking it out in a knockdown, drag ‘em out battle for the chance to fill up your tank, check your oil, and clean your windshield. Today, neither gas station exists and hasn’t for many years.

I was an Esso supporter then, largely because of their longstanding sponsorship of Hockey Night in Canada and their Esso Power Players, a promotion that earned you collectible NHL hockey stickers to paste into an album with every fill-up. My brother Tim and I spent much of our free time trying to persuade Dad that even though we still had half a tank, we should immediately drive down to the Esso station to top it up, just to be safe. So Esso got my vote. Besides, the Shell on the west side of Bayview technically wasn’t even in Leaside and had no hockey connection.

When I was 16 years old and after Gyro Motors closed the gas station they operated to devote the entire enterprise to selling and repairing cars, I snared a part-time gig at Don Verity’s Esso. This meant just a short two-block walk from home. I worked every day after school from 4:00-7:00 and then 8:00-7:00 Saturdays. In the summers, I worked 11 hours a day, six days a week. I loved working at that gas station. All the guys who worked there – the owner, the licensed and apprentice mechanics, the veteran gas-jockey who was in his 70s, and the other part-timers like me – were fun to be around.

They were hilarious, helpful, and they dramatically expanded my vocabulary. Yes, I learned more about the universe of profanity than I’d ever known before. As someone who even then was interested in words, I had no idea that my grasp of cuss, curse, swear, and generally off-colour words had been so limited. But despite my sheltered upbringing in Leaside, I was a quick learner. There was an entirely different language at the gas station that took me a while to understand. I was struck by how quickly gas station English morphed into regular everyday English as soon as a customer walked in the door to pick up their car or buy a quart of oil. The quick switch occurred with such speed I was surprised none of us ever pulled a muscle. The challenge for me was to turn off my work vocabulary when I got home. There were a few uncomfortable incidents early on, but with practice, I managed to leave certain words at the gas station.

And not just our language was dirty. My hands would get so filthy with oil, grease, grime and brake dust, that despite using industrial hand cleansers that seemed to mix gritty abrasives with some kind of acid, I simply could not get my hands clean. For two years my hands were perpetually dirty.

But I loved that job and the people I worked for and with. I enjoyed talking to the customers as I filled their tank, checked their oil, and perfected my windshield squeegee technique that eventually became hall-of-fame-worthy, if I do say so myself. One of my favourite parts of the job was just after we closed the pumps for the night at 7:00 when I would proceed to “do the dips.” It involved checking the levels in the large underground gas storage tanks using what was essentially a 12-ft. dipstick. It was tricky and required a light hand and a deft touch. I took pride in my “dips” technique. I lament that the word “dipstick” has since become a term of derision.

What I remember most about my time as a gas jockey at Don Verity’s Esso at Millwood and Bayview was just how much we laughed. We worked hard, but man, did we have fun.

About Terry Fallis 31 Articles
A two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, Terry Fallis grew up in Leaside and is the award-winning writer of six national bestsellers, including his most recent, One Brother Shy, all published by McClelland & Stewart.