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Lined up and nowhere to go

Column/Thomas T. Huang

When you're a reporter, you remember events through people. You can't recall the specific incidents, but you can remember a phrase, a mannerism.

The first time I met Leon Arries, he ran the MIT gas station during the oil crunch in the late 1970s. You could see the patches of sweat under his armpits, the skin through the holes in his t-shirt. He was a man who stood still in the maelstrom of those hectic days.

"Hell, hell, what do you want, son?"

In the first place, I was never a good reporter. In high school, I was to write a story on gasohol, but because my editor in chief stuttered, I conducted an interview with Gaston Otterman Hall, the third floor janitor. I know a lot about mops now.

So Kaliski with his beard scared me when he told me to write a story on Boston gas stations. Gas was hot news back then. OPEC was very powerful. No one could foresee its eventual babbling collapse. Slippery hands reached for US dollars, and prices for premium and unleaded skyrocketed.

America, you were out of gas.

"Tom, you'll do fine," Kaliski said. "Just ask a lot of questions about gasoline." I wasn't used to the city life, coming from the farmland. Only telephone booths looked familiar. They plate their buildings with glass, they must do the same with their outhouses. The operator told me to dial again when I tried to flush.

Talk with Kaliski brought me to the MIT gas station. To get there, you drive down Amherst Alley and turn left on Massachusetts Avenue. You follow the white dashed lines on the hot tar for one block.

America, you stood in line.

The lines were long. The cars were shopping carts. Backseat children screamed in syncopation to car horns. I stood behind a Cadillac that was big enough to accommodate a Weight Watchers' reunion with a three-piece band for entertainment.

I asked the station attendant a few questions. He replied, "I'm sorry, son. I can only give you gas, that's what the President says. Can't answer questions about the Middle East."

Arries emerged from his office, towelling his hands. "Hell, hell, what do you want, son?"

"I don't know what I want," I said. "What's it like, working in a gas station?"

"Much like a reporter," he said. "You sit and observe the people going by. Nowadays, people have just been waiting in line, as if that's what they wanted to do. What are they interested in?"

Later, when I knew him better, he revealed that he had in fact studied mechanical engineering at MIT until 1963, when Kennedy got shot.

He said, "I can remember where I was when John got shot. I was making love with my wife. For some reason or the other, she was watching TV and saw the whole thing.

"John said we should go to the moon." Then came the assassinations and wars of the 1960s.

"I'm waiting here, trying to see what interests me," he said. "When I find it, I'll move on."

I saw Leon a few times after that. We talked about how Ronald Reagan had drawn a picture of a great America which was going places, dependent on no one. "He's drawn a picture on a curtain," Leon said. "If you look through the curtain, you will find people are still standing in line."

Then, in the beginning of my junior year, he was gone. Nobody knew where he went.

Sometimes now I think of Leon. When I do, I think of the MX missile and the starving people in Africa. I think of the average salary of an MIT graduate and the bums of Central Square.

America, you spent all your money on gas, but you didn't even know where you wanted to go.

Hell, hell, what do you want?

Leon Arries, he moved on.