Bob Cullen Photography | An Elegy for Eastham's Exxon

An Elegy for Eastham's Exxon

September 18, 2014  •  2 Comments

The dreary construction site pictured above once housed the best gas station I ever saw. It was a landmark on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda called Eastham's Exxon. (I guess it was originally called Eastham's Esso when it was established in 1929.) The owner I knew, Robert Eastham Jr., was a football star at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High. He went to the University of Virginia for a semester before he came home to work at his dad's filling station when his dad had a heart attack. He was there for 53 years until he died in 2010. Two years later, the station died. This year, it was obliterated.

I don't know if it was the father or the son who established the service standards at Eastham's. But if you pulled up to the pump, an attendant ran out of the station--he never walked--to fill the tank, clean the windshield and check the oil and water. Meanwhile, you could have had a picnic on the asphalt in the station; it was that clean. This cost some extra cents per gallon. If you brought your car in for service, it also wasn't cheap. But you knew that any problem would be fixed properly the first time, and you wouldn't be charged for any problem that didn't exist.

For a long time, Eastham's model of enhanced service worked well. The station pumped millions of gallons of gas a year and the wall of its little foyer was full of awards from Exxon.  But the station's lease on the land expired in 2012, and the developers who own the land want to put a 145-unit apartment building on it. Soon the site will look like the other mega-apartment projects already underway in Bethesda. There will be a couple of gas stations left, but they'll be the sort of place where you pull in, swipe your card and pump your own gas. The cashier won't check your oil or wash your windshield, but for a minimum wage, you really can't expect him to do more than sell you a pack of cigarettes or an overpriced Coke to go with your gas.

I have already decided I am generally in favor of growth through redevelopment of existing towns rather than growth through the destruction of open land for exurban subdivisions and shopping malls. So I can't complain about the land owners' decision to replace the gas station. But I do mourn the loss of service that Eastham's represents.

It's not just Eastham's. In Bethesda these days, the hot new eateries are basically cafeterias where you walk down a line, order what you want for your salad, and bus your own table. They're replacing restaurants with waiters who made a decent living on the tips they collected. My wife went into Saks the other day looking for something or other and left empty-handed. She couldn't get anyone to wait on her. The service standards at Saks evidently have descended to the standards of Filene's Basement.

We used to hear that service jobs would seamlessly replace manufacturing jobs as the American economy transitioned from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. But it turns out that the economy is just as ruthlessly efficient at erasing service jobs as it was at erasing manufacturing jobs. Whatever the business, owners feel compelled to reduce labor costs to the barest minimum. That means eliminating jobs where possible, and paying minimum wage where possible. It means reducing service.

I don't really blame the owners. We are all complicit. There was a story the other day that Marriott is going to place envelopes in its hotel rooms, prodding guests to tip the maids. One might think that if Marriott were truly concerned about the welfare of its maids, it would raise their wages. And one would be right.

But I suspect that Marriott is afraid that if it raised its maids' wages, it would have to raise room rates. Then travelers using Expedia or Travelocity would book at the Hilton because it was $5 cheaper. So we all get slightly cheaper rooms, and we all get worse service. Airlines show where this leads. And, of course, maids remain unable to support their families decently. People want good service, but they don't want to pay for it.  We all spiral downward.

I think this is why polls show that Americans are dissatisfied with the economic recovery even though indicators like the unemployment rate and the stock market are moving in the right direction. We sense that the jobs the economy is creating are worse than the jobs it is erasing. We sense that even if we have money in our pockets, unless it's private-jet-type-money, the economy is offering us a less pleasant and  often downright degrading experience in return for that money.

I don't know what to do about this. I wish I did.

I do know that before he died, Bob Eastham created a little park on a tiny triangle of land, maybe a tenth of an acre, half a block from the station. He named it in honor of his father. When he was alive, the little park was as immaculately kept as the station. Now it's getting a little weedy. I suspect that in a few years, residents will be walking their dogs past the little park and seeing the name and the plaque. I'm afraid they won't have a clue about what Robert L. Eastham did to deserve a monument.


Joe M.(non-registered)

There's a reason these companies have to cut services. They are losing billions and billions of sales to online retailers that pay little rent as compared to Saks, have a fraction of the employees, and have a much larger selection than brick and mortar stores. Amazon had $75 billion in sales in 2013 and will probably go over $100 billion in 2014. Those are not incremental sales but sales that are coming from department stores. Saks (and others) either need to increase their prices (death) or cut costs. Welcome to the 21st century.

Frank Van Riper(non-registered)
Hi Bob: I echo your melancholy, especially about the decline of our service economy and the apparent indifference to doing things right the first time, without being asked or harangued. I don't know what to do about it either, except to keep taking the best pictures I can and to write the best words I can. Also, beautiiful ending to the piece.
Best, Frank VR
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