By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Jerry Wiggins lights a Pall Mall, fits a screwdriver attachment into a drill, and eyes the hinges of a door that's been scuffed, dented, riddled with bullets.
"People stop by for free coffee sometimes," he says, sliding a stepladder over the threshold. "But this is a working station. It's not like we're sitting around playing chess."
On cue, a grumpy customer enters the Conoco. "Two quarts of 10-30."
"We can do that," Jerry says, shuffling toward the garage and retrieving the oil. "You going to pour that on hotcakes in the morning?"
The customer frowns.
"'Cause that stuff is sure good on hotcakes," Jerry offers. "Mmm-mmm."
"Right on," the customer says, smiling. "Right on."
Jerry picks up the drill, steadies the ladder, continues his thought.
"We're a throwback," he says. "Whatever people want, we do. We'll check their oil, clean their windows, check their tire pressure, whatever."
On cue, a driver pulls an SUV up to the gas pumps, steps outside, reaches for the nozzle, then jumps a mile as Jerry's assistant, Fred Martinez, says, "Let me handle that for you, sir."
Fred pumps his gas, cleans his windshield, checks his tires.
The customer blinks.
In this age of self-service, debit cards, mini-marts and fifty-cent air and water dispensers, customers aren't used to personal service. "They just look at you," Fred says. "Especially the younger ones. They have no idea what you're doing. They've never had full service before."
But that's how it is at Parkway Station, formerly A & B Conoco, and that's how it's been for thirty years. This is the last service station downtown, one of the last full-service stations left in Denver. And if the new managers have anything to do with it, that's how it will be for another thirty years.
"It's like the old days in here," Fred says. "Like walking into the past."
The station stands at 1201 20th Street, between the flashing "Live Ladies Live" sign of the Adult Video Library and the blue-and-green murals of High-Liters Decorating. It has two small service bays, one small lobby, three 1970s gas pumps and a lethargic German shepherd named Cody.
The waiting area boasts a drab metal desk, a drab metal drinking fountain, a drab metal file cabinet and a drab Formica counter. The file cabinet and tabletops hold an assortment of sunflower seeds, candy bars, corn chips and free coffee; the windowsills are lined with bottles of power-steering fluid and antifreeze. The room smells of grease and dust, and it echoes with oldies from a combination eight-track player, turntable and stereo.
"This place hasn't changed much in thirty years," Jerry says.
For that matter, neither has Jerry. On this day and most other days, he wears blue work pants, a blue work shirt, black work shoes. His front pocket holds an assortment of pens and an air-pressure gauge, and his back pocket holds a red grease rag. Jerry has been in the filling-station business for 43 years, thirty of them here. His secret to longevity? "An irresistible personality," he says. "People tell me, 'You're always happy. Even when it's freezing outside, you're having a good time.'
"And I guess I am."
Fred is just as affable. He wears the same uniform as Jerry, although he's added a Bushwhackers baseball cap to the ensemble. His grandfather and father both owned filling stations in Denver. After fifty years in the business, Fred handles a squeegee like an artist handles a paintbrush. "I've always liked messing with cars," he says. "We have pictures of me as a little kid standing up on an old milk carton, washing windows."
But the unquestioned veteran is Orvis Bjornsen: owner, founder and patriarch, who pumped his first gallon in 1946. Orvis now spends most of his time on golf courses and in bowling alleys, but not long ago he was sitting at his old desk, fidgeting with a clock, fighting a nasty cold and scowling at his wife, Myrtle, and daughter, Kay Crosier.
"Okay, then," he kept saying. "Are we about done here?"
At 83, Orvis still has a pipe-wrench grip and a full head of snowy hair. He also has a perpetual squint that makes him a dead ringer for Eddie Albert or Lloyd Bridges, depending on what his mouth is doing.
"They used to call him Whitey," Kay says, "even though he had blond hair."
"Well, now they have the right to call me that," Orvis grumbles.
Orvis grew up on a Nebraska farm, where he spent more days milking cows than he cares to recall. He taught school a while, moved to San Diego for a year, married Myrtle, and arrived in Denver in 1943. He stumbled into the service-station business after a buddy offered him part ownership of a Mobil station at 18th and Lawrence streets. Orvis already had a job in a Chevrolet parts department, but he jumped at the opportunity.
"I never thought I'd be in it long," he says. "But I had no real skills, and I had a family to support. Back then, you took anything you could get, and you were glad to get it."