Fill 'er Up
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?"
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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."
So he slipped on a blue uniform and proceeded to work his thick, callused fingers to the bone. He pumped gas, fixed flats, checked air pressure, washed windows, washed cars, replaced plugs, set points, adjusted timing, parked cars, shuttled customers to and from work, then went home and cracked open the accounting books. This was the routine: twelve hours a day, six days a week, all year long.
"It was work," Orvis says. "Hard work. And lots of it."
The station turned a profit almost immediately -- but not just because of all the elbow grease. "Back then, the gas was so cheap -- 29 cents a gallon -- that people came for the personalities," Myrtle says. "People would come in for a tank of gas, and before long, he'd ask about their kids, their kids' names and what their kids were doing. And the next time they visited, he'd know everything about them."
Whenever homeless people stumbled over from skid row, just a block away on Larimer Street, and came into his station seeking a few dollars, Orvis would send them to the 20th Street Cafe. "Tell them Orvis sent you," he'd say.
"Poor people used to stop by on their way through town with carloads of children wanting to trade something for a tank of gas," Myrtle recalls. "But he'd just fill up their tank for free."
In 1970, as urban renewal changed the face of downtown, Orvis and his partner were given $10,000 for their property. Orvis took his share, walked two blocks down to 20th and bought a Conoco, which he named A & B. His customers followed. Before long, Orvis had maintenance and gas accounts for forty companies.
In 1985, at age 67, Orvis retired. Although he still owned A & B, under its contracts with gasoline distributors, the station fell under different management. But this January, the Bjornsens renegotiated their gasoline distribution contracts and resumed management of the station -- by now, the last one left downtown.
Kay and her brother, Barry Bjornsen, are in charge of the station. They changed its name to Parkway, moved Jerry back to full-time and hired Fred. They have plans to renovate with a 1950s theme, but in the meantime, they've hung a large banner: "New Management/New Attitude."
But Parkway plans to offer the same service it did when Orvis was in charge. Even though it would be more profitable to accept one of the lucrative offers that have been made for the property, easier to transform the station into a fill-and-go mini-mart, Kay and Barry want to see their plan through. Downtown businesspeople, loft dwellers and senior citizens will probably appreciate "not having to dirty their hands pumping their own gas in high heels and $500 suits," Kay says.
Other customers appreciate the difference, too. A ticket broker wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt and a braided goatee stops by during a Rockies game. "Damn," he says. "I've never seen it like this. It's all spiffed up! You've got the soda pop filled up, a new cash register, and the bathroom is even clean. Shit, I'm freaking out. This is like 2001: A Space Odyssey in here."
Another customer, an RTD driver, turns to Jerry. "You know, you're the only one who waves back at me," he says. "I honk to all my friends, but you're the only one who waves."
A third customer emerges from the restroom and offers Jerry a quarter.
"Aww," Jerry says. "Keep it."
He picks up his drill. "This has always been a working station," he says. "That's the way it should always be."