Sunday, April 24, 2011

Five Gallons at a Time

From Joe Viger:

A friend recently told me that they loved The Backside of America blog and then asked, "But do you ever feel like it's a bunch of rich folks gawking at the poor, decrepit parts of society?" It's a reasonable question. A lot of the posts here on the Backside are what is sometimes described as "Ruin Porn." We find fascination, interest and beauty in the old and abandoned. And, if you stop and think about it, there is someone's tragedy inherent in the ruination of these buildings and objects that somehow we find so pleasurable.

Just about a year and one month ago Dave put up the inagural post of our quaint little blog. Dig into the archives and give it a read because it is a great post (or you can just click this: Take Me to the River -- ed.) Dave described a canoe trip with his Dad that brought him down a river, viewing familiar scenes from the backside instead of his normal vantage point on the main street. He wrote, ” I saw the town from a whole new angle. Nothing was familiar, and nothing was as attractive from the back as it was from the front."

This was essentially Dave's pitch to me to contribute to the blog and the idea has always stuck with me. It transcends ruin porn. It's about how often there is a story underneath the popular thing or the degrading building. Get off Main Street and take a look around. In America, things aren't always what they seem. It's beautiful and interesting and sometimes sad. But I like to think The Backside of America is also a tribute. An acknowledgement of past or unnoticed ideas, buildings, institutions, businesses and, most importantly to me, people. They all look different from the Backside and we don't always bother to truly see.

And with that... I recently had a Backside experience.

Redstone Quarry-100.jpg

A while back I checked the heating oil tank in my basement and, with the weather warming, was pleased to have half a tank. Two weeks later I was on empty. Typical. Annoyed that there must be something wrong with my oil tank's gauge but thankful that my burner was still running and heat and hot water was flowing, I dove onto the phone to get oil. Unfortunately, with a spring snow storm and the weekend upon us, nobody was delivering. It would be a few days.

The last oil company I called was a local, small outfit and the kind woman on the phone said she would talk to her boss. When she came back on the line, she told me they would in fact deliver but it would be an extra $250 for an emergency delivery. "Why don't you just put some kerosene or diesel in your tank until you can get a delivery?" She said. "I work here and even I just did that. But use kerosene, it burns cleaner". I vaguely remembered that you could substitute kerosene for heating oil, but had never done it and didn't know anyone who did. You always just call the oil company and buy a couple hundred gallons.

I've built my own house, but in general I'm not a mecahnical guy and I was somehow dubious of substituting anything for heating oil. But, I dug around in the garage and found a five-gallon steel jerry can and off into the snowstorm I went. We were due for a foot of snow, I was late for work and I wanted to get this over with. On my second trip back to the store for another five gallon refill, I noticed someone was filling a container of kerosene as I drove in.

While I waited, I went into the store, where I go with some regularity. Inside I found the usual clerk, a tiny woman from Kentucky with a big, friendly personality and plenty of drawl in her voice. She said "Back again!?" as I walked in the door. I told her about my broken oil tank gauge and asked her to ring up another $18 worth of kerosene. She laughed telling me she pretty much heats her house all year that way, "five gallons at a tiiiiiiime". I laughed back and she told me that the "fella out there right now" comes in all the time to get kerosene for his house, too.

The pump slowed down as the kerosene filled my jug and it seemed like it took forever to tick off the last few cents. $17.96... 97... 98... 99... $18.00. Looking at those numbers and wondering why a woman who works for an oil company would use five or 10 gallons of kerosene in her oil burner, I realized how lucky I am. Kerosene is about cash flow. For me that day, I didn't want to get hit with a big emergency fee. But for the salt of the earth cashier, this was every week. $20 for some K1 vs. $500 for delivery of a full tank of oil. For some people, this just doesn't work and never will. I'm an atheist, but God bless the folks who heat their homes five gallons at a time. They're hard working people trying to make it and if you don't have to do this all winter remember how lucky you are.


  1. Joe, I love how you take our blog in new directions. Your compassion for people and places is really great. I'm honored to publish your stuff. Now, let's hope that winter up your way ends SOON!

  2. Excellent story Joe. No matter how bad a person may think they have it, there is someone who is in worse shape and yet still makes it work with a smile on there face.

  3. Hi Joe,

    As a blogger with a similar interest, the question like "But do you ever feel like it's a bunch of rich folks gawking at the poor, decrepit parts of society?" is always, how should I put it, awakening.(Though, I'm FAR from rich!)

    Am I just labeling certain buildings as strange or creepy in a pejorative, conforming way? The thought always nags me, but but but, I feel I'm attempting to bridge a seemingly mundane, peaceful everyday life and a forgotten piece of history. Those two are closer than we usually think, and there is a plenty of room to question and think about the gap.

    But I could question to myself: why do I have to bridge? What's the point? I guess that's the dilemma I have no choice but keep tackling...I was born in that way, can't help it!

    Ughh, it became too long for a comment. Thanks for the thought provoking post, love it!

  4. I can see where you'd get the "rich folks" feeling but I think the luxury of documenting anything is the luxury of those who don't spend every waking moment trying to figure out how they will put food on the table or heat the house. The thing is, if it isn't documented, it's lost forever. I would instead look at what you are all doing as capturing something in the way of a tribute, something that otherwise will just go away with no history or memory whatsoever. It makes me think of the Buena Vista Social Club project- a great example of the fun pet project of a wealthy American and his son capturing music from a group that had faded away.

    I think the key is, if you can do the capturing with respect and with dignity for those who you are capturing, then it's okay. The people in the middle of it will never have the time in their own lives to capture it on virtual kodak paper like you do. They need someone to tell the story that will otherwise be lost.

  5. Well said, PK. I'm going to expound on this a bit more in a post later this week.

  6. Excellent post and comments. Ironically, I just listened to the Buena Vista Social Club yesterday while working out and then as I went out to get some backside shots.

    When Dave asked me to contribute to this blog, I immediately saw images in my head. Some of the subjects of my post were taken before Dave asked me. I love seeing the backside of America. As Joe put it, "Get off Main Street and take a look around." I travel more scenic routes since the inaugural post, just to see and capture a part of America that is most times overlooked. I'm glad we have the opportunity to capture and preserve some history of a different kind in our country.

  7. Exactly, PK. I like the documentation aspect of urban decay and abandoned property photos. Here on the eastern seaboard things don't stay abandoned for long as compared to the western parts of the country (we need the land, don't you know) and so for me, the documentation of these places is important. They disappear so fast and we forget what used to be. Decay isn't only for the poor, the rich lose it, too.

    Good article, Joe. I never knew kerosene could be used in a pinch. Will put that in my Zombie defense plan. ; )