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Why am I pumping gas — all over my silk skirt?!

Columnist Ellen Goodman’s unique take on life today has made her a must-read in over 400 newspapers. Here’s an excerpt from her new book, "Paper Trail."
/ Source: TODAY

From John Bobbitt and Viagra, to Elian and OJ, to "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire" and the Rules Girls, readers of more than 400 newspapers have come to rely on the wit and wisdom of syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman. Now, many of her columns from the past ten years have been collected into a book, "Paper Trail: Common Sense in Uncommon Times." Goodman came on the “Today” show to discuss her work, which her daughter once explained to a pal as "My mom gets paid for telling people what she thinks.” Here’s an excerpt:

The Self-service Generation
It is 8:30 in the morning, and I am standing at a gas station in a silk suit with an unusual fashion accessory dangling from my right hand. This metal and rubber accouterment looks exactly like a gasoline hose.

In fact, it is a gasoline hose.

I am poised (for disaster) at this petroleum establishment that boasts of self-service — which is to say, no service, because there is no longer any station on my corner that has "full service," which is to say, any service.

At precisely 8:33, as if on cue, the hose balks, the gas leaps from its point of destination and proceeds to decorate my skirt in a fashion familiar to Jackson Pollock fans.

The transfer of gas to silk is accompanied by expletives that will be deleted for the family newspaper. It is followed by a return home, a change of clothes, a trip to the cleaners and a delayed start of more than an hour.

Normally I would spare you the details of a gasoline-splattered morning. But this event was accompanied by a reverie about the brave, new economy.

We all know the now-classic joke about the job market. An economist exclaims about the millions of new jobs, and a worker counters, "I know, I have four of them." In my variation on this theme, another economist brags about jobs in the service industry, and the consumer says, "I know, I'm doing them all."

The fastest-growing part of the economy is not the service industry. It's the self-service industry. The motto of the new age is: Help Yourself.

The generic story is that of the company phone operator, whose job has been outsourced to customers. The great American gripe is about the endless minutes spent wending our way through multi-choice listings before we get to the person or information we want. (Press 9 for Frustration.)

But that's just the beginning.

We now have a supermarket that not only allows us to pick our food from the shelves but scan it ourselves at the checkout counter. We have telephone companies where so-called "directory assistance" forces us to shout the town and name we are after into an electronic void.

Across the country, home delivery is increasingly replaced by pickup. If you buy something, U-Haul. If you break it, U-Haul it back. And if it's a refrigerator, you sit home at the convenience of the truck driver.

Even in the world of alleged health care, once house calls went the way of milkmen, we learned to haul each body part to a separate specialist. But now we are sent home from hospitals with instructions on self-care that stop just short of a do-it-yourself appendectomy.

I am not opposed to the self-help ethic. I am still amazed and delighted that an ATM machine in Seattle will give $100 to a woman from Boston.

But I rebel at the casual ways corporations have downsized by replacing employees with consumers. Did anyone ask us if we want to moonlight for them?

Of course, this is all done, or so we are told, in the name of competition, lower prices and the American way. When Southwest Airlines initiated a policy of BYO food and had passengers transfer their own bags, the airline bragged of low fares. But sooner or later, competitors will pare down, fares will creep up, and we will be left toting the bag.

Where are the economists who tally up the cost-shifting of time and money and energy from them to us? When companies boast that we pay less for gas, do they include the cost of our labor, not to mention dry cleaning?

Do companies add up the wages lost while the country's on hold? (Press 8 for Outrage.) And do they include the cost to us of being hassled?

I hear that a modest rebellion is encouraging a few new businesses — even an oil company — to advertise their latest frill: people. But the whole trend of the new economy is some perverse play on the great American can-do spirit. That we can do everything on our own and without ever encountering another human being.

But before my gas tank runs dry again, may I suggest a rallying cry from those who only serve themselves: Help!

— October 20, 1996

Excerpted from "Paper Trail: Common Sense in Uncommon Times" by Ellen Goodman. Copyright © 2004 by Ellen Goodman. Published by . All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.