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Classic Royko: Gas station wise men and the meaning of life

Standard Oil company, 1967 | File photo

Editor’s note: When Mike Royko wrote this column for the Chicago Daily News in the late 1960s, Standard Oil had yet to change its name to Amoco. This column was included in his 1968 collection “I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt it!”

Bill Malloy, a Chicago folk singer, went to Vietnam some time ago to entertain the troops.

After his tour, he traveled to India to fulfill an ambition. He wanted to talk to wise men. And India, as everybody knows, has always been known for its wise men.

Malloy talked to them about the meaning of life. This is the best thing to talk to wise men about, as they aren’t much on football and politics.

But when he finished his travels in India and came back to Chicago, he still did not have an answer to the question: “What is the meaning of life?”

One day Malloy noticed the catchy slogan on the Standard Oil service stations’ signs: “As you travel, ask us.”

He wondered if this might be some kind of omen. If you hang around wise men long enough, you start thinking this way.

So Malloy became a Standard customer, hoping to find what India could not give him.

Every time he pulled into a gas station, he would ask: “As a traveler, could I ask you a question?”

“Yes, sir, that’s what our slogan is all about.”

“What is the meaning of life?”

The attendants answered in many ways.

One said: “I’m new here.”

Another offered: “I don’t remember anything in the manual about that.”

There was an attendant who said: “I’m not much for church, myself.”

And one gave him a leer and a wink, whatever that meant.

Most, however, stared vacantly before cleaning his windshield, even when it was clean, which is meaningless.

Somehow, word of his persistent questioning of attendants got back to Standard Oil’s department of customer relations.

And one day Malloy got a phone call at the Inter-University Center, where he works when he isn’t singing to folks.

“We understand,” the customer relations man said, “that you have been asking our dealers questions and getting unsatisfactory answers.”

“That is true.”

“What have you asked, may I ask?”

“I have asked them if they can tell me the meaning of life.”

“Why do you ask our dealers that?”

“Because your sign says: ‘As you travel, ask us.'”

“Well, you must understand that not all of our attendants are trained in metaphysics.”

“That may be so; nevertheless you are guilty of misleading advertising because none of them can answer my question.”

“We answer most questions.”

“Yes, but I am not interested in a good place to eat, a good fishing hole or a clean motel. I want to know the meaning of life.”

The customer relations man thought about this for a moment. Then he suggested that Malloy write out his question and send it to Standard Oil with a self-addressed envelope, including his zip code number, of course.

“We will try to find the answer,” he promised.

Malloy followed the instructions and in a week he received a letter from Standard Oil.

His fellow employees crowded around, but Malloy went into his office and shut the door.

“I wanted to be alone at a time like that,” he said.

He opened the envelope. Inside was finally the answer to his question.

It contained an application for a Standard Oil credit card.

Malloy said: “They gave me the only answer they knew.”

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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