Me and My Oil Guy

Late fall and winter have never been the same for me since I switched over to natural gas heat.

In year’s past, most of Boston heated their homes – whether the rowhouses, the bricks or the stately residences – with heating oil.

It was a staple of the region, and a lot of people from other places around the country thought it odd that we filled up our homes like a car. Around here, the heating oil truck used to rumble down the crowded streets from November to April – stoppin’ traffic and fillin’ tanks. Friendly men smelling of petroleum and smoking cigarettes way too close to large quantities of combustible fuel became your undeniable friends in the cold months.

Nowadays, natural gas seems to be the rule, and nobody delivers natural gas. There’s just a bunch of utility company trucks that invade the neighborhood and callously dig up the streets for like a year at a time. Just look throughout the South End right now and you’ll see such evidence.

Believe it or not, the census keeps track of heating fuel in homes, and in Boston the numbers have flip-flopped in the past two decades – going from about 80 percent with oil to 80 percent with gas.

I’m one of those who switched to gas, and now – particularly with the Lawrence debacle – I regret doing so. Oil is cheaper than anyone ever expected, or past presidents predicted, and so gas is no great deal.

Beyond the particulars, I just kind of miss seeing my oil guy.

It’s another life relationship lost in the era of button clicking and suburban fulfillment centers.

For three decades I knew my oil man by first name only.

We developed a bond right off the bat, as he was kind to me when I was in a jam, and I never forgot it.

He recognized that and appreciated it too.

Part of the fun of heating oil was always the anxiety of running out. Sometimes life would take over or you’d be short on cash, and then in a flash of panic, you’d remember the oil tank. A visit to the cellar, and the gauge would confirm the terror or your error.

You were out of oil.

And no oil company was open or able to come help you.

Just such a thing happened to me many years ago, and I had to revert to the old trick of using diesel fuel. Savvy salts like myself learned from those that came before me that, in a pinch, one could go to the gas station and fill up cans with diesel fuel. Throw that in the tank, and a no-heat, frozen pipe nightmare could be averted for a time.

One night around 10 p.m. with a Nor’easter bearing down on the Hub, there I was at the diesel pump over by the Expressway in Dorchester filling up fuel cans with diesel petro.

At the time, I didn’t know my oil guy, but he happened to be cruising home after a long day of filling up tanks. He saw me and knew exactly what I was doing.

“You run out?” he yelled from an open window.

I only nodded, bearing the frustration of being in a cold weather jam.

“Come on, I’ll follow you home. I’ve got 100 gallons I need to get rid of,” he said.

An angel had landed.

After that night, I never filled up my tank with anyone else but him, and later on, the company that bought him out.

Of a mornin’ when he was coming, he’d always come in after the fill for coffee and pancakes. I always made sure they were made.

When he was coming off hip surgery, I made a little door in the fence so he didn’t have to climb over.

Never again did I have to worry about running out.

That was extraordinary looking back at it all.

One by one, those kinds of relationships in Boston – the backbone relationships of people counting on one another – are disappearing. Whether it’s the oil man, the letter carrier, the librarian, cashiers, waitresses, cab drivers or a traffic cop – it all just descends into a life that is supposedly made easier and more efficient.

But it’s a life without pancakes for the oil guy; without the opportunity for one man to do a favor for another man in need.

I don’t know about you, but no online gas bill seems to hold the same sentiment.

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