Before we had latte – and that’s with any prefix, whether a tall or grande or venti or just cafe – before Central Perk was on TV, before Swedish coffeeshops had landed in Finland, long, long before Starbucks made it here, and before we even had coffee to go, we had the local gas station’s caféteria.
That’s where people got together, that’s where you heard the news, met your friends, hung out, and maybe had lunch, or even dinner. But at least a cup of coffee and a donut. One of the biggest Finnish comedy characters, Uuno Turhapuro, always hung out at a gas station, another major 1970s hit TV show, Tankki Täyteen (“Fill’ er up”), told the story of a quirky family that ran a gas station, and its cafeteria.
The local gas station was where everybody knew your name, even in a city like Helsinki.
When I was a kid, my soccer team always met up at the local gas station before going to an away game somewhere. In middle school, we used to walk to the same gas station during recess, to get candy or play pinball.
The other day, while I was on my way from my hotel to first the old Helsinki hockey arena and then to Hartwall Arena during the World Junior Championships, I stopped at a gas station to have a cup of coffee and a sandwich.
That particular gas station has been there for as long as I remember. One of my first memories is of being at their car wash with Dad who had bought a newspaper and sat behind the wheel reading it while we sat trapped inside the machine. I was mesmerized by the water drops running for their lives up the wind shield chased by the hot air dryer.
This is where Dad’s buddies often stopped for a cup of coffee after their hockey games. Those Sundays were always exciting, because often we went to a Finnish league game at the old arena and then I got to stay to watch Dad and his buddies play, and once, I even got to tag along to the gas station. And it was late. And Monday was a school day! Dad and his buddies would hang out and talk about this and that and nothing in particular for a half hour, and I sat there with the big boys drinking Coke.
One of those players, a famous Finnish hockey personality, walked in when I was there. He looked around, grabbed a betting coupon and sat down to make his bet, probably putting a few euro down on one of the games played that day, just to make it interesting.
There were 17 tables at the cafeteria, 14 with four seats, and all but one had just one person sitting at them. Even at that one table, the two buddies simply sat there, eating their sandwiches in silence.
The place has changed management a couple of times over the years. It used to be the Helsinki cab drivers’ main hangout, but they’ve moved, at least officially to another gas station a little farther out, but you can still see several cabs parked on the yard almost any given time.
One of the cab drivers has forgot his wallet at home and he’s trying to talk the lady at the cash register to just write a note, and he promises to come back later to pay for it. She’s hesitant, but does it. Another cab driver is upset with the fact that the kitchen’s not open until New Year’s. His lunch plans got ruined.
There’s a man reading a book, and another three people standing by the slot machines that you can find in all Finnish gas stations and grocery stores. It’s about as far away from the glamorous image of Las Vegas as you can get.
The hockey personality got up and walked up to place his bets. The two men in the table in front of me finished their sandwiches, one of them said, “shall we” and they got up and walked out. One of them made a atop at the slot machines. He lost hist two euro.
Maybe next time.