Monday, July 11, 2005

Independent on Sunday: Pump Action

With young Lycra-clad girls and not a charcoal briquette in sight, these certainly aren't your average garage forecourts. Keith Laidlaw discovers a place where petrol stations don't need Nectar points or free mugs to tempt in the customers.

Standing on the forecourt of your local petrol station, waiting for your car to drink its fill of unleaded, you might have noticed the odd booth-bound attendant or two staring vacantly at you. Normally acne-ravaged youths, quietly contemplating how they ended up in this world of button pushing and polyester clothing, it's hard to imagine that their job could ever be sexy. Even in the US, a land that is defined by the romance of the open road, and where the car is king, the traditional image of the pump jockey is a fairly unappealing mix of dirty dungarees and the reddest of red necks.

In Rio de Janeiro they have other ideas. Brazil is a country synonymous in most people's minds with passion and sex, and here even the garages have a little extra glamour. Nine out of 10 drivers are male, so perhaps it should be no surprise that many petrol stations boast attractive young women manning the pumps. And, in suburban areas where competition is fierce, practical garage overalls disappear in favour of more revealing outfits.

Adding further fire to this heady mixture is the Brazilian government's latest efforts to cope with ever-inflating international oil prices by promoting the use of cheap alcohol as fuel. OK, so maybe the four-star ' ethanol coursing through the pumps isn't exactly what you'd serve up during a romantic meal, but surely the fumes are bound to have some sort of intoxicating effect on the Latino passions of customers and staff alike.

But the locals don't see it like this; indeed most barely notice the girls at all. This is a culture where many jobs are split by gender, so women pump petrol just as they work as maids or receptionists. And where there are young females working together, skimpy outfits are rarely far behind. But the cheerleader-style uniforms are more girl band than stripper, and are far less offensive than the type of calendars often found pinned up in UK garages. Indeed, the defiant teenage stares or carefree smiles of the girls photographed here say more about the politics of age than that of gender.

In a way, what is strange is that this phenomenon hasn't spread wider. Even in countries such as ours where car use is less gender-biased, the cars themselves are still seen as a resolutely male territory; they are boys' toys. We may think that feminism has wiped out such sexist ideas, but one glance at the blonde 'pit-lane lovelies' who grimace their way around any motorsports event or car show would soon disabuse you of that notion.

It could be argued that a balance could be struck by creating separate women's forecourts. In the 1980s Athena poster shops created a whole sub- genre of female erotica based around garage workers, so there's no reason why we couldn't also have hunky guys flexing their muscles in cut-off denims on the forecourt - at least in the summer months.

But, should any of us ever cast a baleful eye over that barren wasteland of pumps and anonymous cars and wonder if the whole thing wouldn't benefit from a bit more colour, a bit more pizzazz, a bit more sex appeal, we can console ourselves with the thought that at least garage attendants in Britain don't requiring tipping.