They spent the last 36 years living, loving and working together. They're not done yet.
When the first car pulls up to the new gas station at Fields Lane and Hardscrabble Road in North Salem, Ann Morley and Joe Bryson will breathe a bittersweet sigh of relief. The opening of the station will mark an end to a decade-plus battle to restore their life’s work aiding the vehicles that travel up and down Interstate 684.
Before there was Ann and Joe, there was just Joe, a local guy who got his start fixing cars. In 1972 John Principe hired Joe to run the new Getty gas station that Principe had built at the corner of Hardscrabble Road and Fields Lane. What had once been a mud road that ran alongside miles of apple orchards was now an interstate, and Principe intended to capitalize on his lot’s easy-on, easy-off convenience to the new highway.
“Joe Getty,” as he came to be known, spent his 20’s pumping gas, servicing cars and towing the ones that broke down along the new interstate. Just before Principe died in 1980, he sold the business to Joe. Six years later, Joe bought the property from Principe’s widow.
It’s 1988. Ann and Joe have been together for two years, after being introduced by their respective ex in-laws. They’re living together and raising Charmaine, Ann’s daughter from her first marriage. They’re also working together, jointly running Joe’s Auto Towing. Ann handles the bookkeeping and the occasional repair, tire change and tow.
The station is busy. New businesses are going in along Fields Lane and Ann is courting them as customers through house accounts and volume discounts on gas. Joe leads a small team of mechanics. They have a modest store near the pumps that sells candy and cigarettes. Charmaine helps out pumping gas. The station is family-run and full service.
Occasionally the phone rings in the middle of the night, jolting Ann and Joe awake. When there’s been an accident on I-684, they get the phone call. Sometimes they both hop out of bed, get dressed and head out in separate tow trucks, bringing the smashed cars back to their three-bay garage for repairs.
“It was not an easy life,” said Ann of that time. “I wouldn't change anything Joe and I have done, but I wouldn't wish it on anyone.”
It’s 1997. Ann and Joe are ready to slow down after nearly a decade spent running a 24-7 business. They want to focus just on towing and repairs, and lease out the gas station. They decide to lease to Getty and agree on a 10-year commitment. Everything starts to go downhill from there.
Inconsistent management, poor customer service and an inattention to local relations plague the station under Getty. Over the course of seven years, eleven different leasees manage the station.
“It was a nightmare,” said Ann.
Ann and Joe sue Getty with three years left on the lease term. Once the lawsuit is finalized, Ann and Joe believe the worst is behind them. They are ready to find a new leasee. Then they learn that there is on-site ground contamination that requires remediation. Ann and Joe thought Getty had addressed it. Now Ann and Joe are responsible. The cost of the cleanup leaves the couple in financial ruin.
“Will it be sorted out in mine and Joe’s lifetime? Probably not,” said Ann. “But in the meantime we have still got to keep paying that debt off.” They hope that if they can open a new station, they can begin to dig themselves out of a crushing debt.
It’s 2021. It’s been nearly 15 years since a gas station operated on Ann and Joe’s property. But now the pumps are in place, the market is stocked and Ann and Joe have found a leasee they trust to manage the business. Ann and Joe are busy managing something more urgent -- Joe’s health.
Joe is about to begin a second round of chemotherapy. He has stage 4 prostate cancer, which has spread to his bones. He’s also battling Parkinson’s disease. When Ann looks at Joe, she can still see the man who used to be able to lift up a transmission and put it into a car. “It’s very difficult watching him not being able to do what he used to do,” she says.
On Wednesday, January 20, Ann takes Joe for his chemo appointment. Two days later, she brings him by the gas station. The cold cases in the market are already stocked with beverages. The certificate of occupancy will be issued any day. Ann wheels Joe into the small building tucked at the north end of the property, the place where Joe Getty used to repair the town’s cars. The office is cluttered with mementos of decades past.
Joe lifts up a plaque gifted to him by the North Salem Volunteer Ambulance Corps in the late 1980’s. “With gratitude and appreciation for all the help and assistance throughout the years,” it reads. Joe’s eyes shine with pride.
Ann hopes Joe has another five years left, but she’s also realistic. A hospital bed is now installed in their home. Joe doesn’t walk very far these days and he has trouble speaking. Ann no longer works so that she can care for Joe.
“I've had to do a lot of looking at reality these last two years, and I can't imagine my life without him,” says Ann. “He really is the love of my life. For 36 years we've been together. Working together 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.”
When Ann looks around the station, her feelings are mixed. Even though the property is hers and Joe’s, she no longer feels like it’s theirs. Not like it was when they were running pumps and towing cars. But still, she’s happy to see it coming together, and she’ll be happy when it’s officially open.
“We’ve put our heart and soul into that place over the years,” she says. “It is part of us. It was Joe’s life.”