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To the health of Kuwaiti shoe salesmen

INSIDE/OUT

Back in the mid-'80s, I spent a summer working the graveyard shift at

a gas station mini-market. The mini-market was located right next to

the on- and off-ramps of a major interstate, in the heart of

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crack-infested gang territory. It had been held up so many times that

everyone in the neighborhood called it the “Stop-N-Rob.”

I chuckled the first time I heard that name. I chuckled even more

when the store manager suggested I invest in a bulletproof vest. Then

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one night, a man walked into the store and robbed me at gunpoint.

To this day, I remember the sensation that swept through my body

as I eyeballed the barrel of that gun. It was a strange, unhinged

feeling, not unlike that of falling off a cliff and being nailed to

the floor at the same time. I felt as if my soul had left my body and

was staring back at it, watching the gun pointed right between its

eyes and about two inches from the bridge of its nose. I watched and

was filled with pity for my body. It was, after all, a fine body, and

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had carried me through many adventures. I watched as my body pulled

money from the cash register and handed it to the bandit, who then

lowered the gun and calmly walked out the door.

And then I was back in my body, slumped over the empty register

and clutching my heart. The moment strength returned to my limbs, I

called my boss at home and said, “We’ve been robbed, and I quit.”

Never again, I muttered to myself as I drove home. Never again.

So you can imagine my sense of outrage when I pulled up to a Shell

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station a few weeks ago, saw the price of gas on the big sign, and

was struck with that same unhinged feeling. Once more and despite all

my efforts to the contrary, I was being held up. Except this time,

the man with the gun was on the other side of the counter.

“OK, pal,” I said to the station attendant angrily, handing him my

bank card. “But there had better be dancing girls washing my

windshield when I get out there.”

The attendant rolled his eyes and waved me away with his hand.

When you’re sitting on top of a goldmine, you take guff from no one.

How could it have happened that my gas tank is suddenly more

valuable than my car itself? At $2.15, $2.35 a gallon, the price of a

month’s worth of driving could buy me four new tires. Round trip to

San Francisco could get me an AM/FM/CD stereo, speakers and a couple

of Coldplay CDs. A road trip to New Orleans and I’d be in the money

for a whole new engine. Forget theft and collision insurance. Someone

get me coverage for that fuel tank.

The latest crisis at the pump has forced me to rethink the value

of my relationships. I have friends who live out in the easternmost

San Gabriel Valley who I would drive out and see on a regular basis.

But recently I’ve been asking myself: Just how much do these friends

really mean to me? Are they worth $15, $20 a visit? And if they’re

such good buds, how come they haven’t offered to come out and see me?

I’ve even scaled back on my visits to my mother and siblings in

Huntington Park. My mother called the other day asking if I’d drive

down to see her, and told her I couldn’t.

“What’s wrong with talking on the phone?” I asked.

“Talking on the phone? What’s wrong with driving down and seeing

me?”

“Because I’m not made of money!”

We’re told that the surge in gas prices is somehow tied to civil

disturbances in Venezuela, the war in the Middle East and refinery

problems here in California. This explanation troubles me for two

reasons, one of them being that I suddenly find I need to care about

Venezuela. The other is that it all points to the utter instability

of the world oil economy.

Gasoline has to be the most volatile commodity on Earth, its value

fluctuating more rapidly than a wheelbarrel of paper money in a

windstorm. The slightest change of circumstances in an oil-producing

country is enough to affect the price of a gallon of gas thousands of

miles away. A Kuwaiti shoe salesman will catch a head cold and I’m

suddenly paying a dollar more at the pump.

Of course, I could sidestep this entire state of affairs if I just

put a bullet into my car engine and started riding a bike to work.

But I’ve seen the way people drive in this town, and wouldn’t feel

safe commuting without at least 1,000 pounds of protective padding

around me.

So really, my only hope is the high cost of gas will finally push

us into developing cheap, alternative fuels. I’m no scientist, but an

idea occurred to me while standing at the pump that I’m convinced

would turn the world energy market on its head. The idea is for a new

form of combustible engine. It wouldn’t be better for the

environment, but it would certainly be easier on the pocketbook.

I don’t want to give too much away before patenting it, but let’s

just say the engine would operate by burning $10s and $20s.

* DAVID SILVA is the city editor of the Leader’s sister paper,

the News-Press. His column runs Saturday. Reach him at 637-3231, or

by e-mail him at david.silva@latimes.com.


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