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
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
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
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
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
“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
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 email@example.com.