Published: April 30, 2011 in the New York Times
My ex-husband, at 6 feet 4 inches tall and 300 pounds, looks hilarious on his bike. His truck gets 10 miles to the gallon, and he was spending $8 a day to get to his job transporting cars for an auto auctioneer. His bike would be a lot cheaper, he realized. So he parked his truck across from my house, next to my neighbor’s Subaru. She’s been taking the bus to her job as a home health care aide — she can’t afford the gas, either.
Gas prices are high here, and they’re rising about a penny a day: over the last 20 days unleaded at my local Arco rose to $4.30, from $4.04. Everyone’s suffering, and no one in a position to know better offers an explanation beyond “volatile commodity markets.”
“There used to be a reason,” said my ex-husband. “They’d say it was a fire at a refinery, or a broken pipeline from Arizona to California, or a plant went off line for repairs. Now they don’t even try to make something up.”
Remember 1979? he asked me one day, standing beside the idled truck. “Back then we knew why it was bad,” he said. “Now it’s our own people messing with us. They’re raising prices just because they can.”
I do, in fact, remember 1979, though I’m not as nostalgic about it as my ex-husband. I was 18, working at a Mobil station not far from my present home. It was the summer of the last great gas crisis, the summer people waited hours for a pump, the summer everyone stole gas and the summer I thought I would be killed.
My ex-husband is right on the facts, though. The reasons behind the crisis were clear: the Iranian revolution, a resulting worldwide panic. On May 9, California started enforcing gas rationing in several counties, including Riverside. One day, only people with odd-numbered license plates could buy gas; the next, only people with even-numbered plates.
I got the job in early June, stuck in the tiny shoebox-shaped station for nine hours. No bathroom break. The station was off the Route 60 Freeway, from Los Angeles to Riverside, which turned into Interstate 10, headed all the way to Florida.
Florencio, the manager, who looked like a tanned young Richard Gere, was insane. He kept a baseball bat behind the register, where I dispensed jerky sticks and candy bars and took money after people pumped unleaded. Of course, not everyone paid, especially that summer.
Florencio spent much of his time unloading cases of Budweiser and oil and supervising the irregular delivery trucks filling the underground tanks, but he had the uncanny ability to know when someone was going to bolt without paying. One time I saw him staring at the owner of an ancient Buick the color of vanilla pudding. Suddenly he ran inside for the bat. The driver jumped in his car. Florencio leapt on the hood and beat on the windshield until it shattered. To no avail: the guy sped out, sliding my boss off the car like a crab. Florencio shouted that at least the man would pay more for a new windshield than he’d stolen in gas.
Some customers were scary: grizzled women who came in to run a quick-change scam, drunk men buying more beer. But I was more afraid of Florencio. One day he leapt into the bed of a truck making a move toward the exit; he beat out the back windshield and tried to strangle the driver, who finally gave up his wallet. Florencio took all his money.
But they still stole gas, especially when Florencio wasn’t there. I wouldn’t see the car until it had screeched out of the station because there was a line of people buying soda or beer. Often I had to work extra hours to pay back the lost money.
The crisis rolled on through the summer. Irrationality set in. All over the country, people wasted gallons of gas waiting in line for the gas they were afraid wouldn’t be there the next week. The crisis was the only news story anyone cared about. A protest outside Philadelphia turned violent. People stood guard beside their cars at night against thieves who siphoned out fuel. A board game came out called Gas Crisis, in which players had Large Cars or Small Cars and moved the action along with cards like “Oil Sheik” and “Walked to Work.”
Everyone was on edge, trying to save a buck and alert to anyone else trying to cut a corner. One day — I don’t remember if it was an odd or even one — a delivery truck was refilling our tanks, and the line of cars extended down the block. I chatted with the driver as he pumped the gas. He finished and relocked the metal hatch that protected the tanks from theft and left. Finally I re-opened the pumps for the impatient customers.
I was six people deep at the register, eating stale salted cashews from the nut bins behind the fingerprint-smudged glass cover, when people began to shout. Outside the window, I saw the cars of our most recent customers stopped in the middle of the street, doors ajar like the wings of dead beetles. Other cars had made it further, almost reaching the freeway on-ramp, before stopping.
The drivers started running toward the station, yelling.
The bat was beside me. Florencio was gone. “You sold us water!” one guy screamed at the window. Either the delivery-truck driver had stolen the unleaded from his own tanker, or someone had given him water in the first place.
It was like that “Twilight Zone” episode in which aliens turn off a town’s electricity, street by street, and eventually the confused and angry neighbors turn on each other. Several men barricaded the door to protect me, while a growing crowd milled around outside. Mob justice didn’t seem out of the question. And while no one could have mistaken a teenage girl for the station owner, they also probably wouldn’t care.
Finally the police came, and Florencio. He couldn’t leap on that tanker, long gone, but he would have. He would have beaten the driver to death, and maybe that scared me the most.
I quit not long after. But 30 years later, I often drive by my old Mobil station on my way to work. There’s no rationing, and there are no lines, and there are no mobs or protests or violence. Not yet, at least.
Susan Straight is a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of the novel “Take One Candle Light a Room.”