Saturday, August 27, 2005

Death Wish 2005: Prices At The Pump

I've been noticing a few things at the gas pump lately. No, not the prices! Specifically NOT the price of gas. I am studiously avoiding that little monstrosity. I am noticing everything else in an attempt to take my mind off the LED digits that are blinking so rapidly I feel like I'm in one of those sci-fi movie moments before the gas-guzzling white van, the 4-year-old and myself are hurled back in time, specifically to 1998 when gas was 89 cents a gallon. In that year we did not yet own the van, nor the 4-year-old, come to think of it. (Okay, proceed to disappear. It's just me, the gas, my credit card and Michael J. Fox in the DeLorean.) Anyway, one of the things I noticed in my fume-induced reverie is that there is a name on the gas pumps. Well there's the one for the inspector who makes sure the pumps are "honest." Honestly, do we care how "honest" they are when we have to consider taking out a home equity loan to afford to gas up for the rest of the year? It's Highway Robbery when it costs more to gas up your car than to buy a couple cartons of smokes! People may have to start kicking the cigarette habit just to keep their cars running. Which will have a negative impact on social security with all these cranky ex-smokers living longer, but that's news for another blog. The OTHER name that appears on gas pumps throughout the state of Florida is that of Charles Bronson. He is the commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. I am not quite sure why his name is on the pump. After all, who would want to be associated with the outrageous price of gas these days? Apparently there is a reason for his Official Presence, name-wise, on every single legal gas pump in the state of Florida. For one, he is the Florida Czar of Price-Gouging, sending out stern memos and press releases every time a hurricane blows through the state, resulting in an influx of Out-Of-State Price Gougers, who flock to join the Experienced In-State Price Gougers, and the Young Price-Gouging Apprentices. Price-gouging is sort of a profession here in Florida, and apparently Mr. Bronson is the state official who is in charge of regulating it so it doesn't get out of hand. If you look at the prices of food items that are sold from the snack carts of Florida's theme parks, you must realize that state disapproval of price gouging is, ahem, on a par of our disapproval of hurricanes. We can grimace at them, issue memoranda, complain to the media and threaten to get our navels pierced (all several billion of them), but neither hurricanes nor price gougers are going away any time soon. We'll be lucky if they don't linger long enough to leave us homeless AND broke. The original Death Wish was a 1974 movie starring Charles Bronson (the actor). Ironically debuting smack in the middle of our FIRST energy crisis. It was about a middle aged architect who becomes a vigilante after his wife is murdered. Jeff Goldblum (The Big Chill, The Fly, Jurassic Park) is also in it, playing Freak #1! I've never seen the movie, but I assume that means Jeff's character does not survive to the credits. Now that the latest news has a gas station owner being run over by a fleeing motorist who was trying to escape paying 50 bucks for gas, it's only a matter of time before the local gas station with attached convenience store becomes like a scene from the Wild West, complete with armed and dangerous grandmas trying to make sure their Caddys get the premium gas! And if we could get "our" Charles Bronson to slap on a badge and start patrolling the pumps, I, for one, would feel the teensiest bit safer! I paid a record price filling up my van today. The total was $64.90. The only reason the total was THAT low was that I filled up before the quarter tank mark. I might as well just steam up there with my rolling ocean liner for how much it is costing me to pollute the atmosphere like every good American! If prices keep going up we might start looking into alternatives that will start the dangerous trend of reversing global warming. Thus causing climates worldwide to start catching a cold in the confusion of not knowing whether to wear a sweater or not. (Follow mom's advice. WEAR the sweater!) People are starting to get chatty at the pump, too, like we're all getting ready to have major surgery together. They make little comments like, "Well, I guess we won't be EATING this week." (Uncertain chuckle.) "I'm thinking of trading this in for a BIKE!" (Pregnant pause.) "I might give up driving ALTOGETHER." (Click click click as the pump keeps whirring.) "Didja ever think we might be paying three bucks a gallon for GAS?" (Ambulance noises as guy's heart seizes up.) I'm not suggesting hybrid electric cars are the answer. I think walking is the answer, but you see we'd have to completely retool every aspect of American life in order to do that. It seems a lot easier to just pay high gas prices until we die, and then not worry about it anymore. However the next generation might want to think about putting together some planned communities that don't involve commuting fifty miles each way to work. I don't believe in rationing, either. (Imagine us wasting tankfuls of gas idling at the pump as we await our turns!) I think they should just charge what the market will bear and let the drips fall where they may. Europeans ALREADY pay the record-setting prices that we're complaining about, and have been for years. That's why they all drive soup cans with wheels and park on the sidewalks. Personally I'd be okay driving a 6-person golf cart with really great side view mirrors. Maybe the golf cart makers can become this century's new General Motors. Golf Motors! Hopefully Motorist Rage will not spill over into other areas of society. We should really not take out our gas rage on gas station attendants and convenience store clerks, no matter how snippy they are. We can blame ourselves for buying gas guzzlers and building suburbs so far out into the wilderness that the mountain lions eat the family pets. I heard there was a survey recently with an interesting premise. As reported on the radio, it was along the lines of, "Are you spending less money on other things because you're playing more for gas?" Heh. THINK about that for a moment. Well the vast majority of the people surveyed answered "yes" to that question. But you do want to ask the followup head-slappingly obvious question, "how could you NOT?" I'm anticipating the answers to that one too. Here are the ways we can avoid spending less on other things each time the price inches up a few pennies at the pump: 1) Interview for and obtain a new job that pays more. 2) Take a second job. Then a third, fourth, fifth and so forth, as needed. 3) Shoplift what you used to buy. (not quite right. Then you'd still be SPENDING less.) 4) Beg on streetcorners. ("Will accelerate for food.") 5) Demand that vendors REDUCE prices for non-gas items. Works best at farmers' markets after 5 p.m. with vegetables rotting under a hot sun. 6) Cash in IRAs and Savings Bonds. 7) Max out credit cards. There are other ways to cope with the pain at the pump, or GAStrointestinal distress. You could approach it strategically, as a baseball manager would. One option, of course, is the PUMP AND RUN. You do this only if you have a fast car with good acceleration, or a revoked driver's license that cannot get any more revoked than it already is. Second would be the SACRIFICE HUNT, where you drive around vainly from gas station to gas station, using up half a tank in the effort to find the cheapest price in the county. Next is the SUICIDE SQUEEZE, also known as carpooling. The DOUBLE STEAL requires three cars and a siphoning hose. If things are fairly close by you can utilize the INTENTIONAL WALK. If you are young, carefree, reasonably good-looking and don't value your life too much, you may consider throwing the HITCH-OUT, which involves use of the thumb. But in the meantime I'm calling on Mr. Bronson to do his civic duty and start monitoring the price gouging in the oil industry. Perhaps send the Saudi princes a note telling them Americans are developing increasingly ugly attitudes about their weekly fill-ups. As some internet pundit has said, "If the war in Iraq is about oil, imagine the price if we DIDN'T go to war over it." Some other wag has suggested it would've been cheaper to buy the oil reserves than wage the war. Funny idea, but not true. We can't AFFORD all the oil that lies under Iraq. We're barely affording the gas we're pumping now. We can only hope that engineers and scientists are busy inventing a car that runs on something else, hopefully a renewable resource such as wind, sun, water or used lotto tickets. Meanwhile, I'm practicing spending less on other things. I might start with Happy Meals.

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