It's a long read, but a good one

By Paul Salopek
Tribune correspondent

July 29, 2006

Chapter 1: The pay zone

Last summer, a new gasoline station opened in South Elgin, an old
farming village on the Fox River that's now being swallowed by the westward
sprawl of Chicago.

As service stations go, it's an alpha establishment. A $3 million
Marathon outlet with 24 digital pumps, a computerized carwash, a Goodfella's
sandwich shop and a convenience store lit up like an operating room, it
sells everything from ultra low sulfur diesel to herbal "memory
enhancer" to Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Infrared sensors activate the faucets in
its immaculate, white-tiled bathrooms. The coffee kiosk's floor is real
hardwood.

Howard Dunbar's Tanker Truck 6 rolled into the station one chilly night
last September. An amiable ex-cop, Dunbar drives for an independent
fuel hauler. At 9:25 p.m., he stepped down from the cab, set out the
safety cones, hooked up his hoses with a reassuring click, and then
proceeded to unload 7,723 gallons of gasoline and diesel into the station's
underground tanks.

It took Dunbar 29 minutes to empty his swimming pool-size cargo--a
workaday chore that reveals the triumphs of our motorized civilization but
also the seeds of its possible end.

The diesel streaked past a tiny glass porthole on the truck's hoses in
a smear of pale yellow, like beer, while the premium unleaded ran
colorless as vodka. That particular night, according to one industry method
of calculating the explosive energy locked away in crude oil, Dunbar
dumped the liquid equivalent of 19.2 million hours of physical labor into
the Marathon's storage tanks--or the power of a slave army of 2,200 men
working around the clock for a year. This bonanza would be sucked dry
by customers in 24 hours, a small, stark example of the nation's awesome
petroleum appetite at a time when the planet appears to be lurching
into an energy crunch of historic proportions.

By now, most Americans realize that something is profoundly awry in the
global oil patch.

For the majority of motorists, like the "swipe and go" customers at the
South Elgin Marathon, the evidence is painfully obvious: record-high
fuel costs that have surpassed last year's infamous price spikes
following Hurricane Katrina.

Yet to truly grasp the scope of the crisis looming before them,
Americans must retrace their seemingly ordinary tankful of gasoline back to
its shadowy sources. This is, in effect, a journey into the heart of
America's vast and troubled oil dependency. And what it exposes is a
globe-spanning energy network that today is so fragile, so beholden to
hostile powers and so clearly unsustainable, that our car-centered lifestyle
seems more at risk than ever.

"I truly think we're at one of those turning points where the future's
looking so ugly nobody wants to face it," said Matthew Simmons, an
energy investment banker in Houston who has advised the Bush administration
on oil policy. "We're not talking some temporary Arab embargo anymore.
We're not talking your father's energy crisis."

What Simmons and many other experts are talking about is a bleak new
collision between geology and geopolitics.

Below ground, the biggest worry is "peak oil"--the notion that the
world's total petroleum endowment is approaching the half-empty mark, a
geological tipping point beyond which no amount of extra pumping will
revive fading oil fields. Peak oil theory is controversial. Many think it
alarmist. Yet even Big Oil is starting to gird itself for possible fuel
shortages: Chevron, the nation's second-largest oil company, has
bluntly declared that "the era of easy oil is over" and is warning
energy-hungry Americans that "the world consumes two barrels of oil for every
barrel discovered."

Aboveground, things look little better. Most of the world's
petro-states, aware that crude supplies are growing increasingly valuable, have
limited drilling rights to their own oil companies.

In the meantime, humanity's thirst for petroleum continues to run wild.
Producing nations are pumping at maximum capacity. Yet the competing
energy demands of America and rapidly industrializing China and India now
threaten to outstrip global oil output. China has displaced Japan as
the No. 2 oil importer, after the United States. Chinese oil imports are
projected to double to 14 million barrels a day over the next 20 years.
Many credible analysts foresee a new "energy cold war" as the U.S. and
China square off over the planet's last reserves.

The new Marathon station at Illinois Highway 25 and Middle Street in
South Elgin turned out to be an ideal laboratory to parse these sobering
issues.

A typical canopy-and-box structure, the station helps feed Chicago's
explosive growth westward, into the exurban boomtowns where McMansions
hit the corn. It sits at a stoplight some 40 miles from downtown Chicago.
A gravel quarry operates across the street. Nearby, an old game farm
once extolled by Ernest Hemingway has vanished under golf courses and
shopping malls.

Most important of all, exclusive access to industry refining data made
it possible, for the first time ever, to track the oil consumed by this
one gas station back to the dusty war zones, belligerent autocracies
and tottering nation-states where it came from.

For years, oil companies have insisted that this could never be done.
Conventional wisdom holds that America's colossal oil flows get mixed
together, swapped among companies and rebranded too many times to
pinpoint the actual source of your $40 purchase of unleaded. The industry has
encouraged this belief for years, partly to avoid boycotts.

Yet with a little research, and proprietary data supplied by the
Marathon Petroleum Co., the Tribune could trace with unparalleled clarity
virtually every bucketful of trucker Howard Dunbar's shipment back to its
distant origins.

On the hydrocarbon menu that September night, in round figures:

Gulf of Mexico crudes--31 percent


Texas crudes--28 percent


Nigerian crudes--17 percent


Arab Light from Saudi Arabia--10 percent


Louisiana Sweet--8 percent


Illinois Basin Light--4 percent


Cabinda crude from Angola--3 percent


N'Kossa crude from the Republic of Congo--.01 percent

For a span of five months, from September through February, other fuel
shipments to the station were analyzed for their crude composition.
Molecules swirled through the South Elgin Marathon's gas pumps from
Nigeria, Iraq and Venezuela, as well as from declining oil fields in the
United States.

Taken together, they revealed the immense human costs, the boggling
technical investments, the hardball politics, the hidden exploitation and,
ultimately, the alarming fragility of America's epic oil addiction--as
seen through the prism of a local gas station. U.S. consumers and
faraway producers were finally tethered, without resorting to metaphor or
guesswork, by a clear oil trail.

Thus, $73.81 worth of unleaded pumped one Saturday afternoon by a
Little League mom was traced not simply back to Africa, but to a particular
set of offshore fields in Nigeria through which Ibibio villagers canoed
home to children dying of curable diseases.

Every day, the jaded tanker drivers brought human stories echoing in
their trucks. They plunked their long wooden measuring sticks into the
Marathon station's 40,000-gallon underground tanks, and the resulting
subterranean gong evoked--depending on the changing oil vintage--an Iraqi
ex-colonel's cavernous loneliness. Or the laments of a West African
fisherman named Sunday, afloat on a fishless stretch of the Atlantic. Or
the songs of Marxist Indians reveling in their newfound oil wealth atop
a dusty South American plateau.

The voices of Chinese oil prospectors gurgled inside all of the fuel
shipments. And diluted in the gas came a warning that many Americans seem
unprepared to hear: Our nation's energy-intensive joy ride, powered by
150 years of cheap petroleum, may finally be coming to an end. This
could be as good as it gets.

"We're almost done," said Dunbar, the trucker, on that first night. He
is a busy man. He worked without complaint in a thin T-shirt stenciled
"Beverly Hills Polo Club." A cold prairie wind shot across the Marathon
parking lot, needling the bones.

He carried his invoice into the convenience store. The night clerk, a
scrappy young woman named Kelly Hanson, stood behind the register, ready
to parry the night's oddballs and hard cases, the cops and strippers,
the heads who wandered in asking where to buy dope.

"Hello darlin'," Hanson said grandly. Dunbar grinned. When he left at
10:10 p.m. the Marathon stood empty, glowing under its glacial white
floodlights. In the darkness beyond stretched the hungry energy maw of the
Midwest--a naked cornfield, silent Highway 25 and the indistinct shapes
of new tract homes.

This is how it begins, our travelogue of addiction.

***

`Did that Nissan pay at 19?" Marta Perez, the morning-shift clerk,
asked as she peered out at the pumps from behind her register.

"He didn't pay me," said her colleague Anthony Ratajczyk.

Ratajczyk has the rubbery face of an old boxer, which is what he is.
His nose has been broken nine times.

"Well he didn't pay me either," Perez muttered. "Michelle! We got
another drive-off!"

It was September. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had delivered their
one-two punch to the energy-rich Gulf Coast, swamping New Orleans and
disabling the offshore wells and pipelines that yield a third of America's
domestic energy production. In South Elgin, population 20,000, gas prices
at the Marathon had broken the $3-a-gallon barrier. And the Bubbas and
Barbies--industry lingo for the working-class men and white-collar
commuters who keep convenience stores solvent--were misbehaving. They were
stealing Michelle Vargo's gasoline.

"You'd think it would only be the crummy cars, but people in nice cars
are doing it too," exclaimed Vargo, the frazzled station manager. "I
never seen anything like it."

Vargo, 36, is too young to recall that this had happened before, during
the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979.

Nor did she and her small band of employees appear to fully grasp the
ominous economic and political forces churning around their local gas
station. Few Americans do.

In typically murky industry fashion, the station is branded and
supplied by Marathon but actually owned by an independent fuel retailer--in
this case, Prairie State Enterprises of Barrington. Freelance shippers
called "jobbers" haul the gas. And even though much of the station's
petroleum does in fact bubble from Marathon's own oil patches, the company
as often purchases its oil from Exxon Mobil, Iraq's Southern Oil Co. or
Venezuela's PDVSA, a swaggering national oil company with its own
patriotic song.

If the South Elgin Marathon ever inspires an anthem, it would be
dedicated to Vargo.

Many of America's gas stations are matriarchies. The owners simply
trust women managers more. Vargo's loyalty and work ethic showed why.

A single mom with a hard-edged life, she is a dynamo with hair permed
into stringy curls like fusilli pasta. She walks with the stoop of the
continually put-upon. In a ruthless business that actually earns a
pittance from gasoline sales (oil companies and refiners snatch the bulk of
the fuel's profits long before it reaches the pumps), she struggles to
stay afloat. Her station's income comes from the incidentals of frantic
modern life: cigarettes, energy drinks, stay-awake pills, the Lotto,
and sweet and salty snacks. Her workers love her.

"If Michelle leaves, I leave," declared morning clerk Perez, 34,
another single mother who moonlights tending bar at a local pub where she is
known as "Shorty." "At $7.75 an hour? You gotta be kidding. She's the
only reason I stay."

The clerks are a motley group clad in vests made of blue polyester,
itself a petroleum product. Many are the working poor. Some can't pay
their bills. Several still live with their parents. The night maintenance
man, Dwayne Graff, lives in a trailer and always seems one small
misfortune away from homelessness. Vargo advanced him $20 over the weekends
out of her own purse. She gave them all second chances and sometimes
third chances.

During the days of post-Katrina gas banditry, Vargo deployed her troops
shrewdly, with a platoon sergeant's care. She bought a cheap pair of
binoculars to log license plates. She ordered Perez to park her rusty
Mazda at pump 19, to block the station's quickest escape route. Then fuel
allocations kicked in for a week--many gas stations were limited to one
tanker delivery a day--and Vargo's voice hoarsened from stress and
cigarettes.

"The worst, the absolute worst, thing that can happen is to run out of
gas," she groaned in her closet-size office behind the pizza oven. "The
customers will never come back."

The gas station phone rang. It was her son in juvenile hall. Could he
come back home and stay with her?

"No," she said calmly, and hung up.

Vargo drives to work in a car she can't afford. It is a white Chevrolet
Suburban that churns out a ruinous 10 miles to a gallon and rides so
high off the street she has to boost herself into the driver's seat as if
jumping into a saddle. Her two-hour daily commute, about 40 miles each
way from Lockport, roughly double the national average. Still, there
are times when the extravagant vehicle seems the only reliable part of
her unsettled life.

"I don't feel safe in small cars," Vargo said defensively, refueling
one day at the pump.

She seemed worn and jittery. It was the end of an 11-hour shift. She
was headed home to a house shared with two teen daughters and a 4-foot
iguana--a place she would soon vacate because she couldn't make the rent.

The only perk for the station employees is free coffee. There are no
discounts on gas. Vargo bought $40 of regular unleaded. She rubbed the
heel of one hand tiredly into her eye sockets. With the other, clutching
the pump nozzle, she touched a faraway sea.

***

In 1940, the United States was the Saudi Arabia of the world. It
produced 63 percent of the planet's oil. Today, after years of frenzied
pumping, it generates 8 percent.

About a third of Vargo's fill-up that day came from the last major pool
of crude remaining in oil-starved America: the basement of the Gulf of
Mexico. Trace it from seabed to suburbia, and you X-ray America's aging
industrial innards.

It started 9,000 feet inside the crust of the Earth, in Miocene Epoch
rocks that have the consistency of oil-soaked beach sand. The rocks
simmer near the boiling point of water. This is known in the business as
the "pay zone."

From that hellish place, the crude was sucked up into a 4-inch drill
pipe that punctured the Atlantic floor near a submerged hillock called
Viosca Knoll 786. It shot up 1,750 feet of pipe to an offshore production
rig and got shunted ashore to a huge tank farm in St. James, La. There
it began its long journey to the Midwest in a pipeline big enough for a
person to walk in, albeit hunched over--a 632-mile-long artifact of our
oil dependency that will doubtless astound future archeologists.

Arriving at the Robinson refinery in southern Illinois, it got cooked
and cooled for five days inside 23-story towers monitored by hard-hatted
engineers who pedal around the facility on bicycles. Then it gushed
through 16- and 12-inch fuel pipelines for three days until it reached a
40-year-old tank farm near O'Hare International Airport. Finally, it
traveled its last 12 miles to the South Elgin Marathon inside Howard
Dunbar's truck. Whenever Dunbar braked at stoplights, the shipment sloshed
tidally forward.

The enormous cost of this elaborate capillary system, built over
generations, helps cement our reliance on hydrocarbons.

"Takes a bit of power to bring it up," hollered Ferrell Martin, 52, a
senior mechanic aboard Petronius, a drilling platform that juts above
the gulf's waves near Viosca Knoll. "Our generators could electrify a
small town."

The platform, co-owned by Chevron and Marathon, came on line in 2000.
It cost more than $500 million to build, nearly what the United States
shells out every 24 hours to buy imported crude. A masterpiece of high
technology, it pumps the energy equivalent of 60,000 barrels of oil and
natural gas a day--a gusher that matches Pakistan's national output and
is only slightly behind Italy's.

Petronius is gigantic, almost beyond imagining. If the steel-legged
platform were the 110-floor Sears Tower, the ocean's bed would muddy the
lobby, and the sea's surface would lap at the antennas. Go 40 feet
higher, and you would finally reach Martin's workplace--a swaying 10-story
cube of valves, piping, generators and windowless crew quarters
inhabited by about 90 men. Clad in blue Chevron overalls, they lean into one
another as if passing on secrets; they're shouting into each other's
faces to be heard over the howl of machinery.

Under the mistaken impression that they were crowning this technical
wonder with a grand name, Chevron executives christened the rig after an
infamous debauchee of Roman Emperor Nero's court. Regardless, Petronius
is impressive. It is a fitting monument to America's empire of oil.

More than 100 such gargantuan structures dot the gulf. As do an
estimated 6,500 other oil-related features such as wells, pumping stations and
helipads, not to mention some 30,000 miles of submerged pipelines
tangled like spaghetti across the gulf floor. On any given day, swarms of
oil company helicopters mutter through the gauzy marine air. Armadas of
supply boats chalk the lime-peel-green ocean surface. On the horizon,
gas flares burn palely.

This is Martin's strange, metallic, largely womanless world. Almost
certainly, it is also America's last great oil rush.

"The future is here," said Martin, a big, friendly Cajun with a nose
like a hatchet. "The onshore fields are fading."

***

One man who keeps Michelle Vargo's gas-guzzling Suburban rolling
doesn't have an oil worker's rough hands. He sits in a red granite skyscraper
in Houston and speaks in what sound like Zen koans: "the topography of
sound," "sand is silent" and "the trick is not to know when to believe
your data, but to know when not to believe it."

Jeff Rutledge, a senior geophysicist for Marathon, was making a point
about the increasingly difficult search for the world's last accessible
pockets of conventional crude.

"No question, we're facing a whole new game," said Rutledge, a
sandy-haired New Orleans native. "Sure, there's a lot of resources still out
there, but they're getting riskier to invest in, much harder to find and
more expensive to reach."

The quest for oil is tireless, exhaustive, obsessive--and if Marathon's
technology and exploration department is anything to judge by, highly
eccentric. Brainy geologists use their office windows for blackboards,
scrawling equations on the glass with felt-tipped pens. Others wear
strange goggles in a small, theater-like room, peering up in silence at 3-D
chunks of the Earth's crust. Desks are piled with what look like old
eight-track tapes: computer drives that contain volumes of exploration
data that beggar belief. Seismic surveys, the industry's main tool for
locating oil, involve setting off small shock waves at the Earth's
surface and recording millions of "echoes" from the rock below.

"One typical seismic project contains about the same amount of data as
your DNA code," Rutledge said. "Two or three surveys together contain
the equivalent of all the information available on the Internet today."

Progress reports from 10 to 20 of these fantastically pricey, high-tech
quests from Africa, Russia and the North Atlantic land on Rutledge's
desk every day.

According to industry optimists, such herculean efforts to squeeze out
Earth's last high-quality oil are the best retort to doomsayers who
worry that the world is running on empty.

Out in the gulf, for instance, Petronius' 19 wells do things engineers
couldn't dream of a quarter-century ago. They snake downward through
almost 1,800 feet of seawater, bore vertically through a mile and a half
of rock, and then veer off laterally under the stony seabed for
distances of up to 5 miles. This is the oil-patch equivalent of drawing blood
from a hidden vein--with a hypodermic needle 180 feet long.

Such whiz-bang technology has encouraged the U.S. Minerals Management
Service to boost the Gulf of Mexico's potential oil reserves by 15
percent, to 86 billion barrels. That's enough, in theory, to meet U.S.
demand for another decade. Much of that, however, lies in deep,
environmentally sensitive waters near the Florida coast and is prohibitively
expensive to extract using current technology.

"Cost aside, we don't see any immediate shortage in the resource at the
global level," said Bob Greco, an exploration analyst with the American
Petroleum Institute, the industry lobbying group. "Innovation will keep
pushing the envelope of what's recoverable."

Many oil executives also insist that much of today's oil woes are
actually man-made: Environmental restrictions and stingy foreign governments
keep valuable reserves locked up.

Skeptics, however, dismiss this as mere wishful thinking--a
"cornucopian" belief that, somewhere, somehow, nature will still bail humans out.

The United States gulps a quarter of the crude pumped on the planet,
industry critics point out, yet it sits atop just 3 percent of the
globe's reserves. No amount of new drilling will change this. The awesome and
costly platforms that stride ever-deeper into gulf waters are symbols
of a junkie's desperation, they say, not hope.

"You can drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, on every
continental shelf and atop every hill in America for that matter, and you
still won't reverse the fact that our oil production is in permanent
decline," said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), a senior member of the House
Science Committee. "We're just sopping up what's left, digging ourselves
into a deeper hole."

Bartlett belongs to a small but suddenly influential band of pessimists
who are ringing alarm bells over peak oil.

The theory of peak oil is based on the studies of M. King Hubbert, a
pioneering U.S. geologist who correctly predicted in the 1950s that
America's huge crude output would "peak," or hit a ceiling, in 1970. Nobody
disputes that the phenomenon is real. The output of all oil reservoirs
begins to decline after about half of their oil is extracted. Today,
peakists cite anemic oil discoveries since the 1980s, plus ominous
drop-offs in production in major fields in Kuwait, China and Mexico, among
other places, as evidence that the world, too, is reaching its fateful
peak.

Estimates of when we will hit this milestone vary from "we've passed it
already" to the U.S. Geological Survey's latest calculation of
2044--hardly a reassuring date, given that rocketing oil prices and their
attendant social chaos would stagger the industrial world well before that
reckoning.

In the beige corridors of Marathon's Houston skyscraper, certain
absences hinted at the waning age of cheap, easily tapped crude oil. Because
of the high costs and diminishing returns of modern exploration
efforts, Rutledge said, Marathon's technology and exploration staff has
shrunk. Much of the exploration work is farmed out. Also, oil discoveries are
getting smaller; hardly the giant "elephant" finds of bygone eras, most
are like elusive rabbits.

Rutledge gazed out his window at the overcast city below. Small homes
in the neighborhood were being torn down and replaced by hulking trophy
houses.

Using available technology, he said, Petronius' bounty likely will
shrivel in 12 to 15 years.

***

Michelle Vargo was off duty. She slumped at La Fuente bar in suburban
Lockport, nursing a beer and staring hard at her South Elgin Marathon
paycheck: $1,049.31 for two weeks' labor.

"This is impossible," she said. "I'm spending a third of my take-home
on gas."

At her elbow sat Roy Draino, 42, Vargo's boyfriend. He is a man
prematurely wizened, like a boiled-down version of some larger self, and he
wants Vargo to quit the gas station.

"She comes home and can't relax," he said. "Last night they called her
eight times--eight times--over some goddamned drive-off. It ain't worth
it."

Vargo's whole life, it seems, is bound up with burning petroleum. Her
father was a long-haul trucker who was frequently gone. Before working
at the Marathon, she had managed three gas stations for Phillips. And
even her hard-bitten beau is in the business.

Draino scrubs oil refinery furnaces for a living. The work is
undependable. U.S. refineries have dwindled from more than 300 to just 145 over
the last 25 years. Industry blames this perilous bottleneck in the
nation's gasoline production on environmental red tape and public
opposition to new oil infrastructure--BANANA they call it, Build Absolutely
Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody. But critics claim that Big Oil actually
likes the status quo; the inevitable shortfalls drive up gas prices.

Vargo's cell phone rang. This time it was her ex-husband calling. He'd
gotten wind of Draino.

"We're livin' together, so what?" Vargo said.

"He wanna talk to me?" Draino said coldly.

"I'll make sure to invite you to the wedding," Vargo said stonily into
the phone, and obscenities erupted from its small speaker.

A melee ensued. Draino grabbed the handset, growled "Hello! Hello!" and
strode out onto the sidewalk. Vargo's eldest daughter, Brittany, 15,
was there. When she heard Draino berating her father, she began screaming
at Draino.

Vargo sighed and laid her head on the bar counter. Even her family life
is a form of internal combustion.

The next day at the gas station, her eyes were red. As usual, she kept
her woes to herself. She, Marta Perez and Joni Hanson, the mother of
night clerk Kelly Hanson, decorated the convenience store with cardboard
Halloween pumpkins and fake spider webs.

A customer suddenly poked his head through the door: His pump wasn't
starting properly.

"Darlin'," he drawled to the clerks, "could you please turn me on?"

***

Ferrell Martin was also in distress.

Home from his usual two-week shift aboard Petronius, the strapping
Cajun oil worker was getting hopelessly lost.

Martin's ancestors had fished and trapped the watery maze of Bayou
Terrebonne, a fabled swamp about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans, for
more than 200 years. But today, Louisiana's lush wetlands, the richest in
America, are dying, crumbling into the sea. Martin knelt at the bow of
a bass boat steered by one of his numberless bayou relatives, trying,
again and again, to get the boat unstuck from hidden bars of mud.

"I can't even find the same fishing holes anymore," Martin said,
fanning away mosquitoes. "The whole place is just sinking away."

It's been widely known for decades that flood-control measures on the
Mississippi River are chewing away at Louisiana's biologically rich
coasts. The river's sediments are being flushed disastrously out into the
deep sea. And the swamps aren't being replenished; a marshland the size
of Delaware has already washed away. But new studies suggest that oil
and natural gas extraction may be another culprit.

The U.S. Geological Survey believes land in and around Bayou Terrebonne
is starting to sag like a deflating wineskin as fossil fuels are pumped
out in massive quantities. In some places, it has settled 11 inches.
For a landscape that is in many cases only a few feet above sea level,
the implications are ominous. Erosion and subsidence have eaten away at
least 2 miles of coastline near Ferrell Martin's modest house in
Montegut, La.

He recognized the irony: Oil has yanked thousands of once-impoverished
Cajuns into the middle class, but it is now helping swallow their
ancestral homes.

"Everything's a trade-off, I guess," Martin said, baiting another hook
with a sardine and casting his line into what used to be dry cattle
pastures in his youth.

This, too, gets burned up by the cars in South Elgin: a clod of
southern Louisiana.

***

Y103.9--The Beat of the 'Burbs--was piping Don McLean's "American Pie"
into the Marathon gas station store.

As usual, five truckloads of landscaping crews showed up at 7:30 a.m.:
exhausted-looking Mexicans with bed head and chin stubble tanking up on
junk food and energy drinks. Among them was "Mr. Ding Dongs and Coke,"
so known for the breakfast he always buys. At the gas station,
customers don't have proper names. They are called "darling," "honey,"
"sweetie," "mi hijo" ("my son") or simply referred to by the products they
consume.

Gas prices remained high--just easing below $3 a gallon. The drivers
were sometimes rude.

A skinny old man with the face of a closet drinker stalked in from the
pumps.

"$49 for half a tank of gas! Jay-sus!" he snapped.

"I know, I know, sir," said clerk Joni Hanson.

"It's a rip-off. A total scam!"

"I don't set the prices, sir."

The old man paid. He vowed angrily never to return.

"He'll be back," clerk Marta Perez told Hanson. And she was right.