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Family get-togethers no longer begin with "Hello, how are you?" but "Whaddaya payin' for gas?"

It's the million-dollar question.

When the husband mentions that the corner station raised prices 10 cents overnight, others shudder with such disgust, you almost wonder if they think we should have showed the station a thing or two by staying home.

("We'll teach those oil barons a lesson! We'll stay HOME from Fred and Wanda's 50th anniversary party. Won't Chevron be sorry now! I bet even Saddam is weeping in his cell!")

When I point out that a 10-cent increase on a 20-gallon tank adds up to only two dollars, let's just say nobody is impressed with my math skills.

And let me tell you something else. The last thing this group wants to hear is that malarkey about a gallon of gasoline being cheap compared to a gallon of Nyquil ($17), Wite-Out ($25) or Scope ($84).

"That may be true," someone will say, "but what do you want? A car that can merge onto six lanes of interstate or a sleeping sedan that has fresh breath and blends into the scenery during a blizzard?"

Listen, I'm developing the same facial tics as the next consumer at the pump, it's just that these cost-of-gasoline diatribes always end in red faces, caustic remarks and chants of "On to Alaska!"

For the record, I'm all for displacing the three elk that inhabit the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and drilling that barren, forsaken tundra, but somehow I always have to be the rational one reminding the group that not a single one of us could afford the gasoline to get there to construct the first well.

While these animated discussions on the price of gas have absolutely no bearing on what we pay at the pump, I must admit they do seem to have a certain calming, therapeutic effect when they draw to a close.

If cousin Marvin and his wife find satisfaction driving from Indiana to Illinois in their SUV because they heard gas was two cents cheaper across the state line, I say go for it.

As a matter of fact, why not swing through Michigan on the way back just to see what gas is going for up there?

If the husband derives satisfaction every Thursday morning by pointing out he knew the price of gasoline would go up again like it does every Thursday morning, then I'm satisfied, too.

If my father finds enjoyment advancing his theory that the cost of gasoline is based on peer pressure -- Shell raises prices because Speedway raises prices because Marathon raises prices ... -- then I find enjoyment, too.

If our middle child finds it reassuring to believe the cost of gasoline is not about gouging consumers, but merely a mechanical experiment to see how fast the numbers can change on the pumps, them I find such lunacy reassuring as well.

If my father-in-law, an adorable man who has sparkling hazel eyes, snow white hair and has experienced some shrinkage in his 93 years of life finds happiness in his senior discount -- his senior discount is where he pumps $6.50 worth of gas and then asks the kid behind the counter with four rings in his nose if he'll take $6 -- then I say, I'm happy, too.

I say, "Pops, next time you feel like going to the station, take my car."

Knight Ridder Newspapers

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