A conversation crisis has hit Washington.
At dinner tables from Capitol Hill to Georgeton, where talk ordinarily might focus on politics, real estate, or who's left town for the Hamptons, it's one saga after another of personal perils at the pumps. Or, "How I made it throught three hours in the gas line and lived to tell the tale" -- again and again and again.
Frankly, some people are just plain bored.
"It's obsessive," says one hostess. "I think it's a metal disease. I wish we could take something."
Not since Watergate has Washington been so immersed in a single subject, through there is no comparison between the two, say longtime social observers.
"Watergate was endlessly fascinating," says one veteran of the party circuit, "and this is endlessly boring."
John Gleiber, who's been going to parties here since the Kennedy days, says that where once he could fine knowledgeable people on almost any subject, he doesn't anymore -- "I went to one party the other night and the only thing I could remember anybody saying was how they got up, went to the gas line, and went back to bed."
One hostess has even banned all talk of gas crises at her dinner table. Margot Hahn did that three weeks ago and claims that "everybody just loved it -- I was heroine."
Not everyone has taken such drastic measures as Margot Hahn, of course, and some people even thrive on the topic.
"I ask everybody I meet where they got their gas. That's my first question," says Frances Somoak, whose husband Marion "Joe" Smoak was chief of protocol in the Nixon administration.
And as cocktail parties turn into clearinghouses-on-the-rocks, people are attending in hopes of extracting new angles on how to cope with gas lines.
"IF SOMEONE CAN TELL ME, Hey, this station is open from 7 to 8 in the morning,' that's terrific because then I know where I can go," says Sheila Lucille Graham, whose husband Fred is a CBS correspondent.
People find themselves all but crossing their hearts and hoping to die in exchange for the names of gas stations where appointments are taken. And people like Jill Gore of McLean would rather pump her own unleaded than reveal her gas men's indentity.
The gas crisis has affected the social circuit in other ways. Society columnist Baroness Garnett Stackelberg has taken to hiding her jewels in her bar, then hopping the No. 42 bus outside her Northwest Washington apartment.
"That little bus just goes everywhere -- to Connecticut Avenue, past the Mayflower to K Street restaurants."
She insists the bar precaution is necessary - "I don't think it's a good idea to get on a bus and flash anything."
Not only are some people cutting back from, say, three parties to one per night, but they are also setting limits on how far they will travel to reach it.
"My limits are McLean and Potomac," say, three parties to one per night, but they are also setting near Chain Bridge. "I wouldn't go farther than that for anything -- even for a good party."
And some party-goers are cutting back on howw they get there, even to the point of garaging the Rolls.
"We haven't used the big car at all," says party giver and goer Evelyn Zlotnick, the "big car" being the Olls Royce. "We're not using the chauffeur thesehese days, so he's on vacation -- he's getting paid, of course."
She thanks God for "the little Toyota which is very kind on gas' and her husband Sidney who drives it.
There are all sorts of problems with limousines and chauffeurs. Take Bangladesh's Ambassador and Mrs. Tabarak Husain, who send their chauffeur out bright and early.
"The poor chap has to get up early in the morning and take his place in tze queue," says the ambassador. "i ask him every time now if the gas tank is full when we go out. I never had to inquire about these things in the past."
Inevitably, some life styles never change, especially in the horse country around Middleburg. Millionaries Liz Whitney Tippett still drives her wood surrey with the fringe on top to the country store in Upperville for groceries. And Cecillia McGhee, whose husband George is a former U.S. ambassador to Germany, says no one she knows is staying home from parties because of the gas shortage.
"Not in Middleburg," she emphasizes, "but then horses don't need gas."
For the others, though, the conversation crisis may be around as long as the gas lines.
"It reminds me of my youth in New York, when someone's mother came to town expecting people to talk about the opera, the Met and other exciting things," says John Gleiber. "When she got back home she said, 'All they did was just sit around and talk about how much rent they paid'"
"I feel we've come full circle."