Raising the price of oil and gasoline in the United States is a serious business. While some of it is based on supply and demand, other factors are involved.
One of the largest price-fixers is Nathan Cheesebelt, who works in the boiler room of the Spit-Ball Oil Co.
The only reason Cheesebelt agreed to see me was because his mother told him he had to.
He was at his desk facing a large blackboard, with a telephone against each ear and shouting at the people in the room. "We just got word that there is going to be a full moon tomorrow. Let's raise super unleaded to $2.90 a gallon."
Someone wrote $2.90 on the blackboard and everyone cheered.
Then Cheesebelt turned to me. "What do you want?"
"I was wondering if you could tell me how you arrive at your prices."
"We do it by crisis. For a long time the price of oil was down, down, down. We could get more for Evian water than we could for gasoline. The oil companies were starving to death and no one cared. Then came Iraq and we started to live again. The threat of a shortage gave us an excuse to send the price soaring."
"There is a rumor that some companies are gouging to take advantage of the Middle East conflagration. Any truth to that?"
"Lies, all lies. We're only charging a minimum price to make up for all the years we had to eat dog food." The phone rang and Cheesebelt picked it up.
"Right." Then he yelled at the woman standing at the blackboard, "The New York Yankees just lost a double-header -- move everything at the pump up another 95 cents."
"Do you always raise the price of gasoline when the Yankees lose?"
"In an oil crisis you raise it every chance you get. We went up 45 cents yesterday because the air-conditioning unit in this basement broke down."
"Do you have carte blanche to increase prices as high as you want to?"
"Of course, but we don't do it willy-nilly. For example, there was a traffic jam this morning on the Capital Beltway when a tractor-trailer flipped over. We didn't increase the prices over that."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Because we had already raised them after a three-car collision that completely stopped everything on the Triborough Bridge."
"At the very time you are raising prices because of events here, you are also hiking them depending on what's going on in the Middle East."
"It's all part of the same package," Cheesebelt told me. "Once you have an excuse to push up gas prices, you use it. Nobody was sorry for us when we made more on the diet cola we sold in our machines than we did on gasoline at the pump. Now the oil can is on the other foot, and people are going to be coming to us with tin cups and fistfuls of dollars, begging us to fill their tanks."
"The beauty of the oil business," I said, "is that one day you're up and the next day you're down."
"In a crisis all we do is provide a product."
The phone rang again.
Cheesebelt shouted, "What did you say? ... Mayor Barry is going to make a videotape for MTV? Right ..."
He yelled up to the person at the blackboard, "Raise everything on the board another dollar."