McKinley Dixon was standing near Pump 1, talking about the good old days -- what was it, last Saturday? -- when he paid $2.93 for a gallon of gasoline for his four-door Mazda.
But yesterday morning, the sign at the Columbia Heights Exxon at 14th Street and Parkwood Place NW broadcast this news: He would be spending $3.29 for regular or $3.49 for supreme. This was serious, so he paused to editorialize, to speak for the people:
"This is something we cannot afford."
"Look at that!" shouted Howard Penn, across from Dixon at Pump 2, one hand on the handle, one pointing to the sign: "The gas has gone up again. Damn." It was 9:39 a.m., and one of the employees already had come out to raise prices; both grades went up 20 cents, just like that.
A certain faith in commerce is lost when the product you are buying changes price between the time you pick it up and the time you must pay. What to stand on? What is true? Penn looked up, all around the blue sky, beseeching. The god of gas prices was silent. The pump itself offered no solace:
"Need Cash?" a little red sign on the pump asked. "ATM machine inside."
Whom to blame?
"We have a no-good [expletive] president for one thing, if you want me to be frank about it," said Penn, 60, a retiree from the District who lives on a fixed income. Just 7.604 gallons later for his green Ford Aerostar minivan, he was out $25.09.
"I don't think you can put it on one person. It's not the mayor, it's not the president," Dixon offered.
But Penn, in angry language, made it clear what he thought of the president and what he thought the president thought about a-not-quite-defined "us."
"And it has changed my habits. I used to like to go up to Dover, to the Midway [casino]. . . . Now it costs too damn much."
At this, Andre Massy, 54, waiting in his Acura Legend, leaned his head out the window and informed Penn:
"If you stand here any longer, it's going to go up more."
The Columbia Heights Exxon is across the street from Cavalier Liquor, Amazonas Travel and the Parkwood Laundromat. A D.C. police officer, who would have loved to give his opinion on gas prices but was precluded by duty, idled in the parking lot for a couple of hours, his exact mission unclear.
The station has 10 pumps, a capacity of 28,000 gallons, and is owned by two brothers from Pakistan. For the first time they can remember, the station ran out of gas Friday night, which the younger brother, Zaheer Ahmad, 31, blamed on damage to Exxon's regular supply routine caused by Hurricane Katrina. At that point, regular was selling for $3.09.
By 6:00 a.m. yesterday, he said, a delivery truck showed up with 8,000 gallons of gas at higher prices from Exxon. Ahmad said they tacked on their own increase to keep their profit margin, but he would rather not. He said the escalating costs didn't benefit anyone.
"If prices are down, more people buy gas, so more people buy sodas and coffee, and we make more money," he said. "If this thing continues, I'm sorry to say it will be very bad. This is a serious matter, it is the spinal cord of our country."
At these prices, nearly everyone complained, some with unprintable exclamations of disgust, even though many bought Exxon's "supreme" gas believing it would give them more mileage. They have foregone excursions of all kinds: One man cut down on trips to his sailboat, anchored in a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. Jorge Tomas Delgado, 45, was owed $250 for construction work he did in Woodbridge, but he wasn't about to drive there. After spending $17.42 for 4.9 gallons, Rafael Cruz, 35, decided that yes, he did want to sell his Nissan Pathfinder. "I will stay at home. I will not go out at all."
Every day, Abinet Addissu, 37, pays $40 to fill up his taxicab, a black Lincoln Town Car that gets 15 miles to the gallon with the air conditioning on, in the hopes of making $80 a day. He was getting accustomed to a gas bill of $30 a day, but now, prices are out of hand, Congress is out of session and $1 surcharge on cab fare, intended to help with these prices, has just expired.
"We are dying here," he said. "I wish I stopped working. I wish we were on strike, too."
Oscar Fuentes, 27, a man who appreciates the glory of automobiles enough to get a Mercedes logo molded onto his front right gold tooth, was grim: "This is very bad."
Flor Menjivar, 36, who was driving around tamales in a white van, was able to deflect the pain: "My boss says it's too much money."
Alex Ortiz, 33, driving a Toyota Camry, had one plaintive question:
"Tell me," he asked. "When is this going to end?"