MONDAY-MORNING gas lines must be slowing uptown feeder buses to a crawl: seats are easy to find on the Red Line at Dupont Circle. When I get down to our outpost of the Energy Department, the people who aren't still in gas lines are comparing gasoline hard-luck stories.
Within minutes, the chitchat has turned to phones. I try a number across the hall and get, "Sorry, the number you have called is not in service..." My officemate has the whole story: Over the weekend, the five or six exchanges serving diverse buildings of DOE have been merged into one giant Centrex. To get another office in this building, you now dial seven digits instead of five, but you don't have to dial 9 to get Germantown, if you follow me. Around lunchtime we get a memo announcing the change.
This morning the most compelling task is to get a stack of technical reports over to our Office of Congressional Affairs. The Old Post Office Building where they hang out is an easy walk from here, and it's a beautiful day. I get there only to find that the person I want has been moved to the Forrestal Building on the other side of the Mall. It's still a beautiful day, but I wish I'd worn my running shoes.
The most important job for the time being is citizen mail. The department gets a lot just by virtue of its notoriety, and when energy is in the headlines - Three Mile Island, Mexican oil, gasoline shortages - new waves come in. Most of it is congressional constituent mail, identified by special "buck" (as in "pass the buck") slips with serial numbers and deadlines. "Congressionals" are treated with deference, because congressmen vote on our budget and their constituents vote for them. Besides, those nice people out in the Heartland pay our salaries, and they have a right to an answer.
Right now, although our particular group is far removed from the regulatory functions of DOE and largely out of the political line of fire, we are getting a lot of letters on gasohol. A few people ask what it is (90 percent unleaded gasoline, 10 percent ethyl alcohol) or how much it costs (about 10 cents more than straight unleaded, although some states even it up with a tax break). Most, however, want a piece of the action. Our basic message is that we don't have any money to help you build a still in your back yard, but some other government agencies do. The revenuers will indeed come after you if you don't check with them first. Yes, we heard the president's speech on the subject, and we agree it's a great idea.
Around lunchtime I get a call from my sister about progress on our apartment search. We're looking for a place to share near the subway, and lately a lot of other people have gotten the same idea. Landlords can afford to discriminate against people with more cats than money.
My sister says she talked with a guy who said the cat would have to have a reference from a previous landlord. "Glencora is clean, quiet and housebroken and always pays the rent on time."
On the other hand, all the wise guys who advised us to buy a car and move to Gaithersburg have suddenly dropped the subject.
Windows have now superseded phones and gas lines. My officemate, Judy, has just released our tentative floor plan for an eventual move to the Forrestal Building. All day long, distraught bureaucrats wander into the office, pleading, raving and wringing their hands because they don't like their room assignments. A few are using language unsuitable for a family newspaper. It's hard to get any work done.
I now have 17 gasohol-related "congressionals" on my desk. A few stand out: a librarian in a small rural town who is being deluged even as we are, a proposal to make organic garbage into a slurry and pump it down old oil and gas wells to ferment "for a couple of years," and an amateur botanist who says he's found a way to zap plants so that they grow at many times their normal rate and thus could provide feedstocks for alcohol production.
When I was at the National Science Foundation at the time of 1974 embargo, we used to get a lot of letters that read something like this: "Dear President Nixon: I have an idea which is going to solve the whole energy crisis, and if you send me a million dollars in unmarked $20 bills, I'll tell you what it is." The ones we get now are somewhat better thought out. In any case, no matter how irrational the writer appears to be, we take the time to put together an answer.
At 2:50, Dan, a summer intern, stops me in the hall to tell me that a "congressional" that had been due Friday has been moved up to 3:15 today. At the moment, it's in handwritten draft. We're in luck - we can get time on the Vydec text editor, which is the offspring of a typewriter crossed with a computer and makes it possible to save texts for reuse or corrections.
Debate over correct spelling of "gasohol" - it appears as "gasahol" in some technical papers. Print out. Too long for one page. Rearrange on screen. Print out again. Notice typo in second paragraph. Accidentally hit "read" button instead of "store," create chaos on screen, erase and make revisions all over again. Print out yet again. More debate: Is "cellulosic" a word?
Dan starts running copies while I type the "concurrence chain" - a list of people to initial their approval - on the yellow record copy. We sort out the copies, staple them together, insert tabs for signature and concurrence. By now it is well past 3:15, and tomorrow someone will pay.
The security guard by the elevator jokes about sitting there watching other people work.
I learn by word of mouth that we have a new acting assistant secretary, the fourth person to hold the job since last December. Quick mental review: Is any letter in the pipeline for the previous incumbent's signature? If so, it will have to be retyped with the new name.
Dan drops by to go over the 17 "congressionals." I start reading excerpts aloud.Soon I am gigling uncontrollably over the amateur botanist.
The answers to these letter must be carefully crafted. They must not contain any phrase or idea which might offend the constituent, the congressman, the GAO, the OMB, or any of the five or ten DOE people who must concur on them. Innocent-sounding expressions can trip you up. I knew a division director who wouldn't let us speak of "exploiting" a new energy source. Another executive insisted on writing only of "electric power," since "electricity" might refer equally to lightning bolts or the crackle in the cat's fur.
In some ways, it is comforting to know that there are five or ten people who can catch any problems, but you can also end up typing the same letter five or ten times.
In the afternoon I finally get a couple of hours on the Vydec and record the most frequently used information on gasohol: where to apply for grants and loans, how to get on the mailing list, where to get nuts-and-bolts instructions, how much it costs, how to stay out of trouble with the Treasury Department, DOE research progress. After an hour and a half, I'm ready to put together some draft replies to actual letters. I finish three before my eyes cross.
Back to the pile of "congressionals." Dan has told me he's bringing over 14 more before the day is over. A farmer wants to know if he can use his mint still to make ethanol during the 46 weeks a year when mint is out of season. I can't see why not - the extract you buy at the supermarket is 30 or 40 percent alcohol - but it's good to check these things out. I call up the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville. No one out there knows, off the top of his head, either. We decide to refer the guy to his local Department of Agricultural Extension Service.
On the way home from work, I amuse myself at a long red light by counting the cars and the number of occupants. Maybe a fourth of the cars have more than one person in them.
I make the weekly trip to the grocery store and find that, thanks to the truckers' strike, the produce is scarce and wilted.After I get home and unpack the groceries, I collapse. Tomorrow I have to look for an apartment. I think I have an energy crisis. CAPTION: Picture, Evelyn Rowe, 31, is a program assistant at the Department of Energy. She comes from Richmond, studied French literature at Mary Washington and Cornell and taught the same subject at George Washington for a year before taking a clerical job at the National Science Foundation. That job led her to the old Energy Research and Development Administration, which became part of the new DOE.