Ernie Johnson, built like a sawed-off Mack truck, is standing by himself in his service station at 13th and Good Hope Road SE, Anacostia, sweating in a faded green T-shirt and green Texaco shirt. His eyes squint at the mid-morning sun as a beat-up Chevy pulls in, bump-bumping over Johnson's rutted driveway, soul music blasting from its radio.
"You got any gas, man?" the driver in the Chevy calls to Johnson. "I already been docked once this week for being late from waiting in gas lines!"
Johnson waves him on. Minutes before, he had pumped the last gasoline from his mouth's allocation, and as he signals his employe to put up the chain barrier, the Chevy clumps noisily onto Good Hope, leaving behind the strains of "Ring-My-bell" and the odor of exhaust fumes.
The gasoline shortage that has frustrated and invonvenienced so many people has put the city's poor and near poor in a special bind. For them, an hour spent looking for gasoline may mean an hour's less pay, or getting fired. Beyond that, it costs money in other ways. Experts say that the low-income use less gasoline -- it's mainly drive-to-work not drive-to-the-beach gasoline -- and spend a higher percentage of their budget for the fuel.
"It's a hidden tax of a regressive nature," says Gar Alperovitz of the Center for Economic Alternatives, a Washington-based think tank. "If inflation in yachts was going up 50 percent, very few people would care. But if gasoline is going up in Anacostia and it is essential to getting to work, it means cutting down on some other necessity -- like food, housing and health care."
Southeast Washington, where the recession that many are talking about has already hit, feels to some like a separate city. There are some stable affluent neighborhoods, but also acre upon acre of public housing.
"Here, some of the new values that have accompanied The Gas Crunch of '79 seem not entirely relevant.
"I tried to abide by the $5 minimum [for gasoline sales]," says Johnson. "But I . . .get people coming in here wanting a dollar's worth of gas. Some come in here with bags of pennies."
And if the gasoline line in the symbol of 1979 for many city residents, for some in Anacostia it is the gasoline can line.
At 9 a.m., young men with gasoline cans queue up neck-to-neck, short sleeves flapping the hazy air, holding their breath against the auto fumes.
"I think we got as many cans as car," Johnson says.
With no subway line yet serving several hundred thousand residents cast of the Anacostia River, finding alternate ways to get around during the gas crunch isn't easy.
After Avis Lynch has waited 20 minutes on the corner of Good Hope and 16th, a cab stops and the driver questions her before permitting her to climb in. The taxis travels a half-block, then turns into McDonald's and parks.
"He said he wanted to go in for a minute," she says. Apparently accustomed to such treatment, she placidly reads a letter until he emerges about 8 minutes later.
Without cars, regular taxis or easily available alternate public transportation, many depend upon the "hackman" -- a genre of men who are either jobless, retired or moonlighters -- to carry them in their private cars from the supermarket to home, or to church, or to downtown for shopping or to community meetings. And all for about a dollar a ride.
But some residents are finding even the hackman hard to get. "You can't get nobody to carry you nowhere now," says Laura Mae Goldsmith, president of the Barry Farms Tenant Council in Southeast Washington.
In recent days, the police have begun to fine these unlicensed jitney drivers $50 if caught. One day last week, a hackman slides into the Safeway on Good Hope like Lou Brock stealing third.
"We're performing a service," he says, quickly hustling a lady and her bags into his car. "Cabs are scared to come South east. I have two jobs -- this is my third job. It's hard. It's hard."
In the idle afternoon, Ernie Johnson bemoans his situation. He gets 27,000 gallons of gasoline each month, only 70 percent of his minimal need, and half as much as he was pumping two years ago.
"What's 27,000 gallons of gas in an area like this?" he asks. One day last week he received 7,900 gallons -- but no unleaded.
Gasoline stations and auto dealerships are the small businesses most often owned by minorities in the Washington area. If many a gasoline retailer here gets up and bites his nails for breakfast these days, Johnson has an added problem.
Not only is he sitting in the middle of a depressed area, he is an independent full-service station competing with a Gulf-owned self-serve station a block away that undersells him several cents a gallon.
Before the Gulf station went totally self-service, Johnson pumped 50,000 to 60,000 gallons of gasoline a month. Business fell off a bit then, but really plunged when Texaco said they must cut Johnson 30 percent.
Johnson pays $1,098 monthly rent and that cost will double by 1981. "Yet I'm making half what I made a year ago," he says.
Johnson has had to lay off four people, and now he is reduced to one full-time mechanic. "I tried to help the kids. . .give them something to do. But except for occasional part-time, I can't do much now."
Nineteen year-old Willie Becton is one of the employes Johnson has laid off. Becton, a dark and smiling young man, lives with his family and hangs around to occasionally clean up. "I make just make enough to keep gas in my car," he says. CAPTION: Picture 1, Ernie Johnson: 'Some come in here with bags of pennies.' by Fred Sweets - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Anacostia hackman: "We're performing a service.'