Like a slot machine, the numbers rolled to a stop and Larry Harvell was out of luck: $20 and barely 14 gallons of gas.
"I'm considering car pooling," he said. Then, looking at his hulking American-made pickup, he added, "I'm considering getting something else."
Yesterday, the new nickel-a-gallon increase in the federal gas tax went into effect and drivers throughout the area tried to sound stoic as they reached deeper into their pockets to put fuel into their autos.
What else can he do? Harvell shrugged. He used to drive throughout Virginia, Maryland and the District to play softball; now he just goes to the local park, or stays home. He switched to regular gas instead of premium. But he can't change his daily 50-mile commute from Clinton to his job as an assistant warehouse manager in Springfield.
Harvell's dismay, multiplied by the largely resigned vexation of millions, is supposed to add $5 billion a year to federal coffers, money earmarked for interstate highway construction and budget deficit reduction.
But many people don't seem to buy that.
"It's a farce," said Alexandria Exxon manager Robert Johnson.
Johnson said an unintended side effect is that more people are using the lower-priced regular unleaded gas, yesterday 20 cents less than the environmentally less harmful premium. "Can't keep regular in the ground," he said.
"I'll be very surprised if Congress uses this money to bring the deficit down," Johnson said. "They're just going to spend more."
Drivers certainly will.
Earlier in the week, a gallon of self-serve regular unleaded was going for about $1.37. Before the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, it was selling for about $1.
To beat Uncle Sam at least one last time, drivers were out in droves Friday night. Business was double the usual clip at the Exxon station on North Henry Street in Alexandria.
"Everyone wanted to grab the gas before the nickel hits," said attendant Steve "Tattoo" Avis, whose namesakes covered his exposed forearms and neck.
A Chevron station on Lee Highway in Arlington sold 4,800 gallons of gas Friday instead of the usual 3,200 or so. "The busiest day I've ever seen in here," attendant Jeff Basham said.
"I sold more gas yesterday from 7 in the morning to 7 at night than I would normally sell in two days," said Mary Tucker, who owns an Exxon station on West Street in Annapolis.
But yesterday, only the oil spots seemed to show up at many gas stations.
"This is the slowest Saturday I've ever worked," Avis said.
Two months ago, a Saturday was good for $3,400 or so in business; yesterday, Avis was hoping to reach $1,500.
"This is a morgue," manager Johnson added.
Those drivers who were not deterred by the grim numbers on the signs seemed to accept the inevitability of taxes.
"It certainly annoys me, but I've gotten used to it," said Carol Mullen, who lives in Arlington.
Alexandria nurse Marcia Stanley also left a gas station with a lighter wallet yesterday.
"I remember when gas was under a dollar," she said wistfully. "Nothing I can do.
"I'll always drive a lot. Even if it was $5 a gallon. I'd just work more overtime to pay for it."
Staff writer Retha Hill contributed to this report.