By DAVID MONTGOMERY
WASHINGTON -- Everywhere thirsty cars, appalled drivers. The remarkably precise signs displaying prices change daily. New records have been set nearly every day for the last two weeks in the Washington area, the first time that's ever happened.
The subject of gas prices is like the smell of gas after it spills on your hands. You can't escape it.
It's the chatter in Starbucks, where the front page in the newspaper rack shows more of those big signs. You order a grande coffee. It is 16 ounces for $1.87, which gets you thinking.
What if you did the gas math on this cup of coffee? Let's see, there are 128 ounces in a gallon. ... This coffee costs $14.96 a gallon.
Gas prices are on people's minds at the supermarket, too, where another precious fluid comes in grades, like gas: a gallon of whole milk is $3.39; 2 percent is $3.29; 1 percent is $3.35; skim is $2.99.
Headline: Gas prices approach milk.
At the neighborhood bar, where you might like to forget about gas prices, except they're on CNN, a two-ounce shot of Jack Daniel's is $4.95, which comes out to, um, $316.80 per gallon. Cheers.
Shopping at the liquor store is more economical: A six-pack of Budweiser is $5.43, or $9.653/10 per gallon.
There's one liquid that's as essential as gasoline: water.
You can drink water almost free from the tap, yet bottled water is now a mainstay of the beverage industry. It costs as much as soda.
A 20-ounce bottle of Aquafina at a convenience store is $1.15. We pay $7.36 a gallon for water.
We do not complain, much.
Despite the rise in gas prices, and all our grumbling about it, we are buying more gas than ever, the Energy Department says, and that is partially why the price is rising.
It's not that we're hypocritical, exactly. Gas is different from all those other liquids, which is why we complain so much when it goes up, and why we keep buying it anyway. It has more psychic kick than booze. It's closer to America's dream of itself than water.
We can smell gas. We can feel it pulsing through the hose into our tanks. But we hardly ever see it.
It is the ghost in the machine. Out of sight, we worship it, worry over it. We admire its proxies: Power. Speed. The thunder of a revving engine.
Invisible, potent, practical, gas is also metaphorical. While of course central to the functioning of the economy and the lifestyle of the suburban car culture, it is inseparable from that part of the American identity starring John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Jack Kerouac, Bruce Springsteen: macho men of a certain kind of power and a certain kind of poetry.
Never mind the inflation-adjusted nerds who point out that regular unleaded gas today is still cheaper than the $3.11 it cost in today's dollars in 1981. The three-digits-and-a-fraction on the street corner are more than a mere economic indicator, the price of a critical staple. They're a hieroglyphic representation of something almost unfathomable, something core to who we are and who we imagine ourselves to be.
"We are Americans and what we want to do, we want to do, and we will do it, by God, don't let gas prices get in the way," says Lon Anderson, director of public and government relations for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "We will reserve the right to buy the gas we need and complain all the way."
Gas prices broke the $2 mark for the first time around Memorial Day in 2004, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic. They had dropped to $1.80 by the end of last year, then took off.
"It's the fluid we love to hate," says Anderson. "Buying gasoline is something that virtually all of us have to do. ... We don't really like doing it when it's cheap, and when it's expensive, it becomes an obnoxious chore."
Unlike the older cities of Europe, American cities and suburbs matured under the influence of the automobile.
"Our roads are the arteries of commerce, and whether we like it or not, gasoline is the blood that keeps those arteries flowing," Anderson says.
"This country is so oriented around being able to get up and go and travel where you want to travel," says Wendell Holloway, a retired lobbyist for Ford Motor who was gassing up his Mercury Mountaineer at a suburban Freestate Gas the other day.
But at City Bikes in Washington, some customers have a different view of America and the meaning of gas.
Real estate investor Todd Ledbetter, 39, is shopping for a bike -- for exercise, he says, but if gas prices keep rising, he'll use it for errands. He and his wife have no choice but to own a Honda SUV, with two boys, ages 3 and 9, and a third child on the way, he says. It costs about $40 to fill the tank, compared with $25 just 21/2 years ago.
Ledbetter doesn't think gasoline had to become the central elixir in the country. His theory is that, during the 20th century, car companies used their influence on urban planning and transportation policy "so we would be very gasoline-dependent."
If the country had developed differently, he wonders, would soldiers be dying in Iraq?
Back at Freestate, the pump clicks off, signaling Holloway's Mountaineer is full. He studies the price gauge: $38 for 14.079 gallons. "Whoa! Yes!" he says.
He has given the cashier $40, and now he'll get $2 change. He wasn't expecting any.
"Did I luck out!?"
Freestate manager Ron Baughman and head cashier Kevin O'Rourke field the usual questions from customers with good humor. No, the rise in prices is not their doing. No, they don't enjoy a personal discount on gas. Yes, maybe regular will break the $3 barrier.
"Here's $40, my life's savings," says a woman, handing two twenties to O'Rourke. They both laugh.
Prices used to stay the same for weeks. One recent Saturday, Baughman had to hike the price twice. He jokes that he needs more 3's for the big sign outside. He could swap some of his now-useless 1's.
A customer chides the men that the nearby Sunoco is charging 2 pennies less for regular.
Two cents make a difference to some of us when it comes to gas prices, but we are irrational on this point. We switch stations over a matter of pennies, but will we slow down to 55 miles per hour? According to the Energy Department, every 5 mph you drive over 60 is like paying 18 cents more per gallon.
To citizens of the green land of bicycles, hybrids and gas-sipping Japanese compacts, the Hummer-SUV gang is getting what it deserves.
"To me, people in gas guzzlers for no purpose except to show off are the problem," says Lucky Beckett, an independent television producer browsing at City Bikes. "And they're honking at us."
She all but stopped driving after moving here from Ohio not long ago. "I wouldn't have a car in this city," she says. "You can't park them, the gas prices are ridiculous and we're going to pollute ourselves off the planet."
But Beckett is not without sympathy for the car people. It's not all their fault they don't see the light yet. She says the city hasn't made biking easy enough, such as establishing a complete network of bike lanes. Car drivers "don't see an alternative where they feel safe," Beckett says.
They keep buying that gasoline, watching the tenths-of-a-penny add up.
Measuring gas so precisely shows how much we cherish it. Alcohol in a bar is worth much more, ounce for ounce, yet we trust the eye of our bartender to get it right.