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Gas prices — terror at the pump

Until last week I never paid attention to the price of gas at the local gas pump.

This is because I choose gas stations based on one factor: Which is the nearest station when my gas meter sinks past empty into that area known as "fumes." If the warning light isn't on, no way I'm stopping.

The reason I wait until the situation is dire is that, on the 10-point Effort Scale, I rate stopping for gas somewhere around a 12. I'm still waiting for someone to invent a tanker car that can refuel cars while we cruise down the highway.

So I'm not choosy when it comes to gas prices. Until now. I was filling up my car recently when I happened to glance at the pump just as the price raced past some very large numbers and showed no signs of slowing down. They just kept getting bigger and bigger. We're talking new territory here.

You've probably noticed that gas prices have soared, especially now that you've had to give up some luxuries, such as eating, to afford filling up your car. I'm all set now for my next visit to the pump: I'm taking out a second mortgage.

Sign I expect to see in front of a gas station soon: Low interest loans now available.

On Monday, the prices at the local pump were $1.63 for diet gas, $1.73 for the gas with extra calories, and $1.83 for the good stuff with added vitamins, or whatever it is.

I asked the lady at the counter of the local Texaco, Kay, the assistant manager, to explain the rising costs. In summary, this is what she said: "Search me."

"People say all kinds of things (about the high prices), they're outraged," she says. "But what can you tell them? We don't know why. No one knows why."

There are some forces of nature that simply can't be explained or understood. I refer to tornadoes, weather, earthquakes, Dennis Rodman, gas prices. The great gas price hike of 2003, in which 16 states have reached all-time high prices, is a mystery.

How do price hikes suddenly occur? Do oil barons flip a coin like an opening kickoff? Do they consult a palm reader? Throw a dart at a wall full of numbers?

Politicians are doing what they always do when there's trouble like this — they're calling for an investigation. New York Sen. Charles Schumer has asked for a government investigation of potential fuel-price gouging. Barbara Boxer wants to conduct an investigation in her state.

Triple A says "market fundamentals" don't justify retail gasoline prices and that prices were "uncomfortably close" to gouging (actually, we're past "uncomfortable"). The gas people mumble something they heard in Economics 101 with sentences that include words such as "higher demand," "lower production" and "low inventories."

Chris, the manager at the local Chevron station, says, "It's just based on speculation."

Most people blame the upcoming war for higher gas prices. What war? We don't have a war. We have people talking about a war. Even Colin Powell says he doesn't know if there's going to be a war. But Larry the mechanic knows there's going to be a war, and he doesn't even know why there's a rattle under the hood.

(Recently, my friend Lee Benson asked his mechanic, "What do I do about that rattle in my car?" His mechanic didn't miss a beat: "Turn up your stereo." Everyone's a comedian.)

Since the gas people know there's going to be a war, maybe Powell should consult them. He could call the guy down at the 7-Eleven who jacked up prices because there might be a war.

If we're going to start raising prices because there might be a war, this could start a trend. I'm skipping work tomorrow so I can duct tape my house because there might be a war.