ATTITUDES: Panic at the Pump

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It looked like a hand grenade, so the Albany, N.Y., station operator played it safe and assumed that it was a hand grenade. He gave the man who was toting it all the gas he wanted. Attendants elsewhere last week faced curses and threats of violence, sometimes backed by suspicious bulges in the pockets of jackets. When a huge bear of a man warned a Springfield, Mass., dealer, "You are going to give me gas or I will kill you," the dealer squeezed his parched pumps to find some. "Better a live coward than a dead hero," he said.

In New York City, motorists fought with fists and knives among themselves and with policemen assigned to keep order around jammed stations. In Phoenix, pump jockeys began packing pistols — for self-protection, they explained.

Such incidents were not exactly common last week, but they occurred often enough, especially in the Northeast, to indicate an outbreak of a kind of gasoline madness. The New Year's weekend was the first time that many drivers became really desperate for gas.

Many stations ran out of their monthly allotments as the weekend started and closed until they could get new deliveries after the holiday. Those that stayed open backed up long lines of drivers whose tempers sometimes exploded —especially if they found the pumps dry when they finally got to them. The meaning of it all, says Behavior Therapist Joseph Cautela of Natick, Mass., is that "people see gasoline now in terms of basic survival. Whenever you have anything with that kind of value on it, people are going to fight for it. They do things they ordinarily would not do."

Regulars Only. The gas shortage is sparking other types of deviant behavior. Flouting of the law is on the rise.

In New York City, two gasoline tank trucks, each loaded with 3,000 gallons, were hijacked within a week. Price gouging by station owners has become distressingly common. Miamians complain of having to pay $1 a gallon or being charged a $2 "service fee" before a station attendant will wait on them. In Chicago, a U.S. Attorney filed suit against Policeman Sam McBride, who moonlights as owner of a gas station. McBride was accused by patrons of trying to dodge price controls by "giving away" gas: six gallons with a bar of soap that the customer had to buy for $6; three gallons with a container of all-purpose cleaner for $3; five gallons with purchase of a rabbit's foot and a printed form for a will, costing $10.50—equal to $2.10 a gallon.

At best, many gas station owners and attendants have become unapproachable to strangers; they will wait only on longtime customers. Some issue window stickers to the regulars; others sell by appointment only. Oregon Governor Tom McCall last week rolled into a Union 76 station only to be told by the manager: "Sorry, Governor, we're only selling to our regular customers."

So the Governor meekly drove to the end of the line at a nearby station that was taking all comers.

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