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Chapter 1: The Pay Zone

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  • Light Eye
    Dear Friends, Click the link if you can t proceed to part II. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/specials/chi-oil-1-story,0,7163057.htmlstory Love and Light.
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 1, 2006
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      Dear Friends,

      Click the link if you can't proceed to part II.


      Love and Light.


      Chapter 1: The pay zone
      About the project | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 Download-->

      By Paul Salopek
      Tribune correspondent
      Published July 29, 2006

      Last summer, a new gasoline station opened in South Elgin, an old farming village on the Fox River that's now being swallowed by the westward sprawl of Chicago.

      As service stations go, it's an alpha establishment. A $3 million Marathon outlet with 24 digital pumps, a computerized carwash, a Goodfella's sandwich shop and a convenience store lit up like an operating room, it sells everything from ultra low sulfur diesel to herbal "memory enhancer" to Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Infrared sensors activate the faucets in its immaculate, white-tiled bathrooms. The coffee kiosk's floor is real hardwood.

      Howard Dunbar's Tanker Truck 6 rolled into the station one chilly night last September. An amiable ex-cop, Dunbar drives for an independent fuel hauler. At 9:25 p.m., he stepped down from the cab, set out the safety cones, hooked up his hoses with a reassuring click, and then proceeded to unload 7,723 gallons of gasoline and diesel into the station's underground tanks.

      It took Dunbar 29 minutes to empty his swimming pool-size cargo--a workaday chore that reveals the triumphs of our motorized civilization but also the seeds of its possible end.

      The diesel streaked past a tiny glass porthole on the truck's hoses in a smear of pale yellow, like beer, while the premium unleaded ran colorless as vodka. That particular night, according to one industry method of calculating the explosive energy locked away in crude oil, Dunbar dumped the liquid equivalent of 19.2 million hours of physical labor into the Marathon's storage tanks--or the power of a slave army of 2,200 men working around the clock for a year. This bonanza would be sucked dry by customers in 24 hours, a small, stark example of the nation's awesome petroleum appetite at a time when the planet appears to be lurching into an energy crunch of historic proportions.

      By now, most Americans realize that something is profoundly awry in the global oil patch.

      For the majority of motorists, like the "swipe and go" customers at the South Elgin Marathon, the evidence is painfully obvious: record-high fuel costs that have surpassed last year's infamous price spikes following Hurricane Katrina.

      Yet to truly grasp the scope of the crisis looming before them, Americans must retrace their seemingly ordinary tankful of gasoline back to its shadowy sources. This is, in effect, a journey into the heart of America's vast and troubled oil dependency. And what it exposes is a globe-spanning energy network that today is so fragile, so beholden to hostile powers and so clearly unsustainable, that our car-centered lifestyle seems more at risk than ever.

      "I truly think we're at one of those turning points where the future's looking so ugly nobody wants to face it," said Matthew Simmons, an energy investment banker in Houston who has advised the Bush administration on oil policy. "We're not talking some temporary Arab embargo anymore. We're not talking your father's energy crisis."

      What Simmons and many other experts are talking about is a bleak new collision between geology and geopolitics.

      Below ground, the biggest worry is "peak oil"--the notion that the world's total petroleum endowment is approaching the half-empty mark, a geological tipping point beyond which no amount of extra pumping will revive fading oil fields. Peak oil theory is controversial. Many think it alarmist. Yet even Big Oil is starting to gird itself for possible fuel shortages: Chevron, the nation's second-largest oil company, has bluntly declared that "the era of easy oil is over" and is warning energy-hungry Americans that "the world consumes two barrels of oil for every barrel discovered."

      Aboveground, things look little better. Most of the world's petro-states, aware that crude supplies are growing increasingly valuable, have limited drilling rights to their own oil companies.

      In the meantime, humanity's thirst for petroleum continues to run wild. Producing nations are pumping at maximum capacity. Yet the competing energy demands of America and rapidly industrializing China and India now threaten to outstrip global oil output. China has displaced Japan as the No. 2 oil importer, after the United States. Chinese oil imports are projected to double to 14 million barrels a day over the next 20 years. Many credible analysts foresee a new "energy cold war" as the U.S. and China square off over the planet's last reserves.

      The new Marathon station at Illinois Highway 25 and Middle Street in South Elgin turned out to be an ideal laboratory to parse these sobering issues.

      A typical canopy-and-box structure, the station helps feed Chicago's explosive growth westward, into the exurban boomtowns where McMansions hit the corn. It sits at a stoplight some 40 miles from downtown Chicago. A gravel quarry operates across the street. Nearby, an old game farm once extolled by Ernest Hemingway has vanished under golf courses and shopping malls.

      Most important of all, exclusive access to industry refining data made it possible, for the first time ever, to track the oil consumed by this one gas station back to the dusty war zones, belligerent autocracies and tottering nation-states where it came from.

      For years, oil companies have insisted that this could never be done. Conventional wisdom holds that America's colossal oil flows get mixed together, swapped among companies and rebranded too many times to pinpoint the actual source of your $40 purchase of unleaded. The industry has encouraged this belief for years, partly to avoid boycotts.

      Yet with a little research, and proprietary data supplied by the Marathon Petroleum Co., the Tribune could trace with unparalleled clarity virtually every bucketful of trucker Howard Dunbar's shipment back to its distant origins.

      On the hydrocarbon menu that September night, in round figures:

      Gulf of Mexico crudes--31 percent
      Texas crudes--28 percent
      Nigerian crudes--17 percent
      Arab Light from Saudi Arabia--10 percent
      Louisiana Sweet--8 percent
      Illinois Basin Light--4 percent
      Cabinda crude from Angola--3 percent
      N'Kossa crude from the Republic of Congo--.01 percent

      For a span of five months, from September through February, other fuel shipments to the station were analyzed for their crude composition. Molecules swirled through the South Elgin Marathon's gas pumps from Nigeria, Iraq and Venezuela, as well as from declining oil fields in the United States.

      Taken together, they revealed the immense human costs, the boggling technical investments, the hardball politics, the hidden exploitation and, ultimately, the alarming fragility of America's epic oil addiction--as seen through the prism of a local gas station. U.S. consumers and faraway producers were finally tethered, without resorting to metaphor or guesswork, by a clear oil trail.

      Thus, $73.81 worth of unleaded pumped one Saturday afternoon by a Little League mom was traced not simply back to Africa, but to a particular set of offshore fields in Nigeria through which Ibibio villagers canoed home to children dying of curable diseases.

      Every day, the jaded tanker drivers brought human stories echoing in their trucks. They plunked their long wooden measuring sticks into the Marathon station's 40,000-gallon underground tanks, and the resulting subterranean gong evoked--depending on the changing oil vintage--an Iraqi ex-colonel's cavernous loneliness. Or the laments of a West African fisherman named Sunday, afloat on a fishless stretch of the Atlantic. Or the songs of Marxist Indians reveling in their newfound oil wealth atop a dusty South American plateau.

      The voices of Chinese oil prospectors gurgled inside all of the fuel shipments. And diluted in the gas came a warning that many Americans seem unprepared to hear: Our nation's energy-intensive joy ride, powered by 150 years of cheap petroleum, may finally be coming to an end. This could be as good as it gets.

      "We're almost done," said Dunbar, the trucker, on that first night. He is a busy man. He worked without complaint in a thin T-shirt stenciled "Beverly Hills Polo Club." A cold prairie wind shot across the Marathon parking lot, needling the bones.

      He carried his invoice into the convenience store. The night clerk, a scrappy young woman named Kelly Hanson, stood behind the register, ready to parry the night's oddballs and hard cases, the cops and strippers, the heads who wandered in asking where to buy dope.

      "Hello darlin'," Hanson said grandly. Dunbar grinned. When he left at 10:10 p.m. the Marathon stood empty, glowing under its glacial white floodlights. In the darkness beyond stretched the hungry energy maw of the Midwest--a naked cornfield, silent Highway 25 and the indistinct shapes of new tract homes.

      This is how it begins, our travelogue of addiction.


      `Did that Nissan pay at 19?" Marta Perez, the morning-shift clerk, asked as she peered out at the pumps from behind her register.

      "He didn't pay me," said her colleague Anthony Ratajczyk.

      Ratajczyk has the rubbery face of an old boxer, which is what he is. His nose has been broken nine times.

      "Well he didn't pay me either," Perez muttered. "Michelle! We got another drive-off!"

      It was September. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had delivered their one-two punch to the energy-rich Gulf Coast, swamping New Orleans and disabling the offshore wells and pipelines that yield a third of America's domestic energy production. In South Elgin, population 20,000, gas prices at the Marathon had broken the $3-a-gallon barrier. And the Bubbas and Barbies--industry lingo for the working-class men and white-collar commuters who keep convenience stores solvent--were misbehaving. They were stealing Michelle Vargo's gasoline.

      "You'd think it would only be the crummy cars, but people in nice cars are doing it too," exclaimed Vargo, the frazzled station manager. "I never seen anything like it."

      Vargo, 36, is too young to recall that this had happened before, during the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979.

      Nor did she and her small band of employees appear to fully grasp the ominous economic and political forces churning around their local gas station. Few Americans do.

      In typically murky industry fashion, the station is branded and supplied by Marathon but actually owned by an independent fuel retailer--in this case, Prairie State Enterprises of Barrington. Freelance shippers called "jobbers" haul the gas. And even though much of the station's petroleum does in fact bubble from Marathon's own oil patches, the company as often purchases its oil from Exxon Mobil, Iraq's Southern Oil Co. or Venezuela's PDVSA, a swaggering national oil company with its own patriotic song.

      If the South Elgin Marathon ever inspires an anthem, it would be dedicated to Vargo. Many of America's gas stations are matriarchies. The owners simply trust women managers more. Vargo's loyalty and work ethic showed why.

      A single mom with a hard-edged life, she is a dynamo with hair permed into stringy curls like fusilli pasta. She walks with the stoop of the continually put-upon. In a ruthless business that actually earns a pittance from gasoline sales (oil companies and refiners snatch the bulk of the fuel's profits long before it reaches the pumps), she struggles to stay afloat. Her station's income comes from the incidentals of frantic modern life: cigarettes, energy drinks, stay-awake pills, the Lotto, and sweet and salty snacks. Her workers love her.

      "If Michelle leaves, I leave," declared morning clerk Perez, 34, another single mother who moonlights tending bar at a local pub where she is known as "Shorty." "At $7.75 an hour? You gotta be kidding. She's the only reason I stay."

      The clerks are a motley group clad in vests made of blue polyester, itself a petroleum product. Many are the working poor. Some can't pay their bills. Several still live with their parents. The night maintenance man, Dwayne Graff, lives in a trailer and always seems one small misfortune away from homelessness. Vargo advanced him $20 over the weekends out of her own purse. She gave them all second chances and sometimes third chances.

      During the days of post-Katrina gas banditry, Vargo deployed her troops shrewdly, with a platoon sergeant's care. She bought a cheap pair of binoculars to log license plates. She ordered Perez to park her rusty Mazda at pump 19, to block the station's quickest escape route. Then fuel allocations kicked in for a week--many gas stations were limited to one tanker delivery a day--and Vargo's voice hoarsened from stress and cigarettes.

      "The worst, the absolute worst, thing that can happen is to run out of gas," she groaned in her closet-size office behind the pizza oven. "The customers will never come back."

      The gas station phone rang. It was her son in juvenile hall. Could he come back home and stay with her?

      "No," she said calmly, and hung up.

      Vargo drives to work in a car she can't afford. It is a white Chevrolet Suburban that churns out a ruinous 10 miles to a gallon and rides so high off the street she has to boost herself into the driver's seat as if jumping into a saddle. Her two-hour daily commute, about 40 miles each way from Lockport, roughly double the national average. Still, there are times when the extravagant vehicle seems the only reliable part of her unsettled life.

      "I don't feel safe in small cars," Vargo said defensively, refueling one day at the pump.

      She seemed worn and jittery. It was the end of an 11-hour shift. She was headed home to a house shared with two teen daughters and a 4-foot iguana--a place she would soon vacate because she couldn't make the rent.

      The only perk for the station employees is free coffee. There are no discounts on gas. Vargo bought $40 of regular unleaded. She rubbed the heel of one hand tiredly into her eye sockets. With the other, clutching the pump nozzle, she touched a faraway sea.


      In 1940, the United States was the Saudi Arabia of the world. It produced 63 percent of the planet's oil. Today, after years of frenzied pumping, it generates 8 percent.

      About a third of Vargo's fill-up that day came from the last major pool of crude remaining in oil-starved America: the basement of the Gulf of Mexico. Trace it from seabed to suburbia, and you X-ray America's aging industrial innards.

      It started 9,000 feet inside the crust of the Earth, in Miocene Epoch rocks that have the consistency of oil-soaked beach sand. The rocks simmer near the boiling point of water. This is known in the business as the "pay zone."

      From that hellish place, the crude was sucked up into a 4-inch drill pipe that punctured the Atlantic floor near a submerged hillock called Viosca Knoll 786. It shot up 1,750 feet of pipe to an offshore production rig and got shunted ashore to a huge tank farm in St. James, La. There it began its long journey to the Midwest in a pipeline big enough for a person to walk in, albeit hunched over--a 632-mile-long artifact of our oil dependency that will doubtless astound future archeologists.

      Arriving at the Robinson refinery in southern Illinois, it got cooked and cooled for five days inside 23-story towers monitored by hard-hatted engineers who pedal around the facility on bicycles. Then it gushed through 16- and 12-inch fuel pipelines for three days until it reached a 40-year-old tank farm near O'Hare International Airport. Finally, it traveled its last 12 miles to the South Elgin Marathon inside Howard Dunbar's truck. Whenever Dunbar braked at stoplights, the shipment sloshed tidally forward.

      The enormous cost of this elaborate capillary system, built over generations, helps cement our reliance on hydrocarbons.

      "Takes a bit of power to bring it up," hollered Ferrell Martin, 52, a senior mechanic aboard Petronius, a drilling platform that juts above the gulf's waves near Viosca Knoll. "Our generators could electrify a small town."

      The platform, co-owned by Chevron and Marathon, came on line in 2000. It cost more than $500 million to build, nearly what the United States shells out every 24 hours to buy imported crude. A masterpiece of high technology, it pumps the energy equivalent of 60,000 barrels of oil and natural gas a day--a gusher that matches Pakistan's national output and is only slightly behind Italy's.

      Petronius is gigantic, almost beyond imagining. If the steel-legged platform were the 110-floor Sears Tower, the ocean's bed would muddy the lobby, and the sea's surface would lap at the antennas. Go 40 feet higher, and you would finally reach Martin's workplace--a swaying 10-story cube of valves, piping, generators and windowless crew quarters inhabited by about 90 men. Clad in blue Chevron overalls, they lean into one another as if passing on secrets; they're shouting into each other's faces to be heard over the howl of machinery.

      Under the mistaken impression that they were crowning this technical wonder with a grand name, Chevron executives christened the rig after an infamous debauchee of Roman Emperor Nero's court. Regardless, Petronius is impressive. It is a fitting monument to America's empire of oil.

      More than 100 such gargantuan structures dot the gulf. As do an estimated 6,500 other oil-related features such as wells, pumping stations and helipads, not to mention some 30,000 miles of submerged pipelines tangled like spaghetti across the gulf floor. On any given day, swarms of oil company helicopters mutter through the gauzy marine air. Armadas of supply boats chalk the lime-peel-green ocean surface. On the horizon, gas flares burn palely.

      This is Martin's strange, metallic, largely womanless world. Almost certainly, it is also America's last great oil rush.

      "The future is here," said Martin, a big, friendly Cajun with a nose like a hatchet. "The onshore fields are fading."


      One man who keeps Michelle Vargo's gas-guzzling Suburban rolling doesn't have an oil worker's rough hands. He sits in a red granite skyscraper in Houston and speaks in what sound like Zen koans: "the topography of sound," "sand is silent" and "the trick is not to know when to believe your data, but to know when not to believe it."

      Jeff Rutledge, a senior geophysicist for Marathon, was making a point about the increasingly difficult search for the world's last accessible pockets of conventional crude.

      "No question, we're facing a whole new game," said Rutledge, a sandy-haired New Orleans native. "Sure, there's a lot of resources still out there, but they're getting riskier to invest in, much harder to find and more expensive to reach."

      The quest for oil is tireless, exhaustive, obsessive--and if Marathon's technology and exploration department is anything to judge by, highly eccentric. Brainy geologists use their office windows for blackboards, scrawling equations on the glass with felt-tipped pens. Others wear strange goggles in a small, theater-like room, peering up in silence at 3-D chunks of the Earth's crust. Desks are piled with what look like old eight-track tapes: computer drives that contain volumes of exploration data that beggar belief. Seismic surveys, the industry's main tool for locating oil, involve setting off small shock waves at the Earth's surface and recording millions of "echoes" from the rock below.

      "One typical seismic project contains about the same amount of data as your DNA code," Rutledge said. "Two or three surveys together contain the equivalent of all the information available on the Internet today."

      Progress reports from 10 to 20 of these fantastically pricey, high-tech quests from Africa, Russia and the North Atlantic land on Rutledge's desk every day.

      According to industry optimists, such herculean efforts to squeeze out Earth's last high-quality oil are the best retort to doomsayers who worry that the world is running on empty.

      Out in the gulf, for instance, Petronius' 19 wells do things engineers couldn't dream of a quarter-century ago. They snake downward through almost 1,800 feet of seawater, bore vertically through a mile and a half of rock, and then veer off laterally under the stony seabed for distances of up to 5 miles. This is the oil-patch equivalent of drawing blood from a hidden vein--with a hypodermic needle 180 feet long.

      Such whiz-bang technology has encouraged the U.S. Minerals Management Service to boost the Gulf of Mexico's potential oil reserves by 15 percent, to 86 billion barrels. That's enough, in theory, to meet U.S. demand for another decade. Much of that, however, lies in deep, environmentally sensitive waters near the Florida coast and is prohibitively expensive to extract using current technology.

      "Cost aside, we don't see any immediate shortage in the resource at the global level," said Bob Greco, an exploration analyst with the American Petroleum Institute, the industry lobbying group. "Innovation will keep pushing the envelope of what's recoverable."

      Many oil executives also insist that much of today's oil woes are actually man-made: Environmental restrictions and stingy foreign governments keep valuable reserves locked up.

      Skeptics, however, dismiss this as mere wishful thinking--a "cornucopian" belief that, somewhere, somehow, nature will still bail humans out.

      The United States gulps a quarter of the crude pumped on the planet, industry critics point out, yet it sits atop just 3 percent of the globe's reserves. No amount of new drilling will change this. The awesome and costly platforms that stride ever-deeper into gulf waters are symbols of a junkie's desperation, they say, not hope.

      "You can drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, on every continental shelf and atop every hill in America for that matter, and you still won't reverse the fact that our oil production is in permanent decline," said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), a senior member of the House Science Committee. "We're just sopping up what's left, digging ourselves into a deeper hole."

      Bartlett belongs to a small but suddenly influential band of pessimists who are ringing alarm bells over peak oil.

      The theory of peak oil is based on the studies of M. King Hubbert, a pioneering U.S. geologist who correctly predicted in the 1950s that America's huge crude output would "peak," or hit a ceiling, in 1970. Nobody disputes that the phenomenon is real. The output of all oil reservoirs begins to decline after about half of their oil is extracted. Today, peakists cite anemic oil discoveries since the 1980s, plus ominous drop-offs in production in major fields in Kuwait, China and Mexico, among other places, as evidence that the world, too, is reaching its fateful peak.

      Estimates of when we will hit this milestone vary from "we've passed it already" to the U.S. Geological Survey's latest calculation of 2044--hardly a reassuring date, given that rocketing oil prices and their attendant social chaos would stagger the industrial world well before that reckoning.

      In the beige corridors of Marathon's Houston skyscraper, certain absences hinted at the waning age of cheap, easily tapped crude oil. Because of the high costs and diminishing returns of modern exploration efforts, Rutledge said, Marathon's technology and exploration staff has shrunk. Much of the exploration work is farmed out. Also, oil discoveries are getting smaller; hardly the giant "elephant" finds of bygone eras, most are like elusive rabbits.

      Rutledge gazed out his window at the overcast city below. Small homes in the neighborhood were being torn down and replaced by hulking trophy houses.

      Using available technology, he said, Petronius' bounty likely will shrivel in 12 to 15 years.


      Michelle Vargo was off duty. She slumped at La Fuente bar in suburban Lockport, nursing a beer and staring hard at her South Elgin Marathon paycheck: $1,049.31 for two weeks' labor.

      "This is impossible," she said. "I'm spending a third of my take-home on gas."

      At her elbow sat Roy Draino, 42, Vargo's boyfriend. He is a man prematurely wizened, like a boiled-down version of some larger self, and he wants Vargo to quit the gas station.

      "She comes home and can't relax," he said. "Last night they called her eight times--eight times--over some goddamned drive-off. It ain't worth it."

      Vargo's whole life, it seems, is bound up with burning petroleum. Her father was a long-haul trucker who was frequently gone. Before working at the Marathon, she had managed three gas stations for Phillips. And even her hard-bitten beau is in the business.

      Draino scrubs oil refinery furnaces for a living. The work is undependable. U.S. refineries have dwindled from more than 300 to just 145 over the last 25 years. Industry blames this perilous bottleneck in the nation's gasoline production on environmental red tape and public opposition to new oil infrastructure--BANANA they call it, Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody. But critics claim that Big Oil actually likes the status quo; the inevitable shortfalls drive up gas prices.

      Vargo's cell phone rang. This time it was her ex-husband calling. He'd gotten wind of Draino.

      "We're livin' together, so what?" Vargo said.

      "He wanna talk to me?" Draino said coldly.

      "I'll make sure to invite you to the wedding," Vargo said stonily into the phone, and obscenities erupted from its small speaker.

      A melee ensued. Draino grabbed the handset, growled "Hello! Hello!" and strode out onto the sidewalk. Vargo's eldest daughter, Brittany, 15, was there. When she heard Draino berating her father, she began screaming at Draino.

      Vargo sighed and laid her head on the bar counter. Even her family life is a form of internal combustion.

      The next day at the gas station, her eyes were red. As usual, she kept her woes to herself. She, Marta Perez and Joni Hanson, the mother of night clerk Kelly Hanson, decorated the convenience store with cardboard Halloween pumpkins and fake spider webs.

      A customer suddenly poked his head through the door: His pump wasn't starting properly.

      "Darlin'," he drawled to the clerks, "could you please turn me on?"


      Ferrell Martin was also in distress.

      Home from his usual two-week shift aboard Petronius, the strapping Cajun oil worker was getting hopelessly lost.

      Martin's ancestors had fished and trapped the watery maze of Bayou Terrebonne, a fabled swamp about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans, for more than 200 years. But today, Louisiana's lush wetlands, the richest in America, are dying, crumbling into the sea. Martin knelt at the bow of a bass boat steered by one of his numberless bayou relatives, trying, again and again, to get the boat unstuck from hidden bars of mud.

      "I can't even find the same fishing holes anymore," Martin said, fanning away mosquitoes. "The whole place is just sinking away."

      It's been widely known for decades that flood-control measures on the Mississippi River are chewing away at Louisiana's biologically rich coasts. The river's sediments are being flushed disastrously out into the deep sea. And the swamps aren't being replenished; a marshland the size of Delaware has already washed away. But new studies suggest that oil and natural gas extraction may be another culprit.

      The U.S. Geological Survey believes land in and around Bayou Terrebonne is starting to sag like a deflating wineskin as fossil fuels are pumped out in massive quantities. In some places, it has settled 11 inches. For a landscape that is in many cases only a few feet above sea level, the implications are ominous. Erosion and subsidence have eaten away at least 2 miles of coastline near Ferrell Martin's modest house in Montegut, La.

      He recognized the irony: Oil has yanked thousands of once-impoverished Cajuns into the middle class, but it is now helping swallow their ancestral homes.

      "Everything's a trade-off, I guess," Martin said, baiting another hook with a sardine and casting his line into what used to be dry cattle pastures in his youth.

      This, too, gets burned up by the cars in South Elgin: a clod of southern Louisiana.


      Y103.9--The Beat of the 'Burbs--was piping Don McLean's "American Pie" into the Marathon gas station store.

      As usual, five truckloads of landscaping crews showed up at 7:30 a.m.: exhausted-looking Mexicans with bed head and chin stubble tanking up on junk food and energy drinks. Among them was "Mr. Ding Dongs and Coke," so known for the breakfast he always buys. At the gas station, customers don't have proper names. They are called "darling," "honey," "sweetie," "mi hijo" ("my son") or simply referred to by the products they consume.

      Gas prices remained high--just easing below $3 a gallon. The drivers were sometimes rude.

      A skinny old man with the face of a closet drinker stalked in from the pumps.

      "$49 for half a tank of gas! Jay-sus!" he snapped.

      "I know, I know, sir," said clerk Joni Hanson.

      "It's a rip-off. A total scam!"

      "I don't set the prices, sir."

      The old man paid. He vowed angrily never to return.

      "He'll be back," clerk Marta Perez told Hanson. And she was right.

      Jump to Story gallery | About the project | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 Download-->

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