I let my engine idle for a few minutes while I checked my cell phone. I had only one voice mail. It was from Stephanie, saying she was at the Jersey Shore with her boyfriend and wasn’t sure of she’d be able to drive back to work again on Monday due to there being no gas at any of the stations. I called her back and told her not to worry about Monday and she could take it as one of her vacation days -- paid or unpaid, her choice -- with no hassle from me.
Then I started driving.
The highway was unusually clear which made my journey faster and less fuel-intensive. I refused to run the A/C because of how much fuel it sucked, so I drove with the windows down as the only means of cooling the van. Along the way I spotted the occasional motorist stranded along the roadside with his hazard lights blinking. I assumed most of those motorists were out of gas. I resisted the urge to stop and help anyone, so I just kept cruising. I also kept checking my fuel gauge: it dipped a hair below half-full right as I reached my own half-way point. So I felt pretty confident I’d make it home.
I reached the last stretch of highway just outside of Philly right in time for a traffic jam. I turned on the radio listening for the traffic report. After a few minutes of creeping at two miles per hour, all the vehicles reached a perfect standstill. So I -- like everyone else there on that stretch of highway -- turned off the engine and left the radio on for more reports. This sudden lack of motion eliminated my passive cooling efforts, so I now sat in the roasting heat of late afternoon, listening to the traffic report, hoping to hear that the problem was being alleviated. Eventually the ten-minute news cycle repeated itself and the traffic report swung back into the spotlight. According to the report, a motorist had run out of fuel on the highway and was the cause of the backup, and efforts to move his vehicle were being hampered by an accident that blocked the nearest exit. I rolled my eyes and settled in for a long wait.
The vehicle to my left was a two-door BMW convertible with the top down, driven by a very nice looking college-aged woman in a sundress and sunglasses. To my right sat a Jeep Cherokee with a young family of four -- the Dad was behind the wheel. The BMW lady on my left sat talking on her cell phone. The family of four watched a movie together on the ceiling-mounted DVD player. With a thousand cars in front of me and behind me, and with all our engines off and only the occasional radio playing, the highway took on an unheard of serenity. I watched a gopher come up out of the grass on the shoulder and bounce off into the woods. And I could even hear birds chirping.
After half an hour of this near silence on the highway, the BMW lady suddenly got out of her car and walked straight over to me. I perked up at her approach, turned down the volume of the radio, and awaited her greeting.
“Sir?” she asked timidly. “Can I ask you about the van you’re driving?”
It was a very strange question and I merely shrugged with a smile. “Sure.”
“Is it a diesel?”
“Uh, yes it is.”
“Do you think you could sell me just one gallon of fuel? I’m already on empty and I don’t think I can make it into the City.”
I glanced at her BMW and spied the label beside the fuel port indicating the diesel engine. Before I could answer I overheard the radio announcer:
“And getting back to that tie-up on the Schuylkill Expressway, there seems to be a chain reaction taking place where thousands of stranded cars are just sitting there, idling in traffic. And some of those idling cars are themselves running out of gas right there in the middle of the traffic jam. This development is merely compounding the traffic jam, and in turn causing even more vehicles also to run out of gas, compounding the jam up even further, and making its overall duration incalculable.”
She and I were both looking at my radio together, listening to this report. When the commercial break came I looked at her and smiled: “Sure. I think I have a hose.”
I asked her to keep a lookout on the traffic ahead while I siphoned a small amount of gas out of my tank into hers. I self-consciously glanced up from my siphoning hose to the vehicles immediately behind us. No more than 20 of the occupants of those on-looking cars could see what was going on, and through their windshields I gauged their reactions to my siphoning as a mixture of both amusement and horror. While they could see I was obviously helping the BMW lady, the dire implications of this undertaking were not lost on any of them: this traffic jam might start compounding exponentially before our eyes if other cars further down the highway ahead of us started running out of gas as well.
After what I guessed to be a full gallon, I stopped siphoning and retracted the hose from our respective tanks.
I refused her offers of cash and merely got back into my van again.
I watched the Dad get out of the Jeep next to me with his young son (who looked to be about six). Together they climbed over beyond the guard rail and past the grassy strip where the gopher had been frolicking. With the Dad’s help the boy relieved himself in the bushes.
The traffic jam lasted for hours. It was almost sundown before the cars in front started moving again. Our vehicles all bottlenecked into a single lane of traffic lumbering along at less than five miles per hour. There really should have been two lanes, but the high number of stalled and out-of-gas cars along both sides of the road choked off two otherwise functional lanes.
I kept glancing at my fuel gauge: I had less than a quarter tank now and I feared I wouldn’t make it. I hated the thought of pulling off at the next exit and parking somewhere because the neighborhood of that exit was pretty bad and my van might get broken into, especially on a Saturday night. But the risk of staying on the highway and running out of fuel also repulsed me. I decided that if I did pull over and park I simply couldn’t leave the van alone all night and needed to stay in it at least until daybreak.
By eight o’clock my van inched its way onto the downward exit ramp. Five exceptionally muscular Pennsylvania state troopers stood along the ramp’s sides, directing the traffic, their cop cars parked by the ramp with blue lights strobing. As I rolled slowly past their flashing blue lights, I noticed three additional cars had been shoved off of the ramp’s blacktop and sat precariously perched on the extreme slope that embanked one side of the ramp. I could only assume they had each run out of gas there at the ramp and got manually pushed aside -- probably by those same troopers.
By the time I got to the bottom of the ramp my fuel warning light came on. So now I knew I had maybe a mile or two left to go before I would run out and get stranded also. I started to regret having given the BMW lady that one precious gallon of diesel. I hadn’t been in that section of Philly in ages, and the neighborhood looked just as terrible as ever.
I drove for a few blocks in the badly lit city darkness. After two stop lights I found a gas station of the 24-hour convenience store variety. Even though the inside of the store was lit up, the pricing sign had no numbers on it so I knew there was no fuel. But I figured the best I could do was park there until a fuel delivery arrived. Several other motorists had the same idea as me and the lot was half full of other vehicles all in line for the lifeless pumps. I pulled into a parking space wedged between a broken pubic pay phone and an air hose used for filling tires.
After I turned off the engine I got out and surveyed the other cars where a hodgepodge of motorists -- African and European, rich and poor -- stood outside their vehicles, leaning against the doors and the quarter panels, silently waiting for a fuel delivery.
I noticed an SUV whose quiet door-leaner had dark hair with a white tip. He wore a jogging suit as he sipped from a cup of coffee that bore the same logo as the gas station. I strolled over to him and asked: “Is the coffee any good here?”
“It’s passable,” he shrugged, barely looking me in the eye.
I got a coffee and waited inside my van with the windows rolled half way down. In spite of the caffeine, I eventually fell asleep.
-------------------End of Chapter 20--------------------