WACO, Texas -- The gas nozzles were wearing stocking caps. I felt a tinge of panic. I felt foolish, too.
The convenience store had holstered its gas nozzles in plastic shopping bags. I was doing a slalom between the pumps. I should have realized quickly: With most gas stations all over town being swarmed that very moment, an outlet with an empty lot meant only one thing.
No more gas today. Yes, they had bananas. And Ding Dongs. But no gas.
I wasn't desperate, not like the motorists that day on the Houston freeways who were watching their tanks empty as they went nowhere fast. I was merely hedging against the prospect of the $4-a-gallon gas I heard was possible post-Rita.
I crept down Bosque Avenue and headed toward the office and downtown, calculating how few gasoline stations operate in the inner city.
Fortunately, only a few blocks farther I saw a store with operative pumps that weren't being swarmed like honeycomb. Crisis averted.
It's a fascinating reaction when a whole world of plenty flashes before your eyes.
I started thinking of the relative value of a postage stamp. Yes, that lovely, 37-cent postage stamp.
To avoid using such a stamp, I've routinely detoured by car to this place or that to pay a bill.
"Those were the days," I thought in the few blocks between dead gas pumps and responsive gas pumps.
What this all means is that I don't know the meaning of scarcity. But we're all getting a taste after Rita and Katrina. We're getting the taste of jockeying for position in lines for necessities. We're getting the taste of uncertainty when push-button comfort malfunctions.
But as one drives deeper into the inner city, one realizes how many Americans and how many in our community experience that feeling every morning, rain or shine.
The other day, a blisteringly hot day in Waco while New Orleans' poor were gasping for sustenance as news choppers circled overhead, I had a moment's empathy.
On that day I had no car, and I had no aspirin when a headache hit. I figured I would find aspirin if I just set out on foot from the office. I walked one block in the direction of a convenience store I remembered. It's no more. No drug store for miles. The sun beat down. I walked another block. My forehead beaded with sweat. I walked another. No store, no aspirin. I walked another, then realized I was in futile pursuit. I trudged back to the air-conditioned office, head still splitting, and bummed two aspirin off a co-worker.
One of the stark revelations about Hurricane Katrina, aside from the wrath of nature, was the reality of abject poverty in our midst, the lack of services, the lack of health care, the lack of opportunity.
In some parts of our community, if you live in the inner city you have to go miles to find something other than a convenience store for groceries. You'll find hock shops. You'll find gun shops. You'll find payday loans. You won't find aspirin.
When the storms that besieged our cities retreat and the refineries belch again, when the gas lines recede and when plenty rules again, many of these areas will still be disaster areas.
Will we invest in them as hubs of humanity? Will we not give up on them?
Will we put our trust in strip malls and sprawl? In ribbons of pavement meant to convey us away from our urban challenges?
Will we look to how safe we're making those neighborhoods for perspiring people on foot, for women with baby strollers, for children on bicycles?
It's amazing what a moment's scarcity can do. For a moment, I had it tough.
John Young is the opinion page editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald.
© 2005 Daily Camera