Life in the Pedestrian Lane: Regular or unleaded?

Writer’s note: Time for a summer rerun. This column was first run in August 2011. The more things change the more they stay the same. I will see you here in August.

We just filled the car with gas. Wow! Luckily, Hubby belongs to the school that believes the top half is easier to keep full than the bottom half, but add to that five extra gallons for the lawn mower, or boat or roto-tiller, and the cost becomes equal to what we used to plan ahead for. One could decide to quit mowing the lawn or tilling the garden. Probably not to quit going fishing, however. Keeping a car is getting as expensive as keeping a dog team or a horse, the only alternative methods of transportation I know of that don’t require gas, except walking.

I have the happy memory of 25 cents for a gallon of gas. You could say “a dollar’s worth, please,” and feel sure you’d get out of sight of the gas station. And cars had good enough gas mileage back in the day that those four gallons would allow you to run around all week for an hour after school and still go out on the weekend. Maybe take you 70 or 80 miles away from home. You just hoped someone had another dollar to get you back.

I don’t remember the price changing in several years, from the time I was first aware of the price as a teenager until we moved to Alaska, 15 or so years later. None of this going downtown and watching the station managers change the price right before your eyes, not to mention putting a number in front of the decimal point! Regular gas was 25 cents, Ethyl was about 32 cents, and no diesel at the gas stations. The attendant not only pumped the gas, he checked the oil, washed the windshield, put air in the tires if needed and brought your change to the car if you had change coming. These days you wash your own windows and look around for the air pump to check the tires. If an attendant is present, he or she rings up your candy bar and pop then runs your credit card. Don’t ask him to make change, because likely the cash register is locked and/or subtraction is not his strong suit.

Every once in a while we’re reminded that lots of things are more expensive than gasoline. Bottled water for instance, purchased by the 9-ounce bottle, a gallon would be over $20, and Vick’s Ny-Quil would be $178.13. Even milk, if you bought eight pints would equal over $12 a gallon and Dom Perignon Champagne is about $755 a gallon (now you know why I don’t drink champagne). But the capper is nail polish …$1,024 per gallon. We don’t balk (much) at paying for those items so $5 a gallon for gas shouldn’t be the pain that it is except we don’t have to paint our nails but we can’t do without gasoline.

Have you noticed that instead of raising the prices on some things, the manufacturers have instead reduced the quantity? A 50-pound bag of dog food now weighs 48 pounds and what used to be an 8-ounce cup of yogurt is 6 ounces? A few years ago, how long did it take you to notice that the 3-pound can of coffee you bought really had only 39 ounces in it. The price hadn’t changed and the can was the same size but the quantity of coffee was about half a pound less. Now, we’ve lost 4 or 5 more ounces (depending on the brand) and the price has gone up some besides.

Some things have no prescribed size. How big is a candy bar, or how many sheets in a roll of paper towels? Of course, if something is marketed as a gallon or a pound or a dozen, that is how much must be in the package but we have become such visual shoppers that we grab eight hot dogs in a package and never consider that it is 12 ounces rather than 16. Or pick up a carton that looks like half a gallon of ice cream and it is really 58 ounces instead of 64. I remember reading that American Airlines reduced its food costs by about $10,000 one year by taking one olive out of the salads in first class. Manufacturers these days are cutting costs the same way at the customers’ expense unless we watch judiciously.

Gas was 45 cents a gallon when we arrived in Kenai 40 years ago and we gritted our teeth at that price. Now we are paying nearly 10 times that amount and our teeth are still clenched. The only thing that has gone up as much are cigarettes (well, and postage stamps but that is another story). We don’t smoke so the price of tobacco doesn’t bother me much except to wonder why anyone would still be smoking. And I guess the same goes for gasoline. But we are such an automobile dependent society there’s no way we can give up the vehicle and probably not a power lawn mower, or garden tiller and for sure not the outboard motor.

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