RALEIGH — Pulling up to a gas station these days is like pulling up to a whorehouse — or what I imagine that experience would be like. For the right price, you'll get what you want, but you can forget about purity.
That — purity — is the notion a friend used years ago upon learning that I didn't patronize Shell gas stations because of the corporation's unconscionable habit of sidling up to dictatorial and apartheid regimes abroad. She recited equally egregious human rights and ecological effrontery by just about every other major oil company and concluded with "Go on and use Shell. None of them are pure."
Now, it's unlikely that Slim Jim, Mountain Dew and $2 worth of unleaded — back when that amount would actually crank an engine — purchased from Shell's competitors hurt the corporation's stock, but it made me feel better.
Considering what BP's possibly criminally negligent disaster is doing to the Gulf Coast, what can socially conscious people today do to make themselves feel better — and will it hurt BP or local owners more?
Daniel Pang knows the answer: It'll hurt him.
Pang, owner of the BP station on Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh next to Pleasant Valley Promenade, was the only one of four BP operators I approached who would even talk about the oil disaster or its effect on business - or lack thereof. Three others made it clear, with varying degrees of courtesy, what I could do with the pen and pad I held when trying to interview them.
It was obvious that none wanted to call extra attention to the green and yellow signs on their pumps. Pang, though, said Wednesday that he hasn't seen any diminution of business because of anger at BP. He said a customer boycott would be devastating.
"This is our business, not BP's," he said. "The customers don't care" where their gas comes from.
He was talking about customers like Eric Harrison, who was filling up his SUV at an Exxon station a couple of miles away, though he said his his automobiles run best on BP and that's where he usually pumps.
"I need gas," he said when asked why a committed BP'er was patronizing Exxon. "I still use BP. What happened could have happened to any company. It's not like they went down there and intentionally knocked a hole" in the pump to cause the nearly 2-month-old gusher.
Phil Flynn, an oil industry analyst, told USA Today that boycotting BP is "a noble effort, but it's really going to hurt the wrong people." The overwhelming majority of the 22,400 stations flying the BP colors are owned by independent contractors — people like Daniel Pang — who are undeserving of our wrath.
Since that's the case, it appears that the answer to the question "How can you punish the petroleum behemoth?" is "You can't. But you can destroy local owners and operators."
So, how else is pulling up to a gas station these days like visiting your local house of ill repute? You may get what you came for, but you feel even lousier when you leave.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Barry Saunders is a columnist for the News & Observer. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.