Sotto Voce.

"Qui plume a, guerre a." — Voltaire

Pay At The Pump

We are on the way home from lunch and we need to get gas for the car. A few blocks down from the restaurant (one of the few Pho joints in Baltimore) is an Exxon station with decent prices, or as decent as you can get these days.

After pulling next to an available pump, I hop out and begin the modern gas-pumping ritual: credit card in, remove card quickly, select grade, try to remember whether or not Exxon uses “START” buttons. They don’t, you just select your grade using the big yellow button. One nozzle for all three grades. Okay, I think, I’m good to go.

After the initial hiccup, the gas starts flowing and I search for the inner Zen place that you go to while waiting for the tank to fill, that existental no-man’s-land that you look for when there’s not enough time to get a good train of thought going but where there are too many distractions to simply cease to think.

My eye lands on words scrolling across the little text screen above the card slot, the one that tells you to REMOVE CARD QUICKLY. Good, I think. I can read about something brain-dead like how much this week’s oil change special is. That should carry me through to a full tank.


That gets my attention. I stare at the scrolling message as it unfurls in a glowing silver-blue.


Simple, declarative, unambiguous. I’m apparently supposed to be either for the gas pump or for the terrorists. The gas pump demands that I swear allegiance.


I quickly look away and try to focus on the Price and Amount displays instead, but there’s no comfort or escape. I’m looking at an escalating body count. Or maybe it’s the spiraling costs of contracts with Halliburton and KBR. Or is it the number of new bodyguards and rent-a-cops and American “advisers” arriving in Iraq every day, all dressed in slacks and combat boots, Vuarnets and Kevlar, patriots all?


I can see my reflection in the scratched plastic cover, as the numbers ratchet up. I’m buying this gas, supporting the demand for oil that has caused us to blunder headlong into the Middle East like the Keystone Cops, which would be funny except for the pictures of the killing and the dying and the maiming. Pictures of a naked man cowering before a barking dog, of charred corpses hanging from a bridge, of nude human pyramids. A man with his severed head on his back. A leash. A thumbs-up.


We all thought that The Siege was just a farfetched “what-if” movie. Even after the war started, it still showed up on cable because it had Bruce Willis wearing camo and talking tough. (Remember, irony is still officially dead.) But the whole torture scene?

Nah. Not us. We don’t do that.

That movie hasn’t turned up on TV in a long time.


But what can I do? I need gas because I have to drive to the airport tomorrow. I have to go to the airport and stand in line to be searched, to take my shoes off and wonder if maybe I should have packed my pen and pencil because someone might confiscate them as weapons. I have to do things like that now.

I read that the government has given itself the right to keep looking into people’s library records. My wife is a librarian. Now they’re making their move on the National Archives too. I used to work there. Sometimes it feels like they’re closing in, everywhere I look, Big Brother is Watching Me, for my own good of course.


Finally, the pump handle snaps and I top off to a nice, round figure. Have to get every drop, right? I return the cold gun to its holster.


Why does it feel like it is really asking me: EVIDENCE OF YOUR COMPLICITY? YES/NO

I stand there wondering about the real implications of the question, and of my answer.


I choose NO.




  1. […] short piece based on something that happened this afternoon on the way home from lunch. In the […]

  2. JoeV says:

    I don’t know why I haven’t read your essays before. It’s obvious now that I’ve been missing some good thoughts.

    Thank you for this essay. Someone needed to have said the things that we’ve all been thinking (or, at least those of us dumb enough, in this day and age, to get up the courage to rub a few brain cells together without being told by the guy on TV in what order) but haven’t wanted to risk stating out loud, for fear of reaction or reprisal.


  3. sottovoce says:

    Hi, Joe —

    Thanks! Coming from you that means a lot. Jaron Lanier in “You Are Not a Gadget” wrote that one advantage of pre-internet print communications was its built-in tendency to obscurity. I’ve worked hard to make this little corner of the web old-fashioned in many senses, including a level of obscurity that encourages me to write whatever I feel needs to be written without much fear.

    If you haven’t read “Gadget,” I highly encourage you to check it out. I’m only on Part Two, but it’s easily the most powerful book of its kind that I’ve read since Neil Postman’s “Technopoly.”

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