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Running Out of Gas: The Curse and the Blessing

February 07, 2001|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Running out of gas can make anybody feel like a numskull, but hitting empty can be serendipitous and can change the course of lives, transform careers and even save people from the sex industry.

Those are among the extraordinary stories of gas scofflaws who responded to a recent Highway 1 column delving into the precarious thrill of running on empty.

Hundreds of thousands of Californians miscalculate their gas level every year and end up stranded inside a ton and a half of dead metal. They pound the steering wheel and keep turning their ignition key before calling road service or heading off on foot to look for fuel.

What happens then can sometimes seem like a journey into the twilight zone. Take, for example, the remarkable case of a woman we will call Lory.

A college student constantly short of cash, she often tries to make the commute from San Diego to Los Angeles with only a few gallons in the tank of her Honda Civic.

But one night she tapped out. The nearest phone she could find was at a San Diego strip club called Deja Vu Dirty Dan's.

"It was late at night and, being a woman, I was hesitant to go into the club," she recalled. "A young girl walked out of the club with two male chaperons and I felt relieved to see another woman. The girl was a stripper and, ironically, I [knew] her from church camp.

"I guess those Bible stories just didn't cut it for her. . . . She helped me refuel my car. I told her there are other ways to pay for college rather than cage dancing and leather boots. We became good friends and she gave up Dirty Dan's. She is now in law school."

For an accountant, running out of gas might be the ultimate humiliation. So, watching his gas gauge has become a science for William, a certified public accountant.

"I can tell within a tenth of a gallon how much gas is left and also how far I can drive," he boasts. "A chart on my dash has all the values at one-eighth intervals.

"When the gauge reads full, I have seven-eighths of a tank. When the gauge reads empty, I have two gallons left. Gauge calibrations should be made with the vehicle [on level ground]."

And then there's Jake, who drives around in an old Volkswagen Vanagon with a broken fuel gauge and an inoperative odometer.

"I just have to guess about how much fuel I have left," Jake said. No problem most of the time.

But a few months ago he hit bottom with a Christmas tree on the roof and four of his kids in the VW.

Stranded on the Ronald Reagan Freeway in Simi Valley, Jake was rescued by a member of the Freeway Service Patrol. A grateful Jake offered him a gift-wrapped box of Christmas candy, but he wouldn't accept it.

"He really made a good situation out of a bad one," Jake wrote.

One man related his tortuous journey across the San Fernando Valley for a job interview.

He set out with less than a dollar in his pocket. Along the Ventura Freeway, his car began to sputter. He managed to get to an offramp with a gas station, where he spent his last few coins on putting some fuel in the tank.

He pulled into his destination at an office complex with the engine sputtering again. After circling the lot twice, he rolled into an empty parking spot with a dead engine and ran off for his interview.

"I landed the job on the spot, probably because I was so on edge from just getting there," he said.

Some empty-tank experiences are, well, burned into the memory. On a sunny day in 1948, E.C.P. of Santa Barbara ran out of gas in his 19-year-old Model A Ford along the ocean near Camp Pendleton. He set off hitchhiking to find gas. By the time he returned, the bald pate of his mother's stepfather, who was riding in the rumble seat, had turned medium rare.

"There was no relief for my burning ears from the comments I suffered" for ignoring the gas gauge, he recalled.

Some things never change.

*

Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com.

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