The Norman Transcript

June 13, 2008

$2 gas becomes "controlled chaos"

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By Andrew Knittle — If you thought Americans weren't fed up with high gas prices, the noontime scene Friday at the Homeland on Robinson Street and 24th Avenue NW should put that misconception to bed - for good.

Hundreds of motorists, alerted by media reports and gossip, turned up en masse to the tiny gas station tucked in the corner of the grocery store just off Interstate 35.

Some the cars were filled to bursting with children, who sat patiently in the 90-degree heat and muggy humidity. One lady, who didn't want to be interviewed, sat in her late model Jeep Cherokee with all the windows rolled down and the engine killed. She said she and her infant son, who sat in the back seat sweating but content, had been waiting since 10:30 that morning.

Several TV news crews scoured the area, interviewing sweating citizens as they waited in Hummers, Corollas, Accords, Yukons and just about any other make and model you can imagine.

In the partly cloudy sky, a helicopter circled, trying to get the best shot as the scene below grew more circus-like by the minute.

The drivers came to get eight gallons of $2 gas, which was part of a promotion stunt staged by Metro Brokers of Oklahoma, a local real estate company owned by Gwen Holmes.

And while $2 gas may not seem like such a big deal, Melissa Jennings, the front end manager at the Homeland, said the situation was just a stone's throw from an all-out melee.

"It's been controlled chaos all morning here," she said. "We've been trying to coordinate as much as possible with the real estate people, but there's a lot of people out here."

While they waited, some people got out of their cars and talked with other motorists. One elderly man walked around in the shade of the store's high walls to stretch his legs, his old pickup abandoned with both doors open.

R.J. Williams, a University of Oklahoma student who'd been waiting since 10:45 along with his roommate, got out of his car to walk his pit bull, Tyson, on the sidewalk just off Robinson Street. He said the wait was fine with him.

“I'm going to get $15 back," Williams said. "You got to put it in the tank anyway, might as well be here."

As for the high gas prices, Williams said he was at a loss for words.

"It makes no sense," he said.

Another man, who looked like a retired college English professor, sat on his bicycle watching the rows and rows of automobiles wait. At one point he sniffed the air, which at times was thick with smell of gasoline and exhaust, and glanced at a large SUV about 10 yards away from him. The massive black Suburban was running, all of its tinted windows were rolled up tight and a small lake of water from the vehicle's air conditioner flowed behind it until it disappered beneath the hordes of waiting cars.

"Pretty ironic, isn't it," he said.

The line to get the precious $2 gas, which hasn't been sold in the U.S. since March of 2004, stretched around and behind the store and flowed out onto 26th Avenue NW, where it snaked all the way down to the westside Wal-Mart - about a mile away.

Kathleen Forrest, a broker for MBO, walked to greet the last people in line and kept them informed about what was going at the front of the seemingly endless line.

"We probably tried to turn away 50 or 60 people, but most of them are still going to try to get the gas," Forrest said. "I'd say about 160, 170 people aren't even going to get the gas."

As the promotion got under way at noon, plenty of people got gas.

One of the first was Debbie Sylvester, who'd been waiting for about two hours before she could fill up with the discount petrol. Her timing seemed to be the wisest, as far wait time was concerned.

"The first guy was here at like 6 a.m., but I just got here a little before 10 and that seems fine with me," she said.

The "controlled chaos" was managed by three off-duty Norman police officers, who were hired by Holmes to deal with the traffic.

As the people began fueling up with the cheap gas, NPD Officer Tom Laird said there were problems and that nobody lost their temper, despite the steamy conditions which usually yield tantrums and outbursts.

"It's been running very smoothly, everybody just moving along," he said.

Holmes, who early Friday evening reported her condition as "dead tired," said the event worked out better than she'd imagined.

"We were really satisfied with how everything turned out today," she said. "There was a little traffic jam, but nothing really happened that I know of."

During the nearly two-hour promotion, Holmes said around 20,000 gallons were sold, which cost her company "about $3,000 to $5,000."

As for future gas promotions, Holmes said she doesn't know for sure - she's just glad this one is over and went off without a hitch.

"I'm hoping I won't have to do it again, I'm hoping gas prices come down on their own," she said Friday, her voice drained of all energy. "But at least tonight, a lot of people will have $15 to go out to dinner with."