Chaos and Community at East Williamsburg’s Post-Apocalyptic Gas Station Line

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Photo: Jada Yuan

The Hess gas station at the intersection of Bushwick and Metropolitan Avenues in East Williamsburg became one of the few lifelines in a fuel-starved city after Sandy struck. While nearby branches of Shell and BP went dry and were circled in police tape, trusty Hess kept pumping, seemingly the only game in town. The line of cars started forming on Metropolitan Ave. at 6 a.m. on Tuesday morning after the storm, and it’s been steady since—abating only when the fuel runs out. On Thursday, the day of the worst line, cars stretched from beyond the Ridgewood border in Queens all the way to the Williamsburg Bridge, with a concurrent line down Bushwick Avenue with no end in sight. “People just started driving in like renegades and parking wherever they wanted because there was no police,” said Sadie Benning, an artist who lives near the station (and who is also my neighbor).

Hess has its own refinery in Port Reading, NJ, which means that its gas supply comes into the city by tanker truck, instead of through the ports, which were closed after Hurricane Sandy struck. A company spokesperson explained that, based on experiences from hurricanes in Florida, Hess purchased 85 generators in advance of the storm. They managed to keep 177 of 186 stations in the metropolitan area open (about 36 in the city proper), and while their refinery still has no power, they’re using a generator to keep their truck rack in Port Reading open to send out whatever fuel they have. (The company’s website shows the inventory levels at various stations.)

At 7 p.m. on Friday, this particular Hess had one pump open for cars from Metropolitan, one for cars from Bushwick, and one for about 100 people who’d been standing in the cold for hours with red canisters. Cars were limited to $40 of gas, people on foot to $30. Rules varied from station to station. Joe Cardellos, a Modell’s employee, told of waiting for two hours at the Greenpoint Hess, watching as the police sergeant in charge let off-duty NYPD, FDNY, and sanitation workers cut ahead of everyone else “because they work for the city,” said Cardellos. “I don’t think that’s fair.”

Just a block and a half away from the station (but about 50 cars back), 23 year-old accountant Juan Elejade was pushing his Hyundai Tiburon down the street. He’d run out of gas an hour after getting into line. Since then, he’d made friends with Emmanuel Delarosa, 19, in the 49.99 Sewer Service van behind him. Delarosa steered while Elejade pushed. “I just met him. He’s cool peoples,” said Elejade. “We started becoming friends an hour ago, since a block away.” Delarosa was going to go straight from getting gas to working on snaking sewage out of people’s flooded houses, mostly in Nassau county. “Business would be good now,” he said, “but we can’t get around. It’s like a domino effect.”

The line included vans for The DOE Fund, a shelter for homeless men working on the cleanup, and a number of livery cars and yellow cabs. A Bangladeshi yellow cab driver, Miah Mohammed, said that he had only been able to get gas two times since the storm, when normally he has to fill up twice a day. On Thursday, his cab partner had waited on line for an hour and a half at a Hess on 72nd Street and Northern Boulevard, only to be told that the gas was reserved for cabs from a certain company. “They say, ‘You are not allowed to get gas here. Is only for some,’” said Mohammed.

In the on-foot line at the station, one man at the pump accidentally missed his canister, spraying gas everywhere. “Oh my god! You know how much these shoes cost? I paid $250 for this shit, man! Limited edition! Oh my god!” shouted out Richard Vergara, 18, who’d been waiting for four hours to fill up his moving company’s van. He was wearing black patent leather Jordan Retro 3s. “I’ll try my best to rehabilitate them,” he said, dejectedly, after he’d gotten his own gas, “but I’ll probably have to buy them again. The smell is not going to come out.”

Still waiting were a couple—Tom, a barber, and Crystal, a day provider—from Virginia who’d driven up to check on family. They’d run out of gas in Staten Island, finally made it to the front of the gas line there only to have the station go dry, and had to pay $300 to get towed to Tom’s father’s house in north Greenpoint. Canisters were sold out at every store they visited, but they finally managed to scrounge up a 2-gallon container from a relative—just enough to get them to another gas station as they tried to make their way back to Virginia. “We got here easy, but we can’t get out,” said Tom.

The crowd was restless. Every time someone left the line and came back, a loud outcry would erupt. The police sergeant in charge began enforcing a rule that anyone who’d left the line with canister in hand was not allowed to come back to their spot; several people had been handing their canisters to friends further up in line, getting them filled, emptying them into their cars, and jumping back into the middle of the line (claiming they’d just left for a bathroom run) in order to get more gas.

Sometimes, the yelling seemed to be merely recreational stress relief. “People like to scream. It’s part of the fun of standing in line. It’s like a roller coaster,” said John Pardo, a truck driver for Western Beef. “If we started singing kumbaya, everyone would start singing.”

A black market was forming. Pardo had managed to buy a few $20 five-gallon canisters while out in Long Island for work earlier in the day, and sold one of his empties for double the price. The going price for a full five-gallon canister was reportedly $100. Pardo looked around. “It’s like the end of the world. This is just a taste of how it’s gonna be.”

Juan Elejade finally pushed his dead car to the front of the line after 9 p.m., five hours after he’d entered it. His new friend Emmanuel Delarosa steered it into place. Elejade got his $25 worth, then tried to swipe his credit card for more while no one was looking. The pump refused and a police officer came over and told him to be on his way. He gave Delarosa a big hug and told him to meet him at the Astoria beer garden after Delarosa’s work shift ended at midnight. Elejade turned the key and the car roared, incredibly satisfactorily, to life. The fuel gauge swung to the right. Elejade beamed: “I actually got three-quarters of tank!”