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The Fort Dupont BP Amoco pumps out Skittles, Utz Red Hot potato chips, and Grandma’s cookies 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Customers often fill their grumbling stomachs with the sugar and fat before they even make it off the lot.
This BP Amoco’s inventory pretty much begins and ends with junk food. Patrons looking to take the edge off of anything more than their hunger are out of luck.
It doesn’t carry the array of items that junkies and weedheads can find at many neighboring stations. Any tobacco product that can be split down its spine, and eviscerated, and have its entrails replaced with chronic will never see the light emanating from the station’s canopy of fluorescent bulbs.
The unpleasant task of turning away drug-paraphernalia seekers falls to Fort Dupont BP Amoco cashier Ann Stanfield.
“Anything you can think of, they’ve called me,” says Stanfield of patrons seeking paraphernalia. “They spit at the window. They say, ‘Is this a religious gas station?’ They say, ‘Are y’all stupid, are you ignorant? Do you know how much money you could be making?’”
Because Stanfield doesn’t have the selection of goodies they expect, weedheads cuss her out, call her out of her name, and even accuse her of holding out on them.
“You tell ’em no, and they look around like you’re lying—just looking,” says Stanfield, imitating the folks who push their faces to the plexiglass and scan the booth’s interior for hidden smoking materials.
The station’s drug-prevention efforts don’t end with the ban on blunts. Their stock thwarts users at every turn—even the lighters they carry are tools of deterrence.
There is only one model to be had—the Bic Maxi. It has an unadjustable flame that doesn’t provide a whole lot of firepower. It’s more than enough to spark a cigarette, for sure, but trying to sear a glass pipe with the thing can be an exercise in frustration.
When one grease-stained man comes up and asks for a lighter, Stanfield pulls an orange Bic from its display. “You don’t have two-for-one [lighters]?” the man asks. “Only Bic,” Stanfield replies. The man settles for the lighter and plunks $1.25 in the metal drawer.
After he’s well out of earshot, Stanfield explains that his inquiry wasn’t prompted by a need to pinch pennies. “That’s a dope fiend,” says Stanfield, who has worked at the station for four years. “They always say, ‘That’s all y’all got?’ The Bic flame only goes so high—it’s not adjustable. They want that big flame. They can’t stand those Bics.”
On a drizzly Thursday evening, a pretty young woman with braids comes up to the window and asks for “a pack of Dutches.”
“We don’t sell those,” Stanfield says in the singsong voice that accompanies every rejection.
The young woman scans Stanfield’s face, looking for some sign that the cashier is pulling her leg.
“See the sign? What does that say?” Stanfield points to a piece of paper affixed to the front of her glass booth. Rather than read silently, the woman regresses into elementary-school-reading-circle mode and recites the message aloud:
“We-do-not-sell-blunts-or-any-type-of-cigars,” she reads, breaking the sign down by word. After reading the sign a few more times silently, she walks away.
The sign was put up a little over a year ago because the cashiers were tired of saying no. James E. Jackson, the owner of the operation, has been at the spot since 1971 and has never sold any kind of paraphernalia at the station. He doesn’t have to. Jackson boosts his bottom line with the auto-repair shop that is part of his BP Amoco.
It’s not that he’s afraid of breaking the law. In the District, it’s illegal for a retail outfit such as a gas station to sell such things as syringes and tiny plastic bags, which are handy for cocaine. Cigars, on the other hand, just happen to have an alternate use. Jackson knows that the majority of cheap gas-station stogies end up as marijuana casings, and he’d rather not attract a bunch of stoners to his establishment.
“The customers who purchase these things, they’re a certain class of people,” Jackson says. “Those who use blunts, papers—we don’t want to be dealing with them.”
For better or for worse, rolling a bob and pumping gas are coupled activities in the District. Many area gas-station owners feel the need to carry some sort of paraphernalia as a way to attract customers.
Because they rake in a few pennies on the dollar from fuel, many owners can face financial hardship if they don’t seek out alternate sources of income. Auto repair was once the greatest additional revenue source for stations. But antiseptic-convenience-store management has replaced the greasy business of fixing cars as the dominant revenue source. And to lure customers, owners have to provide a range of products, including unsavory ones.
“If you wanna sell gasoline, it’s not a commodity that you can sell and sell gas alone,” says Jackson. “You can’t make it profitable unless you’re selling a whole lot of gas at a high margin, or a whole lot of gas at a low margin, along with a lot of other things.”
The owners of the BP station at 14th and Euclid Streets NW suffered an unexpected setback in their product-diversification efforts last spring. On May 20, 2004, police arrested Negesti Tekle, who owns the station along with her brother, Haile Tekle. Negesti Tekle was charged with selling drug paraphernalia. The BP had been caught up in a three-month joint investigation by members of the D.C. police department and the U.S. Secret Service targeting alleged counterfeiting and identity theft.
“[T]housands of drug paraphernalia items, including empty ziplocks, pipe screens, razor blades, pipe stems…” located “behind the cashier counter and also in a storage closet,” were discovered, according to court documents.
When the shit went down, neighborhood resident Joe Hamner was inside the store. He had stopped in to buy eggs when cops rushed in and demanded that customers put their items back on the shelves.
“They didn’t say what was going on—they said, ‘The store is closed. Put your stuff back,’” says Hamner.
Hamner, who has lived around the corner from the station for more than two years, hasn’t let the incident stop him from patronizing the store—he still goes in several times a week to pick up sundry items and thinks that the Tekles do a good job of running the station.
But residents with longer histories in the neighborhood say that the quality of the BP has gone down in recent years as a result of the Tekles’ struggling to serve a changing demographic.
“They’ve changed since the white people came,” says Ralph Wesley, who claims to have roots in the neighborhood that go back some 25 years. “White people only come here if they don’t stop at Fresh Food first, or they might run in and get a [drink] or something.”
The BP sits in the middle of an area that has seen low-income housing replaced by luxury condominiums. The Tekles once earned a lot of money selling convenience-food items. They had a huge number of customers who came to them on foot to buy food and drink, rather than commuters buying the gas that they make only a small amount of profit from.
“In 2000, 2001, 2002, it changed,” says Negesti Tekle.
So the Tekles attempted to change, as well. In February 2000, a kitchen sprouted from the gray and white industrial floor tiles of the BP station. One of the offerings featured at the BP bistro is curried chicken, which sells for $2.50 for a small container, a dollar more for each size up. The idea behind the convenience-plus business model is to satisfy both longtime residents looking for cheap eats and newcomers who want a more upscale menu.
“We were selling pizza and beef patties before, but in limited space. [The renovation] started in July, August of 1999, and we shut down operation until beginning of February,” says Haile Tekle.
“It was a transition time for the neighborhood—everybody was getting out,” he continues. “When we reopened, the customers from before were gone.”
And apparently, the Tekles’ new neighbors have failed to recognize the appeal of carrots, onions, and poultry pieces cooked up across the aisle from bottles of Pennzoil. The allure of curried chicken stewed inside a gas-and-go has failed to lure the large volumes of additional customers that they anticipated.
“Business is still OK, but we sell less,” says Negesti Tekle. “It used to be a lot busier.”
A quick tutorial on the economics of serving junkies: If a station sells a modestly priced pipe for $3.99 and unloads five of them each day, it can gross more than $7,000 a year, just from that one item alone.
An extra seven grand a year might not seem worth risking the ire of NIMBYs or accusations of breaking the law, but gas stations need all the help they can get. Paul Fiore, of the Washington, Maryland, Delaware Service Station and Automotive Repair Association (WMDA), says that station owners get a mere pittance for each gallon of gas they sell. “Getting 10 cents is above average,” Fiore says. “In some places, depending on the region, it can be as little as 7 cents.”
“There are some stations that, for whatever reason, are making 4 cents per gallon,” says Fiore. “And if you pull up to the pump and swipe your Visa card, that becomes negative 2.”
For the sake of argument, assume that a gas-station reaps 8 cents per gallon in profit. At that rate, even a high-volume station that sells roughly 200,000 gallons of gasoline each month is clearing less than $200,000 a year on gas—and that’s before operating expenses, such as rent and taxes, are deducted. Stations that get a lesser percentage of the profit and pump less gas are in even worse shape.
So nearly all of them have turned to selling extras.
Not that extras, illicit or not, have brought gas stations in D.C. much stability. The number of stations in the city has declined since 1977, according to figures from a study by the D.C. Energy Office and its Gas Station Advisory Board. D.C. now has approximately 112 gas stations, down from approximately 300 in the late ’70s. According to the report, the number of stations decreased by 18 percent between 1990 and 2002.
The trend isn’t unique to the District. Gas stations all over the country have been disappearing, usually because gigantic superstations are gobbling up customers who once pumped at smaller stations.
“Like any other industry, ‘Bigger is better’ is the concept,” says Fiore. “You’ll see two or three close up and then a newly rebuilt station pumping the same amount as those two to three smaller ones.”
When oil companies decide to consolidate or renovate stations, their aim is to move more fuel. Often, this means pressuring gas-station owners into converting their full-service operations with car repairs into “gas-and-gos,” stations with many pumps and perhaps a convenience store or a mini-branch of a national fast-food chain.
D.C.’s Gas Station Advisory Board, founded in 1979, helps station owners to fend off conversions pushed by their parent oil companies and allows communities the opportunity to sound off on such changes. In doing so, the board relies on the city’s Moratorium on Retail (Gas) Service Station Conversion Act, which expressly disallows the conversion of full-service stations to gas-and-go formats, even though the board may grant exceptions after review.
“Over the years, dealers have been concerned that parent companies are forcing them out of business. They don’t want to be forced into just selling gas—they make money off of repair shops,” says Ralph McMillan, the board’s chair.
Fiore says that not all dealers are pushed into conversions. “Some individuals are enticed by the aspect of dealing with a milk-and-bread customer instead of an auto-repair customer. When the industry became enamored of C-stores, many dealers did, in fact, not have a choice, and several states went to adoption of a moratorium.”
Another factor is the proliferation of fix-it outlets such as National Tire & Battery.There are only approximately 25 full-service stations with repair bays left in the city, according to McMillan.
Whether a dealer is apprehensive about change or embraces it, the convenience-store sell isn’t a tough one: A store requires less expertise to run, the equipment is cheaper, and employees who fry chicken make wages far below those of workers who install carburetors. But after converting, dealers often find out they’re not able to turn much of a profit.
“[Oil companies] put in a new store and also say, ‘To pay me back, you have to pump more volume to pay the debt,’” says McMillan. “A lot of times, that’s difficult to do.”
Hence the scramble to push “tobacco-smoking implements.”
“Frankly, a lot of [station owners] tell me, ‘If we weren’t able to sell these items, we couldn’t stay at that location.’ That’s probably an overstatement, but it contributes to [convenience] store income,” says Fiore.
“These gentlemen are free to retail what they can, legally,” Fiore continues. “Unfortunately, I think some of them take advantage of the neighborhoods where these items move.”
If you’re looking to get high and need some props to help you get the job done, D.C. filleries are the easiest option: You don’t even have to hunt for a parking place.
The BP station on Kenilworth Avenue NE is a good place to start. The best buy you can find here is a teeny, tiny pipe—barely big enough to produce a puff of weed smoke—that retails for $2.99. Available in both yellow and red, the model is attached to its own handy keychain. If you’re willing to play a game of 20 questions with the suspicious cashier, you can procure the item in under five minutes.
The guy sitting behind the counter launches into his queries: “What do you use this for?
You respond: “Uh—tobacco? Tobacco.”
“What do you put in this?”
“How does it work?”
“You just unscrew the top and put your—um—tobacco inside.”
“And what does this do for you?”
“Uh—lets me smoke my tobacco.”
After that exchange, he’ll hand over the baby pipe, satisfied that he’s not contributing to illegal activity.
If questions make you nervous, however, the Chevron station on Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE is going to be more your speed. Up on a high shelf behind the counter, they have a big black box full of metal screens marketed under the catchy brand name “Smokin’ Screens.” Meant to be stuffed into a pipe to catch resin, the little circular screens are sold in 75-cent envelopes.
Don’t be shy if you’re new to the game and unfamiliar with the typical quantities pipe screens come in—the cashier on duty is more than glad to help demystify your purchase. She’ll even place a phone call on hold to cheerily explain to you that each envelope holds several little mesh circles—no need to splurge on more than one pack.
If it’s pipes you’re after, the Citgo on Kenilworth has a vast array—made of all different materials, available in a variety of colors and sizes. A sign on the window of the cashier’s booth advertises four types: steel, glass, “cone,” and wood, as well as “cups” and screens.
Don’t count on getting your first choice every time—it’s hard to keep all of the varieties in stock. They’re awfully popular.
But if your tube of choice isn’t available, there’s no need to fret. The cashier will point you toward a suitable alternative, such as the “cone,” which is actually cob—fashioned from corn, not pine. It retails for $1.89.
To get a good hit off the cob pipe, you’re gonna need a lighter with a flame that doesn’t twist back and singe your fingers when turned upside-down. The Kenilworth Avenue Citgo has plenty of powerful butane torch lighters that are both fun and functional.
A mere $6.99 buys you a butane lighter that is shaped like a gun and shoots out a bright green flame. The trigger is crafted into the shape of an eagle, and the handle is made to resemble the torso of a topless woman: when it’s time to blaze, her little plastic titties flash bright blue.
And even with a receipt of the purchase, there’s no evidence of your nasty little habit. The cashier is a sport—she rings up the pipe as a cigar and itemizes the lighter as two packs of cigarettes, so that no one is the wiser.
Weed smokers appreciate the accessibility of D.C. service stations. John, a Southeast resident who concedes that he is not a cigar smoker, stops at a Shell on Pennsylvania Avenue SE for Dutch Masters on a Sunday evening.
“It’s more convenient,” he explains. “The liquor store’s not always open. The gas station is.”
District of Columbia statutes are very clear about the legality of pushing drug paraphernalia—it’s illegal. But classifying a specific item as paraphernalia is the trick.
Some items, such as hypodermic needles and thick plastic baggies with dimensions of less than 1 inch by 1 inch, are clearly defined as drug-related. With items such as cigars and rolling papers, which have legitimate uses, it can be hard to make the link.
“With all of these things, it’s a matter of proof,” says Benjamin Friedman, chief of the Misdemeanor Trial Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “If there is an innocent use, a common innocent use, it can be more difficult to prosecute. It’s ultimately about whether you can convince a judge that an item is for drug use and only drug use or, if it has an alternative legitimate use, that it is rarely used for that.
“A lot of people smoke cigars legitimately. Not many people roll cigarettes, but there are people who do. There is a true, legitimate purpose. With other things, there really isn’t. The tiny spoons they have for cocaine? You’re not eating a bowl of cereal with those—there is no good use.”
Even though everyone knows what gas-station cigars and e-z widers are for, the handful of people who actually use them for their intended purpose enable gas-station owners to keep them on hand.
“Gas stations are big contributors in the trade,” says Detective Anthony Washington, of the Metropolitan Police Department’s Major Narcotics Branch. “That’s not to say that every gas station is involved, but it’s a very obvious problem in communities, and they’re adding to that problem. They make it difficult for people who are users to go elsewhere. If they stopped selling those products, they’d move on, go to another geographic area.”
Gas-station proprietors insist that their inventory-stocking decisions adhere to the letter of the law. “If it is legal, we sell. If it is not legal, we can’t sell anyway,” says Hossein Ejtemai, a local businessman whose company owns the Kenilworth Avenue Citgo along with three other Citgo outlets in the city.
But cops on the drug-paraphernalia beat say the lines aren’t quite that clear. “Take pipes, for example,” says Washington. “What they do is, sell it, and if you ask them what it’s for—‘People wanna smoke pipe tobacco.’ But most of these places will not sell loose tobacco, because loose tobacco—there’s not a demand for that product. Go to a gas station—pipes are displayed, I can purchase those. But say I need loose tobacco—they won’t be able to sell it to you. They don’t have it, don’t sell it.”
Of course, drug users’ ingenuity applies to other parts of convenience stores’ inventory. One of the best pipes on the market can be crafted from a glass tube that holds a tiny plastic novelty rose. Just discard the fake flower, insert a bit of a scouring pad or Chore Boy, stick the rock behind the copper, light it, and puff away. It’s hard to argue against the legality of a novelty flower—it’s just a rose, after all.
But Washington isn’t buying the sweet sentiment attached to the item. “There is no other reason to sell it,” he says. “You’re not going to spend $3 for a plastic rose to give to a loved one. You’re not telling that person much about how much you care for them—unless you’re a crackhead.”
When Leon Hobbs started buying blunts and butane lighters, the Citgo on Kenilworth Avenue was one of several places he frequented. He began ducking into D.C. gas stations last year, determined to pick up anything that could be used to inhale, inject, or otherwise ingest drugs.
But Hobbs, then president of the Fort Davis Civic Association, was copping the stuff to support a cause, not a habit.
Hobbs’ cache of items helped his community thwart Ejtemai and his mini-kingdom of gas outlets. When Ejtemai’s company, Petroleum Marketing Group, sought to build his fifth D.C. Citgo at 4107 Alabama Ave. SE, nearby residents weren’t happy. The boarded-up, fenced-off site is right next door to James Jackson’s paraphernalia-free BP Amoco—and right in the heart of Hobbs’ neighborhood.
The area has a legitimate gripe with its friendly neighborhood gasolineras. They have endured at least two oil spills and leaks from nearby gas stations since the late ’80s, from both Jackson’s BP Amoco and the neighboring Shell. The old abandoned Shell property was purchased, with an eye toward improvement, by Ejtemai. Working under the project name Alabama Avenue PMG, he proposed spending over a million dollars to install a state-of-the-art Citgo, complete with a Dunkin’ Donuts and a Baskin-Robbins inside.
“I saw a closed property and thought that with my idea to make improvements to the property, the neighborhood was going to like it,” Ejtemai says. “I guess I was wrong.”
Despite assurances from Ejtemai’s company, Hobbs and other members of the community feared that the Citgo would usher in a new era of gasoline contamination in their back yards. So they formed a task force to monitor, and, they hoped, impede, his progress.
But Hobbs soon learned that it was tough to rally folks with talk of the unseen danger of oil-soaked soil. Filling their heads with images of crackheads cutting through their back yards to a pipe-selling gas station proved more effective. So Hobbs began documenting the wide-ranging inventory at Ejtemai’s existing stations.
“We couldn’t get them on environmental stuff, so we got them on quality-of-life,” he explains.
In his neighborhood shopping spree, Hobbs never bought just blunts or just a pipe—he added in a pack of cigarettes or a soda or something else innocuous, so as not to arouse suspicion. And he always asked for a receipt.
On Aug. 12, Hobbs bought a $9 fancy metal pipe in bright green from the Kenilworth Citgo. “They’ll say it’s for tobacco, of course,” he says. “But if you go into a tobacco shop, like the ones in Georgetown, this doesn’t exist. [Stations on] Wisconsin Avenue, Connecticut Avenue, don’t sell this.”
He bought a $6.99 torch lighter in the shape of a gun on June 22, which he later showed off at a community meeting, from the Benning Road Citgo at 4400 Benning Road NE, another of Ejtemai’s stations. But the tool is no longer available there.
Hobbs claims that the item’s discontinued status stems from his activism. “I made it an issue,” he says.
Hobbs’ gain, however, is a loss for Ejtemai’s revenue stream. “This is an item that is selling!” Ejtemai says. “If we’re not selling it, the 7-Eleven across from me is selling. It’s a lighter. To be honest, I have not seen it.
“Honestly, I don’t know what they sell,” Ejtemai says of his stations. “They sell tobacco-related items.”
Ejtemai says he was willing to compromise, offering to sign an agreement with the community saying that the Alabama Avenue site would not carry items that were branded as contributing to drug use by residents. But he resented being told how to run his business.
“Then they say, ‘Oh, certain cigarette papers, people are using it for [drugs].’ How do they know that? In the market we sell in, you’re not the only person selling certain things…Instead of concentrating on education, they’re going to retail and telling them, ‘Sell this,’ ‘Don’t sell that.’”
In the end, Hobbs’ buying trips paid off. In a resolution against the building of the gas station on Alabama Avenue, drafted by Advisory Neighborhood Commission 7B, the presence of “drug paraphernalia” at other Ejtemai-owned Citgos is cited as one of the reasons for the commission’s opposition to Alabama Avenue PMG’s proposal.
And Ejtemai finally relented. Last month, he sold the gas-station property, at a reduced rate, to the New Macedonia Baptist Church, which is across the street from the site, for use as a parking lot.
“I have a philosophy,” Ejtemai says. “If the neighborhood doesn’t like the idea, I’m not going to impose it. Eventually, I need their support.”
Although Hobbs has already shared his findings with the community, he still holds on to the items, storing them in his living room for safekeeping. Until 4107 Alabama Avenue is razed and paved over, Hobbs is reluctant to toss the stuff out.
“You never know,” he says.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Robert Meganck.