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An Exxon station raises prices—and sometimes even turns on its pumps.

At midday on Dec. 29, two men are hanging out at the Exxon station near Bolling Air Force base. One drinks a lime-colored juice in the 32-degree weather; the other puffs a cigarette from his bicycle. Another man drives up in a Chevy Cavalier. The biker waves to him and pedals around to the driver’s side for a few minutes. Then the driver pulls off.

Soon, a rickety white sedan with two passengers limps into the lot. The biker motions its bandanna-clad driver behind a nearby dumpster. The driver follows him around the corner, returns to the car, and pulls out of the lot.

Within 30 minutes, 11 vehicles and a steady stream of men stop at the station. Some pause their vehicles at pumps. But none purchase gas.

Meanwhile, two police officers sit in a cruiser across South Capitol Street’s four lanes of traffic, peering at the station. The station has also been under surveillance by the Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPD) Vice Unit for the past six months.

Residents suspect that the station, located at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and South Capitol Street SW, has become an open-air drug market, where customers in the poorest ward in the city are also charged some of the highest gasoline prices. And for the past three months, its owner frankly admits, he has been rationing gas. Longtime residents have watched the station descend so far downhill that leaders of this community—which is starved for the most basic businesses—are beginning to want the franchise removed.

Since its owner, Hani Sabah, arrived in America from his native Palestine 23 years ago, he has served as a district manager for the Chesapeake Bay Seafood House restaurant chain and has owned both Exxon and Texaco gas stations in Alexandria and Falls Church. Yet his years of managerial experience have not translated into quality service at the 24-hour South Capitol Street station—the only full-service gas station in Ward 8—which he has owned since 1990.

“Every day the gas station has gas, I’m gonna put a circle on my calendar,” says Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, a longtime community activist who serves as vice chair of the Far Southwest Civic Association. “Every day that they don’t have gas, I’m gonna put an X. For 2001, all I have is X’s.”

The service delivery problems have been clear for at least six months. Last summer, Exxon Mobil Corp. suspended service to the station to look for what it suspected might be a gas leak. Contractors searched underground tanks for hazardous fumes and dripping fuel. The station closed for more than two months.

“It was an underground problem, and it was not my fault,” says Sabah.

That’s not entirely accurate, says Exxon Mobil spokesperson Betsy Eaton. Though Sabah expected to be shut down for 21 days, the station closure was extended to 63 days because of contractors Sabah had hired to search for the leak. “They would show up and then they wouldn’t come back for a while,” Eaton recalls. Eventually, the inspectors found that “there were no leaks. It was problems with the paperwork and the record-keeping system….There were some errors and some sloppiness in the record keeping.”

Within the past six months, Sabah also shut down his station to deal with water in the tanks. Then he had an electrical problem that he says took two months to find. And on Dec. 18, when a car lost its brakes and crashed into a pump, he had to shut down again.

Even after the slew of technical and mechanical difficulties was resolved, Sabah continued to withhold service. Sabah says he made little profit from his core product and that rationing gas became a sound business decision. “We’re not losing any money from turning off the pumps randomly. There was no money to be made from the gas,” says Sabah, adding that he makes more from selling Philly Blunts (small cigars often hollowed out by buyers and stuffed with marijuana), sunflower seeds, and other munchies in his tiny on-site convenience store than from fuel.

Research psychologist Martin Gooden got lost on the way to Temple Hills, Md., and stumbled on to the station in a fix: His blinking gas light signaled that he was about out of fuel. Though he typically fills his tank with regular-grade gas, on Jan. 4, his only choice was supreme-grade. All lower-grade pumps were covered with plastic shopping bags. “They can’t all be broken,” said the annoyed former District resident. “To me, that’s a ruse.”

Typically, gas stations bag pumps for mechanical failure or to protect the environment. But this Exxon could cite neither reason. And its tanks were brimful. “We have gas underground. We have the gas,” explained Sabah in early January.

A month earlier, on Dec. 4, Sabah had sold only regular-grade. On Jan. 8, he had wrapped all the pumps and sold no gas at all. A hand-scrawled sign on the service window read: “SORRY NO GAS.” Since October, Sabah has been covering his 18 pumps intermittently, with flimsy plastic bags that read “Thank You.”

Exxon Mobil spokesperson Lauren Kerr says the situation is most unusual: “I’ve never heard of anything like that in my life….These people are individual franchisees, and they can make business decisions as they see fit.”

Sabah says he also conceals pumps to curb loitering and criminal activity, which have been rampant at the station for at least three years. But officers with the MPD don’t see the connection between bagging pumps and reducing crime.

“How would one have anything to do with the other, unless you were maybe a party to tolerating the activity or party to the activity?” asks Lt. James Williams. As the number of people frequenting the station for gas diminishes, the possibility for open-air drug activity heightens, says Williams: “He could be contributing to the problem.”

Last June, Marquette Boddie was shot at the station. A police officer was assaulted there in October. And when, in 1997, Shirley Thrower’s 26-year-old son, Derek Thrower, asked someone at the station for a cigarette, he was fatally stabbed in his heart.

For 31 years, Thrower and her husband, Oscar Thrower, have lived in a house across the street from the station. From their living-room window, Shirley has seen the station change hands twice. When she first moved into the newly integrated community, the owner was white, and so were many of her neighbors. Thrower used to walk to the station to get a soda and snacks, but in the 10 years under Sabah’s proprietorship, she has circumvented it.

“You can’t walk out there,” says Thrower. “All these folks are standing out there looking at you like they want to knock you in your head and take your pocketbook.”

The station is so unkempt that it could be mistaken for a used-car lot. Instead of planting geraniums or rose bushes on the station’s raised grass edges, Sabah allows his customers to plant problem cars. A rust-colored ’70s Plymouth faces South Capitol Street, and a station wagon with missing teeth in its grille joins an Astro van on the Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue side. Four vehicles block the adjoining entrance to the Atlantic Street Shopping Center. At times, customers park at pumps without buying gas; other vehicles are allowed to remain unattended for weeks.

At least five times a day, Sabah says, he and station employees call police to remove loiterers. “What can I do?” he asks. “I cannot be chasing people with a gun.” But Sabah admits that he has never attempted to ban anyone from his property, partly out of fear of reprisal. “I’m not about to take that risk,” he says.

He isn’t taking many precautions, either. Security cameras, speed bumps, and signs threatening loiterers with prosecution are commonplace at today’s urban gas stations. Sabah’s station features none of these deterrents.

Instead, Sabah leans on price manipulation to scare potential criminals away. Competitive District gas prices have settled at $1.70 per gallon or less. But at the South Capitol Street Exxon, gas costs 10 to 25 cents more than fuel at Amoco, Hess, Mobil, and even other Exxon stations in the District. Though Sabah’s rent is three times cheaper than that of the Georgetown Exxon, he charges his customers more for gas. Self-serve gas at this Exxon hovers near the cost of full-service fuel on Capitol Hill.

Sabah says the high prices are no accident. “If the price is high, it’s not going to bring any riffraff,” he explains. “People are scared to come to the station to get some gas. We are trying to eliminate bad people by having a high price. This way, they would go to another station.”

Last September, community members met with Ward 8 D.C. Councilmember Sandy Allen, officials from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, the Department of Public Works, and the MPD’s 7th District to discuss Ward 8 deficiencies. The gas station was a priority item. Ministers Patrice and Eugene Sheppard, who sponsored the meeting at their church on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, say it’s time for the station to change hands again—or else be shut down for good.

Sabah says selling is not an option. “This station was good to me,” he says. He even once used its profits to support one of his failed Virginia gas stations.

Sabah says that soon he will paint the station, move the cars, and generally remodel the place. And once crime diminishes, he says, he may even lower prices and stop manipulating the pumps.

Nearby residents are skeptical of these promises. Thrower says it’s too late. “I don’t think he’ll change it,” she says. “He doesn’t care…what goes on there.”

Meanwhile, Sabah is unsure exactly when the overhaul will occur.

“I’m aiming for March, but if things go well with the station, it’ll probably be two weeks, a week,” he says. “At the end of March, the beginning of February—I mean at the end of January, beginning February—you’ll see the results.”

That promise seems to be enough for Exxon Mobil, which recently signed a new three-year lease with Sabah. “We encourage people to take responsibility and run their business as they see fit,” says Kerr. “We hope that would equate to somebody having an attractive station and pumps that work.” CP