“Sir, come here. I need you to pay,” the cashier said in German. I, a bit dazed by what had just happened at the pump, needed a second to gather my thoughts. “Einen moment,” I responded. I fiddled with my phone, walking in a zombie-like manner around the gas station, eventually arriving at the counter. “You and your damn phone,” the cashier snarled at me.
What had led up to this moment where — in rather typical German fashion — a service worker was being rude to me for no real reason as I struggled to get my mind in order? Well, it began a few weeks ago when my friend Jens Meiners — a veteran German automotive journalist — invited me to be on the German Car of the Year jury. “That’s next week. On Tuesday. Can you come?”
“Next week?” I responded. “I mean…” I sat there in my house surrounded by car parts and tools, not having showered in days. There was no wife. There were no children. There was no recent letter from the city stating that I had to fix my cars soon. “Sure, I’m in,” I responded.
Fast-forward a few days, my parents had picked me up from the Munich Airport, and I had to get from their place near Nürnberg to Friedrichshafen. That was a 230 mile drive one way. I figured that should be no problem for my 1995 Chrysler Voyager (dubbed “Project Krassler”), as the diesel manual minivan had just handled a ridiculously long drive from Germany to Turkey and back just a few months prior.
In Friedrichshafen, I checked out the world’s only 1957 Gaylord Gladiator at the Zeppelin Museum, and I drove a Porsche 911 GT3, Hyundai Ioniq 5, Kia EV6, Peugeot 308, and Audi e-tron GT. They were all great cars to drive; the 911 and e-tron were truly mind-bendingly quick.
The best vehicle I drove, though, was of course my Voyager:
After stopping for a nap at a truck stop on my way back towards Nürnberg, I noticed the Voyager’s fuel needle creeping towards zero, so I pulled off the Autobahn to a fuel station, grabbed a nozzle under the black “diesel” sign, shoved it into the van’s fuel spout, and waited. I walked around the van, gazing at its glorious sheetmetal; I had experienced so much in that machine — Belgium, Sweden, Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria and Turkey — and it hadn’t once let me down.
The fuel shut off, ending my romantic vehicular gaze; I walked over to the pump. I looked up at the numbers on the screen, and my heart immediately shot a high-pressure pulse through my body’s circulatory system. I closed my eyes and shook my head violently to make sure I wasn’t still asleep at that rest stop and having a horrible nightmare.
I opened my eyes big, got real close, took off my glasses and then squinted.
“Good god,” I muttered in horror; 118 Euros and 23 cents for 62.92 liters of fuel. That’s $137.20 for 16.62 gallons of diesel! That’s $8.26 for a single gallon of fuel!
I had only paid 500 Euros for this van, meaning I’d literally just spent nearly one quarter (23.6 percent to be precise) of my van’s initial purchase price on less than a single tank of fuel!
My mind quickly slid into a dark place, and yet, I couldn’t stop it from spiraling into a darker one as I began thinking of other things I could have bought with $137.20. I remembered that, a few years ago, I bought a perfectly-functional 4.0-liter straight-six Jeep engine for $120. A whole engine for less than a tank of fuel!
I began getting light-headed. I threw my right hand on the van’s B-pillar, bracing myself as I stared blankly at the ground. “Oh no,” I said aloud, knowing that another hurtful thought was about to punch me in the proverbial jugular. I turned my head to watch my left hand’s thumb begin to type. “LAPT…” I didn’t know what was going on. How had that phalange gone rogue? I wasn’t telling it to type. “…OP. Enter”
Within moments, a new screen began loading. My heartbeat quickened. “Please god no” I begged the electronics gods. “The chip shortage! These things have to b—” then I was cut off by this:
A sharp pain sent me from my hunched-over position down to one knee. A laptop! A freaking laptop! For less than the price of a tank of fuel!
I could feel some kind of sickness taking hold, pulling every ounce of energy from my body. I struggled to remain upright.
Then the rogue finger began again.
“FLAT…” I managed to force the finger to hit backspace. Now we were at “FLA.” The finger paused for a moment. Had I defeated it?
“…TSCR…” I attempted again to hit backspace, but I’d been so deeply injured by the Chromebook realization that it was no longer any use. “…EEN. Enter.”
All I could do was kneel there next to the diesel pump and await my fate. The internet tab began loading. I prayed that maybe, just maybe inflation had shot LCD screen prices up. “Everyone has lots of free government money now; maybe laptops aren’t cheap like they once were” I lied to myself before begging the entertainment gods for mercy. “Please, don’t. A cathode ray tube T.V., sure, but please not a—”
The tab loaded, and the leg still standing buckled, forcing me onto two knees. One hand remained braced against the van’s B-pillar; the other had fallen, holding my torso up from the ground.
My left thumb continued its reign of terror, reminding me that in 2017, I’d purchased a round trip flight between Detroit and New York City for $114.38. That’s over $20 less than my single tank of fuel!
The punishment continued for what felt like hours. I looked on helplessly as sub-$137.20 bottles of Woodford Reserve, cans of Caviar, and cuts of Kobe Beef appeared on the small screen now controlled by my cruel left thumb.
I’m in no need of furniture, and yet my thumb knew this blue chair would inflict pain upon my soul:
Look at that incredible pattern. And look at how comfortable this human outline looks, enjoying that 105 degree back angle! All for roughly the same price as my fuel!:
At one point, I found myself on the phone with my old dentist, who told me over the international phone call that my last cleaning was only $120. That was all he said; what an odd phone call.
The final thing I remember before everything went black was my thumb opening a calculator app and showing me how many bags of ramen noodles I could have bought for that single fill-up of fuel: 415. Four hundred and fifteen bags of that delicious chicken-y goodness!
The strong smell of diesel woke me up a few minutes later. I was breathing again. One breath in. One breath out. Slowly, I regained my bearings, and managed to stumble into the fuel station, where the aforementioned clerk got all weird with me about me using the Wi-Fi on my phone for two minutes prior to paying. (This is fairly typical among German service workers; they can be quite rude. My recommendation to American travelers is to assertively tell them to relax).
“Hundertachtzehn Dreiundzwanzig.,” the cashier said. I grabbed my card and —with my hand shaking violently — handed it over. I watched as a flatscreen TV, Chromebook, Spirit airlines flight, high-quality bourbon bottle, caviar can, cut of Kobe beef, fantastic blue Ikea chair (with a 105 degree back angle), or 415 bags of chicken ramen noodles disappeared in a flash.
My eyes drooped and my back hunched; I slowly walked to my van, half the man that I was before the fill-up.
High fuel prices — they are soul-crushing. Avoid them at all costs.