My heart is beating wildly and my mouth tastes like gasoline.
It's the middle of the afternoon in a quaint St. Petersburg neighborhood and I've got my lips wrapped around a 1/4-inch tube, attempting to suck out gas from a blue 2006 Toyota Corolla. There are people walking all around - one guy even approaches me asking if I'm in need of a tree cutter — but the most they give is a quizzical look.
I push the six feet of plastic tubing further down the gas tank, and try sucking again. Acrid fumes fill my sinuses and throat, but no liquid petrol comes through. I take out the hose and realize my problem: I haven't even hit gas yet. There's something blocking the siphon.
For the rest of the afternoon, I attempt to siphon a few other cars, to no avail. I try using a smaller tube — 1/8 inch — but run into the same block. I give up.
Not that I need to steal gas. Even at $4 a gallon, high gas prices are not too much of a burden — yet. But what happens when fuel reaches $6, $8, $10 a gallon? I don't want to be caught unprepared when Tampa Bay residents go all Mad Max on each other.
But if this little venture into siphoning is any indication, I might as well start gathering animal skins and ammunition and wait for the post-apocalyptic biker gangs.
If you've been paying attention to the news, you'd think we'd already reached 1970s gas panic mode. The headlines are dire: "Gas Thefts On the Rise" (Tampa Tribune); "Gas siphoning rises with prices" (St. Petersburg Times); "Gas Prices Fuel Thieves' Creativity" (MyFox Tampa Bay).
Lock your gas tanks! Hide your SUVs! Gas thieves run wild!
But, despite the alarmist news reports, gas shortages aren't fueling a local gas theft epidemic. Law enforcement, car dealerships, tow truck companies and neighborhood associations say the same thing: There have been only isolated occurrences, makers of gas-cap locks be damned.
"I think there's a perception that this is going on," says Sgt. Jim Borden of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, "but there's not the facts there to support it."
Law enforcement in both counties say they've received only scattered reports of siphoning. In Tampa, PD spokesperson Andrea Davis says there's been just one case since gas hovered around $4 a gallon: two men who were arrested in July after law enforcement spotted them siphoning off 55 gallons of diesel fuel from a semi-truck off Adamo Drive.
One reason for the low rate of larceny is the progress that's been made in auto design. Since the widespread gas thefts of the '70s, car manufacturers have changed fuel tank designs, and now, using a hose to siphon gas has largely gone the way of disco and Three's Company.
"You haven't been able to do that for years," says Gulfport Transmission mechanic Ed Buckinger. "Every time I've tried over the last few years, I haven't been able to accomplish it."
He credits the dirt screens and anti-rollover valves present in most vehicles. The anti-rollover valves are particularly effective, preventing gas from leaking from the tank in an accident, but "also keeping a hose from going in."
Not that this has stopped some enterprising thieves in other parts of Florida.
Last month, Marion County police arrested a Central Florida couple that allegedly bypassed the siphon hose for a portable drill and bore holes directly in residents' gas tanks. John Oldenburg and Darlene Kimbriel were finally caught when police found a drill with Oldenburg's name on it at the crime scene.
Then there are the thieves who go directly to the source.
At one Miami gas station, a group of thieves distracted the owner while another accomplice opened the actual gas pump, manipulated the controls inside and made off with hundreds of dollars of fuel.
In Tampa Bay, most pumps I found were locked. One St. Petersburg gas attendant says he rarely hears about fuel theft from local gas stations.
"We lock all of our pumps," he says. "We don't even have gas drive-offs anymore."
After trying to siphon gas out of four vehicles, I've all but given up when I come upon an old Chevy van. I pop the gas cap, stick my hose in and suck and suck and suck. It's like trying to inhale one of those thick milkshakes from Dairy Inn, only caustic and nauseating. Finally, the petrol starts to fill the tube. I pull it out of my mouth just in time to get a few drops into my gas can. But my excitement is short-lived. The van didn't have much gas to start with and after extracting only two gallons, I'm not sure if it was worth the effort. I've probably wasted more gas driving around trying to find a siphonable car. And to top it off, I reek of gas and I'm deathly frightened of being ignited by some passing yokel's cigarette.
After a quick shower at home, I stow away my siphoning equipment. I say, let gas run up to $10 a gallon. Rather than siphoning, I'll stand on a corner with a "Please help, God bless" sign.
More money, more sun and a lot less flammable.
Note: No innocent people were siphoned from for this article. All affected persons were my acquaintances and friends (at least they used to be). The van owner was compensated.