- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Pray for peace

Rain, snow, sleet, hail — even Hurricane Isabel — can’t keep U.S. Postal Service workers from their appointed rounds.

Jumah is another story.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington hails as “good news” word that a Muslim postal worker in Maryland will be given time off to attend Friday prayers, or Jumah.

The postal employee joined the Muslim faith in January.

Oil oligopolies

Think the price of gasoline has skyrocketed in Washington?

Inside the Beltway readers in Los Angeles are paying $2.10 for a gallon of regular unleaded, while in Phoenix a jug full costs $2, and closer to home in New York City, it’s $1.95. Yet in certain regions of the country gasoline prices have remained relatively constant over the past year.

In other words, gasoline is smelling fishy.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham promised several weeks ago to launch an informal investigation, that is until Congress examined the laws and determined the Energy Department has no control over the regulation of gasoline prices. And the Federal Trade Commission can prosecute only if it finds blatant collusion, something that is difficult to prove.

So what’s a motorist who — in the space of a few months — is paying 50 cents more per gallon of gasoline to do?

Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat and member of the House-Senate energy conference, is taking the lead in seeing to it that government regulators are given the power and authority to police gasoline distributors, thereby eliminating “anticompetitive practices” and consumer gouging.

“Specifically, what we have found is that in my home state, and at least 27 other states, there are essentially ‘oligopolies’ — mini kinds of monopolies — where just a handful of companies, maybe three or so, maybe four, but a tiny number of companies are controlling more than 60 percent of the gasoline supply,” Mr. Wyden reveals.

The senator says these overpriced markets often get “redlined.”

“In effect, when a market is redlined, you have the independent distributor restricted in terms of where they can sell their gas,” he explains. “As a result, the independent stations have to buy their gasoline directly from those large companies, usually at a higher price than the company’s own brand-name stations pay. With these higher costs, the independent stations cannot compete.”

Mr. Wyden believes federal regulations would help promote competition in states where quasi-monopolies exist — more than half the country at last count. The FTC could designate these areas “consumer watch zones,” he suggests, where federal monitoring would take place and cease-and-desist orders issued to prevent companies from gouging consumers.

Chili art

The Hard Times Cafe (the original one) in Old Town Alexandria seems an odd place to host an exhibition of original cartoon art featuring the works of Mort Walker (“Beetle Bailey”), Dean Young (“Blondie”), Russ Myers (“Broom Hilda”), and Jim Davis (“Garfield”), among other famed cartoonists and strips.

But this is no ordinary art. This is chili cartoon art.

“The earliest form of chili humor was undoubtedly attempted at the beginning of the 20th century by the unknown gastronomic prognosticator that declared ‘chili today, hot tamale,’” writes Eric Denker, curator of prints and drawings at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and senior lecturer at the National Gallery of Art, who actually penned the chili art catalog.

And the exhibition itself was lit by none other than Gordon Anson, the National Gallery’s chief lighting designer and deputy chief of design.

What, do these guys eat a lot of chili?

Fred Parker, renowned founder of the Hard Times cafes, it turns out, was chief of exhibition graphics at the National Gallery of Art. He worked alongside Mr. Denker and Mr. Anson under J. Carter Brown from 1978 to 1983.

Not surprisingly, the exhibition’s invitation-only opening will dish up bowls of Hard Times chili recipes, washed down with the mysterious Mezcals of Oaxaca, Mexico. According to the Aztecs, this legendary liquor distilled from the agave cactus is the elixir of long life.

“What did you expect?” Mr. Parker says, “Wine, cheese and a string quartet?”

John McCaslin, a nationally syndicated columnist, can be reached at 202/636-3284 or [email protected].

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