The search for four

What’s the number one number these days?

That’s easy. Four.

As in, Four Dollar Gas. As in, gas stations are scrambling to locate their fours, digging through closets and ransacking their number bins.

Because think of it this way – most gas station number kits probably come with a standard number of fours. Maybe three, or four, or six at the most.

But what happens with gas reaches $4.40, as it has in New York? Well, according to the New York Times, you make do with a little creativity. You make more fours yourself.

With regular gas in New York City at a near-record $4.40 a gallon, station managers are rummaging through their storage closets in search of extra 4s to display on their pumps. Many are coming up short.

That’s why Vishal Nair, who runs the Lukoil station at Eighth Avenue and 13th Street in Greenwich Village, took another plastic number last week, turned it over and scribbled “4” on it with a black magic marker. The result was an obviously homemade “$4.47,” but it would have to do until he received the extra 4s he ordered months ago.

And here’s something you might not know – in New York, there are regulations regarding the size, font and clarity of gas station sign numbers, created by the Department of Agriculture and Markets. Handwritten numbers aren’t necessarily allowed, though the Department seems to have backed off a little.

“People are running out of 4s and 5s, so we’re allowing them to post makeshift numbers as long as they are the right size,” [Jessica Chittenden, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets] said.

Which means there are positive effects to this sudden gas hike. The companies that produce the plastic numbers for gas stations? They’re frantically producing fours, sending them out as orders and stocking up for the long run. Just like they did with the threes a year ago. And twos a couple of years before that. They’re experiencing a boom, and while others grumble about the rising gas prices, they are benefiting from the entire ordeal.

And this isn’t even taking into account older gas pumps – those with dials instead of digital readings – that were never created to even reach two or three dollars per gallon.

Has there ever been a seismic shift in need for one digit before? In any single letter, symbol or number, for that matter. Aside from creation of a new symbol, like the euro, I can’t think of a single time when something like this happened so quickly.

It’s a fascinating look at frequency, really. Unlike a word falling out of general usage, this is firsthand experience with a change in the culture of communication. Like when words are added to the dictionary. Or when an entire country adopts a new catchphrase. Language trends take decades to make themselves known – this is happening in a matter of months.

With talk about the tipping point on gas consumption and the need for fuel-efficiency and the drive for energy independence rushing at us in the wake of looming economic disaster, it’s refreshing to see some of the little things. The quirky things that lie below the surface of this gas mess.

Like the fact that, love it or hate it, we all need more fours in our lives these days. I think this might be the most interesting thing I’ve learned about today.

It’s a good time to be the number four.

This was lovingly handwritten on July 16th, 2008