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Jewish World Review Dec. 26, 2001 / 11 Teves, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

Could this be heading
for the discount bin? -- YOU wouldn't necessarily expect to find a war story at the Texaco gas station on North Davis Highway in Pensacola, Fla.

But what Pensacola resident Kurt Stenerson noticed there . . . .

Well, as the final days of 2001 dwindle away, and as we look back upon this remarkable American year, what Stenerson saw , and what it says about who we are, and what we've all been through, may be just as significant as anything that makes the front pages.

Stenerson, 32, is an employee of a credit union in Pensacola. Each day on his way to work, he drives past the Texaco station.

Soon after Sept. 11, he said, he noticed something. "There was a table outside, with American flags and T-shirts and pins - the patriotic things that Americans were buying right after the attacks," he said. "There were always cars stopped at the table, and people holding up T-shirts to make sure they fit. It was very busy."

No news in that - the wash of patriotism after Sept. 11 was intense. So what made Stenerson think twice?

"A few weeks passed," he said. "And I would drive past the Texaco station, and the table was no longer out there. There was a sign that said the flags and pins and T-shirts had been moved inside. This was at about the time when we were being told that we should get back to work, get back to our usual routine."

Yes - that is what the country was being told. So was there something else that bothered Stenerson?

"I drove by the gas station again this week," he told me. "There was a new sign - it said that all the American flags and pins and T-shirts were 50 percent off.

"And that got to me. All I could do was think about Sept. 11, about watching the terror unfold and the buildings fall. People have to get on with their lives - but I hope that our pride in America isn't 50 percent off what it was a few months ago. Because if it is, then we're really in trouble. If it is, then that's very sad."

I understood what he was trying to say. Is it a big deal for a gas station to mark down the patriotic merchandise that had been so hot just a few months before? It's the way business works in the United States - one day a product is hugely popular, a fad; the next day you can't give it away. It's the free enterprise system, humming along.

But these are supposed to be special times - and it was difficult to blame Stenerson for being a little bothered. I got in touch with the owner of the Texaco station. His name is Jared Karbassi, he's 41 - and he's a little bothered, too.

"Those first few days after Sept. 11, we couldn't even find anywhere to buy flags," Karbassi said. "All the suppliers were running out of them. So we put the table outside and sold "United We Stand" bumper stickers with pictures of flags on them. We were selling everything we had.

"We were eventually able to find a supplier who had small flags he would sell us. We got flag T-shirts to sell, and flag pins, and hats . . . all kinds of stuff. We were selling it all day long. People were buying the patriotic items for themselves, for their relatives. . . . We announced that we were giving all the proceeds to charity."

And then?

"It just stopped," he said. "People didn't want to buy anymore. It happened very quickly. It was like everyone who wanted a flag had a flag, and the market was gone."

He moved the table inside his gas station. There were days, he said, when the patriotic items did zero business. Nothing.

And now?

"I put up the 50 percent off sign," he said. "It's helping a little, but not much.

"My suppliers are telling me, 'We have this flag item in, we have this Sept. 11 item in.' I tell them: I'm sitting on product here. It's not moving. I can't order any more. The people don't seem to want it."

Does he believe there has been a decrease in patriotism in recent days?

He does not. He thinks the reason for the drop in sales is a different one:

"My opinion is, the war has gone so well, people stopped buying. With the progress of the war being so good, I think people look at the merchandise and think: 'Why bother?'"

So if developments in the war were to turn against the U.S., or new terror attacks were to hit us, the patriotic goods might start to move again?

"I hate to say it," Karbassi said, "but I think it's true."

Kurt Stenerson , the passing motorist, reluctantly agreed: "I guess we seem like a power again, so we don't have to think about our patriotism. Just like before Sept. 11."

Whether or not that is accurate, Jared Karbassi is on the verge of instituting a new policy at his gas station:

"With every five or six gallons of gas, I'll give away a flag. Might as well give them away free, if I can't sell them."

Meanwhile, he is overstocked on one particular item:

"'G-d Bless America' baseball caps," he said. "Half price, and they're just sitting here."

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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