Astoria Votes for Gas, Not the President

by Lauren Davidson

November 6 has finally arrived – but many residents of Astoria, Queens, flocked to gas stations rather than polling stations to fill their tanks after a week of short supply following Hurricane Sandy.

Long lines of people and cars stretched for blocks outside gas stations in Astoria. Credit: LAUREN DAVIDSON

As Election Day dawned on New York City, the Queens neighborhood of Astoria was speckled with long lines of waiting people, some stretching several blocks, as local residents rushed to seize this momentous day. The occasion? The gas stations had finally opened.

While reports of broken machines and extensive lines at polling stations trickled out of other areas in the city throughout the day, hundreds of people in Astoria decided it was more important to fill their tanks with gas than to exercise their right to vote.

“I wanted to vote,” said Lydia Gougoussis as she sat in her car toward the back of a lengthy line outside a Getty gas station on 31st St and 34th Ave. “But my first priority was to get gas.” Gougoussis said she had not been particularly impressed by either presidential candidate this election season and decided that stocking up on gas should be her priority for the day.

Around the corner, at a BP station on 21st St and 37th Ave, Ramnik Jaspal inched nearer the front of another long Astoria gas line. “I’ve tried six gas stations, but have not been able to get gas,” she said. By late afternoon, she had also not yet managed to vote. “Voting is on my list of things to do. I voted for [President] Obama in 2008, and I’ll vote for him again this year. But [getting gas] is big on my mind right now, because I have to get back to work,” Jaspal said. She said she has been forced to work from home for the past week, as she is unable to get to the office without her car.

Not everyone had the option to work from home, though. Sanitation worker Steve Buda has fielded daily assignments since Hurricane Sandy to clean up parts of the city – usually in the hard-hit Rockaways neighborhood. Buda said he has been able to carpool to work, but still needs gas for his own car – which he was trying to get while parked this morning in a mammoth line outside a Mobil gas station on 21st St and Broadway.

“I’d probably vote for Obama, but I haven’t even thought it out properly – right now, it’s more important for me to have gas,” said Buda.

While some people prioritized buying gas over voting for reasons of necessity, such as getting to work, others did so out of principle.

Jaime Bautista said he would not vote until – and unless – he was able to get gas. Credit: LAUREN DAVIDSON

“No gas, no vote,” read one sign in the window of a van lined up for gas at the Mobil station. Jaime Bautista, its driver, said he had been waiting in line for two hours – after waiting in another line for seven hours on Sunday, just to be told the station had run out when he was four cars away from the front of the line.

“If I don’t get gas, how can I go out to vote?” said Bautista, who works for a pest control company and was unable to work last week when he could not drive his van. “There’s no encouragement to vote. It’s depressing.”

But disenchantment and long gas lines were not enough to save the presidential candidates from some angry voters. Although the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy prevented some people from voting, it spurred others to the polling stations.

Apostolos Podaras, a security guard waiting in the line for gas at Mobil, said he voted for Republican candidate Mitt Romney because he was disappointed with the way Obama – whom he voted for in 2008 – had dealt with the storm crisis.

“Obama didn’t do anything [after Sandy] – he visited New Jersey, but he didn’t visit New York, and New York was devastated too,” said Podras. “I would have voted for him if he’d visited New York.”

As voters popped in and out of polling stations throughout the day, long lines of cars and people with empty gas containers stretched through the streets of Astoria. Dave Ramlochan, the manager of the Mobil gas station, said, “I’ve never seen lines like this, and I’ve worked at a gas station for many, many years.” Ramlochan said there had been some fights as people tried to cut the line. Police officers were at the station in case of trouble.

But the majority of people seemed to feel a sense of camaraderie as they stood in line. Cab driver Richard Joyce, who said he had already been in line for an hour and a half outside the Getty station, said he had been talking to other people waiting for gas. “This is a good line,” he said.

But line or no line, Joyce said he would not be voting this year: “I would like Obama to win, for the simple reason that things did not go nearly as badly as people said they were going to four years ago. But who do I really want [for president]? Bill Clinton.”

“Clinton always kept the gas down at $2.50,” said Joyce. “And I live for gas.”

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