Battle for Heartland Starts at Gas Pump
"It's crazy. It's just crazy," Pietsch says, realizing that lingering as he stopped by his house after work to feed his dogs is costing him 6 cents a gallon. He watches the numbers rise, five gallons for $10, 10 gallons for $20, and as they keep going, he says he is angry because "it's taking more of my money that I don't have."
Life as a 43-year-old divorced man in Sturtevant: Pietsch lives five blocks from the gas station in a house with an American flag out front, and he refers to his ex as "the wife," as in, "With the wife gone now, I tend not to put up the Christmas lights."
He has carpeting he wants to get rid of because the wife walked on it, furniture he wants to get rid of because the wife sat on it, drapes he wants to get rid of because the wife pulled them open and shut, and a house he wants to get rid of because the wife grew up in it and ate in it and slept in it and one day announced she was walking out of it. And, 30 minutes later, did.
"I just got to move on, you know?" he says, but he can't and one of the reasons is money. "I just don't have the money," he says, and that's where the price of gasoline, and in fact the price of everything, translates into reasons he will not be voting for Bush.
"It just seems like when he took office, that's when everything started tumbling," he says. "It's scary. It's very scary. Because in the land of opportunity, you have no opportunity to advance yourself. Jobs go away. People, I feel, are just staying put, hoping for the best. They're not advancing."
He ticks off examples.
There is his oldest child, a 25-year-old daughter who works in the cleaning department of a hospital for $9 an hour.
There is a 22-year-old son who finally found work welding trailer hitches for $11 an hour in Eau Claire, 270 miles away.
There is a 22-year-old daughter who earns nearly $16 an hour on the assembly line at the Bombardier plant, and though the wage is more than Pietsch earns, he worries about the stability of a job building boat engines with gas prices on the rise.
There is another daughter, 17, who works for fast-food wages at the Hardee's next to the Village Mart while she finishes high school, and Pietsch can't help but wonder what's ahead for her when she graduates in another year.
And there is him. He began working in plants when blue-collar possibilities seemed limitless; now he is thankful that he has been laid off only once. He is not one of the 4,000 in Racine County who have lost their manufacturing jobs since the Bush presidency began, but he knows people who are, some of whom took months to find new jobs, others of whom are still looking, and so mixed in with his gratitude that he has a job that pays $15 an hour is a life of no new furniture or carpet or drapes.
And an old Ford Ranger, of which he says: "It's got power mirrors. That's about it."
It gets 16 miles per gallon. He knows this because he pays close attention to the miles he has gone since the last fill-up, the result of a gas gauge that has long been broken. He also knows its value -- $1,500 -- because in the splitting of assets during the divorce, he had to give the wife $750 while she drove away in an SUV she had bought five days before she left.
"She knew it was coming," he says. "We had a '90 Cougar, and she went out and bought a '98 Durango so she'd have a nice car when she moved out."
He describes the Durango, which she still has. Black paint. Leather seats. Power everything.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Dena Stich, with daughter Dakotah, and Shawn Poquette rely on his salary to cover necessities for their family of four.
(Photos David Finkel -- The Washington Post)