When they built their house in Prince George's County in the 1920s, George and Lillie Ellison heated it with a wood and coal burner. Then the county man came out and said that was dangerous, so they put in an oil furnace. c
They still have the same furnace, but the oil that cost 16 cents a gallon in the old days and 59.1 cents last February now cost 89.9 cents and they can't afford it. They're in their 80s and they live on $541 a month Social Security and retirement pay.
"It's a little bit tight on us, but we've got to get oil," said Lillie Ellison. "The only thing we can say is we trust in God, that's all. He's the only one that's taking care of us like we is."
Nobody knows exactly how many people like the Ellisons there are in the Washington area -- those with low incomes whose expenses for heat, food, rent and other necessities are going to exceed their incomes this winter.
One small Washington oil dealer estimated that there are 6,000 cash on delivery customers in the city and nearby suburbs: poor credit risks who must pay for their oil in advance or on delivery.
Perhaps 2,000 of those are poor enough that they can't afford the oil at all, this dealer estimated. Other estimates run higher.
Congress is talking about appropriating money to help the poor pay their oil bills, but so far has not done so. District officials say they will use emergency funds to help, but those funds are insufficient. Local banks will make small oil-heat loans, but only to those who are "credit-worthy" and can pay the loans back quickly.
Meanwhile, winter is nearly upon us.
"You feel bad collecting the money, when you see people digging in their little tin cans, trying to pay," said Vincent Van Allen, manager of the small District Line Fuel Co. in Northeast Washington. "But what you going to do? You're in business."
Van Allen said that many of the firm's customers are old, arthritic, and on fixed incomes. The Ellisons are among them. "They've got to stay warm. "It's just a constant struggle to survive."
Van Allen and others pointed out that older people frequently have poor circulation and have a harder time keeping warm than younger people. They can and do turn their thermostats down and bundle up in warm clothing, but in bitter weather this alone rarely wards off the chill.
Very old people can actually die of hypothermia (exposure) in a room others might consider only cool.
Adam Thomas, president of District Line, said, "I'm carrying many old customers, and I can't afford it . . . They'll pay me eventually, but I can't afford it.
"When they've been with you a long time, moral concepts come into it. That's not businesslike, I know. But how can you go home and sleep [if you haven't delivered someone's oil] and it's freezing outside?"
From the inner city to the close-in suburbs, it is not hard to find those who can't afford the oil they need. Some of these may be helped by the government actions under way, some not.
James Green, a retired tourist bus driver in poor health, lives in an old rooming house at 1135 Sixth St. N.W. His rent was just increased from $70 to $90 a month by the landlord. "He put it up because the price of oil went up," said Green. "He raised it $20 a month. That's a hell of a jump for a poor man."
Florence Gorman lives with her four children in a small but comfortable house at 5073 Just St. N.E. She is disabled, her husband left years ago, and she struggles along on roughly $300 a month that a daughter earns as a clerk.
She will need about 500 gallons of oil this winter. At the current price and including the 5-cent per gallon D.C. sales tax, that will cost her about $475 that she simply doesn't have to spend.
"If I'm going to buy oil, I can't pay my house note," she said. "You've got to buy food. Then I've got the gas [for cooking] and electric bill. Maybe I let the house note slip a month, then come back and pay it next month."
Often, Gorman pays only part of her utility bills -- until a shutoff is threatened. When things reach that point, she has a grown son who steps in and pays -- when he can.
Avery Bass, 79, lives by himself on Cypresstree Drive not far from the Ellisons. Last time he checked the price of oil it was 54 cents a gallon. That was last year. He hasn't bought any this year yet, but soon he will have to.
"I can't afford it, but I can't freeze."
Bass lives on a small monthly sum from Social Security and in addition "picks up a nickel here and yonder" doing small summertime jobs.
He also picks up wood where he can in the semirural area of Seat Pleasant where he lives and burns it in a small stove in his basement.
That works until the weather gets cold, then he has to turn on the oil burner.
Many people in the area have switched to gas, but Bass hasn't because of the initial expense and the monthly "service charge" that he would have to pay the gas company even if he used no gas at all.
"Guess I'll be using more wood this winter than last," he said.
"I just have to turn the heat down low until the first of the month till we get paid," said Lillie Ellison.
The Ellisons speak of their lot without bitterness, reflecting instead a sense of completeness and enduring love. They call one another "Honey" and "Baby." Their lives were long and rich. They worked hard.
Now they are old and gray and they sit on the porch of the ramshackle house on Cypresstree Place that they built together more than half a century ago.
"I came out of the cotton patches of the South, I didn't get schoolin,'" said Lillie Ellison. "What I know, I get from the head and from God's help."
George Ellison came here from Rock Hill, S.C. in 1920 and went to work for the Southern Railway as a fireman. He met Lillie's father, who had a little store, and ended up paying her ticket north.
Lillie was just 18 when she came north from Greenville on the great thundering train. She met George at her father's store the night of her arrival. "We started to talking . . ."
They built the house together. "Him and I. I made cement and made blocks and we built it and now I can't even pick up a block . . ." "She smiles and almost seems to chirp as she talks. She is bright and lively at 80.
Lillie spent 20 years as a nanny raising two white girls in Rockville, driving there and back every day from the little house. Then 10 years as a nurse's aid at D.C. General Hospital.
The girls she raised are women now, living somewhere in the Washington area. Lillie doesn't know where.
George left the railroad and became a maker of fancy cement moldings, many of which still grace the downtown banks and government buildings. "I didn't get much education because I had to work all the time. I'm the only cast stone molder that ever presented around these parts . . . ."
Later, George Ellison became a caretaker at D.C. General Hospital. Then he retired. The Ellisons never had a child, but took on six foster children after retirement because Lillie loved children.
Members of their church, Beulah Baptist, help them out with their oil bills from time to time. Last year they got $200 for this purpose through the county's Department of Aging.
They'll need more help this winter -- more money than last because of the 52 percent increase in the cost of their oil since then. It would have been more had Maryland last summer not dropped the sales tax on home heating oil.
Their house could use some fix-up, some insulation and weatherstripping, but George Ellison can't do it.
"He's a weak man now," said his wife. "His mind isn't as good as it was, his hearing is bad, so . . ." she paused and smiled softly." . . .We're just two, settin' here."