NAME: Tommy Clayton OCCUPATION: Refinery worker, suburban Houston INCOME:$18,000; airline reservationist wife, $15,420 PLEASURES: Few. Before inflation hit hard, concert-going, nightclubbing COMPLAINT: Cost of getting around in transit-poor Houston OUTLOOK: "The crunch is on me pretty good." Doubts he'll do as well as his steelworker father, who earned far less.

What you notice right away when pulling up to Tommy Clayton's home in an aging suburb south of Houston are the two crippled cars in the driveway -- ghosts of a vanishing dream. A white Buick Riviera sits up on jacks. Next to it a disemboweled Volkswagen reposes, its engine awaiting overhaul on the garage floor.

Clayton isn't in the salvage business. He simply hasn't been able to afford a new car in the last five years, and he's doing all he can to keep his wheels running by repairing what he has. Though he and wife Garrie work fulltime, they find it increasingly hard to make ends meet.

Clayton, 33 and black, has been a refinery worker for Atlantic Richfield since a lengthy transit strike five years ago prompted him to quit his bus driver's job with the city's now-defunct Rapid Transit Lines. Since going to ARCO, he has seen his wages nearly double, from $5.05 to $9.18 an hour. But Clayton doesn't think that's so great. "When I left Rapid Transit," he says, "I was only making $5.05 an hour, but I was doing a hell of a lot better than I am now." (Garrie, 31, an airlines reservationist, brings home a pre-tax income of $1,285 a month.

Clayton traces his financial woes to inflation, while admitting that he has taken on more responsibility since his bus-driving days. He now has two school-age children and a monthly $245 house note to pay. And there have been unexpected setbacks -- an automobile accident, medical bills, a 1976 flood that left two feet of water in the living room and ruined most of their furniture and carpets. But with the added strain of inflation, the family's budget is now stretched to the snapping point.

After recent raises in both Clayton incomes, it seemed to them that they were "finally going to be making good money," says Tommy. "But just when we got there, things started shooting sky high."

In transit-poor Houston, husband and wife have to drive a combined 60 miles round trip every workday, Tommy Clayton in a borrowed car, his wife in one belonging to her employer. And their gasoline bills in recent months have shot from $80 to $200. Utilities costs have kept pace. The result: I'll put it that way," says Clayton.

Pundits talk of sacrifices to come, but Clayton has already started making his. The crippled cars in his driveway are proof of one, and there are others."We used to like to go to concerts and to several nightclubs in town, but we've had to learn to stay at home," he says.

The family has cut back sharply on the use of credit cards, as well. "We sent all those things back. They were putting a lot of extra load on me. I didn't even want the temptation around, because I got myself in a bind with those things before."

It's not surprising, then, that Clayton sees a general deterioration in the quality of his life. "There was a time when I would consider myself in a good middle-class range. But now, with things the way they are, I would have to consider myself poor."

Clayton remembers better days when his father, a worker for Armco Steel, "owned a home on the north side. He bought three lots in a subdivision on this side of town, built a bigger home than mine, moved into it in 1965, and put four kids through school. And he didn't even make as much as we're making now."