In the last days of gasoline that costs less than $2 a gallon, a 1995 Plymouth Neon and a 1993 Ford Ranger pickup truck are making their way toward the gas pumps in front of the Village Food and Liquor Mart, where the price of regular gas is moments away from jumping from $1.939 to $1.999.
The Ranger has one person inside, a recently divorced man who is on his way to a restaurant for a dinner of liver and onions. The Neon has four people inside, two of whom are small children drowsy from a long afternoon drive.
The man in the Ranger, whose wife walked out on him 18 months before, will be dining alone as he tries to bring steadiness to an off-balance life. The two adults in the Neon, a man of 20 and a woman of 19, are adjusting to some lopsidedness as well, in their case the fact that life has so quickly come to mean an aging Neon with tension in the front seat, children in the back and hardening french fries in between.
From separate directions, they head for a gas station in a village where the difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore in the 2000 election was nine votes. The village is in Racine County, where Bush beat Gore by fewer than 2,500 votes, and the county is in a state where Gore's overall margin of victory was 5,708 votes, a mere 0.2 percent. Four years later, with another presidential election underway, Wisconsin has become a pivotal swing state, Racine will play a central role in determining Wisconsin, and Sturtevant -- Gore 894, Bush 885 -- is a perfect indicator of the split heart of Racine.
All of which is why the arrival of two cars at a gas station late on a mid-May afternoon is a significant event.
Both contain voters who have been affected by the record-high price of gas.
The man in one car doesn't blame Bush for this.
The man in the other car does.
'Paycheck to Paycheck'
What is the political price of a gallon of gasoline? In Sturtevant, population 5,300, the answer can be heard in the quick whistles of people as the cost of a gas purchase spins past $35. No one filling up this day at the Village Mart, or the Shell and Marathon Oil stations across the street, says their vote for president will be based solely on gasoline. But factor the price of a fill-up into what has happened to the economy in Racine County since Election Day 2000, and the price becomes more important. The unemployment rate has almost doubled from 4.1 percent to 8 percent, and 4,800 fewer people are working. Four thousand of those losses have been in manufacturing, part of 86,000 such jobs lost statewide. So when someone exhales a whistle, it's a sound that has some resonance.
In comes the Plymouth Neon. Dena Stich, the 19-year-old girlfriend and mother, drives up to the pumps, and Shawn Poquette, the 20-year-old boyfriend, father, political conservative, Republican and solid Bush vote, gets out. "With the Neon, it's not horribly bad," he says. He swipes a debit card, squeezes the handle and watches the numbers fly.
The place he and Stich live with their two children, 15-month-old Dakotah and 10-week-old Haydyn, is just around the corner. In Sturtevant, nothing is more than a five-minute drive away. The prison on the north end of the village. The stores on the east end. The industrial park to the west where a Golden Books printing plant shut down in 1999 and became Artech Printing, which went bankrupt in 2001 and became Bombardier Recreational Products, which makes gasoline-powered outboard motors for boats. And the houses and apartments to the south, including a claustrophobic, 800-square-foot apartment that Poquette and Stich want to get out of as soon as they can.
The air conditioner barely works. The heat isn't much better. The furniture, what there is of it, is more borrowed than new. The clothes are a mix of discounts and hand-me-downs. The groceries are generics, down to the frozen waffles. "It's pretty much paycheck to paycheck," Poquette says of how things are going, but he doesn't say it as a complaint. One of the traits he admires in Bush, he says, is that Bush seems a self-made man, independent rather than reliant, and that's how Poquette sees himself, too: someone who wants nothing to do with public assistance of any sort, even though his family's income, while above poverty level by several thousand dollars, is the income of the working poor.
He is a broadband cable installer who makes $11.86 an hour. For a while Stich worked as a cashier until they subtracted taxes and day care costs and realized that her $7 an hour was netting about 45 cents. So $11.86 an hour is what supports a family of four, a rate at which 44 hours of work pays the rent, nine hours pays for the utilities, five hours pays for a few days of groceries, and, as of this day, two hours pays for one tank of gas.
For which Poquette blames nobody.
"I think it's high," Poquette says of the price, "but I don't see how anybody can blame one person."
"It is high," Stich says.
"It's the global economy coming together," Poquette says. It's OPEC. It's "supply and demand." It's millions of new cars in China, domestic disturbances in Venezuela, uncertainty in the Middle East. "It's a whole bunch of different factors," he says, and to blame someone in particular, especially if that person is Bush, strikes him as wrong. "You really have only so much power," he says. "He is the president, but he doesn't control the whole world."
"It's high," Stich repeats, and adds, "We can't really afford it."
They have known each other since the day a few years ago when Poquette was driving a Chevy Beretta that overheated and Stich stopped by to see who was under a raised hood. Then came a used Oldsmobile Bravada that back in the days of $1.50-a-gallon gas was costing $30 to fill. Then came the surprise of Dakotah, even though Stich says she was faithful about birth control. Then, to save money, came the Neon, 94,000 miles, $1,600, 28 miles per gallon. Then came the surprise of Haydyn. And now Stich wishes, among many things, that they had gotten a car with four doors.
Because "it's hard," she says, meaning not just getting the babies into and out of the back seat, but all of what life has come to be.
"We fight. A lot," she says.
"We do fight a lot," Poquette says. "But not so much in the car."
In the apartment, they say, they yell, the babies fuss, the clutter overwhelms, the ceiling can feel as low as a coffin lid. But in the car, they say, the babies are content, and so for the most part are they.
"It's easier to talk to him in the car," she says. "He's screaming. I'm screaming. I say, 'Let's go.' We get in the car. The kids don't cry. We get to talk."
"Just whatever," he says.
"Some of the stuff Dakotah did during the day," she says.
"Jokes I've heard," he says.
"Everything comes out in the car," she says.
"We just head west, and maybe north," he says. "We'll just drive through Kenosha, drive through Racine, no destination, turn here or there. Just go."
They go to visit her parents, who have been living in their own version of a small apartment since her father lost his job after the factory he'd worked at for 25 years suddenly closed and they had to sell their house. They go to visit his father, who hunts, fishes and drives a Chevy Silverado that now costs more than $50 to fill. They go to a park called Petrifying Springs and to a particular McDonald's in Kenosha, where he says the food is better, and she says, "McDonald's. Big whoop."
They go with the windows down, unless it's freezing, and the radio on no matter what.
"Sometimes I'm just staring off into space by myself," she says.
They go, and the gas gauge drops, and eventually Stich will notice it and say to Poquette, who might have an elbow out the window, off on his own somewhere, "We need to go home now."
That's what happened this day. The drive was an hour and a half. They went wherever. The babies dozed, and instead of fighting they got to daydream.
"I want a Grand Am. A red Grand Am," Stich says. "A red Grand Am with four doors. And I want a house. Our own house with a yard, and a swing set, and they each have their own rooms."
The Neon takes in 7.632 gallons.
"It doesn't have to be a Grand Am," Poquette says. "But a newer car."
The total is $14.80 -- enough for them to both realize that as much as they need these drives, they can't afford them, at least for now.
Life at $1.939 a gallon:
"This isn't Bush's fault," Poquette says, getting in the car. The children are awake now. Stich turns the key. As a Ford Ranger approaches, they head home with a gas tank momentarily full.
Measuring Tenths of a Mile
In comes Jim Pietsch, just as the price changes to $1.999.
All day, the owners of the three stations have been eyeing one another to see who would raise prices first, risking the chance that the others wouldn't follow. "A penny is important for these people," says Dominic Kalappuracka, who owns the Marathon station, explaining his reluctance. "Two weeks ago, they changed the price. I didn't. They were $1.89. I was $1.85. We were full. They were empty."
On the other hand, the gas that the stations are selling for $1.939 cost them more than $1.95 when it was delivered this morning, so at 5 p.m., the Shell station goes first. A few minutes later, the Marathon sees the new prices at Shell and follows, and a few minutes after that, just as the Neon pulls away and Pietsch arrives in his Ranger, the Village Mart follows as well.
Everywhere in Sturtevant, regular gas is now $1.999.
"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.
He thinks of something his daughter told him: "Man that thing sucks the gas."
"That makes me happy," he says.
He turns his attention back to his own life, the disciplines of which include making a tank of gas in the Ranger last at least 10 days, which he does by limiting himself to a few familiar destinations.
Home to work is a half-mile. Home to the Olympic Family Restaurant, where he eats breakfast three times a week, is seven-tenths of a mile. Home to the Hiawatha Bar and Grill, where he'll work the occasional weekend to make extra money even though the wife showed up a few days ago with a boyfriend, is four-tenths of a mile.
This is what he tries to contain himself to in the course of a tank of gas, even though there are more places he'd like to go.
For instance, he says, he'd like to see his son. "But that's a tank of gas each way."
And he'd like to see his ex-mother-in-law, who told him he is "welcome up there anytime." But up there is St. Germain, 315 miles one way.
And he'd like to see his brother, who lives way over in the Michigan thumb, but that's 400 miles at least.
And "my sister has been bugging me about visiting her." But? "That's over by Iowa."
"Well, I'd like to see California," he says.
Instead he will be heading to a restaurant in Racine called Rooster's, which is 8.15 miles away.
A splurge. But he likes the liver and onions.
And he also likes that the people who run the restaurant will come sit with him so he doesn't have to eat alone.
Life at $1.999:
The Ranger takes 13.757 gallons. The price is $27.50. "I ain't voting for Bush," Pietsch says, getting in his car. How sure is he? The only thing he's surer of, he says, is that the days of $1.999 gasoline in Sturtevant are about to come to an end.