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COLUMN ONE

Price of gas adds to town's isolation

Cars have connected this rural Alabama community with the wider world, and with jobs. But now the drive doesn't pay off.

April 18, 2008|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

COY, ALA. — The modest Japanese sedan made its way down the gravel drive between the cow pasture and the dirt basketball court, kicking up a cloud of dust before coming to rest beside Roy Saulsberry Jr.'s ancient gas pumps.

A passenger stepped out, clutching an old antifreeze jug. Outside Roy's Grocery & Package store, the regulars were hemming and hawing on a wooden bench, under the spell of the afternoon's slow rhythm.

Norman Finklea filled his jug just past a gallon, letting the analog meter come to rest at $3.88. Then he walked into Roy's with his four crumpled bills and a litany of anxieties, which were rising with the price of gas.

He didn't need to tell them to Saulsberry. As the proprietor of this little country store in one of the poorest counties in Alabama, Saulsberry has already heard them all. It doesn't matter what kind of cars pull up to pumps these days -- stretchy old hooptie sedans, scuffed econo-boxes, king-cab pickups -- anxiety is their common cargo.

With the high price of gas, Saulsberry said, "people just can't go as much."

Finklea, a freelance construction worker, had paid a friend $5 to pick him up at his house a few miles down the road and drive him here. His own car was back at home with its pin on empty, he said. He needed it to drive to work in the morning.

Finklea said high gas prices were the reason he paid only half his light bill last month, the reason he and his wife were trying to get by with less food, the reason he is turning down jobs that are more than 30 miles away.

Those jobs, he said, are not worth driving to anymore.

Cheap gas, and cars to put it in, have long given Americans the freedom to roam. For the people of Coy -- a largely African American community of about 900, two hours southwest of Montgomery -- that freedom has been particularly vital, delivering them out of rural isolation and into decent, if far-flung, employment.

A generation ago, black laborers sharecropped cotton on white-owned land here. Others worked in nearby sawmills. By the 1960s, the mills were thriving, but small-scale farming was fading away, and the civil rights era had opened new job possibilities.

Those jobs, however, tended to be spread around the state. The people of Coy gassed up their cars and drove to them. They drove 13 miles on the two-lane highway to Camden, the county seat, or they ventured farther afield, to the bigger cities of Selma and Montgomery. They took manufacturing jobs and teaching jobs, handyman gigs and government desk work.

Today, gas money and a functioning car are still vital for workers who wish to leave this stretch of pastureland, low-slung houses and tumbledown trailers. The only public transportation is a regional van service that mostly shuttles the elderly to doctor's appointments. There are only a few local farmhand jobs.

Though drivers across the nation are smarting from the rising price of gas, it is taking a particularly harsh toll here in Wilcox County, where the median household income is $17,500. A recent report by the Oil Price Information Service estimated that residents spend more than 13% of their monthly income on gas -- the highest ratio in the nation. (The study, which also took into account local gas prices and commuting statistics, found that the average Los Angeles County household spends 3.9% of its monthly income on gas.)

Roy's Grocery has long served as a sort of home base for commuters: a place to buy a few gallons, get a six-pack of beer, catch up with friends. But the price of gas -- which was $3.51 per gallon at Roy's earlier this month -- has changed some things. Clarence Perryman, a retired construction worker, has been a fixture for years at the store, watching his neighbors come and go.

"They used to pull up and say, 'Fill it up,' " he said. "Not anymore."

--

It was an argument over gas money that prompted Saulsberry to build the grocery in the first place, in the mid-1990s. A clerk at a now-defunct Coy convenience store had accused him of failing to pay for a fill-up. She was a white woman. He suspected it was a racial thing.

At the time, there were two stores in town -- both with white owners. Saulsberry recalled telling his father, Roy Saulsberry Sr.: "If I ever get able, I will put up a store here in Coy. I don't care if I ever make money off it."

Soon after, the two men, who are partners in a contracting business, began constructing a utilitarian cinder-block building with a metal roof. Today, the outside is painted a creamy tapioca. Inside are a few shelves of snack foods, a refrigerator with beer and soda, and candy and cigarettes behind a long counter.

Behind the register, a clerk can watch through a little window covered in burglar bars as customers pull up to the old silver-and-white pumps. On the other side of the building, the Saulsberrys have set up a spartan pool hall, with three billiard tables and a boombox.

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