SOMETIME in the last couple of months, the price of gasoline crossed a line. It’s not just that gas is now hovering around the dreaded $4 a gallon. It’s that an unconscious expense has become a painfully conscious one.
A year ago, the cost of gas was still a small enough portion of overall expenses that it didn’t provoke constant comparisons to everything else in life.
Now gas prices have become the elephant in the middle of countless conversations. A tank costs roughly as much as the phone bill — or a pair of shoes. For what you spend on gas each month, you could buy a new dishwasher or get a cheap weekend package to the Caribbean. Some day, the gas legends of ’08 will live on like the myths of Paul Bunyan. “I remember when gas got so high, you could have built a 17-room mansion from the ground up!”
Actually, where I live in Delaware County, a rural area overlapping the Catskills that lies about three hours from New York City, the mood is anything but light. We are dependent on our cars here. Most of the county’s 42,000-odd residents are scattered among a few dozen tiny towns and villages, with at least 10 or 15 miles between them.
Until recently, most people thought nothing of zipping 45 minutes down the road to take advantage of better shopping opportunities in the bigger towns. Now those basic routines are stretching people’s budgets. For us to go to the nearest mall costs $16 round trip.
“You don’t just get in the car anymore,” said Laura O’Connor, who works in a kitchen goods store in Margaretville, but lives about 20 miles from there in Andes. “If I have errands to run, I try to make a giant loop and do everything in one day,” she said. “Most of us are carpooling, too.”
But with prices rising so rapidly, the usual ways of economizing aren’t enough to keep gas costs down. In the Catskills, you can’t just switch to mass transit.
Steve Yaekel, who owns the Margaretville Liquor Store (yes, in Margaretville), said he was driving home to Roxbury, about 20 miles away, one night recently. When he passed a local gas station, he was too tired to refill his tank. “I saw that it was about $3.74, and I decided I’d fill up in the morning,” he said.
The next morning, he said, the price had spiked to $3.82. “With prices going up this fast, how are you supposed to adjust the family budget?” he asked, noting that it now costs $50 for just half a tank of gas for his truck.
Many small-business men here depend on trucks or vans that get very low gas mileage. Allen Taylor, an appliance repairman based in Delhi, travels as much as 170 miles a day for work and says that he spends about $800 a month on gas.
Mr. Taylor says he was appalled when his accountant told him, “I had to increase my basic service charge from $60 to $65 just to break even,” Mr. Taylor said. That was in 2007. With gas costs pinching his customers so much, Mr. Taylor says he is reluctant to raise his prices. “I’m worried with the way the gas is going now, it’s going to put small-business owners like me out of business,” he said. “There’s only so much we can charge, only so much people will pay.”
GAS has become a preoccupation for many people who own second homes in the region, a large number of whom live in New York City. Michael and Lily Idov said their old car consumed about 15 gallons to travel 300 miles round trip from their home in Brooklyn to their house in Andes. They recently bought a Mini Cooper, which gets about 40 miles per gallon, Mr. Idov said. Fuel economy was their chief concern. “Now we go both ways on just two-thirds of a 10-gallon tank.”
In the category of unintended but happier consequences, the backlash against driving may bolster some parts of the local economy.
“We can’t believe how much business we’re getting,” said Helen Voultepsis, who works at Ace Hardware in Delhi and believes that people are less inclined to drive 40 miles to the nearest Lowe’s or Home Depot. “Local businesses are definitely benefiting.”