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Columns » Derek Jennings


The effects of the energy crisis trickle down to hurt the neediest.



Back in the day, they didn't think I had talent
when high-test was less than $2.50 a gallon
but now you'll catch me posted in the whip, just smilin'
swerving the Suburban thru the full serve island
profiling: I drive my helicopter to shows
splash the front rows with my OPEC flows
platinum gas cap on my chain, laced with diamonds
platinum gas card that gets paid from my rhyming
treat my crew to Kangaroo ... I'm getting the bill
in the club with two gas cans, letting it spill
I'm bettin you still, lookin at me, think I'm insane
... makin it rain with that 97 octane.
It's nothing, mayne, I'll drop a couple hundred on the petrol
even if gas prices go '70s retro
even if NBA players start catching the metro
cuz Exxon got their hands in their pockets and won't let go ...

Pulling into the gas station these days, I elicit the kind of "What does he do to afford that?" stares normally reserved for those rolling in a Bentley or Ferrari. I imagine a hand-held camera tracking me, slowly panning as I descend from the truck, adjust my shades and slowly saunter to the pump, debit card extended while "Gasolina" plays in the background. With skyrocketing gas prices, the mere act of filling up is a status symbol. Ownership of my insatiable 2005 Chevy Suburban is thus equivalent to rap mogul ostentation: I'm flossing.

"Not like this," I think, however, as the meter registers triple digits. I swear, when I bought the truck I had no illusions of spilling hundred-dollar champagne in music videos. When my family roster swelled to its current size, I found myself in need of a passenger vehicle capable of seating eight. Well, either that, or continue enduring the moral (and physical) dilemma of squeezing one extra child into my seven-passenger minivan on the way to church. Alas, the weight of the weekly Solomonic judgment was too much to bear ("OK, you shall be the one to ride with no seatbelt").

I'd done my homework when I made the purchase three summers ago. I compared mileage among the very narrow list of vehicles that could transport my whole family before settling on the 'burban, as my youngest daughter has called it since we transferred her car seat to its more spacious interior. I remember being psyched at the Suburban's ability to run on Flex Fuel. That enthusiasm has since been sorely tempered by a few factors. For one, I didn't know that there was only one station in my area that even sells E85 ethanol. Even worse, though, according to, my vehicle's fuel efficiency when running on E85 is actually about 4 miles per gallon less than plain old gasoline, city or highway. And worst of all, as the current conjoined energy and food price inflation are making painfully clear, using subsidized corn as fuel is increasingly looking like very dumb economic and environmental policy.

As a driver, I've always been particularly fuel conscious. The current gas crunch has given rise to a national neologism for my MPG OCD: "hypermiling." All this time, I'd thought I was hyper-focusing, like my wife says. I accelerate slowly. Coast on declines and when approaching red lights. I accelerate slowly ... coast on declines ... and when approaching red lights. Squeezing 17 mpg out of a Suburban while in and around town is a win.

Given this, when chauffeuring the whole fam, I would need to weld two 34 mpg Toyotas together just to break even on "economically responsible" fuel economy. So all you super-smug Prius drivers can miss me with that "OMG, you're killing the planet" look. Yeah. I know, it's the same look I give Hummer drivers.

Speaking of Hummers and big numbers, GM, currently bleeding about a billion dollars a month in losses, recently announced it is shutting down several truck plants, and may cease production of the vehicle that has become an international symbol of petroleum profligacy. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (whose "I've got to have one of those" vanity purchase of a Humvee, at the height of his big screen badassness, prompted the ill-fated conversion of this military transport to a consumer product) has said he would accept the position of National Energy Czar, even in a Democratic Obama administration.

While I can somewhat afford to be glib about the rising energy costs, I'm pretty sure gas prices are literally keeping a lot of folks up at night. The impacts are all too real, and the combinations of economic decline, wasted resources, soaring energy costs and lack of national direction are making for a waking nightmare for people across this country.

Cab drivers, who don't control their own rates, have seen their wages dwindle by as much as 50 percent. Nurses are finding it increasingly difficult to afford to drive around to provide home health care, a trend which, if unabated, may result in many elderly people living semi-independently to go back into institutions. Volunteer fire and rescue squads are shutting down, or cutting back on the services they provide. It's pervasive.

In Wake County, Schools, $4 a gallon milk resulted in a budget increase of more than $700,000. The Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, which serves 34 counties from the coast to the Triangle, has had to significantly change how it has done business over the past year. Gone are the days of buying surplus food from other states: It costs too much to truck it here now. Nonprofits that rely on the food banks to feed people in their communities are seeing gasoline for trucks and vans as an increasingly large line item on already-thin budget sheets.

Meals On Wheels programs across the country are having a tough time. Volunteers who can afford to pay for the gas they need to deliver food to the elderly and disabled are in dwindling supply. It's particularly troubling to me to think of the trickle down impact of fuel prices on these folks, as I occasionally ride with my wife and kids on their Meals on Wheels route, part of their homeschooling.

Former Sen. Phil Gramm and presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain would no doubt tell me to shut up with my whining about gas prices, as with imaginary recessions. In fairness, the senators grim wouldn't be the only ones telling me to stop whining. Elsewhere in the world, I'm quite sure that folks would Jesse Jackson somebody to get gas prices down to $4 per gallon. Granted, in many of those places, gas is sky high because the governments tax the hell out of it to pay for viable public transportation, which is sorely lacking in North Carolina and most of the U.S. So I'll continue the pity party, if you don't mind.

I truly hope that, should the prices recede, we would remember the pain. After all, it's not that the issues are new; the scope of the impacts are now so broad that our national discomfort may force all of us to take whatever individual actions we can and collectively clamor for a real energy policy. Perhaps this thinking will pervade the national consciousness. Rappers can be on MTV talking about how to "Hybridize My Ride." And if you see me rolling in a retrofitted Suburban with a solar-paneled roof, twin windmills and a whisper quiet hydrogen-powered engine, you'll know I did it real big.

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