Joyce McGreevy

Times are hard for everyone. But the heaviest burden is borne by the SUV owners forced off the road by tragically high gas prices.

Published June 7, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

Remember when a down economy only hurt the poor? Well, now things are starting to affect people who matter -- people like the Bowens.

According to shocking revelations in a story in the Baltimore Sun datelined Portland, Ore., "Debbie and Greg Bowen would prefer to drive their spacious sport utility vehicle to the Oregon shore on weekends. But at a time of spiking gasoline prices, they've been opting for the smaller Acura, which costs less to fill up."

That makes me sad. No one should ever have to choose between the Acura and the SUV. Yet millions of Americans have been forced into the same mildly disappointing situation -- Acura set an all-time single month sales record in May, and year-to-date Acura sales rose to 80,556, up 20.2 percent from 2003. It's like rationing, only with cash rebates and a 0.9 percent APR.

By comparison, Daniel Soto has it made. With only one used vehicle, he hops in without a care in the world and commutes 876 scenic miles to the nearest available job. A tradesman with the Plumbers and Steamfitters Union in Saginaw, Mich., he probably can't appreciate what it's like to gaze in melancholy at the ocean weekend after weekend. While the Bowens endure the torment of having to sit in close proximity to their own small children for hours at a time, Soto only has to see his family every couple of weeks.

But some of Soto's cronies have it even easier. Up to 300 others in his local union are out of work. Pretty easy living, if you ask me. No need to drive home early on a Sunday from your weekends at the shore. No time spent waiting at the bank and shopping at malls. Most of all, no forking over as much as one-third what Europeans pay for gas. See, it's fine for those Euro types. They drive around in little motorized lunchboxes and spend their days contentedly sitting under the Tuscan sun or shopping for dead parrots. Everybody knows that.

But for people like the Bowens, life's no Piccadilly Circus. At one point the reporter observes Mr. Bowen's valiant struggle, within the tight confines of a performance luxury sedan, not to drop McDonald's French fries on his wife's lap. To think -- innocent children, strapped helplessly in their nicely upholstered seats, had to witness this. Enjoy your Slightly Less Happy Meal, children. Life can be cruel.

Poor people never have to worry about things like this. They just amble toward the street as they please and wait for a bus to carry them somewhere. Unemployment office? Fine. Soup kitchen? Fine. They don't care. And if they do get a car, you can't help but wonder at their aesthetic sensibility. Honestly, what's with the marked preference for old, ugly, beat-up vehicles that don't even run properly? Some of these people are so obsessive they even live in their cars. That's ridiculous. Where does one store the linens?

The trouble with poor people is they won't invest in the system. You take the bottom 40 percent of the population. Ask them, "How much of the world's net worth are you willing to steward?" Turns out it's only like 0.2 percent. That's pathetic.

As Bill Cosby said recently, the "lower economic people" just aren't holding up their end of the deal. The deal being that the White House cuts funds for economic development, for housing, for childcare, for transportation, for job training, for education, for healthcare -- and in return poor people don't have to shell out for estate tax. That seems fair.

And would it kill the lower economic people to spend a few hundred bucks for Hooked on Phonics, asks Mr. Cosby? You know, while you're waiting for the aromatherapy herbs to steep in your private bath at the homeless shelter, why not pick up the phone and ask the concierge to send up some supplementary learning tools for the children?

Oh, no. Not poor people. Some of them would rather get into trouble. "These are not political criminals," Cosby explained, citing people with a penchant for attracting police brutality. "These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake and then we run out and we are outraged, [saying] 'The cops shouldn't have shot him.' What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?"

I, for one, wish to live in a country that is safe for Coca-Cola and pound cake. Say what you will about the traders at Enron, but I never once saw them stealing soda and snacks out of my fridge. It would have been spoiled anyway, what with the rolling blackouts and the soaring electricity bills putting millions in the dark. As for pound cake, haven't these people heard of the Atkins diet? Surely, if they would just trade in the Top Ramen and the WIC cornflakes for a decent sirloin, maybe a frittata, some wild salmon, they would look the way poor people are supposed to look -- like Lara Flynn Boyle, only without the collagen.

People at the bottom have always had options. Every four to eight years some of us spend at least half an hour at the nearest charming little cafe, offering to register voters. It is truly disheartening to see how few poor people are willing to simply log on with their laptops, search out the right Web site, distinguish between a precinct and a district, take time off from their minimum wage jobs, pack up the kids, figure out which city bus connects with the gated community, guess the password, find the cafe, fill in a card with personal information and entrust it to a total stranger.

Some people just don't care all that much about democracy.

And that's why, over the years, many of us have done a pretty good job of tolerating economic injustice. If people wanted to better themselves they probably would, don't you think? Look at fictional character Carrie Bradshaw. She wrote a one-sentence column about sex that paid for a New York City apartment and a glamorous social life. Look at fictional character Doogie Howser. He wrote a one-sentence journal about his exciting life as a 16-year-old doctor. Look at people in movies who inherit rambling mansions in England from relatives they never knew they had. How hard could this prosperity thing be? You just have to apply yourself, never have anything bad happen, and then luck into money.

But the poor went right on being poor, and what's a vaguely cognizant middle-class person to do? We shined it on. But then it got personal. You didn't hear many homeowners complaining when the rental housing crisis worsened in 1997. But then people we related to started having to put up with tract housing in a million-dollar market. Whoa. Do you know how that kind of architecture clashes with a flat-screen TV?

And now "average" people, people like the Bowens, are starting to feel the pinch. OK, that's it. I've had it. It's one thing to know that somewhere out there people are getting battered, needle-stuck, handcuffed, used up, shipped off, elbowed aside, and stepped on, but I am NOT going to sit idly by on my Ethan Allen sofa while regular people are being subjected to a mild application of pressure on their well-padded comfort zone. I'm going to say, "Hand me that cellphone, will you, babe? And pour the Pinot Grigio. I need to call our friends."

Let's face the brutal facts. The gas guzzling range of the Acura is 19-29 mpg while the SUV is 15-20 mpg. Calculating roundtrip from Portland to the coast, that's $5 more the Bowens desperately need to take their SUV. People without sympathy for the plight of the relatively comfortable may point out that the Bowens could probably save $20 just by skipping the fast food run and packing some sandwiches. But that's just heartless. What these folks really need is a fundraiser. Who's in?

By Joyce McGreevy

Joyce McGreevy is a writer in Portland, Ore.

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