When you grow up in a big California city, you learn at an early age that factors beyond your control can have a powerful impact on your life; factors like earthquakes, violence and whether your family lives in the mean flatlands or the glorious hills. This year, three young Californians have been forced to add another factor to the list—gas prices that have soared to more than $4.50 per gallon.
Hilary Sledge and Aaron Deaver grew up in Oakland in the 1980s and '90s. Hilda Howard, Sledge's cousin, grew up in Los Angeles. They went to parties, proms and basketball games together, before graduating from high school and setting off on the paths that would define their adult lives. Their trajectories have differed, but for each of them, the price of gas is a factor in key life decisions.
Deaver, 26, is a salesman for an event media company who recently received custody of his 4-year-old son. Last weekend, he was cleaning out his mother's house in North Oakland. He's moving back there from the apartment he's been renting in suburban Dublin. The reason—the price of gas.
"I moved to Dublin to get away from Oakland," he said. "It's just too crazy out here. Too much violence, too much poverty, nothing positive really going on here."
But living in Dublin meant driving more than 50 miles per day.
· Driving from Dublin to Oakland to take his son, Isaiah, to school.
· Driving from Oakland to Martinez, where he's studying to become a police officer.
· Driving from Martinez to El Sobrante to check on a house his family owns there.
"Before, I was spending maybe $100 a week on gas, but now I'm spending anywhere from $200 to $300," he said.
The price of gas also forced Deaver to alter his plan to purchase a new vehicle. He'd rented an SUV for a month while his year-old Toyota Camry was being repaired and decided he liked the height and space the SUV afforded. He applied for a loan to purchase the truck and was approved, he said, but the price of gas forced him to take the truck back to the rental firm and keep the Camry.
For Howard, the rapid increase in gas prices has "changed everything" in her life.
"I stay at home more on the weekends," she said. "I ride my bike a lot. I don't go out to eat as much anymore. When you don't make that much money, you just have to make choices."
Howard works as a human resources department manager in a building products company in Sacramento, a two-hour drive from Oakland. Last weekend, she traveled to Oakland to visit her cousin. But instead of driving, she rode Amtrak.
"The only way I could come down here was to take the train," she noted. "There's no way I would have driven."
Howard loves her job but bemoans the amount of driving it demands. Her role in the company requires her to visit sites throughout the Sacramento area to present benefit plans to employees. The company reimburses her for her travel, but she has to carry the cost of filling her tank for as much as two weeks before the reimbursement arrives.
In Sacramento, she said, regular gas costs $4.79 per gallon. A fill-up for her Ford Escape takes $65 to $75 out of her pocket. Since driving is a necessity, the money has to come out of other parts of her budget.
"I have to make sure I have gas to get to work, and with my budget being as tight as it is, I have to ask myself, 'Do I go out with my friends, or do I hang on to this last $60 or $70 to get gas?'" she said. "I plan my day to where, if I need to go to the store, I try to do it when I'm already out, so I don't need to make so many trips."
Sledge does not feel the impact of fuel prices as severely as her friends do. After graduating from Barnard College in New York, she went to law school at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley, and now works as an associate at a large San Francisco law firm. She lives within walking distance of her office, so most of her driving is limited to weekends.
"I don't drive that much," she said, a note of relief in her voice. "On a daily basis, I can either take Muni (San Francisco's public transit system), walk or drive. The only times I drive are when I'm really busy at work—if I have to work till 11:00 p.m., or go in early."
Nevertheless, she said, the price of gas "makes me feel more stressed out every time I drive. Like last weekend, I went to a friend's house (in a town about an hour's drive from San Francisco). I decided I wouldn't go unless I could car pool. She was like, 'You can afford it, why does it matter?' But for me, it was just the principle."
As hard as it is to pay for the gas he uses, Deaver says the impact on others is even worse. "Last weekend, eight to 10 people got shot in Oakland," he said. "People can't afford gas, so they're not going anywhere, so they're just sitting on top of each other. You've got more people stuck at home in their neighborhood, and the immediate response is to fight. There's nothing else to do.
"You've got people out here who are struggling just to live, and the only thing they've got is their car, and they can't put gas in it."
Harold J. Logan is a businessman, writer and social entrepreneur who lives in Atlanta. A former metro and national reporter of the Washington Post, he is a cofounder of the W.E.B. Dubois Society .