When Roy Saulsberry Jr. opened his convenience store more than a decade ago, he knew selling gas would be key to attracting customers. A recent report estimated that residents of impoverished Wilcox County, Ala., spend more than 13 percent of their monthly income on gas the highest ratio in the nation. - For The Times

Gas price hits hard in rural South

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 a rest beside Roy Saulsberry Jr.'s ancient gas pumps.

A passenger stepped out, clutching an old antifreeze jug. Outside of Roy's Grocery and 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 heard them all. It doesn't matter what kind of car pulls up to the pumps these days — stretchy old hooptie sedan, scuffed econo-box, king-cab pickup — anxiety is the 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 was turning down jobs that are more than 30 miles away.

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

Cheap gas, and a car to put it in, have long given Americans the freedom to roam. For the people of Coy — a largely black community of about 900 people two hours southwest of Montgomery — that freedom has been 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, and the civil-rights era had opened new job possibilities.

Those jobs, however, tended to be spread around. 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 doctors' appointments. There are only a few local farmhand jobs.

Although drivers throughout the United States 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 percent of their monthly income on gas — the highest ratio in the nation. (For comparison, the study, which took into account local gas prices and commuting statistics, found that the average Los Angeles County household spends 3.9 percent of its monthly income on gas.)

Roy's Grocery has long served as a sort of home base for commuters here: a place to buy a few gallons and 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 took Saulsberry six months to find someone who would bring a little gas out this far — a distributor from Mobile, 125 miles away. She eventually insisted that he order a minimum of 4,000 gallons a month, which was much more than he needed. These days, he hauls the gas himself from a neighboring county, making the trip in a 1-ton truck with a tank in the back. He brings back about 300 gallons twice a week.

His gas is more expensive than the gas in Camden. Saulsberry says he has to pay a higher wholesale price because he doesn't buy much; he also buys premium gas, although he doesn't advertise that to customers. "I just tell 'em I got good gas," he said. "Cheaper isn't always better."

He pockets about 10 cents per gallon — just enough to pay the store's light bill.

The store's faded wooden sign still bears the hand-painted price for a gallon of unleaded from some distant time: $1.23 9/10. A cousin usually opens the place in late morning. Most customers come in the evening, after their shifts, buying their gas with cash, a gallon or two at a time.

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