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    {mosimage}The times are hard, and they just seem to be getting harder ... especially for car owners.
With gasoline pushing inexorably toward $4 a gallon — and beyond — many drivers are traveling less so they don’t have to pay more.
    Worse, the high cost of fuel is driving up all prices — food, clothing, hardware — in a domino effect as it’s getting more and more expensive to transport the goods people depend on and the extraneous stuff they just want.
    “I don’t know how long I can keep doing this,” said Randy Walters of Hope Mills, an independent trucker. “It’s not bad enough that insurance rates keep going up, but now you’ve got the sky-high cost of diesel.
    “I’ve been a trucker for over 20 years and I wouldn’t want to do anything else, but I’ve got to make a living,” said Walters. “And there are a whole bunch of truckers like me saying the same thing. If truckers stop delivering because of the cost of diesel, everything is going to go up, especially food. And that so-called stimulus check the government’s handing out won’t feed the bulldog, especially when it costs almost $900 to fill up my rig.”
    This was not the scenario foreseen by President Bush’s administration when it approved the economic stimulus package that is putting tax “rebate” checks in the hands of every taxpaying American — checks of $600 for most taxpayers who earn less than $75,000, and $1,200 for married taxpayers whose joint returns were less than $150,000, plus a $300 credit for each child in the family. The checks will total $120 million — money that the government reasoned would be spent to purchase material goods, helping out a sluggish economy teetering on the brink of recession.
    Instead, across the nation and here in Fayetteville, many of those checks are going straight into the savings accounts of wary consumers rather than being used to kick start the economy ... or straight into the gas tank.
    “I’ll probably spend all mine on gas,” said Kiman Canady of Fayetteville as he checked the oil level on his SUV. “I will finally have enough money to actually fill up the tank.”
    This was the same response given by a number of folks when asked what they plan to do with their checks.
“Right into the gas tank,” said Randolph Pierce, also of Fayetteville. “It’s money in and money out.”
If you want more proof that the cost of gasoline is burning up many an economic stimulus check, just go to your local pawnshop, where business has never been better. These establishments are stuffed with the material goods pawned by individuals who need the cash just to pay for the fuel that allows them to earn a living.
    Rose Turlington, of Cumberland Pawn and Loan Co., says pawns are “way up” at all five stores in the chain.
    “It’s because of the gas prices,” said Turlington. “People pawn just about everything to pay for gas — jewelry, CD players, DVD players, everything you see in this store.”
    Turlington’s partner at Cumberland Pawn and Loan Co., Eric Johnson, backs up Turlington’s account of the desperation of cash-strapped drivers.
    “I have people tell me all the time, ‘I’ve got to get gas to go to work,’” said Johnson.
    Employees at gas stations also see the desperation, and sometimes receive the brunt of the commuters’ anger, even though these men and women have nothing to do with the gas prices.
    “People sometimes yell at me,” said Rico Anakeeb, who works behind the counter at Circle B on Bragg Boulevard. “I see more people riding bikes and more people sharing cars — lots of people just crammed into one vehicle, all to save gas.”
    Donna Frischett, who mans the counter at Liberty Convenience Store on Rowan Street, says most customers she deals with are understanding when they pay for gas.
    “They don’t like what they’re having to pay,” said Frischett, “but they know it’s not us that sets the gas prices.”
    Meanwhile, even those who don’t drive much are feeling the trickle down effect of higher gas.
John and Ruby Lassiter of Hope Mills are a retired couple living on a fixed income. Both take various prescription medicines and say they are feeling the pinch at both the drug store and the grocery store.
“We’re both on Medicare but we still have to pay some and drug prices certainly aren’t going down,” said John Lassiter. “And food prices keep going up, up, up.”
    “We have a car,” added Ruby Lassiter, “but we only drive it very short distances. We canceled a trip to Virginia to see our son because of the cost of gas. We did get a stimulus check, but that needs to go into our savings, not gas. It’s very hard when you live on a fixed income.”
    According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, the Lassiters’ plight is certainly not unique. Forty-one percent of respondents to the poll said they would pay off debt with the economic stimulus checks, while 32 percent said the money is going into their savings account.
    Only 21 percent said they would spend the money.
    One of those 21 percenters looking to spend the check rather than pay down debt or deposit it into the bank is Renee Cuthbert of Fayetteville.
    Cuthbert, a physical therapist, says she’s going to “spoil” herself with the money she received from the government.
    “I’m going to buy clothes and shoes and maybe an MP3 player,” said Cuthbert as she cruised Cross Creek Mall like a hunter in search of prey. “Life’s too short not to treat yourself every now and then.”
    That’s exactly the attitude Uncle Sam is hoping for — more people in the malls stimulating the economy, dropping their newfound cash on the latest in footwear or iPod technology.
    Now, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to pay for the gas to get to the mall.
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