Rethinking what it is to truly run on empty

For some, the gas shortage has been a game.

For others, doing without gnaws closer to the bone.

I hear the scritch-scratch of a rake before I see the actual marks themselves in the bare, dirt yard.

Around the side of the gray clapboard duplex on Hamorton Place near The Plaza and Central, I spot the man with the rake – a too-lean Robert Freeman, 59, a red-billed cap perched sideways on his head.

In his backyard I notice two hulking cars – a 1987 Grand Marquis and a 1989 Lincoln, both, says Freeman, on dead empty.

In my too-snap judgment, I think: Better to be out here raking in the fresh air than driving around in one of those big, old guzzlers.

I am so wrong.

The Robert Freemans of the world need their cars for reasons some of us have never considered.

For one thing, on Sundays, Freeman hauls a load of friends up to Morganton or down to Rock Hill or Kershaw in South Carolina to visit relatives who are incarcerated there.

For another, he drives several people to work each day and picks them up afterward. Without gas, he says, his friends either catch the bus or don't go to work at all.

Also, Freeman tells me he now walks to the Harris Teeter on Central, a quarter of a mile or so, for groceries.

So what's wrong with that?

It's a lot more expensive there than at the Food Lion on Eastway, he says, or on The Plaza or on North Wendover. Those distances, for Freeman, are not walkable.

He tells me he has an infection in one leg, in addition to hernia troubles. His disability payments amount to less than $1,400 a month – $485 from SSI and $900 from the VA.

To supplement, he mows lawns. When he has gas.

On the other hand, I stop Colton Southworth, 22, a dance student at UNC Charlotte, as he's about to breeze into Zada Jane's on Central with his friend Charlotte Jenkins.

His tank is full, thanks to a tip from his parents on Saturday that there was gas at a Shell station in Derita, off Graham Street, near I-85.

But he's not using his car. He walked here. In fact, he says, on Sunday he ran-walked with his dog the six miles from his house off Downs Avenue near 35th Street, to Caribou Coffee on East Boulevard.


“It was a great workout,” he says, beaming, “and I didn't feel like contributing to the chaos.”

You gotta love people like Colton Southworth – young, healthy, energetic, educated, optimistic.

Some people can, thank goodness, make a kind of game of shortages – gas, money, sunshine, rain. Even, occasionally, food.

Others, like the Robert Freemans, find it more difficult. They've waited in too many lines for too many years for not nearly enough to run on.