Fluid price of things

Saturday, May 22, 2004

There seems to be an unwritten appendix to the Bill of Rights, a code setting aside a sacred trio of topics all Americans have the right, if not the duty, to complain about: the government, the weather and gas prices. With summer coming on, election season heating up and the price of gasoline soaring to $1.99 a gallon in some parts of Cape Girardeau, now would seem to be a great time to be a patriotic complainer.

But as the average consumer winces and mutters to himself while pumping a few more gallons of gas into his car on the way to work, does he stop to consider that he actually paid more per fluid ounce for the milk he put on his cereal?

In most places in Cape Girardeau, a gallon of unleaded gas costs $1.86. That comes out to about 1.45 cents per fluid ounce. From the 5.25 cents per ounce you pay for the coffee you drink to start your morning to the 7.8 cents you pay per ounce of liquid soap to wash your face at night, there are plenty of things more expensive than gas. So why don't consumers seem to complain so adamantly about that?

"The numbers are posted so big at the gas station," joked Judy Wilferth as she placed a couple of half gallons of low-fat milk in her grocery cart. Milk costs anywhere from 2.3 to 3 cents per ounce.

For grocery items like milk and bottled water, which is 77 to 85 cents per ounce, Wilferth said price is pretty much non-negotiable. Her grandchildren need nourishment and things to eat and drink, and as far as she's concerned, they'll get what they need.

Wilferth thinks part of the reason people notice gas prices more is because it's all over the media. But having recently returned from a trip to Europe where gas is well over $3 a gallon in places, she doesn't think Americans have it so bad. Most Americans drive to work and don't have much choice in the matter, she said.

Cape Girardeau factory worker Duneall Lane concurs. Standing in front of a shelf of window washer fluid (1.55 cents per fluid ounce) and antifreeze (8.35 cents), he knows the shock of seeing 10 cent price jumps at the gas pumps every week. But he's got to get to work somehow. Lane said the problem is that drivers are frustrated because they know they don't have much of a price option.

"You can't find gas on sale," Lane said. "There are no coupons."

At 73, Doris Ford can remember a time when filling up the car to go to the grocery store cost much less. But she said a lot of things, like milk, soap and orange juice (now 3.5 to 5.23 cents per ounce) have gone up in price over the years.

"Unfortunately, my retirement check hasn't gone up," said Ford, a retired teacher.

Ford said people notice the price of gas more because it is a regular and frequent expense. Other bills like the grocery bill and the utility bill come once or twice a month while most people gas up their car at least once a week. By the way, the Cape Girardeau city utility bills run about two-tenths of a cent per fluid ounce of water used.

Ford also said gas prices attack a nerve in the American ideology about automobiles. Our cars, she said, are near and dear to our hearts. So we feel as though we're taken hostage by the rising price of gas. She said this especially rings true during the summer travel season.

Chad Schmitt, 29, of Cape Girardeau said gas prices definitely have put a dent in his wallet. Driving an SUV that doesn't get great gas mileage, the avid St. Louis Cardinal fan said it's costing him over $40 to fill up the tank for his regular trips to Busch Stadium.

However, Schmitt said that comparing prices per gallon of other things to that of gas doesn't make much sense. He said that paying $3 for a gallon of milk that will last him a week is a lot different from paying $40 for a tank of gas that'll last three to four days.

Using Schmitt's argument, one could see how an ounce of finger nail polish ($4.79 per ounce) might last longer than an ounce of gas.

Besides, if milk ever got too expensive, Schmitt said he could always drink something else. Everyone, he said, has to get gas.

But those who decide to stay home and barbecue more often to avoid paying more at the pump this summer can rest easy. They can sit back in their lawn chairs, drink their Coke or Pepsi (2.2 cents per ounce) or can of Bud Light (6.9 cents per ounce), light up the grill with their lighter fluid (6.1 cents per ounce) and think about all the gas money they're saving.

trehagen@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137

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