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Soaring prices upend lives on Nantucket

Fuel costs bring a spiral


Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tania deLuzuriaga
Globe Staff / May 5, 2008

NANTUCKET - Every week Lynne Robinson does the math. And every week it gets a little worse. Already working two jobs, she still owes the oil company $526. The water heater is running on kerosene. And with gas going for $4.53 a gallon, she is fearful of whether her taxi company will be able to break even this summer.

"The things that were necessities are becoming luxuries," she said.

As the cost of oil skyrockets, prices everywhere are on the rise. But on Nantucket, where the mainland is an hour's ferry ride away and everything from flour to diapers has to be shipped over, it is even worse. Prices for almost everything have been climbing. A small box of Cheerios at Stop & Shop is now $3.69, compared with the $2.99 Boston shoppers pay; a gallon of milk costs $4.59 at the Grand Union, 80 cents more than in Boston; and a plain burger at the folksy Fog Island Café is $10. Add $1.50 for cheese.

Higher prices have long been the trade-off for living in this tiny island community, where stop lights are nonexistent and neon signs are banned downtown. But beneath the patina of multimillion-dollar homes and tony tchotchke shops that Nantucket is known for lies a middle-class community whose members are going to new extremes to make ends meet as prices reach record highs.

Robinson, an island native who has raised four children, said she is increasingly grateful for the meat her son brings in from fishing and hunting, and she and her husband are hoping to buy a pellet stove before next winter to cut their home heating bills.

"I'm 46. I shouldn't be worried about how many more jobs I can do," she said.

Still, when Robinson caught wind of a rumor that whirled across the island last week about gas prices soaring 60 cents overnight, she raced to a gas station and waited in line to fill up one of her taxis.

"Then I went home and raced back to fill up my car," she said.

Sure enough, a gallon of regular at On Island Gas jumped from $3.94 a gallon on Thursday, to 4.53 the next day.

With some predicting higher gas prices by Labor Day on the mainland, islanders braced for even bigger expenditures.

"It's going to be crazy," said Sean Larrabee, who was waiting to fill up his taxi Thursday.

The average price of a gallon of gas on the Cape yesterday was $3.61, four cents higher than in the Boston area, according to a AAA Southern New England survey. While that does not sound like much, it is putting a dent in the pockets of people who live in far-flung parts of the Cape. In Provincetown, Selectwoman Lynne Davies said she has considered baking her own bread to cut down on her grocery bill, and thought hard before making the hour-and-a-half trip for more frugal shopping off Cape.

"You can't afford to just zip up to Plymouth to go to BJ's," she said. "If I have to go off Cape, I ask my neighbors if there's anything they want me to bring back for them."

Davies said higher prices have triggered bargain-hunting habits; she gets her gas now on Tuesdays, when a local station offers a 5-cent-a-gallon discount, and carefully considers prices at the market.

"I try to maintain healthy habits and eat a lot of fresh vegetables, but those potatoes are starting to look pretty good," she said.

On Nantucket, security guard Kerry Raven, 52, said the high gas prices are prompting her to put away her car for the summer.

"I'm buying new tires for my bike," she said. "I used to do it for fun, but now it's a necessity."

Local merchants and laborers who rely on seasonal visitors can pass on at least some of their increased costs to their wealthy customers, but many locals say they have to simply grit their teeth and tighten their belts.

"Most of my guys work two jobs," said Nick Duarte, a Department of Public Works foreman. "It's a necessity here if you want to stay."

With his parents and his in-laws able to help with childcare and his wife taking stints opening scallops in addition to her bookkeeping job, Duarte said they are able to stay afloat.

"Prices used to go up because it was summer and you wanted to get it out of the tourists," he said. "Now, it's because [of] fuel. Fuel drives everything."

While some residents have combated the island's pricey food costs by raising their own eggs and produce, even that is getting harder. Patricia Grissom will not add any chickens to her flock this year because the price of grain has increased so much.

"It costs more to fuel them too," she said. "I don't know what we're going to do. It's not just Nantucket, it's everywhere."

Robinson and her husband typically make enough money through their taxi business over the summer to get them through the lean winter months. But she worries about this year, even with the Board of Selectmen poised to approve a fare increase next week.

"No one's getting the work they used to," she said. "I hope this doesn't ruin our season."

Tania deLuzuriaga can be reached at deluzuriaga@globe.com.

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