By DAN BARRY
DIXFIELD, Me. With the darkening approach of another ice-hard Saturday night in western Maine, the man on the telephone was pleading for help, again. His tank was nearly dry, and he and his disabled wife needed precious heating oil to keep warm. Could Ike help out? Again?
Ike Libby, the co-owner of a small oil company called Hometown Energy, ached for his customer, Robert Hartford. He knew what winter in Maine meant, especially for a retired couple living in a wood-frame house built in the 19th century. But he also knew that the Hartfords already owed him more than $700 for two earlier deliveries.
The oil man said he was very sorry. The customer said he understood. And each was left to grapple with a matter so mundane in Maine, and so vital: the need for heat. For the rest of the weekend, Mr. Libby agonized over his decision, while Mr. Hartford warmed his house with the heat from his electric stove’s four burners.
“You get off the phone thinking, ‘Are these people going to be found frozen?’ ” Mr. Libby said. No wonder, he said, that he is prescribed medication for stress and “happy pills” for equilibrium.
Two days later, Mr. Libby told his two office workers about his decision. Diane Carlton works the front desk while her daughter-in-law, Janis, handles accounts. But they share the job of worrying about Ike, whose heart, they say, is too big for his bantam size and, maybe, this business.
The Hartford case “ate him,” Janice Carlton recalled. “It just ate him.”
Mr. Libby drove off to make deliveries in his oil truck, a rolling receptacle of crumpled coffee cups and cigarette packs. Diane Carlton, the office’s mother hen, went home early. This meant that Janis Carlton was alone when their customer, Mr. Hartford, stepped in from the cold. He had something in his hand: the title to his 16-year-old Lincoln Town Car.
Would Hometown Energy take the title as collateral for some heating oil? Please?
Maine is in the midst of its Republican presidential caucus, the state’s wintry moment in the battle for the country’s future. But at this time of year, almost nothing matters here as much as basic heat.
While federal officials try to wean the country from messy and expensive heating oil, Maine remains addicted. The housing stock is old, most communities are rural, and many residents cannot afford to switch to a cleaner heat source. So the tankers pull into, say, the Portland port, the trucks load up, and the likes of Ike Libby sidle up to house after house to fill oil tanks.
This winter has been especially austere. As part of the drive to cut spending, the Obama administration and Congress have trimmed the energy-assistance program that helps the poor — 65,000 households in Maine alone — to pay their heating bills. Eligibility is harder now, and the average amount given here is $483, down from $804 last year, all at a time when the price of oil has risen more than 40 cents in a year, to $3.71 a gallon.
That's 130 gallons.
Those wandering days are gone. Mr. Hartford, 68, has a bad shoulder, Mrs. Hartford, 71, needs a wheelchair, and the two survive on $1,200 a month (“Poverty,” Mrs. Hartford says). So far this year they have received $360 in heating assistance, he said, about a quarter of last year’s allocation.
Mr. Hartford said he used what extra money they had to repair broken pipes, install a cellar door, and seal various cracks with Styrofoam spray that he bought at Walmart. That wasn’t enough to block the cold, of course, and the two oil deliveries carried them only into early January.
I seem to remember one of the presidential candidates just this week telling us that he wasn't particularly worried about the poor; that there are safety nets and he's willing to repair them if necessary.
Porous old houses do not make sense. We need to fix the incentives so that there is sufficient winter housing for all of us in homes that they can afford to occupy, to heat, to furnish.
Houses depreciate over time. We tend to forget that. And we fail to notice the effect that has on human beings. This story helps make it a little clearer.