Texas rises and falls, but Josie carries on

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Like a bird in her nest, Josie Fox sits small and patient behind the counter of her caf'e-turned-secondhand-store, awaiting the customers she says are fewer and further between all the time. ``The farmers around here can't get the money to buy the fuel to run their tractors,'' she says, ``so they sure can't come in to buy a new set of clothes.''

Yet for Josie, a 23-year-veteran of this one-story roadside structure on the west Texas plains, it's the change in clientele that best indicates the hard times that have struck the oil and cotton town just up the two-lane highway.

``I see people in here I used to only see in town,'' she says. ``They've come to the point where they're willing to buy used clothes.''

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She can tell the newest customers, she says, by the one question they often ask. ``They'll say, `Josie, is this local?,' and hold up something they want to be sure wasn't brought in by their neighbor. Sometimes they almost whisper,'' she says, leaning over the counter, ``like they're afraid the town might be listening. But I tell them, `Honey, these days any store in town has a half dozen of the same item. No one's going to know you bought your dress at Josie's.' ''

These days a lot of people in and around Seminole, a town of 6,000 at the northern edge of the oil-rich Permian Basin, are thinking about saving money. With the two major sources of income -- cotton farming and oil production -- in a tailspin, unemployment is up, farm bankruptcies are mounting, and oil rigs are being ``stacked,'' or mothballed, as the repercussions of west Texas crude selling below $12 a barrel spread over the flat red land.

Laid out along the two state highways that meet at its center, Seminole does not present a picture of despair. A new motel has just opened next to a new Wal-Mart discount department store, and up on a small rise sits a modern high school, the beneficiary of increased local tax revenues following the oil-production boom of the late 1970s and early '80s.

But there are signs that hard times have hit. Dave Fisher, editor of the twice-weekly Seminole Sentinel, says many local farmers, profitless after several years of drought and low cotton prices, did not receive renewed bank financing to plant this spring. Now oil-field service companies have begun to lay off workers. Sales-tax receipts are down more than 10 percent over last year, he notes, and customarily independent-minded local merchants have begun working together to keep Seminole's shopping dollars at home.

Josie, who serves as a kind of economic barometer amid her tables of blue jeans and house dresses and ``Sta-prest'' shirts, says conditions are as bad as she's seen them. ``I don't remember it being like this since the depression,'' she says, recalling how in those years she walked all over town with her two young sons, cleaning houses for 50 cents a house.

Today ``the farmers can't get enough for cotton to make it worth their while,'' she says, ``and now it's the oil. My husband used to do oil-field truck-driving from La Mesa,'' the next town east, ``but now all of those trucks are parked.''

Her husband now busies himself on their 20-acre farm adjoining the second-hand store.

Josie's face and manner bespeak kindness. She says she feels bad for the locals who are having ``money troubles.'' But, reflecting her own experience in making it through rough times, she also thinks that a good many of them brought some of their troubles upon themselves.

The '70s were good years for local farmers, with high crop prices matched by steady markets. ``But when they did make some money,'' says Josie, ``instead of paying off some of their debts or saving it for times like these, they'd buy a new car or boat, or move off the farm into town. You reap what you sow, that's what the Good Book tells us.''

Josie opened her roadside caf'e nearly a quarter-century ago, serving up the kind of home cooking and welcome banter that today's Interstate drivers and chain-restaurant aficionados generally bypass. ``At one time I was told there were signs in truck stops all across the country, truckers telling other truckers about the good food at Josie's,'' she says with pride.

She remembers a special treat she occasionally provided, her own ``home butter.'' It was against health regulations for her to serve it, so she'd circumvent the law by placing it on the tables next to its commercially prepared counterpart. ``Then I'd explain the difference, and let the customers choose for themselves,'' says Josie. ``They'd always clean up my butter right quick.''

Seven years ago she decided the restaurant was too much for her, so she converted the space to its current use, taking in used merchandise on consignment. Her best customers include the Hispanics and Mennonites, who are among Seminole's most recent newcomers.

But the desert of gravel that surrounds the store no longer sees the traffic it once did, nor does the highway out front carry the volume of farming families that used to travel from home to town and back.

``They don't live out on the farm any more; they prefer to live in town now,'' Josie says, explaining the vacant farmhouses along the highway. And she notes that fewer young people are staking their future on the farm.

That's something Josie knows about, since one of her sons, an accountant, lives with his family in Odessa, Texas, while the other manages a western clothing store in Las Cruces, N.M.

``They don't get back too often,'' she says of her children and grandchildren. ``But sometimes when they're too busy to come here, I'll fix up a big chicken dinner, just like I used to at the truck-stop caf'e, and we'll take it to them. They like that.''

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