Image: Empty car lot
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP
A cutout car salesman stands alone in a car lot at the closed Wilkes-Barre Dodge dealership.
updated 10/5/2008 7:39:56 PM ET 2008-10-05T23:39:56

Relief on Wall Street over the hard-won passage of a $700 billion bailout package for the financial system apparently hasn’t yet trickled down to the pubs, storefronts, car lots and malls of Main Street.

Many Americans spent an uneasy weekend wondering whether the rescue would help in time — or at all — and trying to figure out where next to cut back as the economic screws tighten.

Would financing come through for the new washing machine? Could the old car hold out another year? Would a nice dinner out bust the budget?

“People are afraid,” said Linda Morrow, who owns a shoe and handbag store in a Dallas mall. “People basically don’t know what the future will bring. They’re afraid to spend. They want to see what the bailout will do. They’re waiting till after the election.”

In more than two dozen interviews with The Associated Press across the country over the weekend, Americans described those concerns, from tighter personal credit to worries about small businesses to doubts about simply making ends meet.

Matt Watson, a 41-year-old sales manager at a showroom of motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles in Morgantown, W.Va., said his family has cut back on dinners out and is buying more generic products.

The other day, he grabbed a $5 bill off his dresser and headed to a Walgreen’s drugstore for milk and bread.

“I could not buy milk and bread for $5,” Watson said, shaking his head in disbelief.

Aimee Robinson needs a $200,000 loan soon for her business, which sells eco-friendly furniture in Seattle, and wonders whether the bailout might ease the way. The interest rate on her store’s credit card just jumped to 17 percent from 8 percent.

“Everything came to a standstill” this summer, she said. “It hit me really, really bad.”

The bailout plan, quickly signed into law by President Bush after it passed the House by a comfortable margin Friday, will buy bad mortgage debt off the books of staggering banks in hopes of shoring up the American financial system.

Major Market Indices

It was put together during a harrowing three weeks for the U.S. economy that began with the bankruptcy of investment house Lehman Brothers and a government bailout of insurer American International Group.

The damage has seeped into far-flung corners of the economy. At a company called Tortilla Lady in Flagstaff, Ariz., five women make 1,500 to 1,800 dozen tortillas in an average week, some sold in the shop and others to stores.

For the week of Sept. 15, the week Lehman Brothers collapsed and the crisis took hold, production was only about 1,000 dozen.

“Once this really got into the news and people started understanding what Wall Street meant to them, they’ve become more conscious of their own budget and the limitation of their budget,” said Phebe Faus, an owner of Tortilla Lady.

An AP-GfK poll released last week before the House passed the revised bill found Americans divided on whether they supported the bailout. But a solid majority, eight in 10, said they feared the financial crisis would hit them directly. Many said they were conflicted, lamenting that taxpayers had to step in but believing something had to be done to prop up the economy.

Among that type of adherent is Morgan Cavanaugh, owner of a 75-year-old Irish pub that sits a few blocks from Lake Erie in downtown Cleveland. Standing behind the weathered mahogany bar, he said the bailout stinks.

“I don’t believe we should let them off the hook,” he said. “Either we pay now or we pay later. To me, it’s extortion.”

To him it’s also necessary: The same day, he was talking on his cell phone to a man who has been trying to buy a suburban bar from Cavanaugh but has not been able to secure a loan.

“It passed,” Cavanaugh told the man just after the House vote Friday. “Let’s work something out.” He said the man planned to try for the loan again and said the prospects were “looking up.”

As for business at the bar: Cavanaugh has lowered his drink prices for his customers, a crowd heavy with bankers and brokers. He calls the special the Bankers’ Booze Bailout Fund.

Tight credit remains at the heart of the crisis. In a financial climate of fear and mistrust, banks are charging one another much higher rates to borrow money, and they are snapping their wallets shut to Americans.

The bailout package may get the gears of lending moving again, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Last year, Pennsylvania auto dealer Bill Rosado’s customers had no trouble arranging financing for the cars and trucks they bought. Banks were lined up to provide cash even for people with a risky credit history.

Those days are gone. A customer with decent credit who might have been approved for 100 percent financing not long ago is lucky to get a loan at all today, and even then the interest rate is almost guaranteed to be higher.

“The people with horrible credit, I can justify saying, ’No more,” Rosado said. “But this is affecting people whose credit isn’t that bad. People with 650 credit scores are being turned down.”

The rescue was aimed in part at restoring confidence in the financial markets. As the crisis worsened, stocks took a huge hit, and Americans seeing their stock funds and retirement savings sapped are more reluctant to spend money.

“A lot of people who come here are wealthy people, and they’ve lost a lot of money in stocks,” said Jaime Galvan, who manages a car wash in Long Beach, Calif. “Most of the people, they’re concerned. They don’t want to spend.”

And a turnaround is no guarantee. President Bush has warned it will take “some time” for the full effects of the bailout bill to take hold in an economy that had a world of trouble even before the banking crisis.

In the meantime, Americans are left find ways to cut back even further.

In Dallas, sales assistant Yvonna Vaughan downgraded from Newport cigarettes to less expensive Kools and wonders whether she’ll be smoking generics before long.

In Denver, secretary Bernice Adolf pays close attention to the sales at her grocery store and makes spaghetti at home with her husband on Friday night instead of their usual dinners out.

“We’re trying to save wherever we can,” she said. “I don’t think the bailout is going to last too long.”

At Zeitoun, a Mediterranean restaurant not far from the Miami airport, owner Samira Marino has noticed everyone is ordering water and more people are sharing meals.

Mike Belo of Columbia, S.C., hasn’t put off any major purchases — yet. But he’s keeping an eye on his business as a property insurance agent, which has dipped as new home sales have slowed.

“It’s hard to get a handle on it,” he said of the bailout. “I’m not in favor of bailing out a bank, but I guess if it’s the No. 1 bank that offers the money ... we’re in a no-win situation, really.”

“If I go under,” he said, “no one’s going to bail me out.”

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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