It’s a rainy spring morning and Tamara Ogier plants herself at a table in a Spartan room in the Atlanta federal courthouse, computer and tape recorder at hand, ready to hear another day’s stories of financial ruin.
Couples facing foreclosure. Down-and-out real estate agents. Merchants who’ve shut their doors. All sit on pew-like benches, waiting to tell the court-appointed bankruptcy trustee how they ended up deep in debt.
“I understand the assumption that we’re the guys in the black hats,” Ogier says, but “there are a lot of times when I’m actually able to do a lot of good.”
It’s a sunny morning 745 miles away, as Jerry Miller tools along Iowa’s back roads. At almost 75, he feels he needs to keep working just to keep pace even though he’s not in debt. He wonders, too, if he’ll have to foot the bill for people who couldn’t manage their own money.
“I can’t believe because they got themselves in this situation, it’s falling on us to pay it back,” he says, heading to the first pharmacy where he’ll make deliveries this day. “Lord, you’re going to set a college kid loose with a credit card? Buy a house that costs 10 times your salary?”
It’s morning in America – but it’s not a good morning.
The nation is in a deep recession, there’s no denying that: Unemployment is at its highest level in more than 25 years. The auto industry is on the skids. Foreclosure and for-sale signs are as common in some communities as streetlights.
And more bleak days seem to be ahead.
Many private economists expect the monthly jobless rate will climb to 10 percent by the end of the year – it already has surpassed that level in states such as Michigan, South Carolina and Rhode Island.
The bankruptcy rate is rising, too. Nearly 1.2 million debtors filed for bankruptcy in a 12-month period ending in April, according to federal court records collected and analyzed by the Associated Press. In March, nearly 131,000 sought bankruptcy protection – an increase of 46 percent over a year earlier.
Those are the numbers. Then there are the people.
This is the story of a single day, and how Americans spent those hours in the shadow of economic distress, from worried debtors in a Georgia courthouse to a prospective home buyer in Michigan to an Arizona contractor struggling to find jobs.
On this day, no one person typifies hard times: In California, it’s a homeless Army Reservist who sleeps in his 17-year-old car. In South Carolina, it’s an unemployed factory worker who finds comfort in prayer.
And in Greenwich, Conn., home to hedge-fund billionaires, it’s David Rabin, who lost his $100,000 job last October as a senior vice president for a small financial services firm.
He spends part of his morning in his basement, job hunting online. A day earlier, he learned he didn’t get a position recruiting members for a gym. That hurt.
“I didn’t sleep a freakin’ wink,” he says. “If I don’t fit that job, what the hell am I going to do?”
“I’ve been in this situation before and I wasn’t nearly as frightened,” Rabin adds. “This is the Great Recession we’re in.”
But watching Jim Juristy work, you wouldn’t know we’re in hard times.
A nursing supervisor in Morgantown, W.Va., Juristy will spend his 12-hour shift at Ruby Memorial Hospital trying to fill jobs, calling, cajoling and charming nurses to come to work.
Not only is Juristy in a relatively secure profession, but he lives in a thriving area (the county’s jobless rate in March was a relatively low 4 percent), home of West Virginia University and some recession-proof employers.
A former coal miner, the 54-year-old Juristy made the unlikely transition in the mid-1990s after his mine closed.
“I figured I could adapt or become a dinosaur. And dinosaurs became extinct, so I thought I’d darn well better adapt,” he says.
On this April morning when WVU Hospitals – which include Ruby Memorial – had 200 job openings, TV news is announcing higher-than-expected March unemployment rates.
But Juristy needs workers. He tells his wife, Stephanie, a part-time clerical worker at the hospital, to start calling contractors, a pool of nurses from Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia who work extra shifts.
When she starts dialing around 10:30 a.m., there are 11 jobs to fill.
At the opposite end of the country, in Scottsdale, Ariz., 36-year-old Mark Zimmerman is struggling, too. The contractor’s printer spits out an estimate for a project he never would have taken two years ago: replacing concrete blocks supporting a carport.
The numbers aren’t pretty: Three days of labor. About $35 an hour for his workers. Another $250 in material. Zimmerman does some fast math on a handheld calculator. He gets 10 percent, so he’ll make a meager $109.
“That doesn’t cover me for anything – not my time sitting and putting the bid together, not my time driving out to go look at it,” he says. “I’m actually losing money.”
The downturn in construction has rippled across the Sun Belt, from Arizona to Florida, where the pawn shop is often the stop of last resort.
At 10:55 a.m, Tim Salyer, an unemployed construction worker, arrives at Best Value Jewelry and Pawn in Fort Pierce, proffering an acoustic guitar in a beat-up case. He lives with his mom, who just lost her job as a nurse.
“Trying to hang in there,” he says, sunglasses covering his left eye, blinded in a car crash at 16.
Salyer pawns his guitar for $50. He’ll need $62 to retrieve it.
“I played it all night last night, so hopefully I got it out of my system. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get it back,” he says with a heavy sigh. “But I’m riding on reserve in my car. Gotta put a little gas in there.”
By late morning, Tamara Ogier, the Atlanta federal bankruptcy trustee, has wrapped up about 30 interviews.
She is a gentle-but-firm interrogator, sifting through the financial records of the debtors, looking for anything of value – a home, a car, a diamond ring – that can be sold to satisfy creditors.
A 40-year-old former accounting consultant, looking forlorn and wearing a button-down shirt and dark pants, tells Ogier in a near whisper that his clothes are all he owns. His business fell off last summer.
Jerry Miller, the frugal Iowan, heads toward another pharmacy on his five-stop route.
Miller says he really didn’t have a choice about retirement, and needs the cash from his 15-hour-a-week job to pay for health care for himself and his wife, Barbara.
“You’ve got to have faith in the system,” he says as he arrives home in Conrad, Iowa, just after 12:30 p.m. “But can you tell me, where did all the money go?”
Khaaliq Parker, a 32-year-old unemployed auto mechanic, is holed up in a cubicle at Career Link employment center in San Francisco’s Mission District, checking e-mail for responses to resumes he has sent out.
“The job market is really tough,” he says. “It’s crazy. I don’t give up.”
Parker was laid off a year ago and has been homeless since December. Until then, he had lived in Oakland with his wife and 4-year-old son and her parents, but he says they kicked him out when he wasn’t making progress looking for work.
So he sleeps in his red 1992 Mustang.
Today is a good day, all things considered. Parker receives his first $422-monthly workfare assistance check; he washed city buses in the morning to help earn that. He also squeezes by with food stamps and $60 a month from the Army Reserve.
In March, the nation’s jobless rate rose to 8.5 percent – more than 13 million Americans. The recession, experts say, has eliminated more jobs as a proportion of the work force than any downturn since 1958.
Lynette Davis leans on her faith. Tonight, the widow joins a friend for a weekly Bible study group at a red-brick church a dozen miles from her South Carolina home.
Over three decades, Davis has worked at a now-shuttered Russell Stover candy plant, a textile mill that closed when the jobs moved overseas and an auto parts factory that trimmed its work force – leaving her unemployed since last June.
Finding work in Marion County, where unemployment exceeds 20 percent, seems near impossible. Davis recently enrolled in a technical college, hoping to become a pastry chef.
Still, she does not despair.
“I have running water,” she says. “I have lights. I have my kids and I have my family. I feel good about life. There is always someone out there worse off than I am.”
In the evening, Ballroom B at the DeVos Place convention center in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., is humming with anticipation. About 450 people are waiting to bid on nearly 75 foreclosed homes being auctioned off this night.
For the right price, one family’s misfortune can become another’s American dream.
Marilyn Heidenfelder is hoping for a bargain. She has scouted out four possible homes for her 41-year-old daughter, who recently lost her house when her mortgage increased $350 a month.
Heindenfelder is willing to spend $20,000. But the first house she bids on goes for $105,000.
Three more homes she’s interested in are sold within a half hour. The cheapest one went for $45,000 – more than double her limit.
Shortly after 7 p.m., a disappointed Heidenfelder leaves with her $2,500 cashier’s check – and without a home. “There were too many people,” she says. “It was too competitive.”
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