These American Lives: The Reality Behind The Hype

This past week, politicians of all stripes blanketed the Midwest and the news. We wanted to balance the talking points and campaign speeches with the voices of ordinary people, struggling in this economy, so NPR's Andrea Seabrook drove south, out of Washington, D.C., filing stories from places that don't often make the news.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie. This week politicians of all stripes blanketed the Midwest. NPR's congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook also left Washington to get beyond the rhetoric and hear the voices of people who are struggling in this economy. At truck stops and watering holes she found Americans eager to talk about their lives. Here's her reporter's notebook.

ANDREA SEABROOK: I talk to people a lot. Over the years I've gotten used to stopping people in the streets or walking up to them in a restaurant and saying, I'm a political reporter with NPR. Do you have time to talk? By far, most people walk right past me or say no way. You get used to being treated with a kind of mild hostility and I can understand it. The media is part of the problem in this country and I represent the media.

So imagine the shock I had, a real and honest shock to my system, when I interrupted a woman's dinner to ask her about politics and she offered me a bite of her peach cobbler.

CHRIS CARTER: We're having cobbler. Do you want some?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SEABROOK: Chris Carter and her husband Marty are from Mocksville, North Carolina. They just finished dinner at a downtown Winston-Salem gem called Sweet Potatoes. Across the room I kneel next to another table and ask Ramona Brooks about her job and her life. Then her 70-something mother gets up and tries to give me her seat.

Oh, no, no, honey. Please, don't give me your seat. I'm fine. Really.

MOTHER: You could use that chair right there. You want something to drink?

SEABROOK: No, thank you. You're so sweet. Now, I know about Southern hospitality. A branch of my family is from Arkansas. But this is different. I'm not visiting these people; I'm pushing a microphone in their face. I'm asking them the most intimate details of their lives and they answer. At a truck stop near Buena Vista, Virginia, I approach a teenager waiting tables in a restaurant. How's work, I ask.

CHEYENNE WORTH: There's not much money that comes in. More like three, four dollars a night.

SEABROOK: Cheyenne Worth already looks beaten, tired, and she's only 16.

WORTH: The highest I've had is ten maybe, but I had to help my family.

SEABROOK: Yeah.

WORTH: Because they don't make a lot of money, either. So.

SEABROOK: So do you give most of your money back to your family?

WORTH: Yeah.

SEABROOK: I get another lesson after driving south and west into the mountains. Derek and Laura Graziano are standing on a street corner in Nashville, North Carolina, playing music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, HAMMERED DULCMER AND CELLO)

SEABROOK: Derek is on hammered dulcimer, Laura's playing the cello. They call themselves the Nomadic Minstrels. They travel all over the country playing. How's the economy for a nomadic minstrel?

DEREK GRAZZIANO: I mean, it's better than a part-time employee in shopolopoland, I think.

SEABROOK: Before the economic meltdown, Derek and Laura worked as a cook and a bookstore clerk. When things got bad, they took a leap of faith, went on the road, and now they're making more money than they did when they had those jobs. Most days they played three or four hours and they make about $100.

That's not bad.

LAURA GRAZIANO: Not bad? No. We like doing it, so.

SEABROOK: Sometimes a bad economy can be a good thing, I think. It can push people to try things that might've seemed too risky before. It's a kind of resilience I love in this country. All of these people and stories and intimate conversations have changed me. I can feel it. I know that when I'm back in Washington, back covering Congress, my questions will be different. My expectations of lawmakers are different. It's not just business; it's personal. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News.

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