Robert Frazier of Suisun City, Calif., is seen at home with a prototype of "The Pouch," a sleeping bag attached to a fitted sheet, so that both fit over a mattress. He has a patent, but he doesn't want to take production to China or India.
Robert Frazier of Suisun City, Calif., is seen at home with a prototype of "The Pouch," a sleeping bag attached to a fitted sheet, so that both fit over a mattress. He has a patent, but he doesn't want to take production to China or India. Richard Gonzales/NPR
Part of a monthlong series
There's a lot to like about Solano County, Calif., a collection of bedroom communities between San Francisco and Sacramento: great climate, diversity and until recently, very stable neighborhoods.
But it also has the second-highest foreclosure rate in the country. Its largest city, Vallejo, went bankrupt. And unemployment here is 11 percent, higher than the national average.
So it's no surprise that at a recent local town hall meeting, the No. 1 topic was jobs and, frankly, how things just aren't like they used to be. One speaker after another talked about the lack of opportunity, what they called unfair competition from China, and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs.
And then there was Robert Frazier, 59, a truck driver who told the crowd that he had developed a new product he thought would sell: a sleeping bag that attaches to the top of a mattress like a fitted sheet.
"Walmart loved it," Frazier says. So he says he investigated his manufacturing options and ran into trouble. "I have the patent, so I'm legal, I'm ready to roll, but I can't find no one to manufacture it for me unless I go to China or India," he says.
A few days after that town hall meeting, I tracked down Frazier, who invited me into his home and showed me his prototype.
He calls it The Pouch — "to be snug, like in a kangaroo pouch."
"A lot of my friends are long-haul truck drivers and have to use what covering they have. They all want it. Every trucker in America would buy this," he says. "And then when I thought about moms with children — I was the kind of kid that never made my bed — that would really make it easy on the moms and the kids."
Solano County, Calif., By The Numbers
Foreclosures: 1 in 141
Unemployment rate: 11 percent
Median Income: $70,508
Sources: RealtyTrac Inc., California Employment Development Department, Nielsen Claritas
Frazier has been developing The Pouch for years; all the while he's been dealing with changes in the trucking industry that cut his pay in half, a foreclosure and then his mother's death.
Frazier says he wants to get The Pouch back on track, but in his own way.
"I never had a good feeling about taking jobs offshore, and I would like to be there to watch everything grow and participate. Maybe that's the future: small-business people stepping up to put people to work. Maybe like it was when I grew up," he says.
Like it was when I grew up. That theme came up all over Solano County. I heard it again when I went to see Craig Black on his five-acre ranch in a rural part of the county.
Craig and Linda Black sit at a table in the yard of their home in Vacaville, Calif. They are desperately trying to hang on to their home after falling behind on their mortgage payments.
Craig and Linda Black sit at a table in the yard of their home in Vacaville, Calif. They are desperately trying to hang on to their home after falling behind on their mortgage payments. Richard Gonzales/NPR
"It was kind of our dream home, something we always wanted," he says.
His dream home isn't more than 800 square feet, but hanging on to it is becoming a nightmare. Black, 39, is a sheet metal worker who looks younger than his age. But he has a bad back thanks to the demands of his job. Two surgeries later, he'll need another one, too.
Black says he had to quit working about two years ago. With only one income, he and his wife fell behind on their mortgage payments. Black says he should qualify for a loan modification, but his bank doesn't agree, judging from a stack of documents about half a foot high on his table.
"I have letter after letter: 'If the amount due is not received by the specified due date, foreclosure proceedings may begin or continue,' " he reads. "And this is every month, and it just prolongs the process."
To complicate matters, Black owes more on his mortgage than his home is worth. But he says he's not worried about that because he would never walk away from the house. What he doesn't understand is why he can't get some help for a more affordable loan.
So what would he say to President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner if he could?
He sighs. "Why? Why do we hear the same promises? Why? Why don't you do what you say you're gonna do?" Black says. "We're Americans. Let's be Americans. Let's fight for this country, the way it used to be."