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One Town, One Job: Low-Wage America
An Essay by NPR's Noah Adams

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I find myself seeing faces when I think of this reporting trip. I now want to look more directly into the eyes of the convenience store clerk or the housekeeper at the motel. I want to talk with the waitress, and smile at the toll collector. And I'm planning new trips -- there's many more stories out there.

NPR's Noah Adams

At the Budget car rental desk in the Knoxville, Tenn., airport: "Sorry, we'll have to upgrade you to a Lincoln Town Car."

It was said with an expectant smile, but I had to pass, and my producer Anne Hawke and I headed out in a Chevrolet Malibu from Avis. We were driving 500 miles north to Detroit, stopping to visit with and interview low-wage workers along the way. Arriving at interviews in a Town Car seemed like the wrong way to launch this series.

On the first evening of the trip we met Sandy Hicks, who cleans dormitory rooms at the University of Tennessee. We spent an hour or so talking in the yard out behind her house. I was struck by the pride she took in her work, and in being a part of the college community. The next morning, we met some of her co-workers at Melrose Hall, on the U.T. campus, where the summer "deep cleaning" was underway. We'd been careful to obtain the university's permission to record at Sandy's workplace, as was the case with all of our interview subjects -- we didn't want to run the risk of getting someone in trouble.

On the way north along Interstate 75 I noticed an old circus truck, broken down, possibly abandoned. I wanted to stop and investigate -- surely there was a story here -- but we were due in Corbin, Ky., the next morning. (We'll schedule more free time for our next road trip, for a serendipitious circus encounter.)

We spent our day in Corbin with Marshall Cox, a young Kentucky Fried Chicken worker, going with him to a pool room after his shift. When he changed out of his KFC clothes and picked up a pool cue, Marshall's personality changed. He was serious about the games, playing for hours at a time, and about his future as well, making plans to go to drafting school, following his talent for art. I remember thinking how little we know about someone if all we notice is their voice from the drive-through speaker, or their KFC hat. (We did have fried chicken for lunch, and mashed potatoes, even though I'd noticed during our time in the kitchen that the potatoes were instant and the gravy came from a mix).

At Keeneland Race Course outside of Lexington, our early morning started with a disappointing phone call. A horse trainer had arranged for us to interview one of his longtime grooms, who was 83 years old. But gout had kept this gentleman at home, to everyone's dismay. Anne and I had breakfast at the track kitchen, then watched several thoroughbreds circling the workout track. It was a lovely morning to be out in the sun at a race track but we had to find a story, and did, as soon as we heard the Irish accent of one of the exercise riders.

James Graham became the first voice in a three-person story, followed down the earnings scale by a groom, and then a hot walker. They each work a seven-day week, which is an easier fact to report than it is to comprehend. (This story was filed from WUKY in Lexington, which happens to be my home base in public radio. I hadn't been back for more than 20 years and it was great to see my old control room again, and meet the current staff members.)

We jogged off of I-75 for a small stretch, past corn fields and railroad trails of Xenia, Ohio, where show business horses were waiting for us on the set of an outdoor frontier drama called Blue Jacket. While the stage crew cleaned old muskets and shut off stage lights after the production, we sat in the empty amphitheatre by moonlight and interviewed two actors as portraits of people who work in low-paying jobs by choice.

Riding lessons are part of their uncounted compensation, and many of the actors could "fly-mount" -- leap onto a horse's bare back. The horses were purchased by the production, or donated, and families in the area volunteer to house them (and ride them) in the off-season. Leaving the grounds that evening, we passed a church youth group kneeling at the entrance to say a communal prayer -- their tour bus had become mired in the mud of the theatre's parking lot.

On to Detroit -- I kept thinking of the Bobby Bare country song from the 1960s about a man who went north to work in the auto plants:

Home folks think I'm big in Detroit City
From the letters that I write they think I'm fine
But by day I make the cars and by night I make the bars
If only they could read between the lines.

As we drove past Dayton, then Toledo, Anne kept making phone calls, trying to find people in low-wage auto parts production jobs. The company managers were wary, and the hourly wages turned out to be higher than we thought. We found ourselves pulling into WDET's parking lot not knowing whether we'd find a compelling story at this end of I-75. The station's assistant news director, Jerome Vaughn, said: "Go downtown after quitting time. You'll see hundreds of workers transferring from the suburban buses to the city lines going out to their neighborhoods. Mass transit's an uncoordinated mess here -- it's a big issue."

That night we went to a meeting of transit riders, organized to push for better city and suburban bus service. And we left with a phone number for Marzs Mata, a commuter (who couldn't make the evening meeting because her bus ride home takes too long.) Mata is one of thousands who travel each day from Detroit's old neighborhoods downtown out to the suburbs, where the new jobs are. Mostly the work is entry-level and low-wage. Anne called Mata at 10 that night to ask if we could ride along the following evening.

Marzs Mata's three-bus commute home was nearly three hours long. We have all of it on tape; only a couple of minutes were used in our report. It was a strange and sad evening, but uplifting as well. She is 50 years old, has never had a driver's license or owned a car. Not all that long ago, she was hitchhiking around California with a guitar, a knapsack, a few dollars and some oranges. Now, after being on welfare, she's been through computer training and has a promising future -- if she can just hold on.

I find myself seeing faces when I think of this reporting trip. I now want to look more directly into the eyes of the convenience store clerk or the housekeeper at the motel. I want to talk with the waitress, and smile at the toll collector. And I'm planning new trips -- there's many more stories out there.

In Depth

click for more Browse stories by Noah Adams

click for more March 6, 2002: NPR's Emily Harris reports on the Bush administration's plans to change rules that critics say will allow states to pay workers lower hourly rates for "community service" work.

click for more May 23, 2001: Robin Urevich reports on a vote by Santa Monica's city council early this morning to require companies doing business with the Southern California city to pay their workers a "living wage" -- that is, a minimum salary well above the federal minimum wage.

Other Resources

Bureau of Labor Statistics