Road Trip Underscores Americans' Shared Humanity

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David Greene/NPR

Majestic Yachts makes houseboats, but ever since last August, the factory floor in Columbia, Ky., has been quiet and empty. With no one rushing out to buy a new boat in the recession, owner Jim Hadley had to lay off all 27 of his employees. Many of those workers have dropped by the factory every week — and some every day — to see if there have been any new work orders.

When I first visited the factory in February, things were not looking good. But this week Hadley called with some promising news: He may be able to re-hire.

"There's a lot of things that are starting to come back our way that will allow us to bring our people back," he said.

The business he's picking up may not be what it used to be. Hadley is looking to produce a smaller and more affordable houseboat, and for the first time, he's working on industrial barges and research vessels.

"We look at it as an opportunity to do something different instead of an opportunity to not do anything," he said. "This is going to make us a much more diversified company."

That means employees may be returning to a different kind of work. Faye Womack was a seamstress at Majestic Yachts before being laid off last August. She worked on the cushions and window treatments.

"There's not a lot of fabric work on some of the things they're working on," she said. "I don't have a clue what he'll have me doing. There's no telling. But I'll try anything once."

Hadley hasn't been able to bring Womack back to the factory yet, but she's hopeful that it will happen soon.

A Three-Month Road Trip

For the past three months I've road-tripped across America, talking to many people like Faye Womack — people who've lost their jobs, lost money, lost homes and lost family. I think about people like Chris Phillips in Silver City, N.M. He was laid off from the copper mines there and feared having to leave his town. But he hadn't give up hope. I think about Sam Terrell, a rapper in Atlanta, whose frustrations with the economy and job loss had a backbeat. And I think about entire towns like Moraine, Ohio, where residents are grappling with the closure of a GM plant, the town's main employer.

No two stories are identical. But if I take anything away from this trip, it's the shared humanity — the idea that people miles apart are bonded by the challenges they face in this recession. One common thread is the search so many people are doing for some sign of optimism.

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