RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
With the presidential election now one year away, we're sending reporters on the road for the month of November, to talk to Americans about the tough economy and how they view the future.
NPR's Richard Gonzales starts our "Hard Times" series in California, where the combination of lost jobs and foreclosures has taken a painful toll.
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RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: My first stop along Interstate 80 is in Solano County. There's a lot to like about this 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 runs at 11 percent. That's higher than the national average.
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GONZALES: So it's no surprise that, at a recent local town hall meeting, the number one 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 59-year-old Robert Frazier, a truck driver who told the crowd that he had developed a new product he thought would sell.
ROBERT FRAZIER: Imagine a sleeping bag. Now, imagine that sleeping bag attaching to the top mattress like a fitted sheet. Walmart loved it. So when they say we like it, we'll put it in our store, I went off to try to get manufacturing. 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.
GONZALES: A few days after that town hall meeting, I tracked down Robert Frazier, who invited me into his home, where he showed me his prototype.
So do you have a name for this?
FRAZIER: Yeah, I call it the Pouch - you know, to be snug, like in a kangaroo pouch, you know, because a lot of my friends, as I say, are long-haul truck drivers and have to use what covering they have. They all want it; every trucker in America would buy this. And then when I thought about moms with children, then - I was the kind of kid that never made my bed - wow, that would really make it easy on, you know, on the moms and the kids.
GONZALES: 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.
FRAZIER: I never had a good feeling about taking jobs off-shore, you know, and I would like to be there to watch everything grow, and participate. And maybe that's the future, you know, small-business people stepping up to put people to work - maybe like it was when I grew up.
GONZALES: 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 small ranch in a rural part of the county.
CRAIG BLACK: It's five acres - have a creek that runs most of the year, that runs through the very back of the property. Sometimes there'll be deer back there, or you get the turkeys that come through. And it was kind of our dream home, which is something we've always wanted.
GONZALES: His dream home isn't more than 800 square feet. But hanging on to it is becoming a nightmare. Black is a 39-year-old sheet-metal worker who looks younger than his age. But thanks to his job, he has a bad back. 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 a half-foot high, on his table.
BLACK: I have 15 packets here that they've sent me, requesting the same information: We need one more document Mr. Black - every month, because they don't have it; they've lost this. And then I have letter after letter: If the amount due is not received by a specified due date, foreclosure proceedings may begin or continue.
And this is every month, and it just prolongs the process.
GONZALES: 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.
Imagine if you had President Obama and Senator Reid and congressman Boehner right here at this table. What would you tell them?
BLACK: They probably wouldn't like me very much.
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BLACK: You know, I'd probably have a lot of questions and, you know, the first one: Why? You know, why do we hear the same promises, why? Why don't you do what you say you're going to do? And I understand government, there's - we're Americans. Let's be Americans. Let's fight for this country the way it used to be.
Richard Gonzales, NPR News.
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