RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We've been throwing the word moxie around a lot these days. It means courage or nerve, somewhat akin to the Yiddish word chutzpah. It's likely you know any number of people who've got moxie. We're certainly going to need it as the economy continues to take us for a very scary ride.
As part of the series American Moxie: How We Get By, NPR's senior correspondent Ketzel Levine has introduced us to a range of people and their struggles: a farmer, a truck driver, a grandmother with two jobs. The final installment leads us to the owner of a landscaping company in Chicago and also one of her employees.
LEVINE: You'd think some of us would get by on our accomplishments.
Ms. CHRISTY WEBBER (President, Christy Webber Landscaper, Chicago): We are in downtown Chicago, right by City Hall.
LEVINE: For instance, landscaper Christy Webber whose very visible accomplishments line the city's streets.
Ms. WEBB: All these trees you see here on Michigan Ave.
LEVINE: Planted by Christy Webber Landscaping. It's a lot of trees.
Ms. WEBBER: Oh yeah, it was a hell of a job. It was a really, really - it was painful.
LEVINE: Unfortunately, it got worse. The street trees were the beginning of a multi-year project that nearly ruined Christy Webber, a period of time she now calls the Millennium Park years.
Ms. WEBBER: Just make sure we're in the right gear.
(Soundbite of motor)
LEVINE: We have absconded with a bright red Christy Webber Landscaping cart to cruise the scene of the crime, the world's largest rooftop garden, Chicago's Millennium Park, a spectacular and stirring piece of landscape architecture, a magnet of urban energy, an ennobling people's park.
Ms. WEBBER: You know, it took me almost three years to even be able to come down to this park, because I lost so much money trying to put this park together.
LEVINE: Taking on such an enormous installation back in 2001 was a stretch for Christy Webber. Call it part moxie, part denial. In the end, she lost half million dollars and spent a chunk of time rebounding, an experience you'd think had all the makings of a cautionary tale.
Ms. WEBBER: I remember washing the sidewalks off and walking out of the park as the mayor was coming in behind us, and this was the grand opening. As a matter of fact, one of the mayor's guys came up to me and said, we did it, Christy, we did it. And he put his arm around me. And I started to bawl, and I must have cried for like 20 minutes, you know. I had to, like, be moved away. I aged 10 years. I feel like I did.
LEVINE: So were you thinking of giving up the business at that point? Were you so burned-out?
Ms. WEBBER: Oh no, no. Never. Are you kidding? No, I just got right back at it and thought, (bleep) why am I not cutting the grass over here? So now we maintain it.
LEVINE: Caution does not favor Christy Webber, but grounds maintenance and residential work may keep her business afloat which bodes well for her 250 employees, particularly one man no one else would hire.
(Soundbite of Harry Jenkins at gym)
Mr. HARRY JENKINS (Employee, Christy Webber Landscaping, Chicago): My name is Harry Jenkins, and I'm from the West Side of Chicago.
LEVINE: You were a boxer?
Mr. JENKINS: Yeah, young, but I never fought professional.
LEVINE: Were you good?
Mr. JENKINS: I think so.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JENKINS: I think so.
LEVINE: Harry Jenkins is a tall, thin man with a gold hoop in his ear and aged eyes that could break your heart. He is 50 years old.
Mr. JENKINS: I made one mistake in my life, one mistake. I think I can tell you, but I really don't like talking about this.
LEVINE: Harry Jenkins was convicted of attempted murder when he was a teenager. His weapon? His fists. He spent 28 years in jail and had a predictably hard time finding a job. These days after work he coaches boxing for kids who are stuck on stupid, he says, like he was. Teenagers struggling with the same rage.
Mr. JENKINS: I tell them that either two things going to happen if you decide to live that life: you're going to get killed, or you're going to go to the penitentiary. Stay in the gym.
LEVINE: When not in the gym himself, Harry Jenkins works for Christy Webber Landscaping. And though he is not the first ex-offender hired on there, he could be the most disciplined at making due with less. That gives him an edge in this recession, knowing just what it takes to get by.
Mr. JENKINS: Pinching all the little money that I do have, that's how I been making it, pinching all. Giving up a lot of things, a lot of things that I want to get, you know what I mean. I have to - I can't, I can't afford it.
LEVINE: But if he could, the first thing he'd buy is new clothes.
Mr. JENKINS: I haven't shopped and bought me no clothes in more than a year. I can't go to the restaurant like I used to. I like to go to Red Lobster, know what I mean? And Red Lobster you got the finest food.
LEVINE: You know, when you wake up in the morning and you're confronted with a lot of the stress in your life, what do you tell yourself to keep going?
Mr. JENKINS: It ain't the end of the world. Although you don't like the situation that you're in, think about a lot of other people, sleeping on the streets, begging people for money. And you say to yourself, I'm grateful that I'm not in that situation. I don't know what I would do.
LEVINE: Harry Jenkins turns to God for moxie and for other things beyond his control. These days he prays fervently that his employer stays flush with work. Christy Webber, his boss, is working her connections, too, determined to hold on to her business and every one of her staff. Ketzel Levine, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: That was the final piece in our Morning Edition series American Moxie. The concept was to have each person that Ketzel interviewed lead her to the next person. No one, least of all Ketzel, expected her to be the last link in her own series.
KETZEL LEVINE: My name is Ketzel Levine. I'm a senior correspondent for National Public Radio and, as a direct result of this economic crisis, I have been laid off from my job.
I was told almost two weeks ago, but it's only today I'm sane enough to tell you. I've been spending most of my time careening around the five stages of grief, doing each of them a disservice I might add. But I figure there's time enough to revisit each one at least a few more times.
Meanwhile, here's what I know about moxie - it really is a magical elixir, as advertised in the 1870s, when it was brewed from botanicals like the gentian root, a sublime plant with an otherworldly blue bloom. The thing about gentians, like all flowers really, is that they're easy to miss if you're not paying attention.
You could be standing in acres of pulsing blue and see absolutely nothing if you're lost in your own grief, or panic, or rage. So I say, at least in my finer moments, the hell with that. I love blue, and I can't live without the magic. So bartender, make it a moxie straight up. On second thought, make it a double.
MONTAGNE: And make that a toast to our own doyenne of dirt, keeper of the plants. Ketzel, you've unearthed secret gardens and lush landscapes, and over the years you've brought magic to our ear. We will miss you so much. Listeners can still hear those stories, the American Moxie series is at npr.org, and everyone can still follow Ketzel Levine at her blog, ketzel.com. That's k-e-t-z-e-l.com. and you'll find a link at our Web site.