RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
This week we've started a new series on Morning Edition, "American Moxie." NPR senior correspondent Ketzel Levine is profiling people who are making do in these precarious times.
MONTAGNE: friend to friend, small-business owner to client, employer to employee. Yesterday, we met a farmer, Dave Burt, who's giving up his cattle - but never his caffeine.
U: Can I help you?
MONTAGNE: Dr. Pepper.
KETZEL LEVINE: He usually buys it at the same place, Huck's, in downtown Flora, Illinois. And he knows everyone who works there.
MONTAGNE: You greasing the truck tomorrow?
MONTAGNE: Yep. Going to do it in the morning. It's fun!
MONTAGNE: So the next day, Ketzel caught up with Dave Burt's friend, Sandy Higgs, when she was working on that truck, as we just heard, at her other job.
LEVINE: I thought I was going to need parental consent to interview Sandy Higgs. She looks that young, with her braided pigtail and her warm smile. Turns out she's a 42-year-old grandmother working two jobs. This morning, she's kneeling in the shadow of an 18-wheeler, checking the pressure on its tires.
MONTAGNE: And this takes a while. This is a time-consuming job. But a couple of weeks ago, one was real low, and we found a nail in the tire, you know. And the drivers don't realize that when they're driving them.
LEVINE: She's pretty comfortable among these behemoth trucks. Her father owned a garage once, taught his kids to do for themselves. Among the things she's done is raise two daughters alone, hardly unusual here in small-town Flora, where women often marry by 17 and end up single moms.
MONTAGNE: But I never had help with child support, and a lot of these other women do, so...
LEVINE: How come you never had help?
MONTAGNE: They just never paid. I wasn't one to, you know, fight with them just for their money. It's not me. I'll take care of my kids myself.
LEVINE: Her girls, along with the older one's boyfriend and their two kids, live about an hour away in Effingham. And that's where this pigtailed grandma longs to be.
MONTAGNE: Oh yeah. I'm staying at my dad's right now so I can save the money to move to Effingham to get an apartment, because it costs.
LEVINE: So you're splitting the rent with your dad?
MONTAGNE: No, he's letting me stay there for free right now. I'm thankful.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MONTAGNE: But it's hard when you've got to live with your dad.
MONTAGNE: Good morning, Sandy.
MONTAGNE: Hi, how are you today?
MONTAGNE: Well, I'm here.
LEVINE: One of the drivers has stopped by to check his rig. His name's Steve Walsh. He's been with this trucking outfit for two years. Sandy Higgs started this past summer. Turns out neither get their health-care benefits from this job.
MONTAGNE: I've been trying to find another job through a factory here, something, you know, that has insurance. And they're not hiring, either. They're all moving out.
LEVINE: Which brings us to a looming catastrophe. Her 18-year-old daughter has bipolar disorder. For years, mother and daughter have been covered by a children's insurance program here in Illinois. Come December 31, their benefits end. Sandy Higgs wonders how they're going to pay for medication and counseling. It's a subject loaded with aching regret.
MONTAGNE: Just wishing I could have done more for my girls.
LEVINE: For instance?
MONTAGNE: I don't know. Just made it where they had more. They didn't have to struggle, you know.
LEVINE: So imagine. You're 42, very proud, working two low-wage jobs. You have no money to share with your kids, and you are living with your dad. Not easy. But for Sandy Higgs, each day is another saved dollar towards a life of giving and belonging, another chance to put things right. That's moxie.
MONTAGNE: That one's going to need some.
LEVINE: Steve Walsh the trucker has just remembered a problem.
MONTAGNE: Somewhere between this week and last week, we lost the oil-filler cap on the top of the motor.
LEVINE: His mechanic will take care of it. She always does.
MONTAGNE: You just got to jump right back in there and keep going. That's all you can do. I mean, you can't give up.
LEVINE: Some people give up.
MONTAGNE: Nah, I'm not going to give up. I'm not a quitter. I'm one willing to go do what it takes to get by.
LEVINE: Sandy Higgs needs to get back to work.
LEVINE: But Steve Walsh and I are just getting started. Now, this is a guy raised, as it happens, by a single mom, who has no regret. He simply does not expect to have everything he wants.
MONTAGNE: I was never deprived, and I don't want anybody to think that I had a bad childhood. But I could see that sacrifices were made for other things to happen. And I guess it struck me.
LEVINE: His pragmatism struck me, as did the idea of following him on his truck run to Chicago for this "American Moxie" series. But first to meet his wife, Judy, and a few of the other things he loves.
MONTAGNE: If you could see the front porch where my trains are stored, model railroads.
LEVINE: Can I see?
LEVINE: No, you don't want me to see?
MONTAGNE: No. It is just a mess out there. No.
LEVINE: I didn't dare, though I did get a good look at Daisy the dog.
MONTAGNE: She's our baby.
LEVINE: So she doesn't go without.
MONTAGNE: The dog eats first.
LEVINE: Food on the table's not a problem for the Walshes, but they do go without. Small things like shopping for their hobbies - hers is quilting, his, miniature trains. And they go without big things. The couple, who just celebrated their 34th anniversary, can no longer afford monthly road trips to see their children and grandchildren. Those visits have been cut back drastically over the last two years.
MONTAGNE: Just a small price to pay for, you know, just to make sure we have enough to make everything else go around.
LEVINE: Just about everything else goes to the health insurance that Steve Walsh, like Sandy Higgs, no longer gets through work. And having that insurance is just as vital to the Walshes. Judy Walsh lives in pain. She's been on disability for 18 years. Steve Walsh was diagnosed with cancer early in their marriage, when their kids were still toddlers and their resources nil.
MONTAGNE: With a lot of help, we kept from losing everything.
MONTAGNE: Yeah. It's hard to talk about. Didn't really know what was going to happen down the road.
MONTAGNE: I know one day, our old car at the time broke down, and that snapped in me. I just - I went to pieces that day, you know. It was just more than - that's all it took. That was the low point.
LEVINE: In fact, there's been a number of low points, all certainly part of who Steve Walsh is today - a bit like those inflatable punching dolls which lose balance briefly, then bounce back and back. Two years ago, Steve Walsh lost a very steady job with medical benefits and a pension plan.
MONTAGNE: And it was a shock at 52 to be fired for the first time.
LEVINE: I'll bet. And you were home when the call came?
MONTAGNE: She cried. And I frowned and thought, now what?
LEVINE: Yet in a scary economy like ours, this small, solid tank of a man isn't worried. He figures he can only sink so far.
MONTAGNE: I know how to fish. I know how to dress a cow. I may have to steal it to get it, but I will not go hungry. And if it gets bad enough to get down to us, we won't be the only one in the soup line.
LEVINE: Though he will be among the lucky ones whose bowl, however empty, is always half full. Ketzel Levine, NPR News.
: And Ketzel did follow Steve Walsh to Chicago. Later this month, we'll tell you where he leads us on the next installment of "American Moxie."
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