Road Trip Underscores Americans' Shared Humanity David Greene has spent the last 100 days crisscrossing the country. From marinas in southern Kentucky and a snowy parking lot in Paradise, Mich., to a new ballpark in Reno, Nev., he's been chronicling the effect the recession has had on the unemployed, retirees, business owners, and people in their 20s and 30s.
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Road Trip Underscores Americans' Shared Humanity

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Road Trip Underscores Americans' Shared Humanity

Road Trip Underscores Americans' Shared Humanity

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Some of you have probably taken one of those big cross-country road trips. Well, that's what I've been doing for the last three months. I hit the road for President Obama's first hundred days in office to hear from Americans - what they're going through in this recession, how they feel about their new president. I've got to say one of the most memorable moments was at this little diner in Terre Haute, Indiana.

President Obama had a news conference the night before. The next morning I went to the diner, had my microphone out, was doing some interviews, and this little woman came over and pulled up a chair.

You came to sit next to me. You must want to tell me something.

Ms. CAROLYN TOOPS(ph): Yes. I wanted to just make a brief statement. I don't want to engage in a dialogue. Okay.

GREENE: I won't say anything.

Ms. TOOPS: All right then. You can ask me who I am.

GREENE: Well, you told me I can't be in a dialogue with you. I'm just kidding. Yes, introduce yourself if you can.

Ms. TOOPS: I'm Carolyn Toops. I have been a resident of Terre Haute for a good many years. No, I did not watch the speech last night. However, I would just like to say that I think it's unfair to expect the new president to handle this, and he has been in office less than three months. I wish him well. Thank you.

GREENE: She seemed to be speaking for a lot of the people I met. Sure, we called my trip NPR's 100 Days Project, but this marker, 100 days, struck a lot of people as artificial - way too early to get a sense of the new president and what he could do about the economy.

That includes people who are struggling themselves, like Chris Phillips. I met him in Silver City, New Mexico, one of my last stops. He was laid off from a copper mine.

Mr. CHRIS PHILLIPS: You know, Obama stepping in to this, he didn't create this, and the pressure is on, for sure, for him to try to sell this. And we've got to give him a chance.

GREENE: The president does, though, have his doubters, and one of the concerns I heard was that Mr. Obama arrived in Washington and got himself stuck in the same old political battles. Cindy Keeler's(ph) a student at Western New Mexico University, and she told me she hasn't seen as much change as she expected from the new president.

Ms. CINDY KEELER (Student): Was it all lying(ph)? You got us. You know, I almost feel like you really got us good. You know, he was really persuasive and he had some very powerful things to say, you know, that now it's like, well, can he really live up to all that?

GREENE: I met people from all walks of life in cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago, or in places that are a speck on the map, like Paradise, Michigan. I did interviews in some weird spots, like on a ranch in Colorado where a horse turned out to be one messy interruption.

(Soundbite of horse sneeze)

GREENE: Whoa. There we go. Nice sneeze.

Unidentified Woman: Dash.

GREENE: In central Florida I was chatting about the economy while also learning how to make a local delicacy.

(Soundbite of banging)

Mr. SAM TERRELL: Mix a little bit of salt pork with it, onions, some Everglade season, you got swamp cabbage.

GREENE: In Atlanta, I met Sam Terrell. He works in a restaurant and makes music. He played me one of his CDs and showed me that views on the economy can have a backbeat.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) This is the best times of my life right now. This is the best years of my lifeďż˝

Mr. TERRELL: It's kind of a dark beat with the dark violins and he's sort of droning on in the chorus, like, these are the best years of my life. And we're kind of being ironic because, you know, like, at the same time this is the best time in our life, it's also, you know, the economy is bad.

GREENE: And let's be clear: the economy is still bad. A lot of people are losing jobs, they're still suffering. And it makes it hard to find a way to tie this project up or come to some grand conclusion right now. So this week I decided to just call some of the people I met along the way.

Back in February, I was in Columbia, Kentucky and I talked to a woman named Faye Womack. She worked at a houseboat factory but she was laid off. It turns out that during a recession like this people aren't rushing to buy new houseboats.

Ms. FAYE WOMACK: (Unintelligible) laid off. It's bad because, you know, there's a lot of good people works there. A lot. It's sad. It is really sad. You know, you hate to lose your job.

GREENE: She was feeling the pain, and so was her boss, Jim Hadley. He owns the factory, Majestic Yachts. And when the work contracts dried up, he had to lay off his entire workforce - Faye and 26 other people. During that February visit, Jim stood with me in his empty boat factory. He said he just wanted to keep the place afloat.

Mr. JIM HADLEY (Owner, Majestic Yachts): We are kind of like an old rock band. We've been together a long time and hopefully we'll be together a whole lot longer. We love what we do. Manufacturing of houseboats and river yacht's in our blood, it's always been in our blood.

GREENE: I remember how the silence of the factory really bugged him. He showed me what it used to be like.

Mr. HADLEY: Well, we're gonna fire it up here.

(Soundbite of machinery starting)

Mr. HADLEY: It uses a lot of juice to get to cranking. Now we're getting back to my sound.

GREENE: Nearly three months have passed since I visited Jim's factory, and this week Jim called me with some promising news.

Mr. HADLEY: David, since we last spoke, I know we heard the sound of machines coming on and off, just to hear them run. Nowadays, with some projects that we have going, those machine are turned on an off daily. There's a lot of things that are starting to come back our way that will allow us to bring our people back.

GREENE: The business that's coming back may not look the same. Jim is experimenting with a smaller kind of houseboat. He's thinking of manufacturing industrial barges and research vessels, anything that will sell right now. Because those huge recreational houseboats just aren't selling.

Mr. HADLEY: We look at it as an opportunity to do something different instead of an opportunity to not do anything. This is just going to make us a much more diversified company. And I think we have to think outside the box right now. That's the big thing.

GREENE: Hadley hopes if he can think outside the box and firm up some new work contracts, he might - might - be able to bring some of his employees back soon. Some have moved on and found other jobs by now, but others, like Faye Womack, have been stopping to see Jim every day to see when the work might be coming back.

Mr. HADLEY: I'll put her on the phone here and you guys can talk about old times.

GREENE: That'd be great. I'd love to talk about the old times.

Mr. HADLEY: Here we go. Thank you.

Ms. WOMACK: Hello?

GREENE: There's that familiar voice. So how've you been? How've you been getting by?

Ms. WOMACK: Been good. Things been good. Just waiting to go back to work.

GREENE: When's it going to happen?

Ms. WOMACK: Soon, I hope. Way they (unintelligible) maybe soon.

GREENE: Whenever it happens, Faye knows her job may be different than it used to be. She's always been a seamstress, but if Jim Hadley starts to work on, say, industrial barges, Faye won't be making seat cushions like she used to.

Ms. WOMACK: There's not a lot of fabric work and stuff on some of the things they're working on.

GREENE: So do you think that's one of - I've heard this a lot from people kind of thinking about, that after this recession, if, you know, once things look up, their work might be different. I mean are you ready for that?

Ms. WOMACK: Oh, yeah.

GREENE: What do you think that might be?

Ms. WOMACK: I don't know. I don't have a clue what he'll have me do. (Unintelligible) but I'll try anything once. You know that.

GREENE: That's Faye Womack, one of millions of Americans who've lost their jobs in this recession. She's also one of hundreds of people I was lucky enough to meet on this trip.

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