SHARON COHENIt's a rainy spring morning and Tamara Ogier plants herself at a table in a Spartan room in the Atlanta federal courthouse, computer and tape recorder at hand, ready to hear another day's stories of financial ruin. Couples facing foreclosure. Down-and-out real estate agents. Merchants who've shut their doors. Some clutch folders, some couples hold on to each other as they sit on pew-like benches, waiting to tell the court-appointed bankruptcy trustee how they ended up deep in debt. "I understand the assumption that we're the guys in the black hats," Ogier says, but "there are a lot of times when I'm actually able to do a lot of good." It's a sunny morning 745 miles away, as Jerry Miller tools along Iowa's back roads, grumbling about folks who can't manage their money. He has just one credit card. He has no debts, but at almost 75, he feels he needs to keep working just to keep pace. He wonders, too, if he'll have to sacrifice for other people's mistakes. "I can't believe because they got themselves in this situation, it's falling on us to pay it back," he says, heading to the first pharmacy where he'll make deliveries on this day. "Lord, you're going to set a college kid loose with a credit card? Buy a house that costs ten times your salary?"
He punctuates his disapproval with his favorite expression: Pffffft. It's morning in America ¿ but it's not a good morning. The nation is suffering in a deep recession, there's no denying that: Unemployment is at its highest level in more than 25 years. The auto industry is on the skids. Foreclosure and for-sale signs are as common in some communities as street lights. And more bleak days seem to be ahead. Many private economists expect the monthly jobless rate will climb to 10 percent by the end of the year ¿ it already has surpassed that level in states such as Michigan, South Carolina and Rhode Island. The bankruptcy rate is rising, too. Nearly 1.2 million debtors filed for bankruptcy in a year period ending in April, according to federal court records collected and analyzed by The Associated Press. In March, nearly 131,000 sought bankruptcy protection ¿ an increase of 46 percent over a year earlier. Those are the numbers. Then there are the people.
This is the story of one day, and how Americans spent those hours in the shadow of economic distress, from worried debtors in a Georgia courthouse to a prospective home buyer in Michigan, from a worker in the Rhode Island food pantry to an Arizona contractor struggling to find jobs. On this April day, no one person typifies hard times: In California, it's a homeless Army Reservist who joined up when he couldn't find work and sleeps in his 17-year-old car. In Florida, it's a Jaguar-driving pawn shop customer who sells DVDs for gas money. In South Carolina, it's an unemployed factory worker who finds comfort in prayer. And in Greenwich, Conn., home to hedge fund billionaires, it's David Rabin, who lost his $100,000 job last October as a senior vice president for a small financial services firm. He spends part of his morning in his basement, job hunting. In better times, Rabin would be preparing for his annual spring golfing trip with three buddies at his condo in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Instead, the 48-year-old Rabin, wearing jeans, a blue hockey sweat shirt and white sneakers, is poring over Monster.com and other online job boards. He sends out 10 resumes a day, but has had few nibbles in six months.
A day earlier, he learned he didn't get a job recruiting members for a gym. That hurt. "I didn't sleep a freakin' wink," he says. "If I don't fit that job, what the hell am I going to do?" Rabin's wife, Lauren, has a marketing job. And he receives $476 weekly unemployment ¿ about a quarter of his former salary ¿ that runs out in July. Both checks keep them afloat. Rabin copes by keeping busy. He and Lauren compile a daily list of chores. Each time he completes one, he checks off a box. Today's list: Drive his 19-year-old son to school. Search online for cheaper auto and home insurance. (No luck there.) Look for work; his target area has expanded to Buffalo, N.Y., Ohio and Florida ¿ any city where he has friends or relatives. Walk the dog. Buy flip flops for his Florida-bound wife. Work out at the YMCA. Paint the basement. "You have no idea how humbling all this is," he says. "It's extremely humbling. I'm ready to go to Stop & Shop and start bagging groceries."
"I've been in this situation before and I wasn't nearly as frightened," he says. "This is the Great Recession we're in." ___ But watching Jim Juristy work, you wouldn't know that we're in hard times. A nursing supervisor in Morgantown, W.Va., Juristy will spend his 12-hour shift at Ruby Memorial Hospital trying to fill jobs, calling, cajoling and charming nurses to come to work. Not only is Juristy in a relatively secure profession, but he lives in a thriving area (the county's jobless rate is a relatively low 4 percent), home of West Virginia University and some recession-proof employers. A former coal miner, the 54-year-old Juristy made the unlikely transition in the mid 1990s after his mine closed. With baby boomers aging, he thought health care would be a growth industry. So he went to nursing school. "I figured I could adapt or become a dinosaur. And dinosaurs became extinct, so I thought I'd darn well better adapt," he says.
On this April morning when WVU Hospitals ¿ which include Ruby Memorial ¿ had 200 job openings, TV news is announcing higher-than-expected March unemployment rates. Juristy doesn't hear a word. He's telling a supervisor: "We need seven nurses at 11, and we have three. It's a good day!" He calls charge nurses and approves overtime. He tells his wife, Stephanie, a part-time clerical worker at the hospital, to start calling contractors, a pool of nurses from Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia who earn $42 an hour (but no benefits) by working extra shifts. When she starts dialing around 10:30 a.m., there are 11 jobs to fill. ___ At the opposite end of the country, in Scottsdale, Ariz., 36-year-old Mark Zimmerman is struggling, too. The contractor's printer spits out an estimate for a project he never would have taken two years ago: replacing concrete blocks supporting a carport. The numbers aren't pretty: Three days of labor. About $35 an hour for his workers. Another $250 in material. Zimmerman does some fast math on a handheld calculator. He gets 10 percent, so he'll make a meager $109.
"That doesn't cover me for anything ¿ not my time sitting and putting the bid together, not my time driving out to go look at it," he says. "I'm actually losing money." But Zimmerman wants to make sure his two full-time workers don't leave to find other jobs before the construction industry picks up. He hands the estimate to his assistant. "$1,594?" she asks, eyebrows raised. "That's it?" The downturn in construction has rippled across the Sun Belt, from Arizona to Florida, where the pawn shop is often the stop of last resort. At Best Value Jewelry and Pawn in the working-class town of Fort Pierce, manager Scott Herman first noticed trouble signs about 18 months ago. As construction dried up, so many workers wanted to pawn or sell tools that Herman had to stop accepting them. In St. Lucie County, the jobless rate in construction hovers around 40 percent; foreclosures (about 10,000 in 2008) more than doubled from a year earlier. Standing behind glass cabinets in a store filled with diamond rings, pearl bracelets, stereos, televisions, even centuries-old silver Spanish coins, Sherman says he hears a similar refrain.
"I need to make sure my electric bill stays on ... I can't make my mortgage payment." At 10:55 a.m., Tim Salyer, a 42-year-old unemployed construction worker, proffers an acoustic guitar in a beat-up case. He lives with his mom, who just lost her job as a nurse. "Trying to hang in there," he says, sunglasses covering his left eye, blinded in a car crash at 16. "There is no work out there." Salyer pawns his guitar for $50. He'll need $62 to retrieve it. "I can't believe I gotta part with it. I played it all night last night, so hopefully I got it out of my system. Hopefully, I'll be able to get it back," he says with a heavy sigh. "But I'm riding on reserve in my car. Gotta put a little gas in there." Outside, Salyer clutches the cash, glancing at his 2004 purple Chrysler. He and his mother can no longer make the $300 monthly payment. Soon he'll head to the dealership to give it up.
"So long PT Cruiser," he says, wiping his brow in the sun. ___ By late morning, Tamara Ogier, the Atlanta federal bankruptcy trustee, has wrapped up about 30 interviews. She is a gentle-but-firm interrogator, sifting through the financial records of the debtors, looking for anything of value ¿ a home, a car, a diamond ring ¿ that can be sold to satisfy creditors. It takes just five minutes to hear how a life has unraveled. A 40-year-old former accounting consultant, looking forlorn and wearing a button-down shirt and dark pants, tells Ogier in a near whisper that his clothes are all he owns. His business fell off last summer. "I'm just hoping things will turn around," he says later, adding that he plans to return to school to take more accounting courses. A Vietnamese couple who owned a hair and tanning salon explain, through a translator, they have a staggering $600,000 credit card debt. The husband was getting free credit cards in the mail, and using one to pay off the other.
Over and over, Ogier calmly asks the same questions: Will they receive any life insurance or inheritance within the next six months? Have they bought a vehicle in the last six months? These kinds of crushing debts are unimaginable to Jerry Miller, the frugal Iowan. He has never bought a new car and still lives in the house he got for $8,500 in 1960, the house where he and his wife of 54 years, Barbara, raised six kids. This is a man who once logged every purchase he made in a year ¿ down to a .29 cent pint of ice cream. As the silver-haired grandfather heads toward another pharmacy on his five-stop, 160-mile route, Miller talks about fiscal responsibility. It's not just about money, he says. It's reputation, too. "If you've got a good name, they can't take that away from you," he says, jabbing a finger in the air to make a point. It would have been nice, he adds, if he had a choice about retirement. But Miller says he needs the cash from this 15-hour a week job to pay for health care for himself and his wife.
Just after 12:30 p.m., Miller arrives home in Conrad, Iowa and the veteran of many recessions has some parting words: "This, right now, is something different," he says. "You've got to have faith in the system. But can you tell me, where did all the money go?" ___ It's just past 1 p.m. in Morgantown, W.Va., and Jim Juristy still needs 10 nurses to cover all shifts. No sweat. "If you had 10 people call off in a coal mine, that's a whole unit," he says. We have the resources and the people we can call who are willing to come in. It's an opportunity to make more money. That's why people work." The search goes on. ___ In San Francisco, Khaaliq Parker, 32, is mounting his own search. The unemployed auto mechanic is holed up in a cubicle at Career Link employment center in the Mission District, checking e-mail for responses to resumes he has sent out.
"The job market is really tough," he says. "It's crazy. I don't give up." Parker was laid off a year ago and has been homeless since December. Until then, he had lived in Oakland with his wife and 4-year-old son and her parents, but he says they kicked him out when he wasn't making progress looking for work. So he sleeps in his 1992 red Mustang. Today is a good day, all things considered. Parker receives his first $422-monthly workfare assistance check; he washed city buses in the morning to help earn that. He also squeezes by with food stamps and $60 a month from the Army Reserve. Parker, clad in a gray ARMY T-shirt, joined several months ago to bolster his resume and get job training. He may be headed to Afghanistan within a year. He's resigned to it. Parker is far from alone. In March, the nation's jobless rate rose to 8.5 percent ¿ more than 13 million Americans. The recession, experts say, has eliminated more jobs as a proportion of the work force than any downturn since 1958.
The crash in the housing market is partly to blame. Take Joe (no last name, please.) He says he was a well-known real estate agent before the housing bubble burst. Now he's jobless, driving a 2005 Jaguar, carrying some DVDs and a red suitcase-like tool kit into the Fort Pierce, Fla., pawn shop. "It's sad, it's real sad," he says over his shoulder. "And it's embarrassing." Moments later he returns, hopping into his Jaguar, looking defeated. "Got some gas money now," he says, "so I guess I'm doing OK." Paul Maples quit his job as a medical technician in January and can't find a replacement. Doing odd jobs around his girlfriend's downtown clothing store is not enough. He enters the pawn shop, hauling a big box of stereo speakers in one arm and a chain saw in the other. "Fridge is empty," he announces, "but we're getting by."
The news isn't good. The pawn shop dealer has no need for the chain saw. And $15 is his final offer for the speakers. "No, those are $200 speakers!" Maples protests. "Sorry, that's the best I can do," the dealer says. Maples shakes his head in disgust, plunks the speakers in a red wheelbarrow and wheels them down the street. "Times are tough," he says, "but they ain't that tough." ___ Rhode Island has weathered some of the toughest times in this recession. In March, the state's unemployment was 10.5 percent. At the Woodlawn Baptist Church, in a poor section of Pawtucket, the number of families visiting the weekly food kitchen has doubled since the winter. By 3:15 p.m., workers have stacked tables with boxes of red tomatoes and yellow apples, containers of onions, kaiser rolls and whole-grain bread, lemon meringue pie and crumb cake.
Carolyn Profughi, the church clerk who runs the pantry, spends a lot of time listening to other people's troubles. "You want to try to help them as much as you possibly can," she says. "Some of them bring their children with them ¿ your heart just goes out to these kiddos." This day, Christine Fuss, 46, sips a paper bowl of Italian wedding soup in the church basement and talks of how she lost her job as a hairdressing instructor last year because of complications from multiple sclerosis. She shares a leaky, bare-bones apartment with her cats and goldfish. "No food, no money, no help," she explains. She pauses, holding a spoonful of soup near her mouth. "Spent out," she continues, adding that she has recently begun feeling desperate. "There's a lot of God in me," she adds, "because otherwise I wouldn't keep getting up." Lynette Davis leans on her faith, too. Tonight, the widow joins a friend for a weekly Bible study group at a red-brick church a dozen miles from her South Carolina home, where about two dozen parishioners sit on folding chairs. They begin with a hymn and prayer, then turn to the book of Matthew.
Over three decades, Davis has worked at a now-shuttered Russell Stover candy plant, a textile mill that closed when the jobs moved overseas and an auto parts factory that trimmed its work force ¿ leaving her unemployed since last June. Finding work in Marion County, where unemployment exceeds 20 percent, seems near impossible. Davis recently enrolled in a technical college, hoping to become a pastry chef. She's not one to despair. "I have running water," she says. "I have lights. I have my kids and I have my family. I feel good about life. There is always someone out there worse off than I am. ... I was brought up to know the Lord will make a way and that's what he has been doing." One day, she says, her light and water bills were due "and I didn't have a dime. I went to the mailbox and there was a check. All I could say was 'Thank you, Jesus.' I know it wasn't nobody but him." ___ As night approaches, Jim Juristy has four open beds and figures the 11 p.m. shift will get by OK if he can just get two more nurses for the West Virginia hospital.
"Actually, this has not been that bad a day," he says. Enough people call in. At 6:35 p.m., he has reached his goal. ___ Ten minutes later, Ballroom B at the DeVos Place convention center in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., is humming with anticipation. About 450 people are waiting to bid on nearly 75 foreclosed homes being auctioned off this night. For the right price, one family's misfortune can become another's American dream. Auctioneer Mike Carr tries to break the tension with a mock auction, supposedly for a Las Vegas home. When the bidding stops at $1 million, a photo is flashed on a large TV screen ¿ an old flatbed truck carrying a rundown shack. How could someone fork over $1 million for a house, Carr asks, without seeing it first? Laughter ripples through the crowded ballroom. Tonight's first property for sale is a mobile home on 3.62 acres. Its previous value: $199,900. The starting bid: a lowly $1,000. Within two minutes, the home is sold for just $15,000.
Next up is one of four houses that Marilyn Heidenfelder wants to bid on ¿ three bedrooms, 2,280-square-feet, valued at $204,000. She's hoping to buy a place for her 41-year-old daughter, a school bus driver and mother of three, who recently lost her house when her mortgage increased $350 a month. Heidenfelder hasn't told her daughter, so she wouldn't get her hopes up. The 61-year-old retiree is bargain hunting tonight. She doesn't want to spend any more than $20,000. But the bidding quickly exceeds her limit. The first home she wanted goes for $105,000. The auction continues at a breakneck pace, with tuxedo-clad men in the audience prowling the aisles, shouting the latest bids to the auctioneer as houses are flashed on five TV screens. Carr doesn't stop for an instant. Heidenfelder is no more successful when the three other houses she had scouted out are sold. The cheapest one goes for $45,000 ¿ more than twice what she was willing to pay. And it didn't even have a furnace. Shortly after 7 p.m., she leaves with her $2,500 cashier's check ¿ and without a home. There were $10,000 houses, she notes, but "they were trash."
Heidenfelder is disappointed. "There were too many people," she says. "It was too competitive." Lynette Davis is heading home, too. Her Bible study is over, the hymns sung, the prayers spoken. "This takes a lot of things off my mind," she says. As she makes her way outside, the birds are singing, the leaden sky brightens and finally a glimmer of sun breaks through the clouds. ___ EDITOR'S NOTE: Contributing to this story were John Christoffersen in New Haven, Conn.; Nigel Duara, in Iowa City, Iowa; Amanda Lee Myers in Phoenix; Evelyn Nieves in San Francisco; James Prichard in Grand Rapids, Mich.; Brian Skoloff in Palm Beach, Fla.; Bruce Smith in Charleston, S.C.; Vicki Smith in Morgantown, W.Va.; Eric Tucker in Providence, R.I.; and Dionne Walker in Atlanta.