Keith Flynn Writer
There are certain events that seem to be markers upon history and whatever their cyclical nature, it is the record of these events that remain foremost in the consciousness of future generations. In the modern sense I would suggest that photography is one of most powerful preservers of both the emotional and actual record of transformational events. I like to say photography keeps yesterday safe for tomorrow.
From Matthew Brady’s Civil War photographs at Andersonville, Shiloh and Gettysburg to Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange’s images of the Great Depression to the myriad photographers of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement, photography has played a central role in shaping legislative policy and public opinion.
As this modern recession began to unfold, with deeper and deeper consequences and unfolding devastation for American families, I felt that some record was demanded if we were not to forget the toll this crisis has taken on our national psyche and the individual lives of millions of Americans.
To backtrack a little, my son and his family were involved in a near fatal automobile accident in August 2011. A person died of a heart attack and drove into them head-on at 50 mph. Our son was medevac’d to the trauma center at Charlotte, North Carolina. My wife and I, in order to travel the next day, were charged almost $4000 by US Airways to be with our son.
The third night we were there we came back from supper to find Keith Flynn in Sebastian’s room. The hospital policy was that only family could visit the trauma center so Keith announced that he was Sebastian’s brother. Marie and I were touched that he had driven three hours from his home in Madison County to see our seriously injured boy. A month later Marie and I went back to our son’s home in Asheville, North Carolina to help with making their home wheelchair friendly. And again Keith Flynn showed up. And so began our journey of this book. We sat drinking whiskey and talking about what in god’s name was happening to this country and the stupidity and greed that had so transformed our world.
Keith Flynn is a writer and musician and a native of Madison County North Carolina. We decided that together we’d look at this part of Appalachia as emblematic of our national crisis. We agreed the subject of our inquiry was not the poverty that has been so much attributed to this region, but rather the impact of this Great Recession on the people of these communities in a 75 mile radius of Asheville into southern Tennessee.
Keith picked me up at the Charlotte airport on December 26, 2011 and we drove the three hours to his home in White Rock in Madison County. We drove in the waning light of the winter afternoon unsure if our project would accommodate our personal views about the worlds of politics, social organization or art, to mention just a few of the potential stumbling blocks.
We have by now become fast friends with few if any philosophical disagreements. We’ve probably driven close to 1500 miles. We have interviewed and photographed over 100 people from every imaginable walk of life. I like to think of Keith as the Neal Cassady of this road trip
The nationwide story would require more time and money then we can manage but the devastating effects of this recession are being unequally dispensed in the inner cities of New York, Chicago, LA or Atlanta where unemployment has hovered around 50% for black and Hispanic households. A New York Times article in the summer of 2012 said that there were 27,000 homeless children in the city. This is a staggering number with long-term consequences we do not know how to assess.
On the first day that Keith and I were together, he drove us a couple of hundred miles just to orient me to the area. It is filled with steep hills and narrow valleys with rivers that run along the valley bottoms. It is pretty. It is poor. And much of it is 40 minutes away from things a person might normally need like a pharmacy or a real food store or liquor store.
Initially we had no idea how we were going to proceed but we very quickly developed what a friend calls “the kamikaze interview.” We would drive along and see something that interested us. It could be a person working in a field or a commercial establishment, or in some cases, a person we’d made an appointment with. We would simply start asking questions and taking pictures. People were amazingly open once we told them what we were doing. We were only turned down once by a person who wanted to be paid.
It is important to understand that America is not in the same place it was 80 years ago in the Great Depression. There are no breadlines. There are no Hoovervilles. There is no Dustbowl or California migration. Food stamps, public housing and unemployment insurance have dampened the suffering and despair in the sense that very few people are literally starving.
As we began our journey, multiple social forces were coalescing to influence public opinion on the extreme right. The Tea Party movement, with its antigovernment, antitax philosophy, had just swept federal and state elections the previous November. At the same time a ragtag army of young people, anarchists and lefties started the Occupy Movement with Occupy Wall Street. They took over a park in downtown Manhattan near the stock exchange. Their message was focused on the inequality between average working people who comprised 99% of the population and the 1% of the financial and industrial, military, and financial ruling class.
Both the left and the right found themselves united in complete exasperation with the status quo, and the result was political gridlock in Washington and around the country with union busting, strikes, police actions against demonstrators, homeless people expelled from the camps, and general dysfunction everywhere.
The collapse of the Lehman Brothers brokerage firm in 2008 was the straw that broke the camel’s back and cascading events led the United States to the brink of total economic collapse. There has been much written about this, so I will not dwell on the details but it must be said that two wars in the Mideast started by the Bush Administration and paid for entirely by debt were a major contributor to the unwinding of economic stability.
This is a national story of unprecedented proportions. Despite the government’s claims that it is over, it quite simply is not. A very large portion of the jobs lost will never return and the people who filled them will, for the most part, never work again. From now on. without at least a high school diploma, they will almost certainly never be more than day laborers and more likely “entrepreneur” as drug dealers, thieves or prostitutes.
It is our hope that these individuals with their photographs and stories will make real the extent and complexity of the recession on real people. They are not in breadlines. Except for the homeless, they are not in tent camps. They are not hunkered down in sod houses in Oklahoma because this after all is the 21st century. But this is their story the story, of our time. And it only touches the surface.
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Charter Weeks PO box 203
Barrington, NH 03825
Interviews with subjects
Carrie the Sign-Spinner
The one astonishing constant throughout the Great Recession is the lighter than air price of gold, which seemed to rise daily, causing people to hoard it whenever possible, and to sell it whenever necessary. I saw people sell the fillings out of their teeth, and for rappers, having a solid gold “grill,” meant that they had their bling together, and could illustrate to the world that they had made it, by exhibiting a mouthful of gold caps on every tooth. Midas come to life, if for instance, he couldn’t keep his hands out of his own mouth. Charter and I are on the Andrew Johnson Highway heading east toward Morristown, TN when we spot a sign spinner on the shoulder of the highway, her placard reading WE BUY GOLD, and you can catch its meaning every other time she twirls it like an airplane propeller then holds it exuberantly over her head as if she just won the lottery. We’re easy marks, and she’s got us hooked. Carrie is 20, making $10 an hour to stand in the elements and spin her sign. “Least I’m not in a clown suit, or wearing a mattress on my back,” she says, laughing. She was working at McDonald’s before, but she likes this better, people honk and wave, and she gets to put on a bit of a show. “I’m living with my Mom now,” Carrie tells me, “but I want to save some money. I just don’t know if I want to be a pediatrician or go to cosmetology school. I guess, first, I need to get my own place.”
The first time I saw Cindy Wessinger was on a promotional videotape in the offices of the Community Housing Coalition and she was sitting in a wheelchair in her newly constructed house, thanking the small army of volunteers who had come from all over the state to build it for her. With tears streaming down her face, her gratitude was clear and her story unforgettable. Originally born in Alaska, her family moved to Lexington, SC after an earthquake spooked them and there a pattern began to form. Sexually abused by her father from infancy, Cindy was kicked out of her home upon this discovery by her mother at age 12, and was forced to live on the streets. After a string of failed relationships, and battles with alcohol and drug abuse, she settled with a man she thought would be a savior to her and her two small boys. But a new pattern of abuse began to escalate as her husband became hooked on greater quantities of crystal meth and set up a secret lab to cook it. This scenario exploded into a horrifying incident in which her husband held Cindy and her sons hostage, forced them to play Russian roulette for hours with a loaded gun, eventually throwing one of her sons out of the second story window, breaking his back, and stabbing Cindy repeatedly with a broken light bulb and cutting her throat with it. He then set the house on fire, took his tractor and turned over their car on its top and left, leaving his family for dead. But Cindy, a survivor all her life, managed to call 911 and was saved by paramedics. In the video I had seen of her, she was recovering from her injuries, and weighed 189 pounds. When Charter and I visited her in her home, six years later, she is walking on her own, polishing her new motorcycle and weighed all of 88 pounds. Now diagnosed with Buerger’s Disease and suffering from cancer, she has jump-started her sewing and alteration business and trying to find a measure of peace. Thirty-six years since she last saw her father, she tracked him down and forgave him for his treatment of her as a child. She is nurturing a small koi pond in the backyard and trying to keep the local “critters” from taking them. “I always wanted to write a book about my life,” she tells us, “but I’m illiterate.” She carefully lays out the fabric for the clothes she is working on as she tearfully recounts her story to us. “I guess I’m lucky,” she says, “my boys are healthy and somebody killed my son of a bitch husband in jail. I get lonely here by myself, but things could always be worse, you know?”
Close to the river, but slightly northwest of the now thriving riverfront arts district, the long abandoned icehouse, whose interior is comprised of a nexus of rickety stairs, half-rotted platforms, and makeshift gangplanks, serves as a teeming fortress for a small village of itinerant homeless folks who are scattered everywhere in the darkness in varying states of consciousness. The icehouse has walls that are two feet thick in places, with no windows, and long rambling corridors of pitch blackness where groups of people have thrown together beds from whatever they can find, and as we move through the disheveled floors, we are greeted with curses and threats, and try our best to let everyone know that we are coming with a light and a purpose, and some of the residents who have deigned to speak with us try to diplomatically calm their mates, who are rightfully paranoid about any interlopers or unknown visitors to their entrenched community. One of the youngest of these, Erik Beerman, is only 19, and has somehow shortened her name from Erica into the curt masculine Erik, disappears ahead of us into the black air and we can hear her negotiations in the darkness as she warns people that we are taking photos and tries to allay their fears. Erik has been homeless for almost a year, she says, “maybe more,” and has been squatting here for the last six months. With her funky pig hat perched on her head, she looks like a Haight-Asbury throwback, and her cherub face and wide eyes make her appear even younger beneath its upturned snout. An orphan who has never known her parents, she was often sexually abused as she spent her childhood bouncing through different foster homes up and down the East Coast. Trying desperately to hang onto the last of these foster families, Erik took care of her last father figure until he died, and she was forced into the streets when his debts took what money was left over after burying him. She has pretty quickly adopted a family, of sorts, in this teeming gaggle of personalities crouched around us. She has found a husband, and a pair of dogs that they rescued, and they are trying to make their way south before winter.
Francena and Bubbles
“We must like each other,” says Francena Griffith, 57, “we’ve been friends for 35 years. And I don’t think we ever had a cross word between us.” She is speaking of Ceretha Griffin, “just call me Bubbles,” she informs us, and the two of them have created Just Folks, a community service organization that helps citizens of the projects and inner-city with a wide variety of volunteer programs. They find rides for the elderly to get to their medical appointments, they mobilize car pools so that their constituents make it to the polls to vote, they have women’s health education classes and provide child-care services and training classes for unwed, pregnant mothers. They have organized tutoring services, literacy programs, helped to build safe playgrounds and beautification projects for the needy, as well as refurbishing the park where our interview is taking place. They are orchestrating a series of historic murals on the walls that overlook this small park in the center of a sprawling series of intersecting streets and cultures. In the distance are the police station, the courthouse, the arts museum, the firehouse, and the finest theater in the area. But somehow this little backwater called The Block, alongside Market and Eagle Streets has always been a place known for the small coveys of drug dealers, prostitutes, and all types of unsavory characters. “I grew up on Eagle Street,” says Ceretha. “I know what goes on down here. I put my own elbow grease into these murals, and helped to choose the historical events that are depicted here. I recruit hard to get help for this organization. It’s part of my soul.” Francena grew up in nearby Montford, an only child and heir to two generations of bootleggers. “My granddad kept a big pot of shine on the kitchen table and folks would come in and dip in their cups and leave their money in a jar by the door. Nobody messed with my family. They knew better. We ran the numbers games on the other side of Mt. Zion Church.” Francena’s activism grew out of her long employment search. She worked in food service at Disney World, and has done catering, but has been unable to find a job for the last three years. “Ageism is an issue” she says, “People discriminate worse against older people than they do against minorities, it seems to me.” Bubbles joins in after she hears that. “African-Americans have a very hard time getting employed around here. We have lots of black politicians, and a black mayor, who’s a woman. Hell, we got a black president now. But these folks be skinnin’ and grinnin’, got one hand in your pocket, while they be patting you on the back with the other one. I really haven’t seen any change. I believe in Obama’s vision. But he seems like he’s trying to get along with everybody rather than to change the status quo. That’s his biggest problem, if you ask me. There are only two black-owned businesses still left here on the block, and I don’t see anyone doing anything to help minority business owners. Nobody. I just don’t trust public officials, never have.” Just Folks is the first African-American non-profit organization to adopt a park here, and to establish a food bank. Every Saturday for the past seven years, the group has sponsored festivals where there is live music and food served to the community, and Gospel Goodness every Sunday. “The homeless problem is getting worse and worse, and you know this administration continues to take away the funding for affordable housing,” says Bubbles, who takes a breath, points her finger and continues. “We need more love in the community. Tougher and sweeter both, with everyone keeping an eye out for each other’s children, policing them, keeping them straight, lifting them up.” At this point, Francena intercedes and agrees with Bubbles. “Kids today have no respect for their elders or for authority figures. The schools even want to tell us how to discipline our own children. I took a switch to school to handle a problem myself. The police tried to stop me, then they said they wished there were more parents like me, once we were outside. The police need all the help they can get.” Both women have three grown children, and both believe that if there was more focus on history, on the truth of their own history, that children would be more compelled to learn. Bubbles got the last word. “We need to start giving the history back to the children ourselves,” she says. “That’s the message of the murals in this park. We hope that our efforts will result in a published People’s History of this area, with a focus on things that our people can be proud of, what we’ve accomplished despite the forces arrayed against us. That’s the true history, the one passed among us, that uplifts the spirits of our young ones.”
On the first cool Sunday morning in August, we were invited into Riverview Missionary Baptist Church by the honorable pastor James Briggs and his varied cheerful flock practicing that Old-Time Religion across the road from the French Broad River, swollen brown from a week of rain. After each of the congregation was asked for their special prayer requests, the men approached the altar and began to loudly implore their Lord on behalf of everyone present, trying to remember each person’s personal entreaty for divine blessing.
From the book of Exodus we were asked to see God as the central pillar in the velocity of our lives and to seek His strength, even as we wander in the “wilderness of uncertainty.”
At Riverview they don’t pass out programs for the free-floating service because the 35 or 40 people in the congregation are encouraged to vocally and vociferously participate in the proceedings, constantly sharing their thoughts and feelings as the worship progresses.
I have never witnessed a more informal atmosphere in a church setting, nor have I felt such hospitality to strangers in their midst. As a dozen or so church members stood in front of the pulpit and asked to be anointed with holy oil, Pastor Briggs, who is tattooed from his earlobes to his ankles, makes soft crosses on their foreheads with his fingertips and gently encourages them. On four digits of his right hand, the word PRAY is spelled in ink and on the fingers of his left are the capital letters HARD. Pray hard, his fists say, as he holds them up before the cross. Known far and wide as “The Tattooed Preacher,” Briggs’ life is divided into two parts, before his call to the ministry and after. His speech is littered with cautionary tales of his life in a biker gang before “the good Lord touched me and all was made clean,” he states, “there is no problem too large for the grace of God.” He confesses that the economic downturn has pounded his small flock and subsisting on the small salary that they provide is a struggle. “But I’m all in,” he says proudly, “this is where God wants me to be. And He will always provide for His children.”
When I ask Briggs if he will take off his shirt, he has no qualms about it, and begins to point to the images tattooed on his torso that tell the story of his life. Each image represents a key figure or milestone and Briggs slowly lets these tales hang in the air as he explains their significance.
His words are very quiet as he talks and he enunciates each syllable slowly, without the evangelical inflections that have punctuated most of his utterances today. He is a humble man in thrall to a belief that clearly sustains and nourishes him, and his ability to listen to the members of his congregation and make each individual’s tribulations as important as his own, are the reason that the troubled members of this little church continue to meet and talk to one another, to share the week’s jumbled problems with another person who has been there.
After several years of following The Grateful Dead, John blew in from Charleston, carrying a guitar, a suitcase, and a painting. He says, “Someone always provides.” He plans on joining the Occupy Movement that is camped in front of City Hall. He figures he’ll bang away at some rock covers in the clubs and busk in the street for enough to eat. “Someone always provides,” he repeats cheerfully, holding up his painting for Charter to shoot.
“I never really considered this a business,” Keith Ledford says, shaking his head. “Hell, it started out as just something to do on my days off. But now I’m here in the winter three or four days a week.” His landscaping business has fallen off during the Recession and the severe winters of 2009 and 2010 allowed him and his partner to get their fledgling hard wood enterprise off the ground. “I’ve been to some other places,” says Ledford, 34, “but people all pretty much seem the same to me. But there’s a lot of characters in these mountains. Man, we worked for a company in Ohio and them boys would come in, clear off the trees and then stick these little ticky tacky houses side by side as far as the eye could see, six feet apart. How could you live like that? And I got to tell you, we have overbuilt this country and now these developers are paying the piper.” He and his partner, Nathan Fowler, get logs wherever they can find them and use much of the equipment left over from Nathan’s father’s saw mill, including a fire truck transformed into a tree picker. “Found that truck for $1500,” Keith says, “and the chassis was perfect for the claw.” They sell a full truckload of cut wood for $225 and send the soft wood and chips to the paper plant. “Thank God we ain’t had no snow this year,” he says, taking a deep breath, “cause we just can’t find the logs we need. Nobody is building, so the demand is way off, but we’ll get through it.” He grins, and pats his chain saw, “ain’t nobody that can adapt better than a mountain man.”
Kat and Kevin were part of the original quintet that began to Occupy the Federal Building steps in Asheville, NC. “Then they made us move here,” Kat says, looking out from her knitting toward the pink marble façade of City Hall. “It’s more comfortable here on the grass,” she smiles, “but some folks have tents here and they are on the road. We try to respect them, but we need all the room we can get.” Two guys begin to greedily eye the empty tent as she speaks. People come and go through the axis of this movement and Occupy its various encampments across the country as they move, but Kat and Kevin say they have dug in here. “Somebody has to resist the greed,” Kevin snaps, then asks me if I need any help. “I’m happy to trade labor for a place to stay,” he whispers. “This shit can’t last forever.” The Occupy Movement is unfocused, without a real central philosophy or organized leadership, but they are earnest and generous, willing to throw their whole selves into the fray. The security guard in the distance is hovering around the entrance to the Bank of America. “I think somebody must be paying these people,” he says. “When the bulldozers moved the (Occupy) camp in Atlanta, I didn’t feel sorry for them. That was just the cops’ way to get them back to doing real jobs.” There is enhanced security presence at every Bank of America in the nation now. They may be too big to fail, but they are clearly not too big to be afraid.
Born in Ft. Bragg and stationed at Ft. Polk, Louisiana, driving petroleum tankers for the Army, 38-year-old Manuel Taylor has been on the streets for a year, “couch-surfing and whatnot,” and pushes his grocery cart from downtown Asheville four or five miles to the metal scrap yard in Biltmore every day. Some places have learned to look for him and if they have any scrap, they wait to put it out until he rolls by. He has made this into a living, averaging about $25 a day, some days more, depending on the size and quality of the metal detritus he accumulates. He says that “two felonies, for forgery and possession,” kept him from being able to get a real job, and that he was “too busy hustling” to apply for public housing or “any of that government stuff.” “I’ve turned my life around,” he tells us, “I might have jacked a WalMart, back in the day, if stuff was laying around the parking lot, but I’m a better man now.” He flashes a million dollar smile and leans on his cart, “this stuff here is just like freemoney.com, know what I mean?” Before we can drive away, he is already singing under his breath, and pushing his overloaded cart, which resembles some ramshackle church organ, toward the scrap yard.
“Ten years ago, my uncle said that this buying and selling of real estate was unsustainable,” Nicky Fowler says, “and it reminded him of the days leading up to the Great Depression. When folks is buying and selling land for a profit in three months over and over, there just couldn’t be no way that could last. I mean, how could land be worth more every single day?” Fowler and his son, Zack, are loggers and have been in the business their whole lives, but in the last five years their business has fallen off by 50%. “Ain’t nobody building new homes,” Fowler tells me, “and if you’re cutting poplar and white pine you’re just making the material for windows, doors and trim, and the only people that need those are building new structures.” He estimates that they are now getting about 275 dollars per thousand feet of boards, when 600 dollars per thousand was the standard, even as late as the fall of 2007. “We get more work now from people who have to sell the timber off their land to survive,” Fowler continues, “who are desperate to hold onto their homes and sell the trees in order to pay the property taxes or catch up their mortgage. And they always think their land or the timber is worth more than it really is.” He tells us “that he could remember when “families all lived on farms, or owned acres of land, and if the young un’s needed help, they could move back and help work the farm, or live on the family land until they got back on their feet. Now there’s nothing to fall back on, and the families split apart, scattering out in hopes of finding anything to rely on.” Fowler believes that the economy has suffered a permanent rupture and will never recover some of the jobs that were lost, and that some of the industries that American workers could count on before, particularly factory jobs, will not return. “I fear for my son and his family,” he says, shaking his head, “what’s he gonna do when he’s my age and has to re-learn a new profession? Or let’s say that Social Security is gone, then what do you do, when you’ve worked for yourself your whole life? Then you can’t retire, can you? You just work ‘til you drop and hope you can afford a hole to fall into.” He shakes my hand and wishes us luck on the book, as Charter and I head for the door, reminding us that the publishing industry is changing rapidly also. “Paper costs are going up every year. It’ll probably cost more to publish your book than you think it will, but I hope to live long enough to read it.” It occurs to me that Fowler may have some of the observant powers of prophecy that his uncle possessed, and that his pessimistic tone is decidedly Old Testament. “It took us a war and a complete focus on military industry for us to dig out of the Depression,” Fowler reminds me, “and it ain’t gonna happen this time.” By the time we get to my car, I am reminded of the scene from Sometimes A Great Notion, when Paul Newman is trying to save his brother, who is trapped beneath a floating log in the middle of a river filled with shifting, rolling, freshly cut trees, slippery and uncontrollable, their weight slowly dragging the trapped brother under as Newman, powerless to save his sibling, screams and pleads to no avail as the river shifts and rises under its tremendous load, and his brother’s head disappears out of his reach into the dark recesses.
There is a variation on a joke among cattle men that goes something like this: A farmer had just won 2 million dollars from the lottery and he was asked what he was going to do with his winnings. “I guess I’ll just keep farming ‘til the money runs out.” Randy Hodge laughs as he tells me that punch line, and then gets serious. “This is the only business in America where you need 3 million dollars to make a WalMart salary.” Hodge owns about 2000 head of cattle and helps run the Wilson Livestock Market in Newport, TN, which was established in 1966 by Lemmy Wilson. Hodge has been the manager for the last 19 years and has been in the cattle business all his life. He was 16 when his father died, the year after he bought his first cattle. “I came here straight out of college,” Hodge says, “and Lemmy gave me a real shot. I guess he was at an age where we needed each other. I keep about 200 acres, but I have to pay for custom grazing at several other locations, then pay the proprietor for the pounds the cattle put on. I guess the profit margin would be next to nothing if the business was more competitive, but younger folks don’t want to put in the time, and the older folks don’t want to invest the money to be successful. It’s just as well, I don’t really need the competition.” He calculates, “that he has borrowed 1.8 million to invest in his 2000 cattle,” as he guides us through the stables, and we tiptoe as best we can around the endless soup of cattle manure, fresh hay and muddy sludge. “The barn is a real mess, we weighed over 600 cattle yesterday and we’re still cleaning up,” he says and motions toward his crew of men, moving from stable to stable. “Most cattle health issues are respiratory,” Hodge continues, “and many of those ailments are still a mystery to me.” Each calf can bring around $100 profit in today’s market, and Hodge guesses that he spends $55-60 a head on antibiotics and medicine. He gives each calf a shot of antibiotics and a combination shot of vitamins and steroids. Each of the bottles he draws his needle from cost $500 each. “I usually can figure on about 6-7% in death losses,” Hodge says, “and no matter what I do, that number stays the same every season. I have no idea why that is the case, but we are constantly trying to improve our methods.” He credits Temple Grandin with many of the more innovative approaches to the cattle business, and he says that “she is largely responsible for greater animal comfort in both her machine designs and her approach to the business overall. One of the techniques she used to calm the animals is one she discovered would work for herself before she had an exam.” He shows us his system to cut one animal out of the herd through a series of gates that head the animal into an individual chute. “These squeeze chutes have been in use since 1972,” he says, flipping the lever and pinning the calf’s head outside the chute, with rounded bars holding the neck in place without pinching or stifling the animal’s breathing, or allowing the calf to hurt itself in the struggle. Hodge then injects the calf with its preventive dose. “We owe Grandin for that little innovation too,” he adds. We follow Randy up the hill to the auction stable and range along the wooden rows of seats that circle the room. “We sell about 400-500 head on average during each auction,” he tells us, “and you’ll have four or five real buyers and the rest are spectators. We used to sell 800-1000 cows before the Recession hit. Most of these cows are local, and most sold are 7 months to a year old, pretty much all beef cows. I think there’s only one big dairy even left in Cocke County.” He walks around absentmindedly when his cell phone rings, listening intently. I thought about the times I had accompanied my grandfather to the stockyard when I was a boy, and the overpowering smell of the animals and the cigarettes, with a low swirling cloud of smoke and dust slowly turning a few feet above all our heads, and the rat-a-tat of the auctioneer’s voice and its syncopated recognition and rapid fire delivery, cutting through the small roar of crying calves and shuffling boots and sidelong conversations. Hodge settles his call, and tells me, “I’d like to work another 20 years here, but the cattle market in Newport will never last that long. And I got to say, the work ethic is not what it used to be. I can’t get local boys to work. They ask for a job, but they really just want a paycheck, they don’t want a job. They get their asses kicked a day or two, and quit. They guys that work for me are all older guys. They know they’re here to work.” We thank him for his time, and he heads back down the hill, at more of a gallop than a stride, his mind already past our interruption, and turned headlong toward the rest of his day.
The two shabby dirt track racers resting innocuously by the side of the tire shop in the taller grass, have become the focal point for a family of misplaced foxes and their slapped together appearance belies the fact that they are loaded under the hood and fulfill the race fantasies of one Roger Hunter and his son, Kyle, just 16 years old. “I’m trying to cobble the money together for this season,” says Roger, “and I’m still recovering from a heart attack.” They compete in Bull Creek, TN at the Volunteer Speedway, the fastest dirt track in America, where the banks are over 30 degrees steep in the corners. “Kyle was second in points last season,” Roger says, beaming. “That kid is a natural and rides up high on the track like Richard Petty used to do.” Petty, nicknamed The King, had more wins than any other driver in the history of NASCAR, and drove high because he said, “it wasn’t as far to go when you hit the damn wall.” Kyle, however, has another strategy, swooping down on the slower cars like a hawk, from a vantage point that makes him all but invisible until he roars past them. “It’s a pretty safe little track,” says Roger. “The officials crawl all over the cars to make sure they’re safe, but they don’t much look at the engines. They let you run what you brung.” Roger has three sponsors. One offers him a free website, one gives him spare parts, and one springs for the tires. Beyond that, he’s on his own. “I told Kyle to take one of these factory jobs that he’s been offered,” Roger asserts. “There ain’t no telling what kind of jobs there’ll be when this Recession’s over. The boy could go to school on my GI Bill, but what good is that? You can’t count on nobody but yourself. I did a nasty tour in Vietnam. I was in the infantry at the beginning of the Tet Offensive and they dropped over one million gallons of Agent Orange on us. That’s why my heart is bad now. I thought we was dodging Charlie; who in Hell thought our own government would be the one killing us?” He puts his hand on my shoulder. “My doctor is a big man,” he says, “bigger than you, but he nearly started crying when he talked about these boys coming back from Afghanistan blown all to pieces. That doc said that the VA system is overwhelmed and us Vietnam vets would have to get back in line again. The last stent he put in my heart leaked and now I’m waiting for another procedure. This country is upside down. All the politicians spend their time raising money to get re-elected and there ain’t much difference between the parties, if you ask me. We need to tear ‘em down, get rid of the lobbyists and the special interests and start over, and everybody is just registered independent. That’s the only way things will ever change. We need an overhaul of the whole dirty system.” He walks me over to his banged-up truck. “Man, I tore this bastard all to pieces last summer, worst wreck they ever seen at Bull Creek. It ran on their webpage for ages. But I just walked away and throwed up my hand at the crowd. Me and that old truck are still running.”
The store where Sheila Treadway and her husband, James, have established their gun shop has been a consignment store, a medical massage office, and a half-dozen other enterprises over the last ten years or so. It’s a cabin with a small front porch, and right on the highway, a location mirage that incites prospective small business owners to buy some inventory and move in and then casts them out, one by one, as they sit invisible to the multitude of cars rolling right past their door on Hwy 25-70. When the stimulus funds were being allocated to the states in the aftermath of the economic downturn in 2008, Sheila and James were running Treadway Excavating and Trucking, with several folks working with them and state contracts as far as the eye could see. Then the money started drying up. “We lost seven contracts in one day.” Sheila remembers, “and I told James we better start figuring out something else.” With seven children to feed, including the youngest, just three years old, they decided to try this shop, with James doing the gunsmithing and repairs for the hunting and gun enthusiasts who purchased the various models of rifles, handguns, and hunting bows on offer here. Sheila calls the office where James works “his Pout House, ‘cause when he’s had all he can take he heads in there and don’t come out for hours. Besides the automatic weapons, we do the most business with the bow hunters,” Treadway says, “bows are like shoes to a woman, every year they need the new models.” I start to ask her if they sell automatic assault weapons and this starts a conversation about the recent shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, CO, where James Holmes systematically shot over 70 people while wearing body armor and throwing smoke grenades to confuse his victims. “There’s a lot of people that don’t think he’s the real shooter,” Treadway answers, “there are witnesses that don’t remember seeing a red-headed man with dyed hair pulling the trigger. And outside, after all the carnage was over, they catch this mumbling nut, who can’t even load his gun. There are folks in the know who think this is the government’s way of starting the registration lists, to start taking guns away from the populace. And it won’t work.” It takes me a second to digest what she had just said, and when I confess suspicion, she goes in the back room and brings out an AR-15 semi-automatic weapon, with an additional clip of ammunition, the same kind of weapon James Holmes had just used in Aurora. “Now there is just no way he got off that many shots with this clip,” Treadway says, “he would have needed a clip like this.” She pulls another clip out of a box and shows us the difference, this one capable of 100 shots in under two minutes. The image of her standing there with her baby on one hip and that sophisticated machine gun on her other hip is seared on my eyeballs. “The government wants to act like a buyback of automatic weapons is an equal trade. But that’s bullshit. This weapon costs over $1200, and they want to give us $300 and say that’s equal value. If we participate in any buyback program, we’re out of business, and every small shop like ours will be out of business. The people who want to take our guns know that.” She says that she sells about 6-8 assault weapons a month, but she knows dealers that move as many as a 100. “They are flying off the shelves because people are afraid of this president and they know that he can’t be trusted. Once you take the gun owner out of the equation, then the government can do anything they want.” Originally from Michigan, Treadway’s father was a preacher and a funeral director who taught her to be skeptical “and anything that sounds too good to be true, usually is.” I hold the baby for a minute while Sheila puts away some of the handguns on the counter that she had laid out for us to see them. We talk about many of the county residents that we know, and figure out that we might actually be cousins by marriage, since my grandmother was a Treadway before marriage. The world is always smaller than we think it is. “And more dangerous,” says Sheila, “unless you’re ready.” As I leave, I hug her neck and give the baby a kiss. Some things you can never be ready for.
Purchased in 1964 by J. H. Stepp, the Stepp Farm includes 70 acres of the finest apples, peaches, grapes and pumpkins in Hendersonville’s famed Apple Valley. Her father’s recent death has forced Sonya Hollingsworth and her brother to take on the responsibility of the farm’s day-to-day operation, though she admits, “We were raised here and know the business top to bottom, so it’s hardly new to us.” And as the rest of the country is fighting through the economic doldrums, the farm’s proprietors also have Mother Nature to reckon with. “In 2007, just after Easter Sunday, we got hit with a giant frost and it killed the majority of our crop,” Sonya recalls. “Then this year, it happened again. The weekend after Easter, the cold spell covered the farm in ice and we lost over 80 percent of the crop, just as the trees had begun to bloom.” When I asked her if it was harder now to be successful, with the changing weather patterns, and the loss of the farm’s patriarch, she replied, “It’s always hard; it’s farming, and living off the land is never easy, but it’s what we know and we do it well. We’ll keep going, and get better as we go.” The names of the twenty-two apple varieties spread through the labyrinth of trails is poetic: Golden Delicious, Arkansas Black, Turley Winesap, Granny Smith, Taylor Rome, Mutsu, Jonagold, Pink Lady, Daybreak Fuji, Autumn Rose, Blushing Gold, Gala, Cameo, Hainey Crisp. The trees are arranged in dramatic symmetries like rows of praying monks before a shrine. The entire farm is encased in a shroud of mist today as a storm begins to elbow up the valley. The only worker in the orchard is a sort of pruning sensei who views each tree as an individual with its own personality traits. When I ask Sonya about the upcoming season and how many migrant workers might be needed, she gets a bit defensive and says, “We don’t use migrants, and they are hard workers, but we employ local folks, who have lived here for a while, many who have worked with us for a long time. An orchard is seasonal, that’s the nature of the business, and there is just no way to keep people employed year round.” She then offers us each a jar of apple butter and says that we can “ride on up to the top and take a look around.” I thank her for her time, leave her with a book, and we rolled out, just ahead of the heavy rain, which began slamming divots into the soft Spring dirt.
Only one front loader working the quarry at the McCrary Stone Company in Marshall, NC, but before the Recession hit “with both barrels,” says Tim Flynn, his head resting on the steering wheel, “I could never cross the road with this machine without waiting for a break in the line. We had dump trucks backed up over the hill. Now I’m the only guy out here scooping rock.” Everyone has accepted the week on, week off schedule for the time being, but at least a third of the drivers have sold their trucks, or dropped the insurance and parked them. “Them boys are hanging tough,” Tim says. “They’re gonna try and wait this out. Feels like it might be a long wait…”
Tonya is 50, with OCD and other mental disorders, spins a mad story of her past life and what landed her in her present straits, homeless in a river camp with Roger Pratt. Pratt is 42, from Palm Beach, FL and homeless, off and on, he tells us, since he was thirteen years old, and an orphan since he was teen-ager. He last held a job over ten years ago, driving a truck, until a DUI conviction took his license. He seems the calm center of this particular encampment, which is the landing strip for turbulent visitors that blow through on their way to somewhere else. Though some stick on the periphery, like the sleeping couple forty yards away, piled under dirty blankets beneath the train trestle, Tonya and Roger have made a camp here for over two years, and fiercely resist any attempts to push them out. Roger offers us hot dogs and beans, while Tonya spins the threads of her story for us. Her first husband physically abused her and her two daughters in Charlotte, NC, where they lived in a $600,000 home, took their girls to beauty pageants and dance lessons and ran a retail store together. When the beatings from her husband reached a crescendo, Tonya says “I shot him with a .357 Magnum through the hip, and I told him
if you ever put your hands on me or the girls again, the undertaker will be wiping your ass.” She tells us that she had received a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a graduate degree in child development, but “was too sensitive to keep counseling youngsters, and couldn’t listen to their stories without having nightmares.” She divorced her first husband and seemed to find happiness with a second, until he died in a freak boating accident when he was caught by a net and drug under the boat, drowning before Tonya and the others could save him. Her life began to spiral completely out of control after this, she tells us, losing her home and her daughters. She took a union job as a roadie backstage in Charlotte, but lost it when she began to have severe health problems. Alone in a snowstorm in Asheville, Tonya piled her truck into a deep ditch, and was taken to Mission Hospital, where she was diagnosed with clots on her brain stem, had a stroke and was given several stents to stop the bleeding. She says she only remembers parts of her life now, and has only begun to speak again in the last two months, with Roger’s help. She says that she knows “she is half-Cherokee,” and if she could just get her papers to prove it, then she could “get a check from the casino and get us out of this mess.” Arrested several times for vagrancy, she knows the police have her picture and she moves around town with a baseball hat pulled low over her face when she heads out of the camp for supplies. She is happier today than usual, Roger adds, she has reconnected with one of her daughters, who is expected to deliver her first grandchild any time. This news sets Tonya crying again, and we stare at the slow muddy river ten steps away, gliding past us like a giant brown cloud, filled with the detritus of all these lives, an escape and a barrier at the same time, hypnotic and terrifying in its quiet power, absolving this
land of nothing.
Eighty-two year-old Truman Solesbee worked for fifty-seven years out of his shop across the road from his father’s old house. Hopewell Upholstery and Trim still has a sign on the building, but Truman says “the rheumatism” has kept him from sewing for the last few years. But when he was in demand, “we went all over the United States and Europe,” he circles with his hand, “and we always left ‘em satisfied.” Truman has lived in his shop since 1985, when “the Feds widened the road and wiped out our old home place,” he says angrily. “They said they would pay to relocate me,” he continues, “but they just disappeared and left me with nothing. Me and my family beat one of them bastards up real good and he had plenty of time in the hospital to think about what he’d done. We was going to shoot his partner, but he turned out to be all right, and eventually tried to help us. But I’m still here and ain’t never got no help from the government. I don’t trust no politician, never will.” He tells me how the interior of a Cadillac is upholstered and says that he hopes to start working again next year. “When I get the feeling back in my hands and my leg, I’ll be able to get some work done,” he says. “Come back and see me anytime, but watch that goddam road when you pull out, lots of people been killed in that blind curve.”
Truman is prophetic as it turns out. Three months after we interviewed him, a 16-year-old kid was doing almost 100 MPH as he turned into the corner above Truman’s shop, and his car began to flip end over end after its nose dropped into the ditch and pitched the bucking vehicle like a saw blade over the top of Truman’s little red pickup and finally planted itself, landing in the left side of the house hood first, as if God had grown tired of the thing and just thrown it from the sky haphazardly. Thankfully, Truman escaped uninjured, “out the back through a secret place,” he told the Marshall News-Record, and now must contend with the organized, bureaucratic forces of insurance agents, car salesmen and real estate professionals once again. When I spy a new little white truck sitting in front of the condemned building, where the front door had been wrapped in police tape, I guessed correctly that Truman would be there, sorting through what was left of his life. Sitting on the edge of a makeshift bed, flashlight in his hand, he says that “hooligans stole more than $10,000 worth of tools out of here while I’ve been gone,” and sadly shakes his head. “People used to help a neighbor. Nobody would even think of stealing from each other. All you had to do was ask and folks would help. Didn’t even have to ask most times.” He proudly shows us an ancient sewing machine, that he says is more than eighty years old. It looks like it hasn’t been used in decades, but Truman strokes the wood on top like you would pat the head of a good dog. “I tell you, that car coming through the house like to scared me to death,” he says, barely above a whisper. “It sounded like a hurricane. I was in the hospital for nearly six weeks recuperating. All of them doctors was watching my heart to see what it was going to do. But I’m still here.” He’s now getting settled in a public housing apartment on the north side of Marshall. “Come see me,” he tells us, “I ain’t going to be doing much.” I promise I will, sincerely meaning it, and shake his hand, which is soft as velvet.