Scrapping for a Living in Old Coal Country
Saturday, October 29, 2005
KERMIT, W.Va. -- Young people in Kermit have few places to go on a Friday night -- no movie theater, bowling alley or mall -- so they often wind up setting bonfires and tossing back beers in the pitch-black woods of Marrowbone Creek.
Work is hard to find in Kermit (population 201), as well, not to mention in all the other coal towns of southern West Virginia. So Greg Hannah, a 38-year-old single father, relies on the refuse of the beer blasts at Marrowbone Creek to put some money in his pocket and help support his 8-year-old boy.
Hannah is what he calls "a junker." His full-time job is sifting through trash looking for metal or anything else that might be worth something. On Saturday mornings, he heads to the "hollers" of Marrowbone Creek -- where he, too, kicked back in his younger days -- scouting for beer cans. All week long, he scours the rest of Kermit and Mingo County. Hannah sells his finds to a plant that buys aluminum for 50 cents a pound. If he works "really hard, every day," he says, he could make as much as $200 in one week.
But Hannah faces competition in Mingo County, where nearly 30 percent of families live below the poverty line. "Right downtown, there's me, my dad, my uncle and an old guy named Frenchie," Hannah said, naming his fiercest competitors, as he drove around Kermit's three-block downtown looking for his precious metals. His dad has been junking for 35 years. He supported a wife and seven children that way.
After New Orleans's destruction, politicians and commentators predicted that Hurricane Katrina would force the nation to focus on the plight of poor people. If that were to happen, this swath of lush, green central Appalachia, where President Lyndon B. Johnson launched his "War on Poverty" more than 40 years ago, would once again be a prime candidate for attention. It leads the nation in disabilities, deaths by preventable diseases, toothlessness and prescription drug abuse, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mingo County's poverty rate, 29.7 percent, is slightly higher than that of pre-Katrina New Orleans. Coal is the big industry, but mining jobs are as rare as luck. People make do any way they can, such as by junking.
Hannah did not choose to follow in his father's footsteps, as though junking were a desirable vocation. Desperation drove them both to it. His father, Mark Hannah, started junking literally by accident. In 1971, when he was working for a logging company, his left leg was crushed by timber. That ended his days of heavy lifting. He had no insurance, received no workers' compensation and needed a way to feed his family.
Greg Hannah's story has a few more chapters. But much like his father's and those of most people he knows, it revolves around the few options afforded people who are very poor, especially when there are children involved.
Growing up, Hannah learned to keep his dreams small. In another life, he could have set out at 18 or 21 to become a movie star. He had the dark, handsome, high-cheek-boned looks of a Sam Shepard (his maternal grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee), natural charisma and a knack for expressive storytelling. Or, given his talent for absorbing math and science, he could have gone into medical research, a favorite subject. But such "highfalutin" goals never occurred to him.
"My mother used to say, 'You're so curious, you ought to be a doctor,' " he said the other day, standing on a hill of black coal dust in Marrowbone Creek. He smiled at the idea. College was never a consideration. When he graduated from Kermit High, he was expected to find a job.
He regrets he waited so long to begin the quest. His two brothers and four sisters all married early, in their teens and earliest twenties, and scattered around the region, where jobs or spouses' jobs took them. Greg Hannah, second from the youngest, went to trade school and studied carpentry. He dreamed of working in a furniture shop and then opening his own. But even that turned out to be an unrealistic goal. He couldn't find a job in carpentry, and he didn't leave Kermit until he got married, at age 24.
"I should've just gotten a job at a mine when I was 18, when they had jobs," he said with a sigh.
Hannah and his wife moved to North Carolina. "In four days, I had a job unloading and loading trucks, working 60, 70 hours a week," he said. Two years later, he moved to a mobile-home company, where he helped build the units. But after six years, his marriage broke up and he took up with a woman with two toddlers. She became pregnant almost immediately. The relationship ended about two years later, a casualty of the woman's drug and alcohol addictions. Hannah took their son, Adam, then 21 months old, and returned to Kermit, where he knew that his mother would help take care of him.
A judge awarded him full custody. "I told the judge if the other two kids were my flesh and blood, I'd be suing to have them, too," he recalled.
That was six years ago. Life has been a struggle ever since. For three years, he worked as a security guard at a coal company about 50 miles from Kermit. But because he could afford only clunkers, the cars he bought for work kept costing him more money than they were worth. He quit his job after the third vehicle he had bought in three years, a 1981 Chevy pickup, blew up and he could not afford to replace it.
Hannah signed up for West Virginia Works, the state welfare program, because he thought it would pay for schooling. Instead, he became educated in the problematic ways West Virginia implemented the 1996 federal welfare reform act.
He had hoped to take a six-week trucking class about 60 miles away. His father would lend him his truck and Greg Hannah would obtain a commercial driver's license. Instead, the Mingo County welfare department insisted Hannah perform community service for his monthly $401 check. "They said if I wanted to go to trucking school, I should pay for it with my monthly check," he said. "I told them I couldn't. It would cost half my check in gas alone, and I had all my bills to pay."
Hannah was offered a county job 30 miles away that paid $5.25 an hour. But he refused because, he said, he could not afford to pay for the gas it would take to get there and back and still pay his bills. The welfare department then punished him by docking his check. So he dropped out of the program. "I figured I could do better on my own, digging ditches, scavenging for junk -- whatever," he said.
He receives $278 a month in food stamps as well as Medicaid for himself and Adam, who has asthma.
Life revolves around Adam, a precocious boy with the big eyes and the cherubic cheeks of the old Campbell's Soup mascots. His home away from home is ABLE Families, a resource center in downtown Kermit with an affiliated charity, Christian Help. Each is run by a nun. Adam has been attending ABLE Families programs for nearly six years, while Hannah has worked there for his welfare check.
Hannah knows that if he moved away, he could get a real job. But he cannot see leaving Adam. Nor can he see taking Adam to a new place where he has no family to help care for him. If Hannah had a decent vehicle -- he borrows his dad's old pickup to go junking -- he might get a good job within driving distance. But he needs a good job, he said, to afford a decent vehicle.
He knows that time is passing, that he is getting old the Kermit way. He has lost the last of his teeth, and stress has lined his face and hollowed his eyes. In six months, he has gone from a lean 170 pounds (on a frame just a nick under 6 feet tall) down to 145, aging 10 years in the process. He eats his mother's cooking almost every night, relishing the local staples of cornbread, kidney beans and fried taters with onions. But hearty food has proved no match for his worries.
Doctors have wanted to give him pills for depression, he said. But his last two girlfriends were both addicted to pain pills such as OxyContin (known as "hillbilly heroin"). "I've seen what pills do to people here," he said.
Winter is coming, fewer people will have beer blasts, and junking will get harder. It is already getting harder. He had two days' worth of cans in his pickup truck and estimated, generously, that it might net him $30. If he could save just $500, he could buy the falling-down house he rents for $250 a month. It stands just yards away from his parents' trailer, and he knows he could fix it in no time. The house has been on the market for $5,000 for more than six months.
Hannah stared at his truck, considering his options. After a time, he said he might start looking for some more odd jobs.