By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 23, 2009
One in a series about how the recession is touching lives.
It's the end of the workday, and the Leesburg courthouse is bathed in yellow sunlight. The guys who ride Harleys are drinking beers in a bar whose motto, in neon, reads: "Better off here than across the street."
They believe this. Better off here than in the courthouse, and better off here than in the darker places a man can get caught when times are tough.
As the economic slump touches the outer edges of suburbia, people in towns such as Leesburg feel hit from all sides. But the Downtown Saloon, a.k.a. Payne's Biker Bar, still offers $2 beers at happy hour -- $1 on Tuesday nights. And many of the men who have met here for years, drawn together by their shared love of their Harley-Davidson motorcycles, are now dealing with stretches of unemployment or underemployment. They come here to relax, network and counsel one another.
The bar radio blasts rock music from their youth. Cream. Yes. ZZ Top. The smoke from a dozen cigarettes curls up and dissipates.
"One, two, three, four, five," says Pat Cosgrove, 49, a compact man wearing a T-shirt that reads, "Kill Em All, Let God Sort Em Out." "I can tell you five or six" who have lost their jobs.
When the ax falls, the others take the guy out for a night of drinking. But after that, many stop coming in because of a lack of cash and a reluctance to rely on others.
"There's a lot of pride there," says Dan Brooks, 45, who installs antennas for a living. "I don't think they like to" let their friends buy, "but they have to get it off their chest."
Brooks and Cosgrove still have their jobs, but they aren't taking them for granted. For Cosgrove, a carpenter, there's less work than he'd like, and less money.
"I feel it myself, but I still come here because one finds camaraderie," he says.
Brooks nods. "It's like an escape from that part of reality."
"When you're out in the world, it's the world against you," says a man the next stool over, his hand curled around a Bud Light. "When you come to the bar, it's all your friends against what's happening in the world. That's the difference." He and a couple of others declined to give their names.
Coming to the bar isn't just about commiserating. It's also about networking.
"When I talk to somebody who's needing something, I say, well, that's what Pat does or Tom does," says Bruce Lefever, 56, a retired federal civil servant. "I try to help people out." For example, a guy Lefever knows has to sell his motorcycle and his house. "He comes in here, talks to Pat, Pat hooks him up."
"Yeah, I knew he was a good man," Cosgrove says. "I just threw his name out there and said, hey, he can do what needs to get done." Cosgrove advised the man how to "make your price tight," because companies are bidding jobs at cost.
He's also been advising his son, who will soon be 21 and works in a fast-food joint.
"He's entertained the idea of going into the military," Cosgrove says slowly, as if rolling the idea over his tongue. "I've questioned it and I've entertained it and, because of the way things are right now, I really think it might be the way to go. I told him, if you join up, you don't have to worry about paying for food, you don't have to worry about getting a job. He's out of high school, he has no skills, what is he going to do?"
What does a man do if he has no work? They have all thought about it.
"I'm almost 50," Cosgrove says. "I've always worked in Virginia. I've never, ever been on unemployment. But I'm worried a little bit right now. My job is not so secure. I'm thinking I might be on unemployment next month. I've never done that."
Brooks, whose smooth cheeks belie his age, 45, shakes his head. "I'd take three jobs. I wouldn't take unemployment. No way."
"Big Bill" Tracy, a beefy man with a salt-and-pepper goatee and a "Horsepower from Hell" T-shirt, saunters up. Tracy, 50, a construction worker, was recently on unemployment for three weeks.
"Wait a minute," he says. "You do realize you paid into that? That's your money, why not use it?"
"Never," says Brooks. "Absolutely not. Because I always feel like I could work somewhere."
Tracy's problem with unemployment is he doesn't understand how anyone can survive on it. "People that are making less, they get less: $152 a week -- you got a family, that's not going to pay for anything," he says.
"I was fortunate, I was only out of work for four weeks and I got back in with the company I started with 30-odd years ago, so I'm confident that I'll retire with them. But there are a lot of people in my industry that are out of work. And they won't find it. A lot of people, they won't find work for two years."
Outside, a guy pulls up on a Harley; his passenger is a black dog wearing driving goggles, tongue lolling. The guys laugh; they've seen that guy ride to Florida with that dog. The light changes and the pair zooms away.
On the radio, Crosby, Stills and Nash croon about wooden ships. Cosgrove says he might consider unemployment "because everything seems to be really tight right now. I've worked through a lot of slow times, recessions. But this one seems to be worse."
Brooks might not approve of welfare, but he is a believer in a less official form of social support.
"One thing we've all felt intensely is we all ride motorcycles," he says. "Harley-Davidsons. And if someone's in dire need, we would help him out. Help them out on their house, anything they need. We're carpenters, construction workers -- we just did it last weekend; we did a reconstruction on my ex-girlfriend's house. We had a good time and all the friends got together. We had a cookout after."
But Don Fergus, 54 -- sitting at the bar under a mounted six-shooter, a picture of Wild Bill Hickock and a collection of bras hanging from the ceiling that have been donated by women over the years -- says he hasn't seen much barn raising or networking.
"It's more like, 'I'm okay, Jack, pull up the ladder.' I guess there's guys in here that help each other out. But there's a limit. There's only so much you can do." Maybe it's different in his field, he says; he's a tech consultant. "The opportunity doesn't really come up in a place like this for a white-collar worker."
The bartender, a slender woman named Laurie Snyder, disagrees. "We know somebody's looking for work, and we know somebody else in that field," they hook them up.
"I think a lot of bikers tend to act good," she says. "They'll help anybody that's stuck on the side of the road. People don't think that. A lot of people think of bikers as just being tough. That was in the olden days. Things have changed."
The Masters golf tournament is showing on the flat-screen TV overhead, but John Pennington, 49, is thinking about something he saw earlier. "They had a report saying that 53 percent of Americans think capitalism is the way to go. I'm going, 'Who the hell are the other 47 percent?' People that didn't go to college."
"A lot of people here haven't been outside this country," says Clayton Hopkins, a mechanic.
"I don't know," says Pennington, wearing the leather chaps he rides to work in on cold mornings (he keeps a suit in his Defense Department office). "It's still the best place in the world to live, and that's always going to be in our core."
It's hard to tell if they are talking about America in general, or their corner of Virginia.
Hopkins, 33, a brawny man with a boyish face, grew up here and remembers hunting on land now given over to golf courses and a four-lane highway.
"This is one of the best places to live in the country," he says. "No natural disasters."
"I love Leesburg," says Cosgrove. "I love this place."
You want to see how the guys help each other? "I'll show you right now," says Hopkins. "How 'bout another round? Hey, Tyler, can we get four more beers?"
"That is it," says Cosgrove. "Help."
Snyder finishes her shift and joins them for a smoke. Fresh beers arrive. The radio plays the familiar opening chirps of "Gimme Shelter," and the men pass around the cold bottles.