By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 26, 2009
GREENWOOD, S.C. Her cordless phone stores 17 voice messages, and tonight the inbox is full. Edith Childs, 60, grabs a bottle of water, tosses her hat on the living room floor and scowls at the blinking red light. A county councilwoman, she spent the past 12 hours driving rural roads in her 2001 Toyota Camry, trying to solve Greenwood's problems, but only now begins the part of each day that exhausts her. Childs slumps into an armless chair and steels herself for a 13-minute confessional.
"Hi, Ms. Edith, this is Rose, and I'm calling about my light bill. It's $420. . . . There's no way I can pay that."
"Edith, it's Francine. . . . They stopped by my house again today, talking about foreclosure. I don't know what to do. Can you call me?"
Childs leans her head back against the wall and closes her eyes. Her hair is matted down with sweat, and thin-rimmed glasses sink low on her nose. Every few minutes, she stirs to jot notes on a to-do list that fills most of a notebook. She has to remind herself that she ran for county council in 1998 because she coveted this role: unofficial protector, activist and psychologist for her home town. Back then, the hardships of Greenwood -- 22,000 people separated from the nearest interstate by 40 miles -- struck Childs as contained. Now she sometimes wonders aloud to her husband, Charles: "When does it stop?"
"Yes, councilwoman, this is Joe Thompson calling. Uh, I'm having a bit of an emergency."
Across the dark living room, one of Childs's favorite pictures is displayed on a worn coffee table. It shows Childs with her arms wrapped around Barack Obama, his hand on her back, her eyes glowing. They met at a rally attended by 37 supporters on a rainy day in 2007, when Childs responded to Obama's sluggishness on stage with an impromptu chant: "Fired up! Ready to go!" She repeated it, shouting louder each time, until Obama laughed and dipped his shoulders to the rhythm. The chant caught on. "Fired up!" people began saying at rallies. "Ready to go," Obama chanted back. He told audiences about Childs, "a spirited little lady," and invited her onstage at campaign appearances. By the day of his inauguration, when Childs led a busload of strangers bound for the Mall in her now-iconic chant, her transformation was complete. She was Edith Childs, fired up and ready to go.
But now, as Obama nears the 100-day milestone of his presidency, Childs suffers from constant exhaustion. In a conservative Southern state that bolstered Obama's candidacy by supporting him early in the Democratic primaries, she awakens at 2:30 a.m. with stress headaches and remains awake mulling all that's befallen Greenwood since Obama's swearing-in.
On Day 4 of his presidency, the Solutia textile plant laid off 101 workers. On Day 23, the food bank set a record for meals served. On Day 50, the hospital fired 200 employees and warned of further job cuts. On Day 71, the school superintendent called a staff meeting and told his principals: "We're losing 10 percent of our budget. That means some of us won't have jobs next year, and the rest should expect job changes and pay cuts." On Day 78, the town's newly elected Democratic mayor, whose campaign was inspired partly by his admiration for Obama, summarized Greenwood's accelerating fragility. "This is crippling us, and there's no sign of it turning around," Welborn Adams said.
On Day 88, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that South Carolina had set a record for its highest unemployment rate in state history, at 11.4 percent. Greenwood's unemployment is 13 percent -- more than twice what it was when Childs first started chanting.
"We have a lot of people who live in cold houses, with no jobs and no food," Childs says.
Hundreds of them call her, and the most desperate travel to Childs's single-story house on Old Ninety-Six Highway outside of town and knock on her front door. A retired nurse living with her husband on modest savings, she makes $725 a month for serving on the county council and uses that money to pay other people's bills: $240 for her brother's electricity, because he can't find a job; $300 for a young family's rent in a two-bedroom apartment, because they have a 5-year-old boy and no income; $168 for a friend's water bill, because the county threatened to shut it off. When the $725 runs out -- and it always does -- Childs dips into savings and tells Charles she spent the money on a new outfit.
"Always a fighter." That's how Childs describes herself. She disapproved of how her first husband wasted money on liquor, so she called him into the living room and lit a $20 bill on fire to emphasize her point. She disliked Greenwood's plans to build a road between her neighborhood and a new housing project, so she filed a lawsuit and dragged it out for five years until she won. She thought Obama would make a good president, so, she says, "this mouthy black lady knocked on doors in the whitest, most Republican neighborhoods in town and told them what was on my mind."
Now Obama is president, and she still believes he will help rescue Greenwood County. But her enthusiasm has faded into a wary optimism. "He's only one man, and there's a lot to get done," she says, a predicament she knows all too well.
"I never used to get tired, but I'm running out of energy," she says. "It's stressful. Maybe one problem gets fixed, but it's not fixed for long, and while you've been doing that, four other people have called asking for help."
And their messages are waiting.
"Hi, Edith, this is Helen Witherspoon. I'm calling because I have a problem with my hot water heater and I'm wondering if you might know of a church or someone who can help me."
A message near the end causes Childs to wince. It is from Evon Hackett, her younger cousin, who has always reminded Childs a little of herself. Hackett has "never wasted a lazy hour in her life," Childs says. But now she is desperate and unemployed, and her voice barely registers above a whisper as it plays on Childs's machine.
"Hey Edith. How ya been? Just calling again to see if you heard from anybody who was hiring. . . . You know me. I'll do anything. It doesn't really matter what the work is."
* * *
Evon Hackett, 38, lost her job on Day 20 of Obama's presidency. She was nearing the end of her Friday afternoon shift on the assembly line at Tyco Healthcare, stuffing three packets of diapers into each passing cardboard box for $8.59 an hour, when a manager asked to see her. Hackett cleaned out her locker on the way to his office.
"What, was he going to give me a raise?" she said. "Huh-uh. Not happening. Not in Greenwood."
The job search that began that afternoon with a phone call to Childs has since grown into an odyssey in futility: Twenty-two job applications. Six interviews. Three drug tests. Once, Hackett received a call from a meatpacking plant, asking her to arrive at 7 a.m. Monday for a new employee orientation. She gushed to friends about the company's good benefits and its $10.80-an-hour starting salary, and she woke up Monday morning at 5:15 to bundle into the heavy winter clothes recommended for an eight-hour shift in a gargantuan refrigerator. She borrowed a friend's car and drove 40 miles on unfamiliar roads to the factory in Newberry. Fifteen minutes into the orientation, a manager called Hackett into his office. There had been a mistake, he explained. A clerical error. They had not intended to call her. Hackett was back home by sunrise.
Since then, mounting frustration has compelled her to distribute 50 résumés at a local job fair and to make road trips to factories in Clinton, Greenville and Abbeville. "There are no jobs in all of Greenwood," she says. "I think we're going to become a ghost town, or maybe some kind of town for rich, retired people."
She voted for Obama and still holds out hope for the man she calls a "people's president," but she's not interested in hearing his stories about flying to Europe or fighting pirates. "I guess he's just working his way down the list, and he'll get to us," she says.
Rather than wait for that day, Hackett decides to seize control of her situation one afternoon. If nobody will hire her, she will start her own business. She decides to sell Easter baskets to Greenwood parents who will buy them as holiday gifts for their children. On a shopping spree to purchase supplies at Wal-Mart, she overdraws her bank account by $121 and returns home with enough stuffed rabbits, Spider-Man action figures and Hannah Montana dolls for 17 baskets. She sorts them into neat piles on her parents' living room floor and ties red and pink ribbons around each basket, curling the trimming by running it between her thumb and a scissor blade.
Her sleeveless shirt reveals toned arms and broad shoulders earned during two decades of factory work. Only the deep creases under her eyes betray the stress of a hard 38 years -- a battle with breast cancer in 2000, three layoffs in the past decade and her only son's incarceration three hours away in Bishopville.
The Easter baskets distract her from what she considers the worst symptom of unemployment: deathly boredom. She monitors her father's recovery from a stroke and paints her parents' bathroom bright yellow to assuage the guilt of moving in with them after the layoff. She sleeps 12 hours per night in her makeshift bedroom, where clothes sit in piles on the fraying carpet and a sheet hangs over the open doorway to allow a modicum of privacy.
During the final stages of the presidential campaign, Hackett obsessively tracked Obama on CNN and spent Election Day driving her neighbors to the polls so they could vote for him, but now she avoids watching the news. It puts her in "a dark mood," she says. Instead, she rests her feet on a coffee table occupied by an unopened Bible and a half-empty jumbo bag of peanut M&M's and watches cartoons or judge shows on the family's 12-inch television.
"If I don't distract myself, it starts getting depressing," she says. "Every day is long, and I'm just looking for ways to pass them. It's hard not to let my mind start thinking, 'Am I ever going to get myself out of this?' "
After Hackett finishes tying together the Easter baskets, she displays them on a wooden table and admires her handiwork. "I've always been good with crafts," she says approvingly. She tries to sell each basket for $25, but potential buyers balk at the price. She considers setting up a sales table on her sister's front lawn in Atlanta -- "people got money there," she says -- but concludes that bus fare would negate her profits. Finally, a day before Easter, Hackett drops her price to $20 and starts calling friends.
"I'm not trying to be a charity case," she explains to one, "but I'm telling you these baskets are nice, and I could use the money."
The strategy nets Hackett $85 in profits, which she uses toward debts of $121 owed to her bank, $190 to her cellphone company and $59 to a warehouse storing her furniture. Childs is her best customer, paying the full price of $25 and purchasing two baskets.
* * *
Working on her daily to-do list one April morning, Childs visits an unemployed friend in Promised Land, a town of trailers 10 miles outside Greenwood, and then drops off a bag of food for a 92-year-old woman whose cupboard has emptied of everything but grits.
"Somebody probably needs something in every house we pass," Childs says as she drives. "A lot have problems too big to solve."
Just before 1 p.m., she pulls into Greenwood's normally deserted downtown for a few more errands and notices a large crowd gathered in front of the courthouse. More than 200 people are dressed in red, white and blue and are waving miniature American flags. Childs asks a friend for details and learns that it is a "tea party" to protest Obama's economic policies, one of about 1,000 similar events coordinated on Tax Day across the country.
"Of course it's going to be a lot of white Republicans, and mostly men," Childs says as she walks through the crowd and finds a spot alone at the rear of the plaza. "I want to see this, but I'm keeping my distance."
In a state that voted 54 percent for Republican presidential candidate John McCain, Childs has heard plenty of anti-Obama rhetoric. "Most people around here know where I stand and let me be," she says. "People are too polite to be nasty." So she shakes her head in disbelief as she reads the angry messages scrawled on the poster boards in front of her.
"Say NO to Obama and Socialism!"
"Who cares what Obama says? America IS a Christian nation."
Childs puckers her lips and listens as Greenwood residents take turns stepping to the podium and shouting through a megaphone. Their speeches revolve around the same themes Childs hears in her phone messages, except what she identified as the solution to Greenwood's problems is what these speakers now disparage as the cause.
"We all know this president is the major problem," David O. Davis III says. "I've got friends with families who are losing their jobs, getting laid off."
"We're struggling to pay our bills and get by," Cathy Heitzenrater says. "We're feeling disenfranchised from our own country and disappointed about who's running it."
"Vote the bum out," R.J. Fife says.
After each speaker finishes, Childs retreats a few steps farther from the crowd. A part of her would like to go grab the bullhorn and tell these people to "keep their mouths shut and give Obama a little time," she says. But she woke up at 3 a.m. again this morning, and she can't go home for a nap until she pays $100 on a constituent's bill at the water company and stops by a city office to inquire about possible job openings for Hackett.
"Let them have their tea party," Childs says. "They're just looking for somebody to blame. My ears are full."
She walks away from the courthouse as the crowd joins into chorus to sing the national anthem.
* * *
On Day 85 of the Obama presidency, Hackett wakes up and swaps her usual blue sweat pants for a pair of ironed capris and a denim jacket. Eight silver bracelets are divided between two wrists. Her hair is pulled into tight dreadlocks, which a friend twisted until 11 the night before. As Hackett stands up to leave her parents' house, she completes her outfit with a pair of pink high heels, purchased at the bargain price of $15.99 because she managed to squeeze into the children's size.
"I want people to look at me and think, 'Classy,' " Hackett says. "I don't want nobody thinking I'm some know-nothing loser."
She fears drawing that conclusion herself, which is why she put off today's trip for almost a week. She is headed to the unemployment office, a place she describes as "the end of the road." Since being laid off, she has visited five times and waited as long as two hours before getting her turn at one of the center's 10 computers. On this visit, she goes during lunch hour -- the center's slowest time of the day -- to minimize the odds of running into somebody she knows.
Her brother drops her off in front of a squat brown building in the center of town, and Hackett hurries to an open workstation at Computer No. 5. As usual, the center is what Director Joan Burgess describes as a "beehive of activity" -- 47 people in one modest room, babies crying, cellphones ringing, voices rising despite the "Quiet Please" sign on the wall. All of Greenwood is represented inside: 25 blacks and 22 whites, 19 women and 28 men. Filing into the workstations near Hackett are an elderly blind woman carrying a cane, a young mother carrying a toddler and a middle-aged man carrying a leather briefcase.
The past four months have turned the unemployment center into one of the few places in Greenwood that is thriving. It added staff, extended hours and launched a series of seminars -- "Market Yourself in One Minute," "What Employers Want" -- for an estimated 3,500 job-seekers. "We have a lot of people coming in who have been laid off from companies where they worked for 20 or 30 years," Burgess says. "They don't have résumés. They don't know computers. We are essentially teaching them how to look for jobs."
This day, the center has posted nine new jobs on a dry-erase board attached to the wall -- the longest list in more than a week. Hackett reads over the job titles and finds four that intrigue her: sales agent, machine operator, cleaning tech and customer service. She writes down each job's six-digit serial number, which will enable her to search the computer for more complete descriptions.
Job 298342 is no longer available.
Job 315722 is for a CV 3-9 operator. Hackett reads the description. "Move large reels weighing 50 to 75 lbs. Stand for eight hours per eight-hour shift on a concrete floor. Bend/stoop to ground level thirty times per hour. Roll reels weighing 100 to 10,000 lbs. Pay: $8."
Job 321273 is part time, eight hours per week at $8.55 and located 16 miles away in Abbeville. Hackett does some quick math. "Minus gas, that's like $20 a week," she says.
Job 318393 is the customer service position, which requires talking on the phone, making copies and other duties described as "secretarial." It pays $9 an hour. Hackett once hoped to make at least $10 with good benefits, but seven weeks of unemployment has diminished her standards.
"Sounds boring but okay," she says. "It could get me by for a little while."
She walks to the front counter of the center with the serial number and requests an application. While she waits, she notices a stack of fliers offering tips for job-seekers during hard times. On criminal backgrounds: "If you were arrested but not convicted, do not list it." On salary expectations: "It may be best to write 'open' or 'negotiable.' "
The front desk attendant calls for Hackett.
"This job is at Sykes, out at the mall," he says. "They need somebody immediately. I don't have an application here, because they want you to apply in person. If I were you, I'd go right away."
Hackett thanks him and walks out the door, optimistic. An immediate hire? Apply in person? "I think this could be something," Hackett tells her brother, and she spends the car ride to the mall planning ways to use her first few paychecks. She will pay off her cellphone bill, spoil herself with new sneakers, move out of her parents' house to stop inflating their electric bill -- maybe even pay a few electric bills for them.
Hackett grabs a copy of her résumé, printed on watermarked paper, and walks into the Sykes telemarketing center. A receptionist hands her a clipboard with an application, and Hackett sits in a blue chair in the waiting room to fill it out. Under references, she lists Childs and some prior bosses. Under salary preference, she writes "Negotiable."
After 25 minutes that conclude with her shaking a tired right hand, Hackett signs the application and delivers it to the receptionist, who promises to get in touch. Only after Hackett thanks her and turns for the exit does she notice the waiting room is now full. Six people sit with pens and clipboards, filling out the same application she just turned in. As she walks out, she forces a smile to hide what she already knows: She will never hear about the Sykes job again.
Later that night, inside the house on Old Ninety-Six Highway, Childs sinks into the armless chair in her living room. "Don't bother me, Charles," she tells her husband. She picks up the cordless phone, where 17 new messages are waiting. One is from Hackett.
"Hi, it's me," she says. "Hope you had a good day. . . . No luck over here yet. I'm just wondering if you've heard about anything."