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For Many Americans, Nowhere to Go but Down

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 3, 2009 9:36 PM

MIDDLEBURY, Ind. -- He sinks into the couch, foot jiggling, his gaze traveling from his wife to the television to the darkness outside, broken now and then by the distant glow of passing headlights.

His mind settles into another round of "What if?"

As in: What if we don't have cash to buy milk, eggs, bread or diapers? What if our unemployment benefits run out? What if we never find jobs?

And then Scott Nichols thinks of the words he doesn't want to say, what for him, a 39-year-old husband and father of two, is the option he has hoped to avoid since being laid off nine months earlier.

They already took free food from a church pantry, cardboard boxes filled with Corn Flakes and bologna and saltines, his wife, Kelly, walking in, head down, while he stayed in the car, ashen. They pawned his wedding ring, sold part of her Silver Eagle coin collection and had help from the Salvation Army paying their electric bill.

Now another cliff approaches: the loss of the home they rent.

"Looks like we'll have to go to your mom's," Scott Nichols says to Kelly, 33, who is in a beige recliner, staring ahead.

Moving to her mother's would mean returning to the rundown industrial town where they grew up, a place that makes him feel dirty, inside and out. They would sleep in her basement jammed with forgotten furniture, a few steps from a pair of cat litter boxes and below three narrow windows blocked by insulation.

Twenty months after it began, what has the American recession come to?

There are signs that the bottom has been reached. The stock market is on its way back up. Retail sales are improving. The overall sense of desperation, so widespread at the beginning of the year, has eased.

Every day come new reports suggesting some improvement.

But underneath all of the reports is this living room.

"Okay," Kelly says.

The people who have just agreed that they are out of options sit in silence, wondering the way out.

* * *

"It needs to be paid," she insists. The $40 installment on their Kmart layaway plan is nearly a week late.

"That doesn't leave a whole lot of money," he says. If they pay the $40, they will have $31 for themselves, their 2-year-old daughter and his 17-year-old son until their next unemployment checks arrive in five days.

"This is why we have no money," she says, irritated, fatigued.

These are the conversations that pervade Scott and Kelly Nichols's days.

How did they get here? How did their every other exchange evolve into a riddle that includes the refrain "How much?" followed by "How much do we have left?" How did their horizon become a basement in southern Michigan?

Nearly four years ago, in search of better pay, Scott Nichols took his older brother's advice and followed him to where he had moved years before: northern Indiana and the flatlands of Elkhart County, the country's largest manufacturer of recreational vehicles.

"The RV Capital of the World," as Elkhart's leaders say.

Scott got a job on a paint crew at an RV plant, and by the end of 2007 his income had climbed to $53,000, more than he had ever earned. After work he was the man at the bar with the thick roll of bills, the man he had always wanted to be, buying round after round for himself and his friends. The man with "the full pocket," as he liked to say. He took his son on a fishing trip. He took his family out to eat and told them to order whatever they wanted.

Then gas prices soared, the economy unraveled and demand for RVs plummeted. Over the course of a year, Elkhart County's unemployment rate rose from less than 5 percent to more than 18 percent. Thousands of workers lost their jobs, the casualties including Scott, and Kelly, who worked in accounts payable at another RV company. The crisis in Elkhart drew the attention of President Obama, who traveled there within weeks of taking office, and plans another trip to the county on Wednesday to further focus on the economy.

When he lost his job, Scott had no savings, his primary objective always having been to earn enough to cover the rent, eat an occasional steak, feed and clothe their children, ride his dirt bike, fish, golf, play poker, buy lottery tickets, and drink Bud Light.

For two decades, a robust U.S. economy had allowed Scott a paycheck-to-paycheck life, one in which he was always confident that the next payday was ahead. Lose one job, and soon enough there was another. He flipped burgers at a diner. He was an apprentice at an auto body shop. He drove a delivery truck, was a gopher for an elevator mechanic, mopped floors at a burrito plant, worked as a forge operator, and sanded and buffed and painted truck caps and RVs.

But this time, as weeks stretched into months, Scott found himself not only with no job opportunities, but nowhere to turn for help. His parents, a retired machinist and truck-stop waitress, still live in the same cramped mobile home in which he grew up. His brother, the one who persuaded him to move to Indiana, has been behind on his own bills since his RV company cut his hours. And Kelly's mother, a retired public school teacher, can offer only her basement.

At the kitchen table, Scott opens the newspaper.

"Movie Extras Needed Now -- 45 bucks to register, earn $100 to $300 a day," he says, reading aloud.

A company needs "employees to assemble products at home, $500 weekly, no experience necessary."

Another is looking for people to "earn $3,800 a week working from home, selling information packs."

"Here's that one we got burned on," he says.

Part-Time Inside Phone Sales. Data Entry From Home. Bodyguards Wanted.

He folds the paper and tosses it across the table.

* * *

"Bee Movie?" asks Hailey, the 2-year-old, climbing into Scott's lap. He loves his children. He tries to be a good father. He dotes on them.

"I don't want to watch the 'Bee Movie' right now," he says, rubbing his eyes. He pours cough medicine into a spoon and takes it to her. "I know it doesn't taste good," he says.

Five weeks before they will have to move unless they find jobs, every day is a slow-motion version of the one before, the soundtrack a mix of sighs and yawns, whatever is on TV, Hailey's laughter, Hailey's crying, Hailey's whining, discussions about which bills to pay, and infrequent, inconsequential chatter.

"That new Camaro is freakin' ugly."

"Didn't see it."

"It's right across from the library. How could you miss it?"

They always sit in the same spots, as they do today, a Wednesday, Kelly in the recliner, tattered at the edges. Scott is on his end of the couch, clutching a jug of Pepsi that he refills when it empties.

A photograph from their wedding day sits on a wooden shelf in the corner, "Kelly and Scott, July 10, 2004" in script on the frame. Her smile is wide, her dress bright white. He's in a black tux, grinning, his hair a buzz cut, his goatee neat, the mustache pencil thin.

Now, sitting on the couch, 11 months after being laid off, his hair is thick and uncombed, and his mustache full. He has gained 40 pounds since his last day on the job. He needs a refill on his antidepressant but doesn't want to spend money to see a doctor.

"C'mon, Karma," he says to the dog, a docile Labrador and Rottweiler mix. "Let's go get the garbage can. Quick trip. Like the wind."

Scott walks to the end of the driveway, 87 paces, from where he pushes the bin back to the house, a gray mobile home with a finished basement and a garage on three flat acres. He falls back onto the couch, glancing up at a framed print of three wolves, then at Kelly, then at Hailey. His toes wiggle inside his white socks. He yawns.

In the months since his layoff, he has walked into this place or that place looking for work, unannounced visits that resulted in nothing. He went to a factory that makes ambulances. Nothing. To another that sells truck caps. Nothing. Another that produces tops for aerosol cans. Nothing. He heard about an RV plant that might be hiring, but decided he needs more information before he'll get in his car anymore. He refuses to waste gas chasing rumors.

Driving anywhere alone is an expense that needs justification. Driving anywhere as a family is nearly impossible, because their two-door Cougar is too cramped and too sagging to accommodate their collective weight. Their second car, an old sport-utility vehicle, is stranded in a mechanic's back yard, needing repairs that Scott says he can't afford. So they stay home, which is another way to avoid spending money.

There is time to think: about the laundry he needs to wash. Or maybe he'll save it until tomorrow so he has something to do. He imagines the taunting he's sure he'll hear from his other brother -- the brother who has remained in Michigan -- if he moves back there and into the basement: "So you thought you were gonna go down there and make a ton of money . . . "

He thinks about his son, Cody, with his C's and D's and no direction or ambition. What will Cody do in a year when he graduates from high school? He thinks about taking classes to learn how to use a computer, aware that a new skill could help him find a job. The idea infuriates him. He has a blue folder filled with certificates: "Scott Nichols has satisfactorily completed the Advanced Auto Body Course." And: Scott Nichols "has completed 460 hours of training in auto glass installation." And: "Scott Nichols successfully completed 1,020 hours of training in auto painting."

Why should he have to start all over?

"Did you eat all the doughnuts?" Kelly asks.

"What do you think I was eating last night?" he answers.

She studies Hailey, who is on the floor, gaping at the TV.

"She's kind of sedentary," she says.

"Why?"

"I don't know."

"Why?"

"I don't know."

Scott smiles. "Why?"

She rolls her eyes. "I'm going to smack you."

For dinner, they eat breakfast -- pancakes and sausages, which is what Scott had scheduled for this night when he mapped out a month's worth of meals to save money. The handwritten menu hangs on the refrigerator. Another night was soup and sandwiches. Another night was Chicken Helper and cottage cheese. Another night was leftovers. This night, Cody washes the dishes, his shoulder-length brown hair concealing his face as he leans over the sink.

"Homework?" Scott asks.

"No."

"Imagine that. If I get another call from school."

"You won't."

"What'd you do, tell them I don't have a phone?"

Cody disappears into his room to play Xbox. The TV is still on, the "King of Queens" fading into "Family Guy," "Two and a Half Men," "The New Old Christine," "Gary Unmarried," and "Seinfeld." As the sky turns black, no one switches on the lights. Kelly and Scott are in their usual places, the living room consumed by the blue glow of the television and an unceasing laugh track.

* * *

Monday is the day Scott dresses and leaves the house with a purpose that reminds him of the way he felt when he went to work. Only now he's off to collect their unemployment benefits, electronically delivered to their bank accounts by the state of Indiana: $268 for Kelly, $390 for him.

"Payday," he says, driving to an ATM.

He withdraws $700, which he tucks into a front pocket of his jeans. He buys a Pepsi, four packs of Marlboro Lights and $20 in gas. He pays the electric bill, buys brake pads, a $66 money order for the kids' health insurance, and hoses down the Cougar at a car wash. At the bank, he deposits $500 toward rent.

"Five, 10, 12 dollars," he says, counting his remaining cash.

He has $100 more coming, his reward for winning the NASCAR betting pool at his bar, a dark, smoky joint called the Winners Circle. He walks in just before noon, hoping to find someone, anyone, who might know something about a job. The place is almost empty. The bartender, gray-haired, gravelly voiced Valerie, delivers his winnings and a $2 draft. He rarely drinks at home or in front of his kids. He never drank at work. But sometimes he drinks here, beer after beer after beer.

"I don't want to end up in a bell tower with a high-powered rifle," he likes to say. "I need to let loose in some way. I'm not going to give up everything."

At 1:10 p.m. he orders his fourth Bud. At 1:44 he orders a fifth, then a sixth. His cellphone rings. He knows it's Kelly before he answers. There's that question again: How much does he have left?

"We're still fine," he says. "Promise! No I'm not! . . . I've only had six. . . . I'm good. . . . This is it."

He downs a seventh beer, then an eighth at 3:04. He drives home slowly. The last thing he needs is a cop pulling him over. He passes Coachmen RV on his left, a plant where he applied for a job six weeks earlier. He passes Evergreen on the right, another RV maker, the sign at the entrance to the long driveway announcing, "Not accepting any applications."

In the kitchen, Scott gives Kelly the rest of the money in his pocket, $70, which needs to last until next week's unemployment arrives. He hands Hailey his loose change for her piggy bank, before falling into a chair and losing himself in a game of solitaire.

* * *

"Mmm."

Kelly is the one out of the house now, closing her eyes as she sits in a Subway, savoring a foot-long sandwich.

Her thoughts shift to a phone conversation she had that morning with their landlord, when she gave notice that she and Scott would be moving out in a month unless they found work. The prospect of leaving Elkhart makes her think about the place she wishes they were going, a house that exists in her imagination.

"A Victorian," she says. "Four bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths, a family room, a living room, a sunroom, what I would call a sewing room, a kitchen, a dining room and a wraparound porch. That's what drew me to it, the wraparound."

She takes another bite and wanders around the first floor.

"The family room was going to be where I kept my plants," she says. "It was going to be soft green. . . . And the sunroom, that was going to be yellow and it was going to have golden wicker to decorate it. . . . And then upstairs, the master bedroom was going to be mostly white with some blue. . . . And the master bath was going to be purple and white and I was going to have a stained-glass window."

She's ashamed that she and Scott have no money. She's embarrassed that they can't find jobs. She didn't grow up this way. In high school, she had a 3.9 grade-point average. She keeps a few old papers in a box, a teacher's "A -- Well Written" scrawled on one, "Very Good!" on another. She got a scholarship to a community college, then lost it after she started partying and stopped going to class. She held a series of forgettable jobs at forgettable places: a bank, a photo lab, a Burger King. She went back to school, finished her two-year degree and continued to work at forgettable places.

She thinks about her mother, a divorcée, raising two daughters on her own and taking them on trips to New York and Washington, D.C., and Europe. She and Scott have never taken a family vacation. They were together for eight years before getting married, mainly because Kelly wanted to save up for a catered wedding reception. Scott would have been happy flying to Vegas and mixing in some gambling. He doesn't need a tux. Or a Victorian.

"And the first bedroom was going to be Hailey's bedroom," she says. "Soft green with a big Oriental rug with a big rose in the middle. And a big canopy bed. . . . "

She takes a last bite of her sandwich.

"I know it'll never happen," she says. "But you can still dream. Wish. Imagine."

She wipes her mouth with a napkin.

"If I made $60,000 and Scott made $60,000, we could probably do it in three or four years."

Her voice trails off.

"Someday."

She tosses her trash in the garbage. The tour is over.

* * *

An e-mail pops up on Kelly's BlackBerry, which she got when she was working and has kept because of the cost of breaking the contract. The message is from a chiropractor needing a bookkeeper, a job she thought was filled because she had applied two months earlier and got no response. Now the doctor wants her to take what he calls a "personality survey."

She drives to the public library to use a computer, because she and Scott don't own one. The survey requires that she rate how a series of 80 statements describes her, "4" being "most like you" and "1" being "least." Next to "I am a winner in most situations," she checks 1.

A few minutes after clicking the send button, their landlord calls, asking permission to drop by the next day to see what in the house needs to be fixed. The landlord, also an RV worker, is carrying two mortgages and must rent or sell the place as soon as possible.

Kelly hangs up and listens to her voicemail. A message from the chiropractor's assistant: The doctor wants her to come in for an interview, the first callback she has received in more than two months.

"Astonishing!" she says, driving toward home. "I wish I could stop and pick some lilacs. Look at all those pretty flowers!"

Hailey is sitting on Scott's lap, and Cody in the recliner, when Kelly walks in the house. They're watching "Bee Movie." Kelly tells Scott about the landlord's call.

"They want to do a walk-through tomorrow, put an ad in the paper."

"When tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow afternoon."

She mentions the call from the chiropractor.

"You're getting a job interview?" Cody asks.

"Yeah."

Scott coughs. He's fighting a cold. His mind drifts to cleaning up the house and packing. Kelly wonders whether they should trim the hedges.

"For God's sakes! That's just pitiful!" he shouts. "The things you worry about!"

"It just bugs me, okay?"

"Don't get snappy with me!"

They're silent for a few moments, his thoughts swinging back to the landlord.

"Didn't know she was going to market it that damn quick," he says.

The next morning, as she prepares to leave for her interview, Kelly gives Hailey a children's book to take to Scott, saying, "Ask Daddy to read it to you one more time."

The book is called "What Dads Can't Do," which Kelly discovered when she took Hailey to story time at the library. She hoped its message might lift her husband's spirits.

His voice is a monotone as he reads.

"There are so many things that dads can't do, it's a wonder they make it through life at all. But dads can't give up. No matter how tired a dad gets or how hard life gets, a dad never quits."

He closes the book and hands it to Hailey, who brings it to Kelly, who walks out the door, saying, "All right, wish me good things."

Scott is silent as the door shuts and asks no questions when she returns.

"Want me to tell you what happened?"

"Uh-huh."

He doesn't look up from the wall he's touching up with white paint. The landlord is due soon.

"It's 28 hours, eight bucks an hour," she says. No benefits, she adds.

"You say, 'Thank you, but -- '?"

"Yup," she says. "I make more on unemployment."

They sweep and vacuum. As he wipes down the stove, the sink and the counters, Scott thinks about a guy from his home town he loves to tease. He's over 30, has three kids and still lives at home with his mother. What a loser.

"I can't make that joke anymore," he says.

The landlord arrives with his wife, saying how sorry he is to see them go.

"Tell you the truth, I'm broke," Scott says. While Kelly follows them through the house, he wanders the back yard with Hailey and Karma.

An hour later, over lasagna, Scott asks Cody if his girlfriend is still trying to persuade him to stay with her instead of moving to Michigan.

"I'd rather stay down here," the boy says.

"You understand that life happens?" Scott says. "We've got to do something?"

Cody nods.

Scott goes into the garage, mounts his dirt bike, gunning the engine and standing on the pedals as he speeds across the field behind the house, his face slick with grimy sweat. For the first time all day, for the first time in a long while, he seems happy.

"Look at Daddy go!" Kelly says, holding Hailey's hand.

The bike hits a bump and Scott tumbles forward, over the handlebars, falling hard on the grass. His shoulder throbs. No job, no health insurance. He can't risk hurting himself any more. He pushes his bike to the garage and heads back to the couch.

* * *

Twenty-two days to go.

A couple of hours north, inside a small yellow house in Jackson, Mich., Kelly's mother walks down 11 dark steps into the basement. She's surrounded by stacks of boxes and milk crates, old chairs shoved against tables and shelves. The ceiling is low enough to touch.

Hailey will sleep upstairs, in a toddler bed already occupied by Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse.

And Cody?

"I don't know what they're going to do," says Diane Lawrence.

She shakes her head and walks up to the living room, settling into an easy chair. Her walls are decorated with antique clocks, a painting of a lighthouse and her mother's 70-year-old wedding dress, enshrined in a frame.

Lawrence leans back. She has no answers, none that she is sure of, anyway. Only questions.

How will three adults, a teenager and a child share a single bathroom?

How long will they stay?

Jackson is about 80 miles west of Detroit, its only recent distinction being that it made Forbes magazine's list of the country's 10 worst small cities for finding jobs. Elkhart was named, too. It was sixth worst. Jackson? Number one.

"There's just nothing available for anyone in this part of the country," she says.

Her friend warned her not to take them in. They're adults, let them figure it out. Lawrence scoffs at the idea. Of course they'll live with her. They're her family.

"It's not their fault the economy fell through the floor," she says. "It's just too bad it happened."

* * *

Six days until they have to leave.

"You know what he grossed this year?" a woman asks at Scott and Kelly's barbecue, referring to her husband, an RV worker, who grins as he toes the ground. "Under $10,000."

"We're three months behind on our mortgage payments," she says.

"After I pay all my monthly bills, I've got $40 in my pocket," says a boyish man, a single parent who works two jobs and fixes cars on the side.

"Haven't seen it this bad here in 21 years," says another man, in a baseball cap and bowling shirt, leaning against his pickup, gripping a can of beer. "We've all had to make adjustments."

No one more so than Scott, the host at his own farewell party, who is grilling burgers and hotdogs and hugging friends. He smiles when he sees Richard Oiler, his buddy, who recently got a job painting RVs after being laid off for 15 months.

Soon after he started, Oiler called Scott and told him to get over to the plant to fill out an application. Scott drove over once, then again, but never got a call. Maybe it's worth one last-ditch try before they go, he decides now. He moves closer to Oiler. He says he's going to stop by the plant on Monday to put in another application, and asks if he can deliver it to Oiler. Maybe Oiler could hand it to the bosses.

"See if you can?" he asks. He raises his eyebrows. "See what I'm saying?"

"Right," Oiler says.

Scott wanders away. Oiler sips his beer. He considers himself fortunate to have found a job. But he makes $15 an hour, without the regular bonuses that he and Scott could count on during fatter times. "Made more in high school," he says. Every day, he has to stop himself from talking back to his bosses.

"You keep your mouth shut!" his wife snaps.

Inside the house, Cody and his girlfriend, Brandy, lie on his bed watching cartoons. He wears a black T-shirt emblazoned with the Grim Reaper's hooded face. Thick black liner circles her hazel eyes.

"I have atrocious grades and no money," Cody says, which leaves one option, as far as he can see: the military, although boot camp is not something he'd relish.

"I'm not exactly in shape."

"You could lose weight," Brandy says.

"I'll diet then and if I can't get past that, well guess what? They'll send me home."

"No they won't, Cody."

He doesn't want to leave their house, his school, Brandy. He envisions the three of them sleeping in that basement -- Kelly, Scott and himself, no walls between them.

"I'm sorry," Cody says, "but this is wrong."

Outside, as the sun fades and a bonfire begins to glow, Kelly keeps an eye on Hailey while Scott wanders from friend to friend, bantering as he tilts his head back and chugs another beer. If anyone says anything approaching sentimental, he obliges with a hug and a promise to return. Then he moves on, laughing as he goes.

After 12 months of trying to fix his life, there is no more fixing to be done. Scott Nichols accepts that he is a man standing in a back yard of a house that soon won't be his own. He's a man with no way out. He's the man with no option but surrender.

* * *

Monday: Four days left. He does not go to see Richard Oiler. He does not fill out an application.

Tuesday: Kelly packs up some of her things. A clarinet she hasn't played since high school. A Louis Armstrong CD. Two photographs she took at some other point in her life, one of a rose, one of lilacs. A Shakespeare anthology. She shows Scott a wooden keepsake box. "You can yard-sale that," he says, "along with all the damn candles you got."

Wednesday: They run a few errands in the sagging Cougar.

Thursday: They rent a U-Haul and begin loading, father and son, silent. First the TV, then the couches, their dressers, their beds, the kitchen table, the washer and dryer, his two hunting rifles, then box after box after box, until the house is empty and the truck is full.

They arrive in Jackson by late afternoon the next day, Kelly's mother leading them down those 11 dark steps, apologizing not once but twice for the putrid smell of cat urine.

Kelly sits on a desk and Cody slumps in a chair. Scott is on the bed, arms folded, his eyes lost in the shadows. Kelly's mother offers to ask the cable company about running another line downstairs for their television.

Not necessary, Scott assures her.

"I don't plan on being here for long," he promises. He stands and unfolds his arms. The man with no options wonders what to do next, but there is nothing left to do other than trudge upstairs, unload the truck, and come back down to the basement.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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