After 20 years, Ron Wolf was calling it quits. His men's wear store in Oregon City, a middle-class Portland suburb, was going under, and, given the bargains galore, the place should've been packed. But the shopping center already had half a dozen vacant stores, and Wolf's was empty.
"Four years ago, if you had a going out of business sale, they climbed the walls," he said. "I'll tell you, people are scared. The big thing is if the guy down the street gets laid off, they begin to worry. If the president of the United States would come and stand in one of these stores, he'd be shocked just listening to these people off the street."
We listened to many voices on a 10,000-mile, six-week cross-country trip this summer. While some sounded stubbornly stoic and a few we talked with even viewed their unemployment as an opportunity to change course, many more said they expect things to get worse before they get better. And, frequently, people we met used the word "depression" to describe the times.
The signposts of economic distress are across the land. Liquidation sales are epidemic: "We Quit" and "Going Out of Business" placards dominate store windows in large cities and small towns. Notices of farm auctions are common throughout the farm belt.
Around the country, especially in the West, the jobless go from town to town in search of work: a migration -- possibly one of the most significant since the Great Depression -- whose full dimensions may not be known until the next census. They travel in late-model cars, often pulling rented trailers. They travel, too, by rail and by thumb. And they are impelled by rumor, of better times somewhere down the road.
But the road we followed from Washington, D.C., to Washington State, California and back had few smooth stretches. It was paved instead with stories of hard times during the recession summer of 1982.
The network news on the day of departure reports unemployment holding steady, at a postwar high of 9.5 percent. Over the car radio on Interstate 70 near Hagerstown, Md., comes this testimonial: "I bank at Farmers Merchants Bank & Trust because in these unusual economic times, it's important to keep your money where it's safe." At St. Clairsville, Ohio, Lori Havelka works as a desk clerk at the Knight's Inn; her father, a steelworker foreman, has been laid off for three months. Six weeks later, he will still be unemployed.
At the Ohio Valley Mall in St. Clairsville, the parking lot is packed, but people are looking -- not buying -- and socializing until the 9 p.m. closing time, when traffic streams out like rush hour at the mill in better times. "Those without a job, put back to work," beseeches the Rev. Timmy Williams, a radio preacher broadcasting out of Clover, W. Va. "The people in the steel mills . . . Praise God . . . I'm asking for a miracle."
In Zanesville, Ohio, a dozen downtown storefronts are empty. Some of the retailers have moved to a year-old mall, which has also lost tenants; others have folded. Before the summer is over, Rose Furniture will go under with a final sale saying "Goodbye Forever . . . " In Richmond, Ind., meanwhile, the Linen Shoppe will close but second-hand stores will report increased sales.
In Peoria, a firm advertises "loss-of-income insurance" for businesses "during these difficult economic times," and Caterpillar Tractor Co. announces pay cuts for 21,000, the company's first since the Depression, and 2,000 layoffs. In Galesburg, Ill., the mayor's paint store is closing. But in response to graffiti saying, "The last one out of Galesburg, turn off the lights," a new bumper sticker says: "Keep the Lights ON. I'M STAYING."
The Fourth of July in Iowa City ends with dazzling fireworks climaxed by a sparkling American flag. In this sheltered university town, the economy seems more an academic abstraction. Still, at Wendrom Bluff, an affluent subdivision with 13 homes but 31 lots, there has been almost no new construction in two years. And the Cedar Rapids television station runs a "Job-a-thon" -- with the unemployed offering their services -- between segments of "The Pink Panther."
There are half a dozen vacant storefronts in downtown Mitchell, S.D., recent victims of the recession. Outside Rapid City, "Buy American" appears on one side of a commercial building, "For Lease or Sale" on the other.
In a roadside cafe at the edge of the Crow Indian reservation, near Ashland, Mont., another sign of the times: "Not accepting any more job applications. Sorry, we're full up." In Butte, the copper mine has just closed. But Chris Coile, a former Marylander who now raises cattle, observes, "Everyone's smiling, there are no breadlines, people aren't crying." A few days later, in Richland, Wash., Joe Sutey, a U.S. Department of Energy bureaucrat born in Butte, says of his hometown, "A number of people I know, both family and old acquaintances, are out of work but they've been through it before and they're not leaving."
Elsewhere in the Northwest, however, they are leaving in droves. The two ends of the rainbow are the Sun Belt and Alaska, but high hopes lie shattered there as well.
"Jobs in Alaska? Read This" urges the 49th state's flier posted in unemployment offices throughout the Northwest. After painting a bleak picture of joblessness on the last frontier, this warning: "We urge job seekers not to go to Alaska unless they have a firm offer of employment to avoid the traumatic disappointments facing many newcomers there now."
A woman hitchhiking in Richland is a case in point. Her husband, a 50-year old construction worker, had been laid off, and they had headed for Alaska. He had suffered a heart attack along the way and is in Fairbanks with friends. With their two children, she is back trying to sell their house. It has been three months and no buyer. I drop her off at a bank. She has been drinking. It is not yet noon.
In the Tri-Cities of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco, Wash., the bottom has fallen out with the economy-related termination of work on two nuclear power plants. For-sale signs sprout on almost every block. "DESPERATE" begins one classified real estate ad. "The owners will take almost anything for their $6300 equity. Car, boat, mobile home, or motorcyle and some cash." Families are separated as husbands go elsehwere in search of work, leaving wives and children behind to sell the house.
Ginger Bjerke is trying to sell or rent her house, without success, so she can join her husband in Oakland, Calif. "It's terrible," she says. "I was Josephine the plumber the other night. The boys miss their father. He's lonely down in California, too. There is quite a bit of (divorce). Families have been split up for such a long time . . . "
Job seekers here sometimes find their way to the Central United Protestant Church, which runs a placement service in its basement. "Job Central" is run by volunteers, some of whom, like Dan Rush, are also unemployed. "I'm about ready to leave the Tri-Cities in the dust," he says. "However, it doesn't pay to up and move in this economy unless you're moving to something." As he speaks, he registers the 1,687th job hunter to stop by since last November.
At Art's Place Tavern in Forks, Wash., a band known as "Hard Times" draws an enthusiastic weekend crowd, while a sardonic sign on the wall solicits beer cans (empty or full) for the "Hobo Camp" of unemployed loggers and their families living in the woods outside town. The self-styled "Logging Capital of the World" on the Olympic peninsula is on the skids, its population has dwindled and its real estate values have plummeted. But not everyone despairs.
"I keep positive, you know, somehow," says Ron Hix, 34, inside the travel trailer he calls home, even though his unemployment benefits are scheduled to run out in two weeks. Money, says the out-of-work logger, isn't everything. For food, there's fish in the summer and deer and elk in the winter. "As long as you can make a fire," he says, "you can live."
The Seattle Times promotes a feature entitled "What to Do If You're Fired" in its July 13 edition. The Journal-American, a suburban Seattle paper, carries "A guide to survival for the unemployed." In one fashionable suburb, an art dealer worries that the affluent are merely playing at hard times and not spending because it's "the trendy thing to do."
Visiting Vice President George Bush announces "the recession is over." Says an incredulous official of the Seattle chamber of commerce, "He must be living in another country." Seattle First National Bank, reeling from its ill-fated investments in the failed Penn Square Bank in Oklahoma, lays off 400 employes. Many suburban supermarkets, meanwhile, have clothing collection boxes for the needy. A repetitious new rock song is heard over the radio: "I need a job . . . I'm unemployed . . . I need a job . . . "
In Everett, Wash., a hard-hit lumbering center north of Seattle, the Union 76 station has posted a sign that says: "We do not accept . . . tools, tires or other merchandise in payment for gas or services."
"We were getting a lot of people pumping gas who didn't have money," explains cashier Dorothy DeVolder. "Sometimes, they'd say they forgot their money, sometimes they didn't have enough. They wanted to trade calculators, tools, tool boxes. I had a guy come in one day and offer to sell his watch to get a couple of dollars' gas. I sent him to a pawn shop."
As we drive into Portland, Ore., the radio is playing a musical response to "Take This Job And Shove It," the Johnny Paycheck hit: "That assembly line she's still. That mine's board is up. Sure wish I had a job to shove . . . I'm sure enough in need of a paycheck; this unemployment's not getting me by. My pocket book's as empty as this tank on this old truck. I wish I had a job to shove . . . "
The Black Bull Tavern, "doing our bit to ease the effects of the current recession," announces a "Recession Alert" to lure customers with free pool, darts, backgammon and music. In many parts of town businesses have closed. "The liquidation business is great," says Wally Pelett, Jr., whose father owns City Liquidators. In 1982, their business has doubled.
So many are leaving the area, doubling up, or moving in with their parents that rental vacancies are way up and concessions to new tenants include a free month's rent, no security or other fees or deposits, moving money and even dinner for two in a local restaurant. An auction of 10 condominium units unsold after a year brings prices 30 percent below the asking price.
In some neighborhoods, there are three "moving sale" signs to a telephone pole. "I've lived here all my life and certainly never wanted to move to California," says Melissa Lilly, cradling her two-month-old daughter at one such sale. Her husband, Jeffrey, 27, has finally obtained a teaching job five years after graduating from Portland's Reed College. He'd looked all over the country but had found work only in restaurants and bars, and had been laid off and unemployed until the California job came through.
So many are out of work that the state unemployment office "has gone to group interviews," Jeffrey Lilly says. A friend of his was "doing pretty well in the housing industry," he reports. "Then the economy fell apart. He's in used cars now. There's a big market for used cars."
But even that business is bad. Half a dozen lots have closed on S.E. 82d St. The surviving ones are overflowing with used cars. "You can buy all you want, but they're just not selling at the moment," says Bob Lish, at Eastside Auto Sales. "Right now, to pay their rent or make their mortgage payment, that's most of the reason people are selling their cars."
One summer Sunday features Portland's second annual "Parade of the Unemployed." Several hundred, a combination of skid row dwellers and political activists, rally on the banks of the Williamette River.
Michael Stoops, the march organizer, runs a mission house in the Burnside section of town: "When I came down here five years ago, anyone who wanted to work, to pick berries, to work in the nurseries, could work. Now, you have to go down to the casual labor office five days in a row and get up at 4 or 5 a.m. to get one day's work at minimum wage."
At the mission, says Stoops, "We're seeing a lot of Vietnam vets who can't find work, and a lot of loggers. The new homeless . . . single, young men in their 20s . . . We're full most of the time. About 20 percent are drifters . . . I encourage a lot of young people to go to California . . . "
You see them on the interstate, hitchhiking alone or in pairs. They aren't the vagabond hippies of another era; they are the new unemployed, on the road in search of work. One day on Interstate 5 south of Portland we count 50 of them, all heading south. From her Medford motel office near the freeway, Jean Meadows watches them come and go and sometimes scrounge through dumpsters for food. (A Eugene, Ore., bakery is giving away day-old bread, the radio reports.)
"They're not your regular bums, they're just down and out, looking for a meal," she observes. "The sad part is they have to leave their families so their wives can get (government) aid for the children. You'll see (hitchhikers) all over, even families with little kids. Some have had to sell their cars."
She and her husband had moved, too, from Roseburg, farther north. The company where she had worked had gone under after months of fending off creditors. Her boss had simply disappeared, leaving a couple of suicide notes. Here in Medford things are better, but recently she's had a couple of bill collectors staying at the motel.
"My husband lived through the Depression," she says. "He thinks we're headed right there again. He thinks this'll be worse because our children have been raised in affluence and are less able to cope. I think the younger generation doesn't know what's happening or what to do."
In Redding, Calif., The Lady Lorenz Restaurant offers a new "Soup Line Lunch" for $1.89. "People are thinking recession," explains owner Gene Orcutt. "I figured why not react to the situation? It's a sign of the times right now."
People are coming to Redding from Montana and Texas looking for jobs, but things are tough here, too -- unemployment in Shasta County is 21 percent -- and some are living in travel trailers by the river.
Larry Pringle, 32, is out of work and negotiating a $30 pawn shop loan to make ends meet, posting as collateral a ratchet and a cable hoist. An unemployed truck driver with a wife and child, he had been dredging for gold here until his dredge was stolen from the creek. Gold-dredging, he says, is "getting to be very popular; if you get lucky, you might make $50 a day. Also cutting wood. Everybody's cutting wood."
He had been to Nevada and found "absolutely nothing; things have gone from bad to worse. I'm not optimistic. You're not gonna walk into a job; they're not out there. We've got a situation so turned around right now, we're gonna go through hell before it gets right again."
"We've been here 12 or 13 years and this is the worst we've ever seen it," says Chris LaVella, whose family owns the pawn shop. More and more people -- "and a different type, more middle-class" -- are seeking loans, adds Peggy LaVella, his mother. And she is turning away many applicants who are "bringing in things we can't loan on. I think people are at the bottom of the barrel. They're bringing in lots of tools we won't take anymore."
The Chico, Calif., "beautiful music" FM-radio station carries a public service advertisement from Pacific Gas & Electric. "We know some of our customers are having trouble paying their bills right now," it begins, advising them to come in and work out a payment plan.
In Sacramento, sales of Depression glass are down at a local antique market and the missions overflow with transients, many of them arriving by rail, according to local newspaper reports. In Davis, a friend offers us a generic "BEER" with this notation on the can: "WAKE UP AMERICA! Be a good American and buy American. Pledge your next car to be an American car, and put our people back to work. Your opinion is very important to millions of unemployed people who with their families will be grateful to you if you will write and express your opinion to the President, your Senator or Congressman . . . "
It is possible, sailing on blustery San Francisco Bay or visiting in the hills of Berkeley, to forget about the recession, but not for long. The San Francisco Chronicle reports the latest national unemployment rate of 9.8 percent -- 10.5 percent in California, the fifth highest among the 10 largest states -- and publishes ads for a furniture store going out of business. Bay area paper classifieds are filled with ads by bankruptcy specialists promising "instant relief from creditors."
Hard by the sign promising "Pot of Gold Jackpots Are Here" in Reno, Nev., the Mayfair Supermarket bulletin board contains a card that says, "I have no job, no place to stay. Sleeping along the river is no fun. I am willing to work. Please leave address (I have no money for phone) if you can help me."
Tony Dalton, 21, with dirty blond hair and a tattoo on one arm, is one of the jobless drifters that pass through here in search of work. Turned away from the supermarket's sandwich counter that says "No Food Stamps Accepted," he emerges from the regular checkout line with a few groceries. He has been on the road since January, three months after being laid off from a Louisiana oil-drilling job.
"This is my house," he says, pointing to a backpack. "This is my car," he says, pointing to his shoe. "Oh, man, I"m telling you, it's bad off all the way across the country, from North Carolina to California. There are thousands and thousands of guys. They come from everywhere and they go to everywhere. Salt Lake is full of people tramping out. Sacramento's got hundreds of guys in the mission . . .
"I worked farm labor near Sacramento for eight weeks, hauling weeds for $3.50 an hour. They charged $12 a day to stay there. I just felt I could get something better if I headed to Reno (which he did on a tourist bus sponsored by one of the casinos that refunds $10 of the $14 ticket price). I've been here two weeks and there's nothing yet, except two or three days of spot labor.
"I'm just sleeping wherever I can. On the streets . . . under bridges . . . wherever I can. A lot of guys are sleeping along the river. It's about the only place you can go where the police won't harass you, throw you in jail . . . I think it's gonna get worse, a lot worse . . . "
Two brothers in their 20s have come here by car from Kellogg, Idaho, also by way of Sacramento, looking for work. In Reno, they have been turned away at 14 casinos and are trying to sell a small trunk "to get gas to get the hell out of here." A pawn shop has offered them only a dollar. The older brother says he will go "as far as I can to try and find some work."
Bill Givens' general store in Austin, Nev., an old mining town, has a new sign by the cash register: "Dear Valued Customer, we regret to inform you as of Aug. 1, l982, we will no longer be accepting any grocery charges. The economy has forced this 'cash and carry' policy."
The proprietor, whose mother started the store in 1920, says, "The mines have shut down, and the equipment companies can't sell equipment. Last year, geologists were drilling for eight or nine companies. This year, there's one outfit. And tourists are off better than half. It hurts a whole bunch, and I don't see it getting any better for a while."
The Salt Lake City television station announces that half of Arizona's 28,000 copper miners are laid off, while in Colorado foreclosures on time-shares in condoniniums are way up. Between these reports, an office furniture store advertises its going-out-of-business sale. In Green River, Utah, three of five motels still have vacancies on a mid-summer night, although there are virtually no services for almost a hundred miles in any direction.
In Durango, Colo., the tourist traffic is the same but spending is down, according to local officials. The narrow gauge tourist train to Silverton is laying off 12 workers and reducing the hours of 10 others. Motel occupancy is lower than in the past. "The whole thing revolves around tourists here," says Dee Campbell, who manages the state unemployment office. "There are a few motel maid jobs, but that's about it."
Many out-of-towners have landed here this summer not to vacation but to job hunt. Through most of the season, a hobo camp has existed on railroad property by the Animas River. But after a radio reporter goes on the air with the story, police clear it out. Many of its residents, including families, have moved into the forests and ridges around the town. And new arrivals keep coming.
"They're gravitating to areas that have a reputation for having jobs," says job counselor John Logan. "A lot of them have apparently been on the road for a while because they indicate jobs are bad everywhere they went. What do I tell them? There isn't a lot of work here except in the service trade, and it's hard to pay bills on $3.74, $4 an hour. A guy called me from Texas to ask me how jobs are here. I said not too good. He said it's not too good there, either, so he's coming here anyhow. Said he'd be here in a week and a half."
"The day before yesterday," says Campbell, "I talked to 20 people from Arizona and a half-dozen each from Indiana, Texas and Michigan, altogether a hundred people from various states, more than I've ever seen."
"What this country needs is a good five-year depression to bring it back to reality," suggests Robert L. Hemphill, owner of the Adobe Inn, one of the town's higher-priced hostelries, whose business was also down 14 percent the other month. "It's either something like that or a war that pulls people together."
Colorado's unemployment rate is under half the national average, but there are few jobs for out-of-staters and layoffs and bankruptcies are starting to be felt. In Carbondale, 70 coal miners are being laid off, mobile home sales have slumped and a local bank president is forecasting an exodus. In Grand Junction, a five-store western wear liquidation sale is on, and Valley Furniture advertises, "We're Quitting Business! Emergency Liquidation."
To all appearances, Denver is booming still, its skyline sprouting new towers, its suburbs sprawling ever outward. Its self-image is upbeat, with little room or tolerance for gloom and doom. A new shopping center, the largest in the Rocky Mountain region, is 74 percent full six months before opening. But on Friday, Aug. 13th, the Adolph Coors Brewing Co. announces 500 layoffs, the most in its 109-year history.
The same day, a Denver-bound hitchhiker is returning from vacation to his job as a driver and dispatcher for People's Labor Co. Located near the gold-leaf domed state capital, the firm hires temporary workers close to the minimum wage. The number has jumped from five to 25 a day since January, and many are laid-off loggers from the Northwest or "snowbirds" from the shuttered factories of the Northeast. Some are white-collar workers. "Everybody comes to Colorado," says the dispatcher, himself a California transplant. "They hear about all the construction in Denver, not knowing they hire local through the unions."
Across the Plains, many farmers are selling what they can to keep what they can. In grocery stores, gas stations and cafes from Seibert, Colo., to Oakley, Kan., to Boonville, Mo., the farm auction signs appear. In John Holdren's Seibert store there are two such notices. In the spring, there were six at once. "They're in hock up to their eardrums with no relief in sight," says the grocer, who also is struggling and has just posted a notice: "Due to economics within the store, there will be no charge tickets signed."
Among the farm sales announced in Holdren's store is Vernon C. Franke's. The 42-year old Colorado cattle rancher is $500,000 in debt after finishing $70,000 in the red last year. On Aug. 24, he was scheduled to sell 320 acres and an assortment of trucks, trailers, tractors, combines and other equipment. "What I'm trying to do is survive," he says. "I think things are gonna be pretty darn tough. I think a lot of farmers aren't gonna be in business. I'm afraid we're gonna see a big line-up of farm sales this year."
James Martin Bloom, an auctioneer in Oakley, agrees. "I think we've just begun to see what's gonna happen," he said. "There are lots and lots of sales around the country. I think we're gonna see a lot more. It's high interest and then crop failures -- hailed out, froze out."
But Bloom, 60, remembers when his father auctioned off farms during the Depression of the "dirty 30s," when "the dust and the dirt were blowing so bad, you couldn't grow anything, couldn't raise any feed.
"It's not that bad yet."
Brian and Tami Davis and Erin Marie, their year-old daughter, pull into the Annie Oakley Motel late Saturday night, Aug. 14, with all their worldly possessions packed into a U-Haul trailer and roof carrier. They have come from Lewiston, Idaho -- a timber town where their families had lived for generations -- and are bound for Florida and, they hope, a job.
"We took a big chance, but the work ran out," says Brian, 28. "The only thing with the Northwest right now, there's no lumber industry." They had tried to sell their house and couldn't. "In fact, we couldn't get anybody to rent it. Everybody's leaving town." he says.
"I think we'll make it," adds Tami Davis, 23.
"We can't do no worse. We got to do better," her husband says.
Interstate travel on our seventh continent-crossing is noticeably different. There are more billboards for rent, closed gas stations and even a few abandoned restaurants at exits where the highway culture had sprung full-blown during the decades just past. But the most striking thing is the vast number of rental trucks and moving trailers on the road. In two-hour stretches on two consecutive days, we count 50 or so, or one every two to three minutes. They are the lucky ones. The less fortunate, like the family with two boys we saw along I-70 near Effingham, Ill., thumb for a ride.
As we returned to Washington, D.C., where "mobility" often is "upward" and recession is still an abstraction to many, I thought of Dave Sittman. An unemployed electrician we met in Kennewick, Wash., Sittman and his family are staying put and clinging, however precariously, to an American dream that has changed from success to survival.
"I don't care if I have to start planting groceries in my backyard," he said. "I've managed to mow a lawn for a couple of chickens. I can pick peaches and asparagus. I know a lot about cars. I can do lots of things. I'm at a crossroads . . . I don't have anyplace to run."
"I see a big hurt in kids just graduating from high school," said Evelyn Sittman, his wife. "Their dreams are shattered. They have nothing to look forward to, now." To help make ends meet, she has a part-time job, and their 16-year old daughter worked this summer at a local restaurant for minimum wage. "I'm lucky to have a job," she added, barely managing a smile.
The Sittmans' 13-year old son returned from baseball with a friend whose father had gone to California for work. "His father's working in the Bay area," Sittman said. "No, Dad," Sittman's son said. "He got laid off again." Silence.
Too old, he said, finally, to "throw rocks," Sittman, 40, has grown a beard he says he will shave when the economy recovers. In the meantime, he has also written a poem to President Reagan, who got his vote and whom Sittman still supports. Sung to the tune of "Happy Days Are Here Again," it goes in part:
Mister Reagan help us please,
The bankers have us on our knees,
Our freedom someone should appease,
Happy days get here again . . .
You're the one we voted in,
To save us Sir, you must begin,
Our nerves and shoes are growing thin,
Happy days get here again . . .
The prosperous times where have they gone?
For sure we're doing something wrong.
Americans stay, we must be strong.
Happy days get here again . . .
Together we can start anew,
Just tell us what we'll have to do.
Give us back our pride, Red, White & Blue.
Happy days get here again.