David and Sharon Eggleston were lured to this city in the Maryland mountains last summer by the promise of a new job and prospects for a bright future. Now, the job is gone and so is their future here. As soon as their tax refund arrives, they are heading south to Florida in search of warm weather and work.
With the despair of winter replacing the promise of summer, the young couple awkwardly asked for a handout of food in a converted old schoolhouse here this week. The shock of sudden unemployment left them no choice.
"I keep thinking if my father could see me now, he'd die," Sharon Eggleston said. "I always believed in the American way, if you work hard . . ."
An economic and emotional malaise grips this industrial seat of Allegany County. The county is a bellwether of hard times and this week brought the worst news yet.
The state reported that unemployment reached 13 percent here in December, the highest in years, more than five percentage points above the statewide average. Of the county's 37,215 workers, 4,838 were jobless.
Lines for free federal cheese last Friday were two blocks long and three or four deep in this small city. The following day, 150 ministers and social service officials met to discuss "Human Needs in the Economic Crisis." A local radio talk show devoted two hours to the subject Tuesday morning. That night, a religious revival that its organizers say was triggered by the economic distress drew a crowd of nearly 100, despite a freezing rain.
"Cumberland is economically and spiritually depressed," said Sharron Moody, 32, one of the organizers. "We've been praying for all the people out of work. It seems people turn to God when hard times come."
They also turn to help wanted ads, but these days there is little to scan. They are down 30 percent in the last two months compared to a year ago. David Eggleston said he counted only 11 one day this week and most were for babysitters. Another ad for insurance salespeople boasted, "Our Business is Recessionproof . . .Boom of Depression, We Continue to Grow." "Unemployed? Investigate Hairdressing," suggested another. "Hours Cut? Laid Off?" asked still another. "Now's the best time to sell Avon."
"When the nation sneezes, Allegany catches cold," said David A. Foltz, a research analyst for the state employment security administration. "Like the Marines, Allegany County is the first in--and the last out of--a recession."
Cumberland, a city of 25,000, and the surrounding area often are described as chronically depressed, but this time things are worse. The region hadn't recovered all the jobs it lost during the latest recession when the current one began.
A commercial artist noted that his business boomed during the 1977 recession, but not this time. V.J. Dougherty, sitting two stools away at a Cumberland bar, said, "People figured last time it was a temporary aberration. Now, people have the idea that we're going into another Depression, not precipitously like the Crash, but sort of sliding into it."
"You'll run into a lot of people who are gloom and doom," said Rick Mappin, director of the Allegany County Economic Development Corp. He insists, however, that Allegany is on the threshold of an economic boom.
But while civic boosters tried to sound upbeat, noting that some workers are being recalled, the overall picture remained bleak.
More than 1,100 newly unemployed have been furloughed by Allegany's plants in recent months. The Celanese Corp., which makes synthetic fibers, virtually shut down for three months. Pittsburgh Plate Glass laid off 385 employes, most of its work force. Kelly-Springfield, the tire manufacturer, furloughed 181 last summer, recently recalling two dozen or so. Even the Allegany Ballistics Laboratory, a defense contractor, laid off workers.
Three days before Christmas, 25-year-old David Eggleston got the word. The Century Warehouse, a discount store of which he was manager, was closing, putting 30 more out of work. "It was just goodbye, with two weeks severance,"said Sharon Eggleston.
The church-sponsored Interfaith Pantry they went to for help was run by a couple who had survived the Great Depression. It was not much comfort to this new generation of jobless, but the longevity of the couple's marriage lifted their spirits a bit.
Severe winter weather--with 22 inches of snow and four subzero days in January--have only made things worse in Cumberland, emptying the stores and even the bars of customers. "It's the worst January we've ever had," said Phil Geatz, from behind the bar at Cotton's, the tavern his father opened in 1933.
"A large number of electricians used to hang out here," he said. "They're now in Altoona, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington--even Florida . . . .There's jobs to be had in the South. Here, they're even laying off at the unemployment office."
So some leave Cumberland in search of work while others just pass through, transients from the Frostbelt to the Sunbelt. Out of food and money, they stop here at places like the Emmanuel Episcopal Church on Washington Street where the Rev. Edward Mullins makes them meals..
"In the past, we helped the bums," he said. "These people are different. When you see some of these people, it tears your heart out. I'll never forget the plaintive cry of a husband in his 30s who was traveling with his wife from Baltimore to Texas. He said, 'I'm so cold. I'm so tired of being cold. Being cold is like being poor. It hurts.'"
At the Holiday Inn, a cornerstone of Cumberland's urban renewal in the '70s, bookings are down. Fewer businessmen are traveling to Cumberland.
Across the train tracks sits the Union Rescue Mission, where occupancy is up. Sometimes, they come off the freights that rumble through town, to spend a night or two at the mission before moving on in their search for jobs.
The Rev. Kenneth L. Yarian, who runs the mission, is seeing others, too: the newly unemployed, local people not usually at the "Doorway to Hope at the Gateway to the West." The demand has caused Yarian to advertise in the paper for clothing, furniture, appliances and other items.
Within sight of the mission is the city's pedestrian mall. Another symbol of '70s optimism, it was completed in 1979 at a cost of $1.2 million. Today, nearly a dozen stores are empty. A few moved to a new mall outside town; more simply shut down. Even last fall's fancy brochure touting the mall's "vibrant atmosphere for merchandising" is outdated: one of the departed merchants talks of "a long-lasting and financially rewarding association with the Downtown area."
The year-old County Club Mall also has suffered. Half a dozen small businesses have come and gone, and as much as 20 percent of the available space is vacant. "There's a lot of people, but you'll notice nobody's carrying shopping bags," complained a shoe salesman.
Tim Paxton, 24, and his wife, Dixie, 22, were among the bagless. Laid off from a McDonald's fast-food restaurant in October, Paxton said they were moving to Florida where there is hope but no guarantee of a job. "No, sir," Paxton said, "there ain't nothing to be had here."
A growing number of the unemployed who stay seek food stamps, Medicaid and other help from the state. Some 300 more people applied for aid last December than did a year before. "They are a very angry group of people who don't feel good about being here," said social services director Dick Paulman. In the waiting room of the one-story building, Sharon Thompson, 25, an unemployed art teacher, despaired.
"It's terrible, the pits, feeling you can't support yourself," she said. Her husband is an out-of-work bricklayer. "I'll never have a house," she sighed, "or anything like that."
"We decided to have a baby," said Michael Thompson, 27. "Just about the time he was born last July , everything dropped. We've hit the bottom."
"Looking at it right now," she said, "I don't see us every having another child, the way things are. I can't see bringing another child into this mess."