As the day begins, David Lawrence is on a junkyard mattress in a basement apartment in a worn-out building in a rundown neighborhood, wondering whether this will be the day his life will turn around. He is 28, out of work and has $56 to his name. Next to him is his 11-month-old son, Dakota, who has a double ear infection, and his wife, Ruth Ann, who drinks Mountain Dew for breakfast and wishes every day that they could afford a house, or at least a car, or at the very least a Ricky Martin CD, tickets to wrestling, and a tattoo she'd like to have of a unicorn. They are asleep, and Lawrence tries not to wake them as he slips out of the apartment to take on a job that's his reason for hope this January morning--a clogged toilet in another apartment. Figure out what's wrong, his landlord said, fix it, and you'll earn $5 an hour off your rent.

Optimism in Iowa: There are different versions of it everywhere. There is the economic version that comes with a historically low unemployment rate. There is the political version that brings presidential candidates to Davenport to talk about historic opportunities. And there is David Lawrence's version.

"Yes, sir," he said to the landlord, and off he goes now, up a stairway, where he happens upon a garbage can blocking his way. It is a garbage can he recognizes, and he stares at it for a moment, perplexed, because it's not supposed to be here. It's supposed to be locked in a maintenance room, which is where it was the night before, filled with bottles and cans he'd been collecting and was about to turn in for cash. Cash for diapers. Cash for formula. Cash for whatever. He lifts the lid.

Empty.

"What happened?" he says.

The White Underclass

It is a specific question, but in David Lawrence's neighborhood, it is also one that could be asked by just about anyone: What happened?

In February, the U.S. economy will enter its 107th consecutive month of uninterrupted growth, a record. The national unemployment rate was 4.1 percent in December, which means just about anybody able to work should be able to find a job; in Davenport, the rate of 2.9 percent is reflected in the hundreds of job postings at the local Iowa Workforce office, so many that employers have started setting up recruiting tables in the lobby.

And yet, a few miles from there is Davenport Census Tract 105, which is home to the Lawrences and perhaps 900 other struggling people for whom the boom economy is, in Lawrence's words, "a bunch of b.s." Maybe they want to work but, for any number of reasons, they don't. Maybe they wish to be inside the borders of the American economy, but instead their borders are a census tract in which at least 40 percent of the residents are living in poverty and at least two-thirds of the residents are white.

In other words, they are part of the American white underclass, a segment of the population that has always existed in the scattered shadows of America but more recently has been consolidating in small to mid-size cities, particularly the industrial cities of the North and Midwest.

According to a study of 1990 census figures by Paul Jargowsky, a political economist at the University of Texas-Dallas, there are 387 high-poverty, white-majority census tracts in places such as Akron, Allentown and Appleton, and that's just the A's.

Davenport's is in the heart of a city of 97,000 that lost thousands of factory jobs in the 1970s and '80s, was listed dead last in a Money magazine story ranking 300 metro areas in terms of quality of life in the mid-1990s, and now is rebounding. There's a new hotel downtown, for instance, and a riverboat casino, and an initiative called Rejuvenate Davenport that has so far demolished more than 60 old buildings.

But plenty more old buildings remain, along with lopsided frame houses and forlorn-feeling streets, and that's the landscape of 105. It's the faded part of downtown, the part with Lederman Bail Bonds, Hawkeye Pawn and a bar called Don's Big 10, where, one night, the only two customers inside were an old man on a stool and, in a far corner, a young woman with a fresh black eye.

Most defining of all, though, is a building a block from the Big 10 called the Schricker, which is 50 apartments, all small, all depressing, all with flimsy doors leading into hallways that smell of cigarettes and old cooking grease, and all filled with examples of who even the best economy excludes.

In Apartment 14A, Virginia Robbins, who says she is 28 and has $100 to her name and has a temporary factory job and hopes to go to truck-driving school, is explaining why she and her boyfriend live here.

"It's cheap," she says, "and we're trying to get a house, and I talked to a Realtor today, and he said we had a chance to get a $60,000 home, right now, and if we'd had $1,000 to give him right then we could move in tomorrow."

In Apartment 6, Ruthann McConnell, 50, is explaining why she left her husband and moved here with her three children.

"He said, 'I never loved you in the whole 15 years we've been together,' " she says, "and I punched him in the mouth, twice, and he hit me back, and after that I don't remember a whole lot."

In Apartment 18A, Jennifer Lager-Fitzpatrick, 28, is explaining how a window in her apartment happened to shatter the night before.

"I hit it," she says. "With my head. I was pissed."

In Apartment B, David Lawrence is explaining who lives in the Schricker.

"Typical nobodies," he says.

Roots of the Problem

He is taking a break for some food. He has figured out what was wrong with the toilet, even though he has never done plumbing before. In 1988, Lawrence dropped out of high school. In 1990, he delivered pizzas for seven months. In 1991, he was a telemarketer for three months. In 1992, he was unemployed. In 1993, he had a paper route. In 1994 and 1995 he didn't work, from October 1996 to April 1999 he had a succession of jobs at convenience stores, "and ever since then I haven't been able to find nothing." Even though, by his count, he has applied to two dozen places in the last several months.

"I've been to all the fast-food places," he says. "I've been to a couple of car-part delivery places. I went to a pizza delivery place. Never got a call back."

Why?

A shrug. "See, a lot of the problem is we don't have a phone," he says, picking up the newspaper to look at the classifieds, "so it's hard for places to call back."

They also don't have a car. And the buses in Davenport aren't exactly reliable: Just the other day it took Ruth Ann an hour to go from the apartment to the hospital so Dakota could be seen for his double ear infection, a distance of less than three miles if she had walked it, which of course she couldn't do because it was 15 degrees outside and her child was sick.

"Computers," he says, reading the ads. "Computers, cosmetology, counter-clerk. . . ."

So, then, a plumber, and to hear him describe it, a successful one.

"I plunged and I plunged and I plunged," he says. And when that didn't work, he got permission from the landlord, Doug Erenberger, who also owns the Schricker, to smash the toilet apart with a hammer, and that's when he found the stick of deodorant, and now he's got to go back and put in a new toilet.

Not that anything in the Schricker is new. The toilets come from Davenport's occasional Clean-Up Days, when Erenberger drives around in an old truck grabbing whatever has been left at the curb. It's the same for the old dented stoves and refrigerators, which Erenberger gets at auction, along with whatever else he can find that is cheap. Couches. Dressers. Mattresses. Tables. Dishes. Flatware. Clothing. Some of which goes into apartments, and some of which is left on a table in the laundry for whoever might need it, free of charge, no questions asked, which is why David Lawrence thinks Doug Erenberger is one of the finest people he has ever met.

It is Erenberger, Lawrence says, who rescued his family last October when they were being evicted from another apartment. They were $1,400 behind in rent, and Lawrence had been out of work since April, and their oldest child had been placed in a residential treatment facility because of behavioral problems, and their next two children had been placed with a relative of Ruth Ann's because they were becoming lethargic and malnourished, and then came a Friday night when the landlord had all of their meager possessions carted to the curb. Go to the Schricker, a social worker suggested, and that's when they met Erenberger.

He rented them a one-bedroom basement apartment and gave them a playpen for Dakota, furniture from the auction to sit on-eat on-sleep on, and then started giving Lawrence odd jobs to do. Paint a hall. Make sure the doors are locked at night. Help with the maintenance. Five dollars an hour, deducted from the rent. Which, when added to a monthly welfare check, and food stamps, and the money they get from collecting cans, and the clothing they find when they poke around town on trash-collection days, is how the Lawrence family is surviving.

"Shoes," Ruth Ann says of what they have found.

"Toys," says David.

"Stuffed animals," says Ruth Ann, and then gets a little dreamy. "By the time I'm 40, we're going to have a house."

"With at least five acres of land," says David. "Maybe there's a small stream in the backyard. Maybe a wooded area to build a treehouse."

"Have a garden," says Ruth Ann.

"Yeah, and you wake up every morning, and walk in the kitchen, and there's your family, and outside the window there's the sun rising," says David, whose father walked out after throwing him against a wall when he was 2, and whose mother died when he was 7.

"Be able to go on a vacation," says Ruth Ann, who did just that when she was growing up, because her father was able to get a lifelong job at a foundry even though he'd dropped out of school in the fifth-grade, because that's how things worked then.

"Now you're getting a little too far out," David says.

"No, that's something families do," Ruth Ann says.

"I need a different fork, babe," David says. "This one's all bent up."

Food gone. Back to work. Without mentioning anything about the missing cans and bottles to Ruth Ann, Lawrence steps outside for a moment and looks around.

To the north, where all of the businesses are that have his job applications on file.

To the south, toward the Mississippi River, which is where he says he thought about going last October to kill himself. Just walk in, was his plan, and keep walking.

And then ended up here instead.

Sources of Optimism

And meanwhile, two short blocks to the east:

"I will not rest until we leave no one behind," Bill Bradley is saying. He is on TV, debating Al Gore, and the dozen people who have come to Bradley's Davenport office to watch are nodding as he goes on to say, "because only if we leave no one behind can we bring everybody together."

Optimism:

It's in Gore's Davenport office, too, where everyone is sure their man is going to win, including Bev Strayhall, who has been a social worker and understands that the people in the Schricker are "disenfranchised" and that it's unlikely that any of them will take part in the caucuses on Jan. 24.

But they should, she says, "because in a caucus you can say, 'These are the issues that are important to me.' " Even if the issue is not being able to get a job to get a family out of a basement? "That would be worded into a plank for job training and good wages."

Optimism.

It's at the Oscar Mayer Foods factory, where they're running three shifts.

And at John Deere, which was laying off employees right and left 20 years ago, but is back up to about 8,000 employees in and around Davenport.

And at the Wendy's, where manager Mike Kelly says he'll hire anyone, "as long as they're well-dressed, they got a smile on their face and can work flexible hours."

And at a restaurant up in the newer part of Davenport, by the mall, where a few civic leaders are talking about Rejuvenate Davenport and their hopes to demolish even more of Davenport 105.

"Blow it up," says one man of the Schricker, though no such plans exist.

But even at the Schricker there's optimism, at least for the moment, because Doug Erenberger has figured out what happened to David Lawrence's bottles and cans and has called him into the rental office to tell him.

There are only two people with keys to the maintenance room, he says, me and my head of maintenance, and I didn't take them. So here.

He hands Lawrence a set of keys.

"You're the new head of maintenance."

And for the second time today, Lawrence looks perplexed.

It'll mean more hours, Erenberger explains, and free tokens for the washers and dryers, and Lawrence wonders: Is it a promotion? Because in all his life, he's never had a promotion.

Is it a promotion?

"Yes," says Erenberger.

And now Lawrence starts to laugh.

"It is," says Erenberger.

And now Lawrence starts to cry, just for a moment, and now he excuses himself to tell Ruth Ann, who fixes him a pork chop for dinner that's so good he licks the knife when he's done.

"When he's working, it's like he's a completely different person," Ruth Ann says. "He's happier. We don't get in arguments. He feels he has purpose."

And maybe his life is turning around, Lawrence is thinking as 9 p.m. approaches, and he clips the keys to a belt loop and heads out the door.

David Lawrence, head of maintenance, on his rounds.

He goes through the basement, past the table of free things, which this day included an American flag that's still here and a suitcase of underpants that's gone.

He heads upstairs to Apartment 16 and runs into a man who says he's about to have a seizure because he was chased through the hallway by the man who lives in 21.

He heads over to 21 where the chaser is inside screaming profanities at the top of his lungs.

He heads back downstairs and out on the street, where a man has just hit a woman so hard that her face is covered in blood.

He heads back inside, up a stairway, where someone has just urinated.

He heads back to Apartment 21, knocks on the door, pleads with the man to let him in so they can talk, and the man screams back, "You want to fight?"

He heads back outside, where it has begun to snow.

"I love snow," he says. "It makes you feel a lot better," and then he heads back down to the basement, where the lights in his apartment are off and Ruth Ann is holding Dakota, trying to rock him to sleep.

"I want out of this," he says after a while. "There's got to be a way out. We've got to find it."

"We will," Ruth Ann says. "It's just taking us some time."

CAPTION: Ruth Ann Lawrence feeds macaroni and cheese to 11-month-old Dakota as her husband, David, watches in their basement apartment.

CAPTION: Maintenance workers David Lawrence, left, and Stephen Ulman carry a malfunctioning toilet from Schricker apartment building, where Lawrence has lived since an eviction.

CAPTION: The Schricker, a shabby building in downtown Davenport, Iowa, has 50 units, many of them occupied by people the U.S. economic boom has left behind.