The U.S. economy this year was strong and scary and not at all normal.
Growth surged, then stalled, then rebounded. Jobs were there for the taking. But not everyone wanted to — or was able to — return to work. The price of items such as lumber and used cars galloped higher at a pace most people had never experienced.
Across the country, Americans battled through a historic pandemic, trying to find their way back to more familiar terrain. A car salesman in Houston enjoyed a boom but wondered whether it would last. A Boston ballerina shed tears of joy as she returned to the stage. And a Wisconsin trucker was forced to park his $195,000 rig to wait for a simple aluminum part caught in a tangled supply chain.
Theirs are tales of perseverance and adaptation, resilience and triumph.
The U.S. economy this year is turning in its best performance since 1984, when Ronald Reagan proclaimed it “morning again in America.” Businesses are producing more goods and services than before the coronavirus pandemic, but doing so with about 4 million fewer workers. The economy is running so hot that the Federal Reserve this month took its first steps toward slowing things down, even as many downtown office towers remain vacant.
“We don’t look at this as a classic recovery,” said Paul Gruenwald, global chief economist for S&P Global Ratings. “We’re learning this as we go.”
Now, the climate is shifting again. In 2022, the economy will get less stimulus from government spending and the Fed’s easy-money policies, easing pressure on the supply bottlenecks that have clogged ports and rail yards. That combination should eventually take inflation off the boil.
But no one knows how the pandemic will affect next year. Few people even know how it will affect next week.
“There’s a tendency to take 2021 and expect a carbon copy in ‘22. That’s not going to be the case,” said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist with Oxford Economics. “The drivers of economic activity will be very different.”
To capture the national mood amid these crosscurrents, The Washington Post spoke to people in every region.
We met a former waitress who had reinvented herself in Miami as a cryptocurrency trader and developed a taste for Cartier earrings; saw how a nationwide reckoning with racial injustice was lifting the fortunes of an African American bookseller in Oakland; and witnessed outside of Denver the bittersweet sacrifice of a grandmother who left a job she loved to solve her daughter’s child-care crisis.
These are their stories:
Demand far beyond supply
“You see that 2018 Nissan Altima sitting out there?” asked Joe Zeidan, who owns Z Auto Place, a used-car business in west Houston.
“I sold that car two years ago for $15,000. Last month, the owner brought it back to trade it in on another car. I had to pay him $17,500 for it. Now it’s back on my lot, and I’m selling it for $18,500. That’s how crazy the car business is.”
Zeidan, 63, came to the United States from his native Lebanon in 1977 to attend the University of Houston. He graduated with a degree in engineering and has been selling used cars ever since, from inexpensive first cars for teenagers to Range Rovers and Ford F-150s to luxury Ferraris, Maseratis and Lamborghinis. He has never seen anything like the rabid search for used cars that exists in this wild, woolly and unpredictable pandemic-rebound economy.
“For sure, 2020 was a disaster year for us, both financially and personally. I lost a lot of money last year,” he said. “Because of the virus, everything shut down and people stopped buying cars. People were working from home. People who normally would have needed to buy a car could do without one last year.
“One day, one of my managers, who also was a friend, said he wasn’t feeling well and got tested. He had covid and died two weeks later. I closed my business for two weeks after he passed away and closed another week later. I closed to keep my staff safe. A used-car lot isn’t a business where your employees can work from home.”
This year, customers are back, and prices are up. Way up. Zeidan estimates his business is booming 50 percent over 2020.
“It’s really out of control. I can’t find enough cars to sell,” he explained, sitting at the desk in his small office. “I usually have about 120 cars on my lot, now I have only 70. People aren’t scared to go out anymore, and they are buying cars again. They want normal life to return, and they need transportation for that to happen. They need to get to work or go visit family or go shopping like they used to.
“That’s why I’m not so unhappy that I had so many cars I couldn’t sell last year. Now, I’m selling them at a higher price than I could have gotten last year.”
How long does Zeidan expect the car-buying frenzy to continue?
“I give it another six or seven months. But you never know,” he said. “Nobody knows anything about which way the world is turning.”
— Story by Ken Hoffman, photos by Mark Felix
Dancing again — and hearing the applause
The Snow Queen hadn’t danced before a live audience in 20 months. As she waited backstage for the Boston Ballet’s first performance of “The Nutcracker” to begin, Lia Cirio felt a swirl of emotions. The theater was packed, the anticipation palpable.
Two hours and many leaps later, she couldn’t hold back: “I cried tears of joy.”
For artists such as Cirio, a principal dancer and choreographer with the company, the pandemic threatened not just livelihoods, but their very reasons for being. She remembers the date: March 12, 2020, the opening night of “Carmen.” She had the lead role. “I didn’t understand what covid was. I thought it’d be a week or two.” Then the rest of the season got canceled.
“At first I did the ‘barre in my kitchen’ thing,” Cirio said, but soon she realized how long it might be before the company took the stage again. “I let my body heal, which it hadn’t done in a long time.” She isolated with her dance partner and dove into creative projects, including choreographing and recording new dances. She posted the videos on Instagram.
In September 2020, the Boston Ballet debuted its first virtual season. BB@yourhome featured previous footage, interviews and new, masked recordings. The effort drew viewers from more than 21 countries and helped keep everyone employed. Yet performing before the cameras was stressful. A small slip-up might not be noticed by a theater audience. On video, mistakes are memorialized forever.
“You’d do one take and then say, ‘I have to do it again,’ ” Cirio said.
The dancers finally resumed full rehearsals this fall. After practicing for so long in small pods and via Zoom, she relishes being together. “I care about my colleagues even more because of that separation.”
Rehearsals are long and arduous; dancers’ masks billow in and out when they pause, breathing deeply. “It’s kind of like training at elevation,” Cirio said. But between takes, laughter often fills the space while she and the others exaggerate moves and spoof their own missteps.
As with so many ballerinas, Cirio’s dream began with “The Nutcracker,” which she first saw when she was 3. She is now 35 and in her 18th year with the company. She has played the Snow Queen more than once; a recent review called her “rapt and radiant.”
She is thrilled that the audiences have returned in force. And as she pirouettes in a fantasyland of gently falling snowflakes, they watch her in spellbound silence.
“Being onstage again has been a really powerful feeling,” Cirio said.
— Story by Joelle Renstrom, photos by Iaritza Menjivar
From paycheck to paycheck to pay dirt
Kailey Kernick knew she was in trouble when yet another luxury-label boutique moved into Miami’s most chichi shopping area this month.
“They just opened a Chanel store a week ago,” she said. “And so that’s going to be dangerous for me.”
The 24-year-old’s admission came just outside of the Louis Vuitton store in the Miami Design District, a downtown destination where she spends a lot of time and a lot of money. Around her, men and women stepped out of Bentleys and Benzes to peruse windows with glittery displays of gold, diamonds and silk — no tinsel or faux baubles in sight.
“Dior is my favorite thing. And I love Chanel. I have an insane shopping addiction,” Kernick said.
It’s an addiction she can afford, thanks to the supercharged cryptocurrency trading that has transformed and empowered her world.
Two years ago, she was in her hometown near Calgary, working as a waitress and “living paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “I barely had any savings.”
The coronavirus hit, and she lost her job and decided to head south. After a brief stop in Los Angeles and another low-wage position at a mortgage broker, Kernick arrived in Miami in early 2021 and started trading cryptocurrency, something she’d been studying for a few years.
“I’ve been lucky to run with people that are just killing it in the industry, and we have a community,” she said. “I know it’s like gambling, but it’s smarter gambling, depending on how you play it. You’ve got to be smart with this.”
She and her friends have quadrupled their investments this year, according to Kernick. They’re all enjoying luxe lifestyles — the kind that Miami Mayor Francis Suarez is promoting as he tries to turn the city into a cryptocurrency trading center.
Though she realizes the pandemic is still upending many lives, she expects to be ready to weather any future financial setbacks.
“I feel like nobody fully understands what the economy will do. Just like with covid, nobody expected that,” she said. “You’ve just got to be prepared, and I know that I’ll find a way to make it. Even if the stock market crashes, that’s just an opportunity to buy.”
For now, she’s trying to persuade her parents in Canada to come visit. “They’re frugal people. They don’t really quite understand what I’m doing with crypto,” she said.
Kernick isn’t apologizing for the extravagance of her splurges — like the $4,000 pair of earrings from Cartier she recently bought.
“I think life manifests itself in the way you live it. I live the life I want to live, and I’m just going to keep inviting more luxury and abundance,” Kernick said. “You attract what you give out to the world.”
— Story by Lori Rozsa, photos by Scott McIntyre
A surge of interest as the nation reckoned
Blanche Richardson still works seven days a week at the business her parents founded about six decades ago — the business decorated on the outside by a 10-foot-tall block-long bookshelf mural, the business visited over the years by luminaries such as Rosa Parks and Muhammad Ali, the business that is the oldest African American-owned bookstore in the country.
“It’s essential that any culture, any community has its own source of knowledge,” Richardson said. “For the Black community, this is it.”
The past two years have of course been challenging. When the pandemic forced shutdowns in California, the bookstore’s supporters responded with fundraising efforts and waves of phone orders to help keep it afloat.
But when George Floyd was killed under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, triggering protests in cities across the country and painful introspection among many Americans, the bookshop became a key destination for people not just in its Oakland neighborhood but throughout the Bay Area.
Suddenly, along with Black customers seeking education and kinship, “there were a lot more White people and Asian people coming in the store looking for answers and also wanting to be supportive.” Richardson had never faced such demand. The store’s income “easily quintupled.” She couldn’t get new books fast enough. The result: Bare shelves, for the first time in memory.
About a third of the newcomers have kept returning, both individuals and corporate customers in states as distant as Virginia and New York. Rewarding as that is, it means long, long hours. Richardson won’t give her age other than to say she’s older than 65. Rather than making retirement plans, she continues juggling the demands of a small business in a volatile economy, backed by a group of loyal volunteers.
She is gratified that the store hasn’t had deliveries badly delayed by this fall’s trucking and supply chain issues. Its shelves are full again, with James Baldwin’s essays and Audre Lorde’s poetry, biographies of Stacey Abrams and Nipsey Hussle, works of Afrofuturism and more. Richardson curates the offerings — about 3,000 titles — for their relevance to people of color. A majority are by Black authors.
“We find that people will now turn to us to order things they could very well get at another bookstore,” she said. Many tell her, “I didn’t want to shop at Amazon.”
Fame has come with a price: a spate of nasty phone calls, threatening letters and, most recently, smashed windows. But Richardson, inspired by her parents’ legacy, is undeterred. “We want to provide a place where you can get the truth about yourself.”
— Story by Alissa Greenberg, photos by Amy Osborne
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Big trucks, small parts and an economy hanging in the balance
After pulling countless trailers of grain across the country during the pandemic, Mike Nichols’s truck was, at last, sitting still.
Parked at the shop, it needed a routine part — a length of aluminum tubing — just as the trucking industry was gripped by a parts shortage.
“Even the supply chain is affected by the supply chain,” said Nichols, 54, as he waited at his home in central Wisconsin. “It’s a week without revenue, so that hurts. But you need breaks, too, now and then.”
When truck traffic dipped in 2020, he had kept rolling, crisscrossing the country with 25-ton loads of grain. Corn from Iowa. Rice from Arkansas. Malted barley from Minnesota.
Yet now, trucks are crowding the interstates, heavy with the goods fueling a pandemic consumer binge.
Nichols has logged about 2.5 million miles without an accident since he began driving in the 1980s. More than ever, though, he feels the stress of crowded roads — a big rig to the left of him, to the right, behind him.
At night, they pack rest areas and truck stops, their drivers urged off the road by their ELDs — electronic logging devices — for federally mandated rest breaks, usually 10 hours. The Federal Highway Administration calls the truck parking shortage “severe” and has labeled it “a national safety concern.”
Not until mid-December was Nichols’s truck finally repaired and he able to head out. He picked up a load of corn flour in Iowa bound for North Carolina. Hours later, his break period approaching, he steered onto an exit in Oakwood, Ill. Three truck stops there have more than 200 spaces, and he needed only one.
On the biggest lot, he soon got stuck in a futile cul-de-sac of trucks. He had to back out. “They were in there like cordwood,” he said.
The second lot was smaller and also crowded with more vehicles than spaces. With his ELD ticking toward a break violation, he didn’t bother to check the third lot.
“You work all day, putting in 14 hours, and then you have to worry about where you are going to park your bed,” he said. “It’s almost like being homeless.”
His rig, recently purchased for $195,000, is set up with a microwave, fridge and bed. Its mud flaps read “Don’t tread on me.” His late wife’s name is painted across the back.
Nichols drove to a truck terminal 10 miles away, owned by the company he was hauling for, and a place where he could take his required rest — but where he would have no bathroom. In the light of the terminal, he closed his eyes inside the Lesa Marie III, his small part of the nation’s supply chain. On the highway, the truck traffic kept moving.
— Story by Peter Kendall, photos by KC McGinnis
Fort Lupton, Colo.
With everything in flux, family comes first
Dodging tumbleweeds, Christine Hilborn’s granddaughter slid between the rungs of an iron gate, tiptoed around piles of poop and stopped under a chestnut-colored horse’s dusty belly.
“He sees me!” the 4-year-old shouted.
“Honey, he can’t see you there,” Hilborn replied, catching up and moving her in front of the animal. That lasted just a moment as the little girl giggled, pivoted in her pink sequined sneakers and dashed out of the corral. Hilborn watched her unruly curls disappear behind a horse trailer and smiled: “Everything’s a celebration.”
This month, as her extended family faced a child-care crisis exacerbated by the pandemic, Hilborn, 50, left her job as a foster-care case manager to watch both of her granddaughters — Lavina and her 7-year-old sister, Naveyh. Her decision came after 20 exhausting months of juggling work, online school for the older girl and babysitting for their mother, Michaela Lewis. They and Hilborn’s other daughter share a rented mobile home in Fort Lupton, in the heart of Colorado’s oil patch. Hilborn’s husband travels back and forth between there and Florida, where he has been working construction.
“It’s a huge adjustment,” Hilborn said. She misses her time with the parents and youngsters she helped support in the foster-care system. She also misses the $1,000 a month she gave up in income. “I keep wanting to call my providers, and I don’t have providers anymore.”
Inside their home on the windswept plain, Lavina carried a patient orange tabby around and around the kitchen island. Her mother, who cleans houses, worked nights during the early months of the pandemic, keeping an eye on the girls during the day while Hilborn handled evening duty. But when Lewis’s hours changed with a new job, Hilborn started taking Lavina to her office. That arrangement fell apart quickly — no surprise when Lavina refused to nap there — and the family’s carefully crafted schedule was thrown into disarray.
Then, in September, Hilborn and Lavina had to isolate in the master bedroom after the three others got covid-19. Once everyone recovered, the plan was to enroll Lavina in a day care, but it had a waiting list. So Hilborn resigned from the agency where she had worked for four years, wistful about leaving behind something she could call her own but embracing newfound free time to ride her beloved horse.
As 2021 comes to a close, she doesn’t plan to go back to the office. She’s starting a consulting business for group-home providers who care for foster children.
“I wanted to do it,” she said. “But at times it’s all so overwhelming.”
— Story by Jennifer Oldham, photos by Stephen Speranza