CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A thunderstorm beats the pavement as hard as a nail gun, drowning out the US Leisure factory’s robotic churn, busily producing plastic patio furniture. From the scalding, melted plastic, one Adirondack chair is cranked out every 58 seconds. But even this work has to stop for a smoke break.
The men, in their navy blue uniforms, stand with their Mountain Dews, puffing on cigarettes, in a covered, concrete patio area. If this is their court, a guy called BA holds it. BA, we learn, stands for “Bad Ass.”
“You wouldn’t last long, that’s for sure,” Bad Ass tells us, when we ask if the work is hard. The other half-dozen men, sitting in plastic chairs and along a metal bench, laugh and nod in agreement.
The nickname belongs to Steve Chaney, a man with decades on the job, whose thick arms, seared with scars, tell his work history better than any resume. Gray stubble spread across his jowly, sunburnt cheeks. He still keeps his receding red hair in a Boy Scout buzz cut. He spoke chest-out, as if ready for a fight.
Chaney said he has no interest in picking sides come November. “Don’t associate me with Obama or Romney,” he warned in a thick drawl. The recession settled here like quicksand. No one offered a rope out. Gas prices, grocery prices, everything has gone up. Fatalism replaced the raises that never came. When Tim Shires jumped in to talk about a friend who he said killed himself over the bad economy, he shared no survivor's guilt. "It didn't really bother me," Shires said. "I knew it was going to happen."
Everything is up for ridicule. That includes the dueling presidential campaigns, bombarding their swing-state televisions -- and thus, their downtime -- with the relentless barrage of campaign commercials that they already view as phony.
"I always say into my radio, 'This is Steve Chaney and I approve this message,' because I hear that every day," Chaney said. "I think that these politicians, they just say that line and then they don't know what else is in the ad. They just have their magic words."
There's a magic question that’s been hurled around at the political conventions: "Is the country better off than it was four years ago?" The question, however, is a cliche, asked mainly by media types, testing how well the various campaign functionaries stick to their boilerplate responses, their overall value determined by how convincing they make their stock answer. There are no stock answers along Route 27 in blue-collar Gaston County, about a half-hour from the Democratic convention.
In 2008, Gaston overwhelming believed it found an answer in Sen. John McCain, voting for the Arizona war hero over Sen. Barack Obama by a margin of 62 percent to 37 percent. Now, county residents are not so sure there’s any kind of savior out there -- especially not a multi-millionaire private equity man who confuses NASCAR with being friends with NASCAR owners. Their concerns are more immediate than who takes the White House.
Route 27 shadows the tracks of the Carolina Central Railway and passes the remnants and survivors of what used to be the region's dominant textile industry. As NPR's Lauren Penland reported, "in its heyday, the textile industry employed 40 percent of North Carolina's workforce. Now that employment number is less than 2 percent."
During the early-bird hours at Billy's BBQ Homecooking and Family Restaurant, a 73-year-old former textile worker said he counts every penny of his retirement. He'll be unable to pass on anything to his children and grandchildren. “I tell my kids I wish I could help you more,” explained Jim Owen. “If I knew I was going to die in a year or two, I’d help them.”
Now, the answer to the question, "Are you better off than you were four years ago," is that everyone is working harder for less money.
A 50-year-old jack-of-all-trades lives now on minimum wage, unloading and loading furniture at the Bargain Hunters thrift store. A waitress at a café explained working two jobs, seven days a week, just to keep her daughter in competitive cheerleading. At the sprawling Hillcrest Gardens cemetery, Bob Carlson finishes his morning work as a groundskeeper, and prepares for a 2 p.m. funeral. At 75, this counts as a second career, after 40 years in textiles. He said he needs the money for health insurance and gas.
Carlson said he's voting for Romney, if not enthusiastically. "Don't have much choice if I don't vote for Obama," he said. Romney "has more of the ideas that I've got."
Jesus is all along Route 27 -- at the End-Time Message Tabernacle, the Solid Rock Baptist Church, even above a urinal at The WoodShed ("Jesus Saves"). So are pills. Police said oxycontin and methadone are the mood stabilizers of choice here. Talk radio conspiracy still holds currency, too.
A police sergeant getting a jarhead cut at a barber shop on Tuesday afternoon insisted Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. One chair over, barber Melvin Poole insisted the president was “out promoting homosexuality.” “He approves of it,” Poole said. Obama’s gay sales are through the roof. “Everybody and their brother is now queer.”
Even in this county? “I wouldn’t know,” Poole said. “And I don’t want to know.” Poole plans on voting for Romney.
In Stanley, the sign in front of Friday’s Clothing promises “Hard-to-find country styles.” By Saturday night, those styles will be a lot harder to find. The store’s owner, Ailene Friday, 85, said she is shutting down the business for good by supper that day. The brightest thing in the store is her white hair. The cluttered counter carries stacks of old Reader’s Digests, a bowl of free hard candy, $1 Andy Griffith comedy DVDs. A giant cotton-candy machine in the shape of a five-foot smiling red-and-yellow robot stands guard by the door. What’s left of the country styles are stacked in neat piles, each shirt individually wrapped in plastic. Everything left is XXL.
Friday has worked in this spot since 1964, before taking over as the store owner on Jan. 1, 1976, a fact noted in the town history book, "Echoes and Shadows of Two Centuries: A Collection of Interesting Tidbits Relating To The History of Stanley, North Carolina," which she showed off from behind the counter. She pointed out her paragraph, still proud of being a tidbit.
Chances are her son Wayne won’t make the next volume. Friday said he has helped her for years selling garage sale-type items in the back. He’ll have to make do elsewhere after Saturday. “The economy is too bad to take over,” she said. “Everybody is suffering, but we were suffering before the last election, too. … How many places you see American-made shirts?”
Route 27 doesn’t have an official motto, but Carrie Hicks, leaning against her faded green Honda at a Citgo, offered one that’s as good as any: “We laugh at ugly.”
Carrie's life story is all second choices without many decent second chances. When she chose to take care of her dying father at the end of his life, she said, she lost her job at a group home for the mentally challenged. A month ago, Carrie, 27, started stripping at a nearby club.
The previous night had not been a good one. “Some guys that were working from out of town for the DNC did come in last night,” she explained. “The only reason that they came into the strip club is because all the hotels were so full they had to stay in Gastonia to work in Charlotte. We were the closest one to ‘em.”
DNCers turn out to be lousy tippers. Carrie made only $40 -– hardly enough to support her and her 4-year old daughter.
There’s little time for thinking about presidential politics. When we asked about the election, Carrie looked at us like we were speaking in tongues. “Honey, I watch cartoons all day,” Carrie jabbed. “I got a 4-year-old. … There’s enough stuff in my day that pisses me off. Like last night not making any money. … I had to walk home from work last night. … And when I woke up, I was hot and my phone doesn’t have any minutes on it right now so instead of making enough money, I couldn’t buy some.”
From the Honda’s driver seat, her sister, Amanda, 25, chimed in with her own complaint. Her niece, she said, called her a “meanie bitch.”
The two perky blondes laugh bawdily at this insult.
A trip to Charlotte, Carrie said, may make up for last night, last month, last year. They just need to fix the Honda’s driver’s side window. The window went out of its alignment and now won’t go up. Amanda had just been through a breakup and the back seat is filled with clothes stuffed into white trash bags, and toiletries scattered about in two plastic bins. Everything is out of order.
But once they get to Charlotte, Carrie assured, the plan is clear: “Making some fucking money.”
As the sun began to set late Tuesday afternoon, we made a final stop on Route 27, to a place shrouded in tall weeds we'd passed numerous times already, a tiny crackerbox house, with hand-painted, big-block lettering on the front advertising "FOUL BALL SPORT CARDS." Intrigued by the prospect of a sports memorabilia shop on this lonely thread of road, we knocked on the weather-beaten door. No one answered.
We lingered at the lip of the adjacent driveway, not quite ready to give up on the possibility of meeting the hopeful obsessive trying to make a go of it selling rare Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle cards to retired textile workers. Just behind the treeline, in the neighboring driveway, a giant white dog lurched towards us, straining the thick rope tied to his neck.
Before we returned to the car, we were greeted by Margaret Carpenter, an ebullient African American woman studying to be a mental health counselor at nearby Gaston College. She and her husband live next to the card shop. Her mother and father-in-law, Tina and Dewey Gardner -- both white -- live up the drive.
Pretty soon, most of this multi-generational, multi-ethnic enclave were out in the driveway, chatting and smoking. We learned that the sports card shop closed some time ago, the building is now being used as a workspace for Dewey, where he builds remote-control planes in his spare time. During the day, Dewey transports trailers for a freight company.
The two women were gracious and gregarious, peppering us with as many questions as we had for them. Margaret took the lead. "I just want to know, who's looking out for us, you know, people who are not considered middle class ... poverty-stricken? The poor? What do we call 'em, the working class?" she asked.
"What do you think they think about you?" we asked.
Her answer is definitive. "Not very much," she said. "They don't think enough of us to even really address us."
Dewey stayed behind his chain-link fence smoking a Pall Mall. He is by contrast quieter -- more weighed-down and circumspect. He'd heard that Mitt Romney has been "talking about the country needs to be run like a business." He said he understands the sentiment, but offered caveats, from experience: "I've seen a lot of businesses, making things best for the business, that turned out to be not all that good for the business. They cut corners with employees.
"They used to pay for your insurance," he continued, "and you'd get bonuses, paid vacations. It's got down to where you just get a paycheck now, and they tell you you're lucky that you're working."