Video by Sara Kenigsberg
Las Vegas, NEVADA - It's a cliche of journalism that lazy reporters learn all they think they need to know from the cabbies or chauffeurs who shuttle them from the airport to the hotel to the television studio and back. Read the next random foreign policy column closely and you'll probably find a cab driver quoted.
So we figured we'd get out of the way and let the driver speak for herself.
Fabienne Chalaye, born in France and bound for Vegas by way of Tallahassee, has been driving a limo -- which in Vegas means anything from a sedan or SUV to a super-stretched Hummer -- for the better part of a decade. The arc of her driving career traces the boom and bust of Las Vegas.
In the summer of 2010, I was in her city for Netroots Nation, an annual gathering of progressive bloggers and newsmakers. President Obama addressed the gathering by video, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid keynoted the affair. One afternoon, Fabienne was tasked with picking me up at the conference and driving me to a studio where I could pontificate on MSNBC about the dire state of the economy, a direness I had observed by reviewing a few statistics, chatting with a bellhop or two, and gabbing with Fabienne on the way to the studio.
After the interview, I stayed in the studio talking with Robert Garcia, then 58, the video producer who'd shot my short moment of commentary. Garcia told me how he put $100,000 down on a new home that he'd bought for $350,000 when the bubble was rising. Making nearly six figures, he said, he had no problem covering the mortgage and the $2,400 in alimony and child support that he was paying. In 2008, things took a turn, jobs were less frequent, but he weathered it because he had always lived within his means -- no credit card debt, no car payment. He had a "junky car," he said, one that his kids were embarrassed to ride in.
"It's funny," he added, pausing. "Just before I was laid off, I was gonna buy a BMW." Thinking about the BMW -- about what almost was -- is what did it. He paused for another long moment as his eyes welled up. I asked where he was living now and he broke down, tears pouring across his cheeks, washing his contacts out. "Actually, I'm looking for a place. I'll be right back," he said, leaving to compose himself and fix his contacts.
The contract work he got filming the occasional blowhard who blew into town wasn't enough to make it, he said, and he'd applied for 200 jobs all across the country, but at his age... employers want younger workers.
Fabienne and Robert swapped real estate and job-market war stories before she and I headed back to the casino and hotel. As usual, she had no other gigs the rest of the day, she noted, and I asked if she felt like taking me on a Nevada foreclosure tour -- which resulted in this story about Nevada's economic misery.
On Saturday, as GOP voters gather for a presidential caucus, little will have changed. Nevada continues to lead the nation in foreclosures and joblessness, now clocking in at a rate of 12.6 percent.
When I returned recently for a GOP debate, Fabienne was driving us again, this time with Sara Kenigsberg and her video camera along for the ride.