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TimeSpace: Half A Tank

Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

Posted at 8:08 AM ET, 10/16/2009

The End of the Road


A self portrait Michael made in North Dakota. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

It’s the one question Michael and I heard most: Did you fight?

The truth is, if we had, I probably would’ve blogged about it.

There was a moment early on when Michael told me how he grew up in foster care and how easily he could’ve turned out like some of the more vulnerable people we were meeting. We were barely getting to know each other--we hadn’t met before this assignment--but I had to decide that night if our personal conversation was part of our journey, if it ought to be part of Half a Tank.

On June 8, I posted a piece about our exchange under the headline: Mirrors, Thin Walls and Cheap Motels.

As newspaper journalists, most of the stories we cover require us to step out of the picture. That’s where both Michael and I felt most comfortable before this assignment. But Half a Tank changed that for us. We realized early on that all of us--you, Michael, me, and the people who shared their stories here--were in this together.

Michael and I posted more than 110 entries, but you wrote nearly 900 comments and sent dozens of emails. Some of you even sent checks and offers of help to the people we met along the way.

It is with mixed emotions that Michael and I bring Half a Tank to a close. But after more than 20,000 miles and 30 states, we’ve hit the end of the road. We’re home.

To those of you in the back seat who traveled with us, thank you for the company. Half a Tank was as much your space as it was ours. Here are some photos from the road that we didn’t get a chance to show you before:


A sign in Kansas that was likely left over from 9-11 but also spoke to the spirit we saw in some places. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post


A preacher we met in Tunica, Mississippi. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post


A sign we ignored several times. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post


Even in hard hit Detroit, a street festival draws a crowd. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post


Michael and I hadn't met before this assignment but drove more than 20,000 miles together. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post


A small town in Colorado with a name we couldn't help but read more into. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  October 16, 2009; 8:08 AM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (3)
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Posted at 6:49 AM ET, 10/14/2009

Out Of The Debris, A Survival Story


Danny Glass holds a photo Michael took of him four months ago, just days into our cross-country road trip. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

When we first met Danny Glass, he was sitting in a tent, half-naked, too weak to put on pants.

He knew he was dying.

"Can I ask a favor?" he said to Michael Williamson, the Washington Post photographer with whom I traveled across the country this summer. "Can I use one of those photos for my obituary?"

That was in June. Flash forward to a couple of weeks ago: Michael and I stand in that same tangle of woods behind a motor vehicles office in Woodbridge, but we see no Danny, just the rain-soaked remnants of his belongings: a stained couch cushion he used as a mattress. A plastic water bowl for a dog he surrendered to a better home. A hospital wristband with his name on one side and the words "fall risk" on the other.

Michael and I don't know whether to feel relief or sadness. We don't know whether Danny is dead or in the clean bed he hadn't had in a long while.

About four months had passed since we began a road trip across the country and into the lives of hundreds of Americans affected by the recession. We would drive more than 20,000 miles, down highways and through back roads, talking to everyone from an Elvis impersonator in Memphis to an asphalt paver in Las Vegas.


Along the road in California's Central Valley. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

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By Theresa Vargas  |  October 14, 2009; 6:49 AM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (3)
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Posted at 11:02 AM ET, 10/13/2009

Helping One Another


Scene outside of Kokomo, Indiana, one of the areas hardest hit by the recession. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Because of you, a young couple can now buy the wedding ring they desired. A family of five who feared every day that their lights would be turned off no longer needs to be frightened. And an out-of-work engineer who struggled with moving his family into a shelter now has housing options.

All summer long, Michael and I saw people helping one another survive across the country. Still, the outpouring here on Half a Tank surprised both of us. Several of you didn’t just comment about the stories you read, you acted.

Right now, five envelopes sit on my desk, each with a check addressed to either Justin Hamby or Holly Rogers, the couple who got married without the $186 ring they wanted. The lowest amount on any of the checks is $20; the highest, $125.

Another time, a reader paid off a Colorado family’s electric bill--all $722.92 of it. She’d never met them, only read the few sentences about their circumstances here. Robert Bengston, a U.S. Postal Service worker, and his wife had resorted to food banks to feed their three children, ages 2, 11 and 16. They hadn't paid their utilities in five months. When I called Bengston to tell him about the reader’s offer, he couldn’t believe her generosity. He just repeated the word “amazing” several times.

More recently, after our story about the Vazquez family ran here and on the front page of the newspaper last week, more than a dozen emails came in containing job leads for Ron Vazquez to pursue or offering space in readers' homes for the family.

One person wrote: “I have a finished basement with full bath that could be master bedroom and two extra bedrooms for the kids. They could stay with me til they are back on their feet--no rent necessary.”

Another woman who’d lost her own job and was struggling to keep the house where she, her husband and their three children live, wrote: “We do not know if we will be able to keep our home over the long haul and are working on that. But we do have it now, and it is big. Our reaction to your story was to wonder if it would work out for your family to live with us in our home, for a while, until you get your feet on the ground.”

This week, Michael and I will be filing our final posts. One will be an update about a man we met just days into our journey and whose story, in many ways, is a metaphor for the recession. The other will be a thank you to all of you who have traveled with us day after day, town after town for the last four months. You didn't have to send a check or open your home to strangers to support those who shared their stories. Many of the people we met said they just wanted to be heard.

By Theresa Vargas  |  October 13, 2009; 11:02 AM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (1)
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Posted at 12:42 PM ET, 10/ 5/2009

When Home Goes From A House To A Room

Michael and I met Ron and Yolanda Vazquez at a homeless shelter in Woodbridge and they agreed to share their story with us, even though it was difficult for them and their children. The story will appear in the Washington Post print edition tomorrow, but in the meantime, here is the story with photos you will not see in the paper or online elsewhere.


Ron Vazquez was earning $85,000 a year, but after losing his job in January had to move his family into a homeless shelter In August. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Ron Vazquez was not a drunk. Not a drug addict. Not mentally ill.

For weeks, he repeated those three phrases to himself and anyone who would listen. He and his wife used to fight over walk-in closet space and which BMW to buy. Yolanda Vazquez is the quintessential PTA mom -- organized and energetic. Ron's the classic Little League coach -- involved and enthusiastic. They were not drunks. Not drug addicts. Not mentally ill.

They were not homeless. Except that now, they are.

"My wife told me today, 'Look, in the mirror, that's the face of homelessness," Ron said. The mirror was at the Woodbridge shelter where he, his wife and their three children have lived since August. They face a Wednesday deadline to move out of the shelter, destination unknown.

This was the family's second shelter. Ron, 48, walked out of the first one, angry. "I was like, 'I don't want to be here. I'm not homeless. I'm just an unemployed engineer,' " said Ron, who made $85,000 a year at a firm in the defense industry. "That was my mindset.

"But" -- he paused for a long while and lowered his voice -- "I'm homeless."

The financial crisis nudged many middle-class families a few rungs down the social ladder; it shoved some, like the Vazquezes, to depths they had never imagined.


Ron Vazquez stands in the single room where his family now sleeps in five twin beds. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

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By Theresa Vargas  |  October 5, 2009; 12:42 PM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (5)
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Posted at 10:03 AM ET, 10/ 1/2009

Silence From Lives On The Edge


Juan Rodriguez had one final wish: To die where he was born. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Juan Rodriguez never called.

He was supposed to when he got to San Antonio. The 75-year-old, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, hadn’t seen the city of his birth for more than half a century. He had no family there, no sense of what it looked like now. But it’s where he wanted to die and he said nothing was going to stop him from making the trip there from Sacramento. Not his rundown motor home. Not his broken van. Not his empty pockets. The last time we saw Juan, he estimated it would take him two weeks to reach San Antonio.

That was a month and a half ago.

He should've called by now. He promised he would.

There are some people Michael and I met on our summer-long journey across America whose stories we can’t update for you, whose lives were so disconnected from the mainstream that there is no cell phone to call, no email address to put on a message.

Michael and I found these people only by walking through overgrown weeds and across parking lots turned into makeshift shelters.

It's true many had lived on the edges of society even before the recession, but if they had any hope of escaping that life or bettering their situation, those dreams dimmed with the financial crisis. Take John El. We met the songwriter with the beautiful voice and big dreams in Nashville’s tent city, where homes are made of fallen billboards. I looked for, but never found the brother he asked me to get a message to. All El knew about him was that he had last worked in Florida's hard-hit real estate market.

Other people we met on the streets were pushed to the fringes directly by the recession. Their clothes were not yet worn thin; their bodies not yet accustomed to feeling pavement under their pillows. When we met Richard Scott Archer Jr., an out-of-work UPS worker, he was lying outside a church in Orlando, writing a letter to his mother. He'd been homeless only a few months. “I can feel my body is dying slowly on me,” he wrote. “I need help, I’m lost.”

As for Juan, he found us.

He limped toward our car in a parking lot, asked for a ride to a gas station and somehow stayed with us even after we said goodbye. For the rest of the trip, at random moments--while eating dinner in Michigan or while driving down orchard-lined streets in New York--I would turn to Michael and give him an update on the cowboy in the white hat.

It always came in the form of the same four words: Juan still hasn't called.


Three months before we found him sleeping on the streets of Orlando, Richard Scott Archer Jr. had a job, an apartment and a girlfriend. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  October 1, 2009; 10:03 AM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)
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Posted at 12:03 PM ET, 09/30/2009

Possessions Lost, Perspective Found


Anita Prins lost her job, her two homes and a closet full of clothes because of the economy, but she said she has gained new perspective. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Anita Prins no longer cries every day.

That's a change from when Michael and I last saw her a month and a half ago, standing outside a condo in Colorado that wasn't hers. Little in her life was. A former business proprietor who once owned two homes, Anita had been staying in borrowed space, eating donated food and relying on public transportation to get around.

Her life had leaped from one extreme to the other--from coveted autonomy in which she relied on almost no one else to forced dependence in which she had no choice but to lean on many.

It would take the recession, she told me when I called yesterday, to help her find a balance somewhere between those two states.

“I can’t even begin to speak about the level of appreciation I have for what I’ve been through,” Anita said, describing a newfound “interdependence” in which she has learned to accept support as well as give it. “Probably a lot of my tears over the years have been in seeing how little I valued people. It sounds so terrible, but it’s true.”

Michael and I had met the 36-year-old at a community dinner in Silverthorne. She served food to others, then put some in a Styrofoam box to take home that night. She had lost almost everything: an industrial design business, a house, a condo and a closet filled with fashionable clothes. (She was down to three outfits). Her relationship with her parents had grown strained and a few friends, those who no longer knew how to deal with her, had slipped away.

If she cried, it was understandable.


Anita Prins volunteers at a “Free Community Dinner” at the Elks Lodge in Silverthorne. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

A month later, she says her mood lifted after we ran the piece about her life here on Half A Tank, in part because of the response from strangers (she received more than a dozen emails) and in part because of her decision to live a healthier lifestyle (she joined the gym and began eating healthier).

“A person can really be pulled down and stay down,” she said. “But if they just allow themselves to morph, it can really end up being a beautiful, growing, maturing process.”

She still aspires to work in the design industry, but no longer wants to run her own business. Instead, she hopes to work with a team. In the meantime, she plans to move in October into the B&B where she's been working part-time. Once there, she's already decided she will start baking goods for those in the local hospital who have no relatives to visit them.

A few days before we met her, Anita wrote this on her personal blog: I don't want to do this anymore. Blogging. My time here is apparent in its meaning for me to be away to repair and recover. Putting my thoughts out into a quiet space occupied by millions of people is too much for me right now.

About a week ago, she wrote this: Fear, doubt and control won't 'do' - reliance, trust and surrender is what I work to bathe my self in daily. Yet, the sweet sting of my recent losses (assets and mind/body/soul) seems to be my greatest feat. Forgiveness. And I can't help to wonder if that was in God's Ultimate Plan for my stay here; fulfilling my need to completely forgive myself before I'm able to move into the next season in my life journey.


“I’m not crying everyday anymore,” Anita Prins said. “My mood has really lifted.” Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  September 30, 2009; 12:03 PM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (11)
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Posted at 11:26 AM ET, 09/29/2009

In Las Vegas, A Slow Recovery


Cynthia Lucero goes through a scrapbook that holds photos of some of the things her family lost in the last year. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

It took just three months for Cynthia and Timothy Lucero to lose it all -- the 22-foot boat, the Ford Bronco and the three-bedroom house in a neighborhood where their two teenage sons felt safe.

It will take much longer, the Las Vegas couple said, for them to get any of that back.

“It’ll take a year for me to get on my feet, but it’s slowly going uphill,” Timothy Lucero said. “At least it’s not going downhill. I don’t know if it could have gone much more downhill.”

When Michael and I first met the Luceros toward the end of July, they were living in a two-bedroom apartment in a neighborhood where clothes left outside to dry risked being stolen. Their gas had been shut off. They were behind on rent. And to pay for groceries, they often resorted to pawning their sons’ Xbox (only to buy it back when they could).

“I can totally understand where this recession is hitting,” Cynthia told me at the time. “It’s hitting me in every single way.”

To update you on some of the people we met during our summer-long journey through the United States, I called the Luceros, wondering if their circumstances had changed at all. I dialed not knowing--but fearing--that they wouldn't even have the cell phone I was calling. (When we last saw the family, they were down to one phone for the four of them. They had also, in a desperate but painful move, given up their two dogs, Mater and Cooper. Pictures of the two adorned family scrapbooks).


Cynthia and Timothy Lucero look over a family scrapbook that features photos of their dogs, Cooper and Mater. They had to give up both animals because they could not afford to keep them. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

The phone rang twice before Timothy answered. He was at work. He sounded happy.

“I’ve been working every day,” he said. “It feels good.”

An asphalt paver earning $17 an hour, Timothy said his hours are inconsistent and his boss has warned the crew that they should “take it while they got it, because they don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.” But so far, he said, there has been enough work that he's been able to come off unemployment and even hire two of his friends. He's also told his sons, ages 13 and 17, that the family will no longer have to keep the Xbox in hock.

“We’re slowly catching up on our bills and as soon as I get a chance, I want to get us out of that apartment,” he said.

But Cynthia, who handles the bills, said the family is barely digging out of the hole they had fallen into and won't have their old life back anytime soon.

The gas remains turned off, which means dinner is still cooked on a hot plate. The family's 1998 Buick--their only car other than the one Timothy's job lends him--still needs a new transmission. And lately, the couple's youngest son has decided he wants a job. “He said, ‘Mom I’m just tired of being broke as a joke,’” Cynthia said.

Still, there is reason for optimism. There is now an income where there had been only unemployment.

"It’s been a slow progress,” Cynthia said. “It’s not enough where I feel comfortable, but I can see some improvement.”

Her short-term goal: to have the gas turned on by winter. Her long-term hope: to get completely caught up on bills so that by next year, she and her husband might have $150 in their savings account.

“That’s my biggest hope,” she said. “I’m not reaching for the stars."


Cynthia Lucero stands in front of the hot plate she has cooked on since the gas in the family's apartment was turned off. She chats with her 13-year-old son, David, about what she should make for dinner. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  September 29, 2009; 11:26 AM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (1)
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Posted at 9:36 AM ET, 09/29/2009

Mourning A Local Family


Many of the mourners at a vigil for a Maryland family killed in a murder-suicide were high school friends of 14-year-old Charles Dalton, Jr. who was shot by his father Charles Dalton, Sr. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Hundreds stood with candles in hand Sunday night outside a Mount Airy home where a father struggling to survive the recession killed his wife, two children and the family's dog before turning the gun on himself. At the vigil, the childrens' classmates wrapped arms around one another, crying, trying to understand how this had happened. The deaths were the latest of several family murder-suicides in Maryland. Here's the story that ran on the Post's Web site after the bodies were discovered.


Jennifer Neuman comforts her 6-year-old son Brandon as they visit the house where a family of four was lost to murder-suicide. Brandon used to ride his bike around the neighborhood with 7-year-old Emmaline Dalton, one of the victims. Behind them stands Janet Baker and her 6-year-old daughter Emma, who also knew the family. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  September 29, 2009; 9:36 AM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (2)
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Posted at 9:06 AM ET, 09/25/2009

For Richer or Poorer


Justin Hamby and Holly Rogers share a kiss as they eat pizza in the kitchen of their home in Oneida, Tennessee. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Love stories sometimes end like this: A bride in blue, a groom in jeans and a ring that holds a promise of better days.

Michael and I first told you about Justin Hamby, 24, and Holly Rogers, 21, back in June, near the start of our summer-long journey across America. They were the couple in Tennessee who were hitchhiking home from a job that didn't work out and wanted nothing more than to get married. But there was one small detail stopping them: A ring.

Hamby had told Rogers to pick out whichever ring she wanted. She chose a sterling silver one from Walmart for $186. But the couple couldn’t afford even that. Hamby and Rogers had each lost their jobs. So the two put the ring on layaway, deciding to pay it off little by little, odd job by odd job. When we last saw them, they still owed about $100.

That was in June.

In the months that have passed, there have been many moments when Michael and I--and maybe you, too--have wondered what happened to them. Did they find jobs? Were they able to fix their car? Did they ever get the ring and the wedding they wanted? As we look back on the people we’ve met this summer, there are a few stories that linger in this way, unfinished in our minds, begging for updates that might reveal how the economic situation has changed somewhere, or how it hasn't. We decided that as we wrap up our journey, we ought to check back on a few people we met along the way. I started by calling Rogers.


Holly Rogers looks over a journal in the bedroom she shares with Justin Hamby, whom she met three years ago. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“We’re married!” she said. “August 24.”

In the tradition of the best love stories--ones that happen despite circumstances, not because of them--Hamby and Rogers stood in a brick church that day and exchanged vows they refused to put on hold any longer for the economy.

“We didn’t want to wait,” Hamby said. “We knew we were going to spend the rest of our lives together and we just wanted to make it official.”

It didn't matter that Hamby didn’t wear a suit or that Rogers didn’t wear a white dress. They wore their best. He donned a black dress shirt and jeans and she walked down the aisle in a blue gown and tiara.

“She looked so beautiful,” Hamby said. “She just looked so gorgeous.”

And the ring?

“No," she said. "Not yet."

“But we haven’t given up,” he said. “She’ll get her ring.”

Neither of the two has found a job despite filling out applications throughout Oneida and the surrounding area. However, Hamby said he is optimistic for the first time in a while about a potential tree trimming job. (“God, I’m just praying,” he said. “I’m just praying I get that job.”) The work has its dangers, he said, but they don’t concern him as much as the car in his driveway that no longer runs or the disrepair of his mother’s house, where he and his new wife live.

Hamby said his mother and younger sister helped pay for the wedding ceremony and a small party in the park the day before. They also helped him buy the ring that he slipped onto Rogers’ finger with the understanding that--like their situation--it was temporary. It cost about $50.

“It’s not special, believe me. But she’s still happy with it,” he said. “She’ll have her dream wedding one day.”


Holly Rogers and husband Justin Hamby live in his mother's house, which he plans to fix up once he finds work. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  September 25, 2009; 9:06 AM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (44)
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Posted at 10:27 AM ET, 09/23/2009

Coming Home


Dana lost her job in the food services industry, but, for now, has been able to hold onto her apartment in Prince George's County. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

A woman stood near the Wheaton Plaza mall in a floral dress that made it clear she cared about her appearance. She held up a sign that told of her pained, but not yet crippled state. “Jobless,” it said, “not -- yet -- homeless.” A box was drawn around the last three words.

The woman, who gave her name only as Dana, said she lost her job at a restaurant and is clinging to her apartment in Prince George’s County. She panhandles in Montgomery County, she said, because people there are more able and willing to give.

When Michael and I started our trip at the beginning of the summer, Wheaton Plaza was one of our first stops. We went to the shopping center, which is only blocks from Michael’s house, to survey a cluster of empty businesses. Each bore a ghost sign--a faded mark on the facade that designated a vanished business.

Now, as we come home and drive once again through familiar streets, we only have to look around to see that the situation has improved for some and worsened for others. At the shopping center, the space where Circuit City used to be has a new resident: an IFL furniture store. A large yellow and blue banner announces its "Grand Opening." But then there’s Dana. She wasn't there when we left, wasn't competing for that spot with other panhandlers.

In the next few days, Michael and I will end this blog where we started it -- at home in the Washington area. If you have suggestions about where we should go or whom we should meet to show how the great shifts in the economy have changed how we live and think, please send me an email or leave a comment below.


A furniture showroom opens at Wheaton Plaza mall in what had been an abandoned Circuit City. The letters "IFL" now hang where the electronics store's circle logo once did. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  September 23, 2009; 10:27 AM ET  |  Permalink  |  Comments (38)
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