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TimeSpace: Half A Tank
TimeSpace: Half A Tank

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

Talk from the Lobby and Liars Bench


Scotty's restaurant in Caryville. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

CARYVILLE, Tenn.--Overheard at the Super 8 motel: “He worked at GM for 31 years, and they just cut his last check in half,” an elderly man in the lobby tells another sitting a few chairs away. They’re talking about pensions. “I said, ‘I didn’t think they could do that.’ He said, ‘They did.’”

We were checking out of the motel, leaving behind rooms that smelled of dirty feet, when I overhead the men talking. They had both worked in this lobby years ago and were catching up. Since their circle of friends consists of mostly retirees, that’s where they’d seen the recession’s wrath.

“I thought that was safe,” Bill Robins, 74, said of his friend's slashed pension. “He said ‘Bill, they cut my check.' He said ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m down to bare necessities as it is. Now, I’m really going to be hurting?’”

Matt Marion, 83, listened and shook his head.

Michael and I had the car packed, and we knew we had hours to drive before getting to Celina – a town we’d only passed through the day before because of the hitchhikers we’d picked up– but the men told us that before we left, we had to visit Scotty’s. There, retirees gather day and night under a tin awning, drinking coffee and smoking.

We arrived at the restaurant to find a small building with a large sign advertising 55 cent hamburgers. Paul Goodman, 74, had just finished eating. He had grown up in the area and had worked as a janitor at the same school he attended as a child.

“I think it’s going to get very hard,” he said when we he found out why we were on this road trip. He remembers the Great Depression. “Darn near starved to death,” he said.

“Everybody and their brother is laid off around here, and there’s no jobs,” the day chef, Linda Proffitt, said. Her boyfriend has put in 23 job applications, she added, “and not one call back.”

She keeps a picture of the house they hope to buy folded neatly on a piece of paper in her apron. It’s 952 square feet, has two bedrooms and is listed for $46,700.

“It’s a beautiful little place,” Proffitt said. If she’s able to afford it, it will be the first home she’s ever owned. She looks middle aged and when I asked her age, she hesitated before saying, "I'm 25 and dyslexic.”

Jokes, it seems, are the norm here. On the awning over an outside seating area, a sign reads, “Liars bench.”

There, a half dozen men lounged, spread across patio chairs. They took turns telling stories, rarely mentioning the economy, except to make fun of one another. “If one came up and hit him on the head, he wouldn’t take it,” one former truck driver said, explaining why another didn’t have a job. The other man defended himself by saying a skinny guy might have survived on the wages he was making, but he wasn’t a skinny guy. And he wasn’t. They all laughed.

Michael and I sat with them for a while, digesting their words and Scotty's 55-cent burgers, and then we hit the road.


Charlie Carroll, 63 has been unable to find steady work in Caryville. He said, "I'll do anything. I'll mow your lawn. I'll detail your car. I just want to work." He's standing with Linda Proffitt whose boyfriend has put in 23 job applications and hasn't received any offers.Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  June 17, 2009; 10:05 AM ET
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Love reading the stories. Nice photos, too. Okay, brilliant photos.

Posted by: PopsyK | June 17, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

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