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

An S.O.S Along The Road & A Reporter's New Role


John El, a resident of Tent City in Nashville. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

NASHVILLE, Tenn.--Out of nowhere, John El asked me to write this down:

“Ronald Gene Tye, your brother is trying to find you. Please contact First Choice Music, Nashville, Tennessee. This is your brother.”

“Are you putting out an S.O.S?” asked Linda Parker, who, along with El, lives in Tent City.

“I have not seen my little brother in twenty years,” El replied. “He’s my only living relative. I’m the last of the Mohicans, except for Ronald Gene.”

It was then, as I scribbled down these words, that I realized how disconnected El is from the rest of the world, how he’s more than just physically living in the weeds. I started wondering how hard it would be to find his brother, call him and say 'I have a message for you.' I wondered if he’d care.

Michael and I have been traveling for weeks now, driving off main roads and toward weathered, seen-better-days buildings that all too often turn out to be harbingers of the state of the people who live inside them. We’ve sat in more than one living room of mismatched furniture, talking to people who wondered why a reporter and photographer even cared about their sad story, but then proceeded to tell us every painful detail. Bruises caused by boyfriends. Barbecues timed by food stamps. Bridges stood on in desperate moments.

One story would be hard enough to hear, but dozens carry a weight that is difficult to describe. At the end of the day, Michael and I feel both privileged and exhausted, eager to hear more but bracing ourselves for each new story.

“I don’t know how you describe that in-between,” Michael said. “There’s a part of us that is a bit walking wounded.”

In all the hours we’ve spent in the car, we’ve only turned on the radio once, and that was to check the weather. Mostly, we talk about what we’ve seen or what we’re going to see. Occasionally, we sit in silence.

As journalists, we’re trained to not get involved in a story, to blend into the background as invisible observers. But early on, Michael and I realized this assignment was different. We were part of it, whether we wanted to be or not. Whenever conversations have turned to food stamps, Michael draws reference from a childhood spent on them. When gangs have been mentioned, I think of a girl, popular and beautiful, in my seventh-grade class who was gunned down at a party and how her chair, along with those of several other classmates who were injured, remained empty.

We don’t expect people to see the stories we present here and have sympathy for everyone. We're not impacted the same by every tale. There’s no question that some people are to blame more than others for their circumstances and that there are many stories of hope and innovation and adaptation despite the economy. But if we’re going to give you a complete picture, we figure, it means showing you tattoos and all.

It means picking up a couple on the side of the road looking for a ride and a break and relaying an S.O.S handed over in earnest. It means telling you not only about the stories we find once we pull over, but also the ones we take into the car with us. When we met J.D. in the woods in Woodbridge, half naked and suffering from liver failure, he told Michael he didn't mind having his photo taken but had one request: Could he use one for his obit?

We drove away that afternoon, promising to come check on him at the end of the road trip and not even considering turning on the radio.

By Theresa Vargas  |  June 22, 2009; 12:12 PM ET
Categories:  Behind the Wheel  
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Next: Cleaning House in Wildersville


This is the kind of story people read and shake their head or sluff off with a comment that creates a distance of comfort, and then go on with what they were doing, but it touches a lot of us; touches me and brings into focus the faces of too many people I have seen who fit this profile. Some of them are welfare cheats, beggars, thieves, hurting to keep from getting hurt, rampaging against the system or confused by it. Some are sly and mean, working the system, shysters; some could never be helped enough to help themselves. The thing they have in common is no voice. They have no political clout, no ability to stand up and say, "Hey, look at me. I'm an American too." I want more from this story. I want to know if El finds his brother, and the probably impossible specifics of a common thread as to whether this is something someone can do something about. This story has found that lost little country road where many used to live, and too many still do.

Posted by: beaone | June 22, 2009 5:29 PM | Report abuse

When the dow dropped almost 700 points in October of '85 I was feeding my four kids with foodstamps because our state suppoted employer was not remember by the "don't tax me" legislatuure.friendly neighbors made certain that my children had gear to play hockey on the town ice. We are our brother's keepers.

Posted by: lallin1 | June 22, 2009 6:10 PM | Report abuse

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