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

On Highway 52, Loving Hands, Rings On Layaway


Celina, Tennessee. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

OUTSIDE CELINA, TENN.--Love stories sometimes look like this: An engagement ring on layaway at Walmart.

Justin Hamby had been trying to pay off the ring for more than three months when we saw him on the side of the road, using one hand to flag down a ride and the other to hold onto the girl he hopes to marry, Holly Rogers.


Justin Hamby, 24, and Holly Rogers, 21, hitchhiking outside Celina. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Michael and I drove past the couple on our way to Celina, whizzing by like most cars on Highway 52, but we made it only a few blocks before guilt and curiosity turned us back. We knew there was nothing for miles but swaths of farmland and battered businesses and wondered what the couple was doing on this road, where they'd been and where they were hoping to go. We pulled over and rolled down the window. Justin walked up, holding a 5-inch switchblade in his hands.

“Sorry about the knife,” he said to Michael after noticing his eyes drift to the blade. He then explained he was as nervous about who would pick them up as that person probably was about them. “Sir, we’re not bad people. Just trying to get home.”

Three days earlier, the young couple – he’s 24 and she’s 21 – had hitchhiked about 165 miles from Oneida to Westmoreland for a $10-an-hour construction job Justin had been promised. He said they’d been struggling to make it on his $6.55-an-hour job at Sonic and hadn’t found anything better closer to home.


On the road from Oneida to Westmoreland. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“I put applications in to every single restaurant in my own home town…and nothing. Not one single phone call,” he said. “Ï even took a coal mining class. And Ï can’t even get a job at that and that’s a dangerous job.”

“I’ve been trying,” said Holly, who lost her job at a restaurant in January. “Walmart ain’t hiring. KFC ain’t hiring. The gas station aint hiring.” She went on.


On the road from from Oneida to Westmoreland. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

The two met three years ago when they walked into a free clinic in North Carolina at the same time. “Love at first sight,” they said. They have now lived together for eight months in Hamby’s mother’s three-bedroom house in Oneida. They want to get married as soon as possible.

“I told her to pick any ring she wanted,” Justin said. “And she picked one for $186 from Walmart.”

It’s silver, with a small diamond in the center and a cross on each side. Holly said she’s been anxious to get it since the day she picked it out, but they still owe about $100.

“She’s such a good girl and I want the best for her,” Justin said. “It’s just hard to not be able to give it to her.”

As they spoke, they stood no more than a few inches apart, their hands frequently reaching for each other’s. They didn't just hold hands, their fingers interlocked. Theirs was a love story amid the recession, and they knew it.


Justin Hamby and Holly Rogers met three years ago and said it was "love at first sight." Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“Happy. Simple. Nothing glamorous,” Justin said, describing the life they want. “As long as we’re together.”

The construction job Justin had been promised was supposed to pay for them to get home and fix his car’s broken radiator. But soon after getting to the house of the man who had offered him the job, Justin said he realized it was not a safe environment for Holly. He was worried enough that they left before he could collect the $75 he had earned for completing a day’s work.

The two had been walking on the road for three hours, having received only two short rides, when Michael and I saw them.

We couldn’t leave them standing there, so we tossed our bags into the trunk of the Mazda 3 we had rented and cleared enough space in the backseat for them and their backpacks.

When we got to the house, hardship was evident everywhere, from the curled tile in the hallway to the cracked panels of their bedroom ceiling. In the living room, the job listings sat open on the coffee table.


Justin Hamby and Holly Rogers in the bedroom they share in Oneida. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“Making a life together is going to take a lifetime,” Justin said. “All we’re looking for is a good steady job for me where I know I’m going to get a paycheck.”

In the meantime, he said, he had no doubt they would get the ring, eventually. .

“I give it another month, maybe two,” he said.


Hand without rings, at least for now. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  June 16, 2009; 8:15 AM ET
Categories:  Scene along the Street  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Job Lost, But Ready To Rumble
Next: Talk from the Lobby and Liars Bench


simply beautiful. May best wishes to this young couple. I know they'll make it!! they are so young and even if it takes a few years to get that ring, at least they have each other and that's and worth the sacrifices (i.e., walking away from money when one's sweetheart is in danger.)

Posted by: captiolhillmom | June 16, 2009 9:28 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for yet another poignant story from "real" America, where couples don't work two, three or four jobs to pay for $500,000 homes in concrete suburban hells. I love this blog.

Posted by: Jumpy66 | June 16, 2009 10:18 AM | Report abuse

Justin and Holly --

I think you can find good, steady entry level jobs in the healthcare field now: at nursing homes, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, linen companies, etc.

Consider them.

Visit them in person with a smile on your face, rather than wait for any of them to call.

There's still a pharmacist and nursing shortage out there, so you'll also find plenty of opportunities for career advancement there with the proper training, which most of these companies may help help you pay for that advanced training.

Remember, you two; a ring is just a thing, but a true love-bond is what no amount of money can buy.

Theresa and Michael, your readers want you to check on this couple at the end of your summer journey, to see how they are doing.

Naturally, their story has put a giant ring-thing around all our hearts.

Posted by: HereComesTheJudge | June 16, 2009 11:59 AM | Report abuse

I assume I'm not the first to wonder if we can help them with that $100. It wouldn't take us long to get there.

Posted by: bmrobert64 | June 16, 2009 3:19 PM | Report abuse

I love these stories and pictures, the pictures are the epitome of the old cliche',"A picture is worth a thousand words". Excellent stuff. This is the America, America doesn't want to see, nor know. But sadly in 2009, America it is.

Posted by: 72Redskins | June 19, 2009 11:50 AM | Report abuse

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