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

Chips, Candy and Tales of Woe in Elkhart

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Robin Buck has worked at the 7-Eleven in Elkhart, Ind., for seven years, mastering the ability to keep an eye on the aisles while attending to customers. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

ELKHART, Ind.--Most of her customers call her Mama.

For seven years, Robin Buck has stood behind the counter at the 7-Eleven on Main Street in Elkhart, greeting many of the same people day after day. She doesn’t just ring them up. She talks with them, jokes with them, calls them by their first names.

“So how is everything, Ms. Anna?” Robin asks a girl who looks about nine years old. “How is school?”

Anna beams.

“It’s good,” the girl says. “So, when are you going to Ohio?”

“Right now I can’t afford it, but as soon as I can, I’m taking you with me.”

Anna flashes a wide smile.

“They call it a recession, but I call it a depression,” Robin says. “The whole state of Indiana has been hit.”

Especially Elkhart. This is the RV capital of the world, and so when sales of recreational vehicles dropped and plants closed, unemployment jumped as quickly and powerfully as anywhere else in the nation. Barack Obama has made five visits to Elkhart in the last year and a half, including one in February that marked his first trip outside of Washington as president. The last time he came was in August.

Inside the 7-Eleven a few minutes later, Robin asks a young boy about classes.

“I made the football team!” he says.

“All right!” a woman in line in front of him shouts, giving him a high five.

Robin, 54, does a graceful dance behind the register, counting money while stepping a few feet back every few seconds to glance down the aisle. Since the recession started, the store has been robbed seven times, according to local media reports, and that doesn’t include shoplifting.

“The last guy who robbed me was 52 years old,” Robin says. “He didn’t even have a mask on at the time.”

As Robin handles a long line inside the convenience store, two men sit outside drinking Arizona iced tea because it was 99 cents compared to Mountain Dew, which was $1.60. Matt Dinehart, 24, works for a company that builds boats but he recently had to move in with his mother because he couldn’t afford to pay rent. DeAndre Peoples, 22, was laid off a year and a half ago and has supported himself by selling his plasma. Bruises run along the middle of his arm where the needles went in. He says he sells twice a week, earning $20 for the first visit and $30 for the second.

“I’m barely making rent,” DeAndre says.

“It’s bad out here,” Matt adds. “His brother is the hiring manager at McDonalds."

“And I can’t get a job,” DeAndre says. “I’ve looked everywhere.”

“And good luck cutting grass, because there’s a lot of people doing it,” Matt says.

DeAndre's unemployment benefits ran out three months ago. “Now, I’m not getting nothing,” he says. His family survives on his girlfriend's fast food job and his plasma donations. He watches their children, ages 2 and 18 months, during the day. “The only good thing about it is I can watch my kids grow.”

Robin has heard these stories time and time again over the last few years. She has also noticed customers buying less and switching their tastes to catch a bargain.

“They want to be working,” Robin says.

“Tell me about it,” a 65-year-old man says as he pays for gas at the register. “I was laid off a year ago. I went from working for 40 years to not working. Luckily, I just got a job again.”

Behind him, two firefighters wearing blue t-shirts with emblems stand in line, waiting to buy soda and candy. A group of young men in baggy jeans walk in. One of the men lifts up an oversized t-shirt to reveal a tighter blue shirt emblazoned with a fake firefighter emblem.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” he tells one of the firefighters, indicating he plans to join the force. “I’m going to throw my application in.”

The store is crowded and so Robin is scanning all corners. Her dance grows faster as her eyes dart between the register and the aisles. One by one, she rings up customers for about 10 minutes until the store grows quiet again. She knows she only has a few seconds before the next batch of customers arrives and so she uses the time to sip a cup of coffee. Her lips touch the mug just twice before a mother and daughter come in. Their clothes look well worn and their hair unwashed.

“How you doing?” Robin asks.

“Not too good,” the woman said. “My car broke down and I can’t afford rent. And the old man’s unemployment runs out in two weeks and we can’t find nothing.”

Her husband used to earn $17 an hour at a company that made cabinets for recreational vehicles, but the company had to turn to layoffs. So now, the woman tells Robin, her family plans to move in the next two weeks into a house that needs fixing up but is more affordable.

“It hurts,” the woman says.

Robin shakes her head and wishes the women luck. As mother and daughter walk out, Robin takes another sip of coffee and lets the exhaustion of the day slip over her face. Her shoulders drop.

“I’ve seen a lot of these faces go from nothing but smiles to sad,” she says. “I wake up in the morning and before I even open my eyes, I thank God that I even have a job. I’ve had grown men cry because they’ve lost houses, because they’ve lost jobs.”

“I worry about them,” she says.

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DeAndre Peoples shows the marks on his arm from selling plasma in Elkhart. He has sold it twice a week since losing his job a year and a half ago. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  September 9, 2009; 12:36 PM ET
 
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