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It's Can by Can, Day by Day

In Kermit, W.Va., where poverty is a way of life, Greg Hannah collects junk to get by.

November 06, 2005|Evelyn Nieves | Washington Post

KERMIT, W.Va. — Young people in Kermit have few places to go on a Friday night -- no movie theater, bowling alley or mall -- so they often wind up setting bonfires and tossing back beers in the pitch-black woods of Marrowbone Creek.

Work is hard to find in Kermit (population 201), not to mention in all the other coal towns of southern West Virginia. So Greg Hannah, a 38-year-old single father, relies on the refuse of the beer blasts at Marrowbone Creek to put some money in his pocket and help support his 8-year-old boy.

Hannah is what he calls "a junker." He sifts through trash looking for metal or anything else that might be worth something. On Saturday mornings, he heads to the "hollers" of Marrowbone Creek -- where he too kicked back in his younger days -- scouting for beer cans.

All week long, he scours the rest of Kermit and Mingo County. Hannah sells his finds to a plant that buys aluminum for 50 cents a pound. If he works "really hard, every day," he says, he could make as much as $200 in one week.

But Hannah faces competition in Mingo County, where about 30% of families live below the poverty line.

"Right downtown, there's me, my dad, my uncle and an old guy named Frenchie," Hannah said, naming his fiercest competitors, as he drove around Kermit's three-block downtown looking for his precious metals. His dad has been junking for 35 years. He supported a wife and seven children that way.

After New Orleans' destruction, politicians and commentators predicted that Hurricane Katrina would force the nation to focus on the plight of poor people. If that were to happen, this swath of lush, green, central Appalachia, where President Johnson launched his War on Poverty more than 40 years ago, would once again be a prime candidate for attention.

It leads the nation in disabilities, deaths by preventable diseases, toothlessness and prescription-drug abuse, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. Mingo County's poverty rate, 29.7%, is slightly higher than that of pre-Katrina New Orleans. Coal is the big industry, but mining jobs are as rare as luck. People make do any way they can, such as by junking.

Hannah did not choose to follow in his father's footsteps. Desperation drove them both to it. His father, Mark Hannah, started junking literally by accident. In 1971, when he was working for a logging company, his left leg was crushed by timber. That ended his days of heavy lifting. He had no insurance, received no workers' compensation and needed a way to feed his family.

Greg Hannah's story has a few more chapters. But much like his father's and those of most people he knows, it revolves around the few options afforded people who are very poor, especially when there are children involved.

Growing up, Hannah learned to keep his dreams small. In another life, he could have set out at 18 or 21 to become a movie star. He had the dark, handsome, high-cheekbone looks of a Sam Shepard, natural charisma and a knack for expressive storytelling. Or, given his talent for absorbing math and science, he could have gone into medical research, a favorite subject. But such "highfalutin" goals never occurred to him.

"My mother used to say, 'You're so curious, you ought to be a doctor,' " he said the other day, standing on a hill of black coal dust in Marrowbone Creek. He smiled at the idea. College was never a consideration. When he graduated from Kermit High School, he was expected to find a job.

His two brothers and four sisters all married early, in their teens and early 20s, and scattered around the region, where jobs or spouses' jobs took them. Second from the youngest, he went to trade school and studied carpentry. He dreamed of working in a furniture shop and opening his own. But even that turned out to be an unrealistic goal. He couldn't find a job in carpentry, and he didn't leave Kermit until he got married, at age 24.

"I should've just gotten a job at a mine when I was 18, when they had jobs," he said with a sigh.

Hannah and his wife moved to North Carolina. "In four days, I had a job unloading and loading trucks, working 60, 70 hours a week," he said. Two years later, he moved to a mobile-home company, where he helped build the units.

But after six years, his marriage broke up and he took up with a woman with two toddlers. She became pregnant almost immediately. The relationship ended about two years later, a casualty of the woman's drug and alcohol addictions. Hannah took their son, Adam, then 21 months old, and returned to Kermit, where he knew that his mother would help take care of him.

A judge awarded him full custody. "I told the judge if the other two kids were my flesh and blood, I'd be suing to have them too," he recalled.

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