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The mood out there? Dread, and resolve too

Main Street America has its own set of economic indicators.

February 26, 2009|Peter H. King

A heightened demand for teddy bears at a California toy store, night lights blinking off across the Texas oil fields, high school students in suburban Detroit walking the halls in last year's clothes, a sudden abundance of available parking spaces on what had been a crowded San Francisco street -- these were the sorts of ground-level economic indicators that came up Wednesday in conversations with Americans a day after President Obama's address to Congress.

While foreclosure rates, unemployment percentages and plunging stock prices trace the outline of the beast, the day-to-day dread it stirs can be more difficult to measure. But it's there, and it's everywhere.

A mid-February Associated Press poll, for example, found that 47% of Americans were worried at some level about losing their jobs, which suggests that 53% have not been paying attention. To borrow from songwriter John Prine, "If heartaches were commercials, we'd all be on TV."

Absent other options, though, people seem to keep plugging away.

"This is the first month in our little store where we actually have felt the downturn," said Pam Fitzpatrick, co-owner of a toy and music shop in Monrovia's old-town district. "It is certainly not entirely pleasant, but it is also not panicky."

Among merchants on Myrtle Avenue, the town's postcard-pretty main street, Fitzpatrick senses a growing resolve to band together and work through the hard times, to figure out collectively how to attract new retailers to vacant storefronts.

"We are all a little bit scared," she said, "but we are holding hands."

Even customers want to help prop up smaller, independent merchants, at least as best they can.

"People are saying, 'I am purposely shopping here because you are one of the stores we want to keep going,' " Fitzpatrick said. "That's encouraging. It's good to know that you are not in it alone."

There also is strange relief, she said, in finally confronting the economic dragon head-on. That's why she liked the blunt assessments in Obama's speech: "If you keep denying that someone is sneaking up behind you, you can still feel the footsteps. So you are still scared. You have to turn around and face it."

Incidentally, though sales are down, Fitzpatrick has noticed an uptick in the purchase of teddy bears and other plush toys -- a trend she attributes in part to "the stress thing."

Teddy bears, she explained, are the toy world equivalent of comfort food -- "they are soft to the touch, they are nostalgic." And every adult should have one to hug in those dark hours of a wakeful night.

It is at night that Morris Burns, a Midland, Texas, oil consultant, most notices the downturn that has come to the Permian Basin.

Not long ago there were 275 drilling rigs punching for oil; now he puts the number at 150 and dropping. During boom times, the landscape would be dotted with the lights from the drill towers, which allow crews to work around the clock.

"Now you don't see as many lights," Burns said. "Nobody's doing much of anything."

Of course, the oil business always runs in cycles. Burns recalled a comment from an oil man's teenage son at church on Sunday: "He said, 'Dad, we have got more experience when times are bad than when times are good. So we should come out all right.'

"I thought that about says where we are at. Everybody is just hunkered down. We will pull out of this. We have done it before, and we will do it again."

Far to the north, in Wyandotte, Mich., the principal of Theodore Roosevelt High School hears the worried talk in the halls, conversations about parents, many of whom work in the auto industry, losing jobs.

"Students are real sensitive to their parents' situations," Mary McFarlane said. "They love them and, when they are hurting, it hurts the kids as well."

She also has seen them trying, in their own ways, to help: "I honestly see less of a hallway fashion show that I have ever seen, not that we have been on the high end of style. Students are just making do with what they already have."

There is, of course, some real desperation at large in the land. It can pop up in awful ways -- the father who shoots his family and then himself. Or it can arrive in the form of an unsolicited e-mail, sent to The Times newsroom a few days ago from a small town in the Deep South:

"Subject: Help for a small person!

"I am 9 days away from a foreclosure! I have the biggest preditory lender in the wprld. My [payment] went from 992 to 1307 in one jump after 2 years. . . . I cannot refinance and will go under in 9 days with my wife and three daughters 4, 5, and 7. I am a manager for walmart for 8 years and we are in trouble. I cannot find a solution. Please advise! Thanks les."

Calls to the number listed were not answered.

The terror evident in that missive is not easily assuaged by speeches, however grand. Nonetheless, many people interviewed for this admittedly unscientific sampling said that Obama's address had buoyed them, if only for its directness about the difficulties ahead.

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