Hard Times: A Journey Across America
5:34 am
Tue November 1, 2011

Calif. County Yearns For 'The Way It Used To Be'

Part of a monthlong series

There's a lot to like about Solano County, Calif., a collection of bedroom communities between San Francisco and Sacramento: great climate, diversity and until recently, very stable neighborhoods.

But it also has the second-highest foreclosure rate in the country. Its largest city, Vallejo, went bankrupt. And unemployment here is 11 percent, higher than the national average.

So it's no surprise that at a recent local town hall meeting, the No. 1 topic was jobs and, frankly, how things just aren't like they used to be. One speaker after another talked about the lack of opportunity, what they called unfair competition from China, and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs.

And then there was Robert Frazier, 59, a truck driver who told the crowd that he had developed a new product he thought would sell: a sleeping bag that attaches to the top of a mattress like a fitted sheet.

"Walmart loved it," Frazier says. So he says he investigated his manufacturing options and ran into trouble. "I have the patent, so I'm legal, I'm ready to roll, but I can't find no one to manufacture it for me unless I go to China or India," he says.

A few days after that town hall meeting, I tracked down Frazier, who invited me into his home and showed me his prototype.

He calls it The Pouch — "to be snug, like in a kangaroo pouch."

"A lot of my friends are long-haul truck drivers and have to use what covering they have. They all want it. Every trucker in America would buy this," he says. "And then when I thought about moms with children — I was the kind of kid that never made my bed — that would really make it easy on the moms and the kids."

Frazier has been developing The Pouch for years; all the while he's been dealing with changes in the trucking industry that cut his pay in half, a foreclosure and then his mother's death.

Frazier says he wants to get The Pouch back on track, but in his own way.

"I never had a good feeling about taking jobs offshore, and I would like to be there to watch everything grow and participate. Maybe that's the future: small-business people stepping up to put people to work. Maybe like it was when I grew up," he says.

Like it was when I grew up. That theme came up all over Solano County. I heard it again when I went to see Craig Black on his five-acre ranch in a rural part of the county.

"It was kind of our dream home, something we always wanted," he says.

His dream home isn't more than 800 square feet, but hanging on to it is becoming a nightmare. Black, 39, is a sheet metal worker who looks younger than his age. But he has a bad back thanks to the demands of his job. Two surgeries later, he'll need another one, too.

Black says he had to quit working about two years ago. With only one income, he and his wife fell behind on their mortgage payments. Black says he should qualify for a loan modification, but his bank doesn't agree, judging from a stack of documents about half a foot high on his table.

"I have letter after letter: 'If the amount due is not received by the specified due date, foreclosure proceedings may begin or continue,' " he reads. "And this is every month, and it just prolongs the process."

To complicate matters, Black owes more on his mortgage than his home is worth. But he says he's not worried about that because he would never walk away from the house. What he doesn't understand is why he can't get some help for a more affordable loan.

So what would he say to President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner if he could?

He sighs. "Why? Why do we hear the same promises? Why? Why don't you do what you say you're gonna do?" Black says. "We're Americans. Let's be Americans. Let's fight for this country, the way it used to be."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host: With the presidential election now one year away, we're sending reporters out on the road for the month of November, to talk to Americans about the tough economy, and how they view the future.

NPR's Richard Gonzales starts our Hard Times series in California, where the combination of lost jobs and foreclosures has taken a painful toll.

(SOUNDBITE OF A MOTORWAY)

RICHARD GONZALES: My first stop along Interstate 80 is in Solano County. There's a lot to like about this collection of bedroom communities between San Francisco and Sacramento: great climate, diversity, and until recently, very stable neighborhoods. But it also has the second highest foreclosure rate in the country. Its largest city, Vallejo, went bankrupt. And unemployment here runs at 11 percent. That's higher than the national average.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

GONZALES: So it's no surprise that, at a recent local town hall meeting, the number one topic was jobs and, frankly, how things just aren't like they used to be. One speaker after another talked about the lack of opportunity, what they called unfair competition from China, and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs.

And then there was 59-year-old Robert Frazier, a truck driver who told the crowd that he had developed a new product he thought would sell.

ROBERT FRAZIER: Imagine a sleeping bag, now imagine that sleeping bag attaching to the top mattress like a fitted sheet. Walmart loved it. So when they say we like it, we'll put it in our store, I went off to try to get manufacturing. I have the patent, so I'm legal, I'm ready to roll, but I can't find no one to manufacture it for me unless I go to China or India. A few days after that town hall meeting, I tracked down Robert Frazier who invited me into his home where he showed me his proto-type. So do you have a name for this? Yeah, I call it the Pouch. You know, to be snug, like in a kangaroo pouch, you know, because a lot of my friends are long haul truck drivers and have to use what covering they have, they all want it. Every trucker in America would buy this and then when I thought about moms with children, then I was the kind of kid that never made my bed. Wow, that would really make it easy on, you know, on the moms and the kids. Frazier has been developing the Pouch for years, all the while he's been dealing with changes in the trucking industry that cut his pay in half, a foreclosure, and then his mother's death. Frazier says he wants to get the Pouch back on track, but in his own way. I never had a good feeling about taking jobs off-shore, you know, and I would like to be there to watch everything grow and participate. And maybe that's the future, you know, small business people stepping up to put people to work. Maybe like it was when I grew up. Like it was when I grew up. That theme came up all over Solano County. I heard it again when I went to see Craig Black on his small ranch in a rural part of the county. It's five acres, have a creek that runs most of the year, that runs through the very back of the property, sometimes there'll be deer back there or you get the turkeys that come through. And it was kind of our dream home, something we always wanted. His dream home isn't more than 800 square feet. But hanging on to it is becoming a nightmare. Black is a 39 year old sheet metal worker who looks younger than his age, but thanks to his job, he has a bad back. Two surgeries later, he'll need another one too. Black says he had to quit working about two years ago. With only one income, he and his wife fell behind on their mortgage payments. Black says he should qualify for a loan modification, but his bank doesn't agree, judging from a stack of documents about half a foot high on his table. I have 15 packets here that they've sent me, requesting the same information. We need one more document Mr. Black, every month, because they don't have it, they've lost this. And then I have letter after letter: if the amount due is not received by the specified due date, foreclosure proceedings may begin or continue. And this is every month, and it just prolongs the process. To complicate matters, Black owes more on his mortgage than his home is worth. But he says he's not worried about that because he would never walk away from the house. What he doesn't understand is why he can't get some help for a more affordable loan. Imagine if you had President Obama, and Senator Reid, and Congressman Boehner right here at this table. What would you tell them? They probably wouldn't like me very much. You know I'd probably have a lot of questions and, you know, the first one: why? You know, why do we hear the same promises? Why? Why don't you do what you say you're going to do? And I understand government, there's - we're Americans, let's be Americans, let's fight for this country the way it used to be. Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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