Authors: Charlie Leduff
Tags: #Non-Fiction, #History, #Sociology, #Biography, #Politics
HEY ARRIVE AT
work at 7:25
., and many of their cars are rusting buckets of crud. Except for the boss’s. The boss drives a Volvo.
Walk in the door at the screw factory and the first thing you notice is the enemy—the time clock. Then you notice the stink of oil vapors and solvents. The dispiriting yellow light. The slippery floors. The caked and peeling walls.
The workers don’t want to be here. The liquor bottles in the weedy lot out back told part of the story.
I watch the poor mopes taking the last drags of their cigarettes before the work bell rings. The cutting fluid and other oils have permanently stained the skin under their nails. And that damn lousy smell stays with them.
I couldn’t take my eyes off their bad skin, made worse by grinding dust and dirt caked in their ear folds, eye corners, noses and hair. I see their skin pockmarked from the metal shavings that they probably have the wife pull out with tweezers each night while they drink a can of beer. I used to work in a place like this as a kid. Almost everybody who grew up here spent at least some time in a factory like this.
You would smell these oils and fluids in the shot-and-beer joints that lined the industrial boulevards—Ford Road, Plymouth Road, Five, Six, Seven and Eight Mile Roads. The men hunched over the rail, the grease patches in the small of their flannels, oil in their ball caps, Bad Company or the O’Jays cranking from the jukebox. The clacking of pool balls. Greasy hamburgers. Cheap whiskey.
I remembered it all as I watched the hollow, cornered faces staring at the time clock like they wanted to smash its teeth out. I remembered it all in five seconds.
The workers punched the clock at precisely 7:30
., not a minute later, since otherwise they’d be docked fourteen minutes, and nobody in America works fourteen minutes for free. A quiet resignation settled over them as the roar from the screw-grinding machines revved up. Want it or not, they needed to be here. After this place, there was no place. Not in today’s America.
This machine shop may be the next wobbling domino in the collapse of the American manufacturing sector and the struggles of its blue-collar workers. There were at least seven shops nearby that were available for lease.
The screw factory was in an industrial section of Garden City, north of Ford Road, about three miles west of Detroit and about two miles east of where I grew up, near the Westland shopping mall. Westland is a working-class city, and the people there fully embrace their consumer culture. As far as I know, Westland is the only city in the world that renamed itself after its shopping mall.
But as it is with most things around here, the shopping mall is on the rocks, rundown and made more dismal by the empty storefronts surrounding it and the vacant lot where the Quo Vadis theater once stood. We used to sneak in the fire door and watch movies all afternoon and into the night.
My brother Billy and his wife, Kim, were working at the screw factory. Billy was running up on middle age, with thinning hair and a widening middle, his days as the good-looking player on the wane. A high school dropout, he had no education to fall back on.
Still, Billy’s a semibrilliant guy, great with numbers. Billy made $70,000 shuffling subprime mortgages for Quicken Loans before the real estate crash—and he would only go in three days a week.
Quicken was one of those mammoth mortgage brokers that sold a ton of subprime loans and quickened the American economy into the toilet. Billy used to work in an office and wear good suits. He would call himself Bill.
Now Billy was living the nightmare of every suburban white guy—working in a hellhole, standing next to a retarded fellow who’s also making $8.50 an hour, counting and cleaning screws. The retard, it turns out, is better suited for the job because the retard can shut it down, turn off his mind.
For Christmas, Billy got a piddly bonus of $43.80 and was evicted from a house he wrote the mortgage on. Also gone were the suits, the expense account, the three-day workweeks.
At least he had a job. Before the screw factory, he sat around for months, unemployed, playing video golf all day, ashamed when his three kids would walk in the door from school and see him sitting in the exact same spot as when they left in the morning.
“When Kim came home and told me that this place had a job opening, I’m thinking, Great! A factory job. I’m thinking union. I’m thinking fifteen bucks an hour and bennies!
“Nope. Eight-fifty an hour. Dude, I made more than that in high school. I wanted to cry, but whatcha gonna do?”
Then my brother recited the new battle cry of a generation: “I’m just glad to be working.”
My brother was standing at his workbench in sagging pants and the oily ball cap, where he aired out screw nipples made in China with a hose, cleaning them and repackaging them for American customers who don’t want to know they’re made in China, only that they come cheap. Billy wasn’t wearing a respirator or eye protection. It was lunchtime. He was drinking a cup of coffee with powdered creamer and a lot of sugar. The place was silent.
There was no health care offered here. What constituted a dental plan came from a toolbox. That is, my brother attempted to take out an abscessed molar with a pair of pliers. The molar snapped below the gum line.
What happened to us, I asked him? How in the world did it come to this?
“Man, you won’t fucking believe it,” he said. “Dude, people here refuse to work. I mean, the boss asks them to work an extra couple of minutes, and they’re like, ‘Fuck that, I’m outta here.’ They hate me here because I actually work. You know? It helps pass the time. I don’t mind letting it be known that the place is a shit hole and I don’t belong there. I’ve got a real disdain for the place. They know it. So they hate me. ’Cause I remind them they’re stuck here. I can’t blame them, though. You can’t when you get a look at this place up close.
“I’m like, yeah! And then I get the rude awakening when I walk into this mausoleum. One fucking guy has been here thirty years, walking around with his chest swelled out, saying, ‘I make nineteen dollars an hour.’” Billy cackled. “Nineteen fucking dollars an hour. Then the boss cut it by two dollars, and the guy stays. The boss really has him by the balls. It’s all he knows. This and deer hunting. Me, I don’t care. I ain’t dying here. They all know I feel this way. I don’t hate them. I just hate this fucking place.”
He absentmindedly stapled another box, even though he was on break. The box had a stamping that read:
PARTS MAY BE MADE IN UNITED STATES, CHINA OR TAIWAN
“One day, the boss asks me to clean the fucking toilets,” my brother said. “Can you believe that? Clean the fucking toilets? I’m in there kicking shit around. It’s filthy. These guys here are animals. The john stinks like hepatitis. I mean, I’m no Harvard scientist, but I’m used to a pretty good life. This shit is humiliating. But I need the job, so I swallow my pride and go in.
“I’m kicking shit around trying not to breathe out of my nose, and I open a stall and there’s graffiti in there. It says ‘Fuck hard workers.’ Just unbelievable. That’s everything you’ve got to know about working America right there. ‘Fuck hard workers.’ The point is, no American wants to work.
“Go ahead, go in there. The right stall, above the toilet roll.”
I went in. He wasn’t kidding. The locker room smelled like a rotting stag. Like a rope of frozen urine stabbing you up your nostrils. Right stall, soiled toilet paper thrown on the tiling like they do in Mexico so as not to clog the pipes. Here, I figured, it’s just laziness. There was the graffiti:
Fuck hard workers
I walked back to his work station and he was laughing.
“Man, at least my family’s eating. You know? But I’m not used to this. I shouldn’t be here. I’m a salesman. I’m a good salesman. There’s nothing I can’t sell. But there’s nothing to sell right now. I was asked to go back to Quicken, but I’m thinking, fuck that—the hours are too long and the work is borderline criminal. I figure I’m here doing my penance. Quicken used to have three thousand loan officers when I was there. Now I hear it’s about two hundred. You know what I mean? At one point in this country, when that shit was the rage, one in ten adults was employed in the real estate business. What’s that tell you? We were all living a lie and we all knew it.
“I sold bullshit mortgages. Subprime. Negative amortization. Neg ams, they’re called. I did. And I’m sorry about that. A lot of people got fucked. I got fucked. I got evicted from a house I wrote the mortgage on. Sheriff locked me out and locked a bunch of my shit in. CDs and clothes and furniture. No big deal. I can replace it all. At least the kids weren’t in there.”
“How did it work?” I asked.
I’m only now getting smart about what I should have been smart about a long time ago. As a reporter, I think I’ve failed. I forgot about the smell of places like this. They don’t have those smells in the bars where newspaper people go.
“Okay,” my brother said. “For instance, let’s say you want a $100,000 house and you’ve got nothing down and you want to pay one of these neg am interest-only mortgages. I’m trying to push you into that at, say, 5 percent.”
“Make it 7 percent,” I tell him. I’m not sure if this is a well-rehearsed bullshit story of his. I want to test his math skills.
“Okay, 7 percent then. So a neg am loan allows you to cut the 7 percent to 3.5 percent, with the 3.5 tacked onto the back end of the loan. Get it? So you’re paying $290 a month with no principal being paid.”
I used a calculator. He was just $1.67 off.
“And that other $291 is being added to your principal. So, say, after five years, you’ve added . . . $17,500 to the principal.”
I typed it in. Bingo. Right on the money. “Man, you could have been something if you’d gone to college,” I said.
He laughed again. But his heart wasn’t in it.
“Anyway, you now owe $117,500 on the house. After that five years, once the house gets 90 percent loan-to-value—that means you’re getting close to getting underwater—the bank ‘recasts’ the loan and now flips you to a full am, which means you pay an old-fashioned mortgage, which is principal plus interest on $117,000. You now have a thirty-year loan at 7 percent. Plus you have to buy the mortgage insurance because you don’t have anything down, which puts you somewhere at $900 a month. Your payments have more than tripled overnight. A $200,000 house is now costing you $1,800 a month and we both know the guy was never making that kind of money.
“We bullshitted and rehashed his qualifications to get him into that house. People without jobs were getting houses. I heard stories of dead people getting loans. We had cons in the office working as brokers. No joke. It was all a hustle.
“You get the guy in a loan and then you call him three months later and tell him the loan he’s in—the loan you got him in—is a bad deal, and you sell him a different loan. It was a shell game. And the company pushed us to do it. We were making six points on every deal. Six! And nobody cared, ’cause everybody was getting what they wanted for free.
“Okay. So the house isn’t really worth what you’re paying. You’re over your head. ‘But you’re gonna flip it,’ I tell the guy. ‘Houses are increasing in value by 10 percent every year nationwide,’ I tell him. ‘You can’t lose. Take that 3.5 percent and put it in the stock market, which is going crazy. You’re rich.’
“But I know he’s not putting it in the market. He’s an American—he’s going out and buying a Cadillac and snorting dope. I wrote hundreds, maybe thousands, of these bullshit loans to people who shouldn’t have gotten them. I helped a few people, sure. And I helped a lot of people help themselves.
“Then the real estate market starts tanking. The job market is tanking. Gas is going up past four dollars a gallon. And Wall Street’s doing who knows what the fuck they did with all this bad paper I pushed. I thought it was a problem. We all did. Now we know for sure. We all walked away from the obligation. And we’re screwed. Real estate’s not coming back for a long, long time. It was too inflated.”
My brother pointed to the guy working at the next table over. “Go talk to him,” he said. “That guy’s actually paying off his debt. He’s an honest guy, I’ll give him that. But he’s sort of retarded. He’s too dumb to know he should just walk away from the debt.”
The man working next to my brother is named Mike. A functional illiterate, he earns $8 an hour but takes home about $75 a week. Up to his neck in house payments on a house that was no longer worth what he owed, Mike decided to pay the bank instead of walking away.
Why? I asked him. A lot of people are walking out on debts.
“A lot of people do, but I don’t,” he said. “If everybody walked away on what they owe, where would we be?”
He was potbellied, sported a poor Moe Howard “Three Stooges” haircut and was missing his lower plate of teeth. But he wasn’t complaining about the slow pace of a national dental plan. He was worried about his job.
“What happened?” I asked him as he fiddled with the same bolt I had seen him fiddling with for fifteen minutes.
“Here, in America. What happened to the economy? What happened to this screw shop?”
“Well,” he said with gummy exasperation, “a guy used to make plastic cars, see. Then they found a guy someplace else who can make forty plastic cars. But the guy that used to make the cars still likes the car. He wants to buy one for his son for Christmas. So he buys one with a credit card. But he don’t have no money to pay for that credit card. After a while, the man with the credit card wants to get paid, but the guy that used to make the plastic car don’t have no money to pay it.”
He stopped abruptly and shrugged his shoulders.
“That’s what happened, I guess.”
The illiterate understood it. And he told it as well as the
I walked back to my brother’s bench.
“How you feel about what you did?” I asked my brother. “I mean, you dropped out of high school, you pimped bad loans to people. You blew all the money you made, and now you’re making $8.50 an hour counting screws same as the guy over there who can’t read.”