It’s a rainy spring morning and Tamara Ogier plants herself at a table in a Spartan room in the Atlanta federal courthouse, ready to hear another day’s stories of financial ruin.

Couples facing foreclosure. Down-and-out real estate agents. Merchants who’ve shut their doors. All sit on pew-like benches, waiting to tell the court-appointed bankruptcy trustee how they ended up deep in debt.

“I understand the assumption that we’re the guys in the black hats,” Ogier says, but “there are a lot of times when I’m actually able to do a lot of good.”

It’s a sunny morning 745 miles away, as Jerry Miller tools along Iowa’s back roads. At almost 75, he feels he needs to keep working just to keep pace even though he’s not in debt. He wonders, too, if he’ll have to foot the bill for people who couldn’t manage their own money.

“I can’t believe because they got themselves in this situation, it’s falling on us to pay it back,” he says, heading to the first pharmacy where he’ll make deliveries this day. “Lord, you’re going to set a college kid loose with a credit card? Buy a house that costs 10 times your salary?”

It’s morning in America – but it’s not a good morning.

The nation is in a deep recession. Unemployment is at its highest level in more than 25 years. The auto industry is on the skids. Foreclosure and for-sale signs are as common in some communities as street lights.

And more bleak days seem to be ahead.

Many private economists expect the monthly jobless rate will climb to 10 percent by the end of the year – it already has surpassed that level in states such as Michigan, South Carolina and Rhode Island.

The bankruptcy rate is rising, too. Nearly 1.2 million debtors filed for bankruptcy in a one-year period ending in April, according to federal court records collected and analyzed by The Associated Press.

Those are the numbers. Then there are the people.

This is the story of a single day, and how Americans spent those hours in the shadow of economic distress, from worried debtors in a Georgia courthouse to a prospective home buyer in Michigan to an Arizona contractor struggling to find jobs.

In California, it’s a homeless Army Reservist who sleeps in his 17-year-old car. In South Carolina, it’s an unemployed factory worker who finds comfort in prayer.

And in Greenwich, Conn., home to hedge-fund billionaires, it’s David Rabin, who lost his $100,000 job last October as a senior vice president for a small financial services firm.

He spends part of his morning in his basement, job-hunting online. A day earlier, he learned he didn’t get a position recruiting members for a gym. That hurt.

“I didn’t sleep a freakin’ wink,” he says. “If I don’t fit that job, what the hell am I going to do?”

Recession-proof

But watching Jim Juristy work, you wouldn’t know we’re in hard times.

A nursing supervisor in Morgantown, W.Va., Juristy will spend his 12-hour shift at Ruby Memorial Hospital trying to fill jobs, calling, cajoling and charming nurses to come to work.

Not only is Juristy in a relatively secure profession, but he lives in a thriving area (the county’s jobless rate in March was a relatively low 4 percent), home of West Virginia University and some recession-proof employers.

A former coal miner, the 54-year-old Juristy made the unlikely transition in the mid 1990s after his mine closed.

“I figured I could adapt or become a dinosaur. And dinosaurs became extinct, so I thought I’d darn well better adapt,” he says.

Crushing debts

By late morning, Tamara Ogier, the Atlanta federal bankruptcy trustee, has wrapped up about 30 interviews.

She is a gentle-but-firm interrogator, sifting through the financial records of the debtors, looking for anything of value – a home, a car, a diamond ring – that can be sold to satisfy creditors.

A Vietnamese couple who owned a hair and tanning salon explain, through a translator, that they have a staggering $600,000 credit card debt. The husband was getting free credit cards in the mail, and using one to pay off the other.

Those kinds of crushing debts are unimaginable to Jerry Miller, the frugal Iowan.

As the silver-haired grandfather heads toward another pharmacy on his five-stop route, Miller talks about fiscal responsibility. It’s not just about money, he says. It’s reputation, too.

“If you’ve got a good name, they can’t take that away from you,” he says, jabbing a finger in the air to make a point.

Miller says he really didn’t have a choice about retirement, and needs the cash from his 15-hour a week job to pay for health care for himself and his wife, Barbara.

“You’ve got to have faith in the system,” he says as he arrives home in Conrad, Iowa, just after 12:30 p.m. “But can you tell me, where did all the money go?”

‘I don’t give up’

Khaaliq Parker, a 32-year-old unemployed auto mechanic, is holed up in a cubicle at Career Link employment center in San Francisco’s Mission District, checking e-mail for responses to resumes he has sent out.

“The job market is really tough,” he says. “It’s crazy. I don’t give up.”

Parker was laid off a year ago and has been homeless since December. Until then, he had lived in Oakland with his wife and 4-year-old son and her parents, but he says they kicked him out when he wasn’t making progress looking for work.

So he sleeps in his 1992 red Mustang.

Today is a good day, all things considered. Parker receives his first $422-monthly workfare assistance check; he washed city buses in the morning to help earn that. He also squeezes by with food stamps and $60 a month from the Army Reserve.

Parker joined the military months ago to bolster his resume and get job training. He may be headed to Afghanistan within a year. He’s resigned to it.

Parker is far from alone.

In March, the nation’s jobless rate rose to 8.5 percent – more than 13 million Americans. The recession, experts say, has eliminated more jobs as a proportion of the work force than any downturn since 1958.

American dream

At 6:45 p.m., Ballroom B at the DeVos Place convention center in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., is humming with anticipation.

About 450 people are waiting to bid on nearly 75 foreclosed homes being auctioned off this night. For the right price, one family’s misfortune can become another’s American dream.

Marilyn Heidenfelder is hoping for a bargain. She has scouted out four possible homes for her 41-year-old daughter, who recently lost her house when her mortgage increased by $350 a month.

Heindenfelder is willing to spend $20,000. But the first house she bids on goes for $105,000.

Three more homes she’s interested in are sold within a half hour. The cheapest one went for $45,000 – more than double her limit.

Shortly after 7 p.m., a disappointed Heidenfelder leaves with her $2,500 cashier’s check – and without a home. “There were too many people,” she says. “It was too competitive.”


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