Along N.C. highway, sagging economy meets politics

ALONG HIGHWAY 11, PITT COUNTY, N.C. — Highway 11 runs through the heart of Pitt County, southward through fields still white with cotton, past homes where worry fills the air like humidity. Tractor trailers rumble by, or they stop at the Country Mart for $3.99 diesel.

The four-lane highway links countless economic stories: of the cafe supervisor who must pay for a ride to work, the trucker who may soon file for bankruptcy, the unemployed woman whose trailer hasn’t had electricity for a year.

Josie Briley, 51, knows there's a presidential election this year, but she couldn’t tell you who's running.

"We don’t have no current," she said, "so I don’t watch no TV."

On television last week, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain couldn’t say in their debate whether the economy will get worse before it gets better. They should take a drive down Highway 11.

The farmer knows about the economy. So does the trucker. The barber, too. His business is down 20 percent the past six months.

"And it's not just me," said Steve Roebuck, 69, as he ran a comb around a client's balding head in the near-empty downtown of Bethel.

A McCain 2008 sticker was pasted on the wall next to the Ten Commandments. "We lost 159,000 jobs in the United States in the month of September. The whole world is suffering now," Roebuck said.

In many ways, the communities along Pitt County’s main north-south highway reflect the rest of North Carolina -- a dichotomy between the old farming economy and the new industries stemming from technology and higher education. Whether business is down, milk costs more or the banks won’t offer loans, the effect for residents around here is the same: They have less money.

Strung along N.C. 11 are small towns with empty storefronts, trailer parks where children's togs wave from clotheslines, farmlands sown with peanuts. There’s also the city of Greenville, where jets fly over the new hospital wing and East Carolina University’s Pirates are 3-2.

The unemployment rate in Pitt County was 7.5 percent in August, slightly above the statewide rate of 6.9 percent. The median household income is $33,000.

This could be McCain country, with the tradition of Southern Democrats who vote Republican in presidential races. More than 8,000 McCain supporters showed up at a Sarah Palin rally Tuesday. But Obama has opened an office here, too, and folks who might normally swing toward McCain say now they’re not so sure.

Begin in Bethel, pop. 1,774, at the northern tip of N.C. 11. Stores are boarded up, the streets feel deserted. The Piggly Wiggly closed a few months ago, and now folks must drive 14 miles to the nearest grocery. Outside a local bank, new teller Carrie Graham-Brown stands on a stepladder and adjusts the marquee to remind customers their last Christmas Club payments are due.

She's over-qualified for this job -- she’s a paralegal who works in real estate -- but her business wasn’t doing well and she was living on credit cards.

A Republican by nature, she doesn't know how she'll vote yet. She just knows she’s angry.

“Why is it that I'm up here with this sign and I can't keep my business afloat?" Graham-Brown asked.

A few miles south, W.C. Moore, 65, oversees the first day of cotton harvest on his 2,500-acre farm. He figures the crisis will hit him this winter, when it comes time to take out new loans for next year’s seed. The bank will want more collateral — land, equipment.

His wife, Betty, sitting in the farmhouse, is incredulous. "We don’t have anything else to give them," she said. The couple are in the middle of a renovation — ceilings, carpets, walls knocked out. They saved years for it.

She hopes McCain will protect the country from the immigrants she says are taking jobs. Her husband thinks McCain will protect farms and industry. Also, Obama makes the Moores nervous.

"First, look at his name," W.C. Moore said. “Does that sounds like an American name to you?”

Keep driving. There's the Country Mart truck stop on the right, where Miriam Jenkins, the cafe's night supervisor, denies a customer who wants a free slice of pie.

"Uh-uh, baby. It ain't my restaurant. We just run it for The Man."

Jenkins, 40, loves this job, enough to pay someone $15 each way to drive her here six days a week. Her transmission went out, but she has to work to help her in-laws pay the $1,200 mortgage on the house they bought in 2005.

The payments had been $900, but the rate adjusted upward. Her mother-in-law gathers the family to go over the bills, to decide which will go unpaid, to figure out who can go find extra work.

This year, Jenkins said with a laugh, "I’m broker. It wasn't so bad last year, but this year, it's really taken a toll on me."

She's definitely voting. "Obama," she said. "I hope he ain’t making no promises he can’t keep. We need someone who can fix this."

Out back, trucker Gerald Payton, 38, wearing a "World’s Greatest Dad" T-shirt, watches the numbers click on the pump, up, up, up.

He lost everything after 1999's Hurricane Floyd. Now his mortgage rate is 14 percent -- $1,800 a month. He has two children at home, another three who have moved out but who he tries to help.

He's about to declare bankruptcy. Payton moves modular homes for a living. He planned to spend $900 in fuel the next two days to move a home, but he won't get paid for 20 days, and in the meantime he won't have the cash to fill the tank to take another job.

Payton sits in his house and worries. He has welding experience, so he put out some resumes. His wife takes care of the grandkids, but now she might have to work, too.

He had no income the month of September. "It's going to get worse," he said.

Payton has not even registered to vote. He doesn’t know whom he would vote for.

Down in Greenville, Jim Moye, 64, pulls his golf clubs from his trunk and hollers to a friend walking across the putting green at the Greenville Country Club.

"Want to play a hole or two?"

Moye’s voting for Obama. His small businesses can't get credit right now. The United States' image abroad makes things worse, he said.

Nearby, insurance agency owner Chris Challender, 51, hands a bucket of balls to the high school girls he coaches. He doesn't even look at his investments these days — let his broker have the stomachaches.

"Probably McCain," he said. "I think it’s going to be less impact on my business."

Nine miles south in downtown Ayden, at CJ Salon, owner Carol Rieman's husband, a professor, just learned he didn't earn tenure at East Carolina University. And her business income is down 50 percent from a year ago.

"We're moving out west where the economy's better," she announced, her hands in the sink, rinsing color from a client’s hair.

In Rieman's 28 years as a hairdresser, things have never been this bad. All clients talk about is the economy. A woman in her 70s canceled her health insurance so she could afford her medicines. A lady who owns the new hot dog shop may have to shut it down.

"If you'd asked me three to six months ago if I would vote for Obama, I'd say, 'No way!' " said Rieman, 48. Now? "I'm not going to say no, but I'm not going to say yes."

She wants to vote for McCain. But she hears him talk and wonders, does he really get it?

"I don't hear McCain talking about our economy as if it's that bad," Rieman said.

It's bad all right, say her neighbors a few miles to the south.

In Grifton, Misty Moye, 33, leans against the wooden rail of her mother's front porch as her 3-year-old daughter plays in the shade with a cousin. Pine needles drift to the ground.

Moye sees gas prices going up, and then food going up, and then everything else, including the goods in the discount store where she works. Deodorant has gone from $1.50 to $2.75. A gallon of milk is four bucks. Customers tell her: "Y'all need to change the name, because it's not the Dollar General anymore."

Moye's mother opens her storm door, leans outside to see what's going on.

"The economy is bad," Louise Moye said. "We need help. And Barack is the man."

She shuts the door.

Misty Moye nods. She watches the young girls skip across the front yard and offers this truism: "Whoever gets into office, they got a lot of cleaning up to do."

And Highway 11 goes on southward.