At 7 p.m. they fry fish at the VFW hall. Beers 2 bucks. Two-piece plate of cod $6.95. Charlie Larson runs the place. You can see the factory from Charlie's parking lot, the Rock River running lazily beside it. Charlie tried the factory in 1966. His father got him in, but he was drafted into the jungles of Nam in 1967. "It's a discouraging thing," Charlie, 61, says of the plant closing down, smoothing a plastic tablecloth. "It was the lifeblood of this town. It was the identity of this town. Now we have nothing, nothing but worry. Aw, there's going to be hell to pay when those unemployment checks stop coming."
Blame the factory worker if you must. Blame the union man who asked too much and waited too long to give some back. Blame the guy for drinking at lunch or cutting out early. But factory work is a 9-to-5 sort of dying. The monotony, the accidents. "You're a machine," says Marv Wopat. He put bumpers on trucks. A six-foot man stooping in a four-foot hole, lining up a four-foot bumper. Three bolts, three washers, three nuts. One every minute over an eight-hour shift. Wopat, 62, has bad shoulders, bad knees, bad memories. "You got nightmares," he says. "You missed a vehicle or you couldn't get the bolt on. You just went home thinking nothing except the work tomorrow and your whole life spent down in that hole. And you thinking how you're going to get out. Well, now it's gone and alls we're thinking about is wanting to have it back."
And maybe they will have it back. The recession is loosening its grip, some say. Some towns will rebound. Some plants will retrofit. Wind, solar, electric—that's the future, Washington says. But you get a pain-in-the-throat feeling that it is not the future. Not really. At least not as good a future as the past. There's no 28 bucks an hour for life in that future. No two-car garage. No bennies. No boat on Lake Michigan. Because in the new world they can build that windmill, or a solar panel, or an electric battery in India, where the minimum pay is less than $3 a day. Just ask Patel, the motel owner living at the edge of a dead factory in Janesville, Wisconsin. "You cannot compete with poverty unless you are poor."
Charlie LeDuff is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, filmmaker, and multimedia reporter. He was formerly a reporter for The Detroit News.
Motel owner Pragnesh Patel says he wishes he'd never come from India.