If there's one overriding, red-hot, "I get so mad I need a drink of sweet tea" issue in the South, it's jobs. Factories are shuttered from North Carolina to Arkansas. Empty stores and closed restaurants are many towns' tombstones. Families are on the rocks, devoid of hope.
At least 6,710 factory and mill jobs have been lost since June 2001 in the 15 North Georgia counties where Dellinger works.
Keri Alley's little house on First Street in Shannon, Ga., has signs on each side of the walkway. One reads: Land of the free. The other: Home of the brave. Her four children -- Emma, Fantasy, Buddy and Eddie -- play in her front lawn as she looks past them to the empty parking lots at the Galey & Lord garment factory, which shut down in August. Alley's loss is personal, while her neighbor, Gail Graham, despairs for their once-thriving village.
Keri Alley: "The buzzer still goes off at 11 o'clock, 3 o'clock and 7 in the morning, when the shifts used to change. It drives me nuts. The buzzer is saying it's time to go to work, but there ain't no work to go to."
Gail Graham: "The thing I hated was the shift change. Lot of hot rods roaring down the street. Now it's real quiet."
Alley: "It was a good plant, good job, the best company I've ever worked for. It's all I've ever done, it's all I know. It's hard findin' another job, especially one that pays as much. I'm looking for something that will pay half as much as the $450 a week I was making. There was a job open up, but I didn't have the gas to get there. By the time I got the money, the job was already filled."
Graham: "It's really been rough around here since that place shut down. So many people, so many people. Look up and down the streets. "For Rent" and "For Sale" signs everywhere. They didn't just kill jobs, they killed this little community."
At Pam's House of Beauty, on Main Street in the North Carolina coastal town of Washington, ladies are getting dolled up for a street dance later in the day. Owner Pamela Moore says economics are clouding Washington's future.
Pamela Moore: "The president, whoever is elected, has to stop jobs from leaving. They're taking jobs to other countries. They just closed Singer Furniture here. I knew a lot of people there. Many of them came to my shop. Losing jobs really leaves us, the whole nation, short. It's hurting a lot of people."
Around the corner, on Market Street, Etles Henries, a seafood broker, is handing out John Kerry bumper stickers at the Beaufort County Democratic Headquarters, and gloating that no one is home at the Republican offices a few doors away.
North Carolina has lost almost 100,000 manufacturing jobs, and estimates are that another 200,000 will disappear in the next decade.
Etles Henries: "There's only one issue here: Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs. We've lost too many jobs. There was Hamilton Beach [which made toasters], but that's gone. That was, oh, four years ago. It really damaged this county."
Jobs taking wing to foreign lands only heightens anxieties about other economic travails -- especially health care. Retired gospel singer Barbara Turner and her husband, Jim, a retired Delta Air Lines maintenance man, run the charming Garden Path Restaurant on the town square of Greenville, Ga. Barbara cooks her own lemonade pies and buttermilk pies, despite having lost an eye and a leg to cancer.
Barbara Turner: "The big issues in Greenville are jobs. The railroad stopped running here. Mead Lumber Mill closed and put 300 people out of work. Lanier Clothing, that's gone out of the country now. My birthday is tomorrow. I'll be 65 and I feel every day of it. I get so angry. Delta was our life for 38 years. Now it's so sad. If Delta goes into bankruptcy, our pension might be cut. We'd have to pick up our own insurance. It'll be real hard."
Not far from Greenville, at the Georgia School for the Deaf in Cave Spring, we ran into coach Erik Whitworth, who had some concerns about his students (including, full disclosure compels us to reveal, our writer's son, Andy, a darn fine starting junior varsity quarterback).
Erik Whitworth: "I was in a store in North Georgia with the kids, and a guy came in, looked at me and the boys and said, "You're from the deaf and dumb school in Cave Spring, aren't you?' I said, "We've sorta dropped the "dumb.' He said, "When I played them in school, they'd leave the field whoopin' and hollerin'.' We'd leave limpin'.' My kids are just like any others, maybe a bit noisier. But people think because they don't hear, they're stupid. These are bright kids. But when the economy is sour, it's even worse on us. Employers don't want to be bothered."
South of Memphis on U.S. 61, 100 feet north of the Mississippi state line, stands an imposing new building with a 4-foot-high sign proclaiming: "Caberet." Inside the adult entertainment emporium, whose owners have a novel approach to spelling, dancers Teresa Hall (stage name, Kayla) and her son's fiancee, April Wilbanks (Storm), wait for customers.
Storm: "We're here to make a living. We didn't have an opportunity to get an education, so what are we supposed to do? We work hard. ..."
Kayla: "... We're honest. ..."
Storm: "... I don't care if some folks look down on us."
Kayla: "We donate some of our money to the Ronald McDonald House. We need it, but those families need it more."
Storm: "It's just a good thing to do."
Kayla: "Health care, I hardly know anyone around here who can afford it."
Storm: "If I just had insurance ... I need $100,000 to fix my thigh, get steel pins removed. It will take a body cast, months out of work. It ain't gonna happen. Some days the pain kills me. My mom's dying, but she doesn't have insurance."
Florida, shy of factories but oh-so dependent on tourists, has its own special problems -- made worse, says Tampa taxi driver Bill Hoskins, by the summer's hurricanes.
Bill Hoskins: "The storms are hammering us right and left. Reporters come here -- I pick them up -- and their message is, "I'm here to tell you." They don't come to listen. If they did, they'd know the economy sucks. And they're part of the reason the economy -- my economy, the tourist economy -- sucks. They don't know the damage they've done scaring the hell out of people. They get up in the morning and take a stupid pill. We've had three conventions cancel because of the storms, because of what they see on TV."