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Working It: Living Between Hope And Hardship


Time, now, for another story in our "Working It" series. People in Nashville, Tennessee, have been sharing their ups and downs in a difficult job market. Today, we meet James Elliott. He lost his job with a big construction company four years ago. Now, he works as a freelance carpenter and handyman. He's 51 years old, married, with a grown daughter and a 17-year-old son. We followed him through a day's work, digging trenches and fixing cars with his friends.


JAMES ELLIOTT: I came up in a rough project area, in Pensacola; and I wanted to get away. I left home when I was 12 years old, and I got put in, like, a reform school. When I was 14, I started working. And I've taken care of myself since then, pretty much.



ELLIOTT: There was a carnival in my town, and so I ended up following the fair - probably 10 years, and was a carny. And, you know, that was an exciting way of life, then; for a young man to travel, and see the country.


ELLIOTT: I was real wild, and I didn't have anything to show for my life. I met the right person - my wife, and getting together with her gave me a purpose in life.


ELLIOTT: Hey, hon. It's me. It looks like I'm going to have to stay a little bit late working, and try to get this done. Yeah, you have a good evening. I'll be there in a couple hours. All right. I love you, bye.


ELLIOTT: And I worked there 18 years, with the same company. When the economy got bad, the supervisor came, brought me a - my check and stuff. And he said man, we're having to lay you off. And I said, what? And he told me that they couldn't afford to keep several of us older people on anymore. That's just sad. It makes you feel terrible, to be done that way.


ELLIOTT: Here we go again. This is a rough way to have to dig a ditch. Now, I'm currently working for myself. You know, it's like I'm a laborer all over again; a 51-year-old laborer, starting all over. I'm working for $10 an hour, digging a ditch; like someone half my age would do, by hand. And, you know, it's rough.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You don't have any ideas of how to do this easier, do you? (LAUGHTER)

ELLIOTT: We stay just ahead of the bill collector, just - I mean, we're behind on the electric and the water, and stuff like that. We stay just on the edge of falling apart. It's a struggle on your mind.


ELLIOTT: My son, he said, Dad, don't worry about it. Everything will be OK. He just said: If I could get to where I've got money, Dad - you know - don't worry. I'll sure help you out. He's a good kid, that's all I can say.


ELLIOTT: I'd do anything to be able to just tell him, son, don't worry about it. I've got your college money covered. You just go to school and learn. And that's - well, that's money that I don't have. And I don't even realize how I'll be able to get that kind of money.


ELLIOTT: (To friends) Good idea. (LAUGHTER)

No matter what happens, I'm not going to just give up. Every day, I'm going to get up, and I'm going to struggle. It's a constant mental challenge, to me; to think, how am I going to make it? Like I say, I just get up every day; just call around and try to find out - something to do.


ELLIOTT: A man that has responsibility, you have to put your pride aside. If you've got to dig ditches, clean out porta-potties - no matter what the job is, a real man would do what he's got to do.


MARTIN: James Elliott of Nashville, Tennessee. His story was produced by Kim Green. And you can hear more sound portraits in our "Working It" series, at


MARTIN: One final note: We have good news from Jesse Rhew, the first person we met in our series, a few weeks ago. He'd been laid off from a large energy company last spring. This month, he took new job as a scientist at an aerospace testing company.


MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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