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Collateral damage


The Clement family navigates the depths of the Great Recession. AJC reporter Craig Schneider tells the Alpharetta family’s story.

“I don’t know if I can make it,” Greg Clement told his wife, Jan.

Jan didn’t respond.

As Greg remembers it, he was reaching out and got nothing.

As Jan recalls, she was so upset she had nothing to say.

“I was probably trying not to cry,” she said.

It was February, and they were on the road, moving their family from a $400,000 home in Alpharetta to an apartment nearby. It was one of the worst days yet in a three-year stretch that included lost jobs, months of unemployment, a bankruptcy and a foreclosure.

Greg had been stripped of many things that defined his life — the house, the 25-year career with the same company, the six-figure salary. Jan, he felt, had reacted by becoming a bundle of hair-trigger emotions made more volatile by her drinking. She wasn’t stepping up as a mature partner should, he thought.

Jan didn’t see it that way. Her dream-come-true lifestyle had blown apart. She had gone to work to help pay the bills. Although she acknowledges her own part, she says she was angry, most of all because she felt Greg wasn’t treating her as an equal and letting her into his thoughts or decisions about the family.

Their two girls — Genna, 15, and Bethany, 17 — weren’t any happier about the move. They didn’t want to leave their neighborhoods friends. They certainly didn’t want to share a room. And they’d just about had it with their mother’s instability and their parents’ incessant quarrels.

The Great Recession had hit the Clement family like an earthquake, and the aftershocks haven’t stopped. Each family member recalls it in his or her own way.

2. Greg Clement

Know this about Greg Clement: He’s a sports guy. He believes in the high drama and last-minute miracles that animate that world. He was a pitcher at North Carolina State, and, decades later, helped start an adult baseball league in Atlanta. Even pitched a no-hitter in it.

Greg met Jan 20 years ago at a bar in Tucker where he and his baseball buddies hung out after games. She tended the bar. The guys liked to tease her, and he was the worst.

“He used to throw peanuts at me. I hated him,” she recalled, smiling.

They dated, went to ballgames together and got married in Las Vegas. Then came the two girls. Genna has always been athletic like her parents; her mother played softball as a teenager. Bethany is more like her dad, wanting to take care of everyone.

Now in his 50s, Greg retains his brown hair, a stocky build and a frat-boy glint in his eye. He loves to talk sports and drink beers watching a game. He’s the guy who seems to get along with everyone, always in a good mood and happy to see you.

Failure doesn’t fit a guy like Greg Clement. He was used to making more than $100,000 a year in his construction sales job. He had worked 25 years for the company, which built metal buildings such as shopping centers and office warehouses.

As the real estate boom washed into metro Atlanta, his boat rose pretty high. He was among the company’s top salespeople, honored as Sales Person of the Year in 2001. In 2003, he earned $225,000. By 2009, he was a district sales manager over Georgia and South Carolina.

Jan and the girls fit nicely into the Alpharetta set. Jan was a Girl Scouts leader and volunteered with the girls’ softball teams. She went antiquing and spent hours on her garden. “The little Alpharetta housewife,” she says now.

One summer, she spent more than a grand on a party for Greg, inviting 80 of his baseball friends. She hired a band and rented Porta-Potties.

There were other splurges as well, but nothing major. Mainly shopping sprees to buy clothing for the girls, that kind of thing.

Then came the phone call in 2009, to Greg from his boss. It was the day after New Year’s.

“I’m in town,” said Greg’s boss. “Come over and bring your laptop.”

Greg kidded him. “What, are you firing me?”

“Yes.”

The company had been bought and the new owners were bringing in their own sales team.

I’ll bounce back, Greg thought. Sure enough, the next day he landed a job with a competitor. But that company also was feeling the real estate squeeze, and it closed its East Coast operations a few months later. Once more, Greg was shown the door.

He came home shell-shocked. Back-to-back job losses. Before that, he had never been fired.

He was out of work for most of 2010. Bills stacked up and the credit card debt mounted.

Jan worked as a waitress to help make ends meet. It was hard work, and she often came home late, reaching for a drink to unwind. Exhaustion and alcohol made her irritable, and Greg and the girls definitely noticed. Greg also was drinking more than usual.

Greg’s résumés went nowhere. His contacts dried up as metro Atlanta’s construction industry disintegrated. He became a finalist for a few jobs, but each time he felt his age got in the way. Adding to the financial losses was his loss of self-esteem.

He had become a salesman who couldn’t sell himself.

“I couldn’t find any answers,” he said. “I was trying not to show it, but I was losing my mind.”

Jan also was having troubles, largely, she said, because Greg wasn’t being straight with her. He tried to coddle her through the tough times. He’d give her $100 to go to the mall, and she would wonder where he got the money.

“He glossed over it,” Jan said. “He takes on so much himself. I couldn’t get him to tell me things.”

Halfway through 2010, Greg stopped paying their mortgage.

That year, he earned the grand sum of $12,955.

The family had little savings to fall back on. Back when the real estate market was zooming, Greg invested $200,000 from savings and 401k into two properties, both of which he lost to foreclosure.

Trying to save their house, he borrowed $10,000 from two friends and several thousand more from in-laws.

His secrecy may have frustrated Jan, but in his mind he was only trying to protect her and the kids. He loved Jan, the girl he asked to marry over a special drink: a ring in a champagne glass. Even now, with all this upon him, she could make him laugh.

In early 2011, Greg landed a job selling subscriptions for information on upcoming construction jobs. It paid about a third of his former salary — about $40,000 — but he was willing to take pretty much anything.

It did help, just not enough. By the middle of 2011, he couldn’t keep up payments on the cars, a Volvo S-60 and a Dodge van. The finance guy cut him some slack. But in May 2011, that guy left the firm, and when his replacement saw the amount Greg owed on the cars, he called the repo man.

3. Jan Clement

On Mother’s Day of 2011, Jan came home from a 10-hour shift at the restaurant and dropped down on the couch with a drink. Her daughters made her dinner and gave her a card. She was watching TV when swirling lights appeared in the window.

Two wreckers were hooking up both of their cars. Nobody even knocked on the door.

Jan looked out the window. “Greg, are our cars being repossessed?”

Greg ran outside, stunned. The repo guys made him hand over his keys. His girls watched through the window.

Jan blamed Greg for not telling her the repossession was coming. He said he had no idea.

That night, Jan walked into Genna’s room.

“Can I sleep in here?” Jan asked.

From there, family life swiftly and steadily deteriorated. Jan’s drinking, by her own account, got out of hand.

“I know I used it for an escape,” she said. “I didn’t want to deal with anything. I was totally escaping. I didn’t want to know anything.”

Small disagreements sparked big arguments. Then steely silences. Then distance. The economic upheaval that had destroyed so much of metro Atlanta’s prosperity was taking a very private toll inside the Clement home.

“We weren’t talking,” Greg said. “I wasn’t supporting her and she wasn’t supporting me.”

Jan was completely at a loss.

“You don’t know what to do next, and you don’t know if it’s going to help,” she said. “I felt like I was walking on eggshells. I would come home, go into my room and shut the door.”

The girls, too, withdrew.

“Everyone was snapping at each other,” Bethany recalled. “Some nights Mom and Dad were fighting so much, we didn’t want to be around.” So, increasingly, they weren’t, spending as much time out of the house as they could.

There were some prosaic family moments, even as life fell apart.

Scraping together $1,000, they bought a beat-up 1995 Pontiac Bonneville. It had been repainted a bright green. It rattled and smoked and left pieces of itself along the road. They called it the “Hooptee.”

Meanwhile, Greg was running back and forth to court every couple of weeks, fighting off foreclosure. He declared Chapter 13 in September because he had heard bankruptcy could help. It didn’t. That month the bank finalized the foreclosure. The Clements were handed a deadline to get out of their home: Feb. 16, 2012.

When they decided to try to sell some of their household goods, they didn’t even cart the stuff outside for a traditional garage sale. They just put price tags on things around the house and let strangers come in.

“It felt like being picked clean by vultures,” Jan said.

Removing pictures from her bedroom walls, Genna accidentally peeled off a chip of baby-blue paint. She kept it and when they moved into the apartment, the high school freshman taped the paint chip to her bedroom wall, writing the date on the back: Feb. 13, 2012.

Greg was so disgusted with having to move his family into the apartment that he didn’t even put the bed frames together. Mattresses were plopped on the floors. Hardly a picture was hung on the bare white walls. The big washer and dryer looked monstrous in the little kitchen.

The sniping escalated. Jan blamed Greg for losing his job and landing the family in this mess. Greg told Jan she drank too much and that she didn’t care about anybody but herself. About that, the girls tended to agree.

Right away, each daughter moved out of the apartment to stay with friends. Although they both moved back in a few weeks later, it seemed like everyone spent as much time as possible away from the apartment, avoiding contact with each other.

Genna even deleted her mother’s number from her cellphone. When Jan talked to her, she would think, “Why are you talking to me? I don’t like you.”

In early July, Greg came home to find Jan on the couch. She was shaking, tears in her eyes. She could barely hold a glass of water.

Only now, looking back, can she can put words to her distress: “I felt as though my self-image had been shattered.”

She felt like she was collapsing inside. So she left the apartment, moving in with her mother and father in Tucker. No more waiting tables. She had to get herself together.

The girls, for their part, told her they didn’t want her back until that happened.

4. Bethany and Genna

Bethany visited her mother almost every day in the weeks that followed.

“As much as she had made me upset,” Bethany said, “she was still my mother.”

Everyone in every family plays their role. In the Clement clan, Bethany is the rock, listener, comforter, healer. She does well in school, and, with a grade-point average of 3.7, she recently was accepted to the University of Georgia. She’s planning a future in pharmacy.

“I try to keep the family together,” she said.

After Jan left, Bethany cooked the meals and drove everyone around in the family car. They called her “Little Momma.”

She doesn’t complain, but the stress shows. She chews her nails and at one point lost 20 pounds. Friends at school saw her usually chipper mood turn dour.

Outwardly, Genna took the family’s travails harder. On the brink of adolescence, when the recession barged into her family’s life, she could no longer keep up with her Alpharetta peers. Their parents reward good grades with Mac Books and iPads. She gets her lunch money in quarters. To pay October’s rent, her father depended on charity from his church.

Genna decided to give up cheerleading to save the family $1,200. “I told my friends I didn’t want to do it,” she said. “I convinced myself.”

One of her close friends got angry when Genna couldn’t go out to places as they did before. That girl stopped coming around.

Another friend proved her worth. “At school,” Genna said, “she would see me (upset) and take me into the bathroom and let me cry.”

As far as her relationship with her mother, it turns out that distance has made the heart grow fonder.

And Jan quit drinking.

With time, Jan has grown stronger and Genna more trusting. After Jan took Genna to a dentist visit in October, she turned to her mother and started crying.

“There’s something not right,” Genna confided. The high school sophomore wasn’t sleeping at night. She was having “bad days,” and they were piling up.

“You can talk to me about anything,” Jan told her. “I’m here for you.”

Genna responded, “You can always talk to me.”

5. A new beginning

In October, Greg had a job interview with a North Carolina firm that would pay a lot more than he’s making now. Afterward, he told the family, “I think I hit it out of the park.”

He took a side job with spellacadabra.com selling spelling programs to school districts.

He also found an affordable rental home for the family in Alpharetta. With any luck, they’d be in by Thanksgiving.

He’s hoping to start paying off some of his loans, and not just those to friends and relations. In recent months Greg had reached out to low-end lenders such as The Money Tree.

For now he often has to do the job of two parents — or at least try. He takes the girls to their events, such as Genna’s softball games. He cares for them when they’re sick, though Jan comes over and helps. He sets up the doctor appointments and takes time off from work to get the girls there. Bethany just had her wisdom teeth removed.

Some things he can’t do. The girls don’t confide their problems in him. “I don’t think they come to me,” he said. “That stays bottled up.”

Greg didn’t hear back from the North Carolina firm, but he’s had three other interviews since.

Jan is feeling better. In mid-October, she found a job at a department store. It’s only seasonal work, but it means a lot to her.

“I have some control over my life,” she said.

She talks to each of the girls two to three times a day, and she sees them starting to forgive her. But she realizes, she said, that she needs to forgive them, as well.

“They were very unforgiving,” she said.

As for Greg, that relationship is more complicated. The couple has become cordial. They talk on the phone most every day, exchanging news about the kids.

“She raised my kids,” Greg said. “She’s a very caring person.”

Still, all too often one says something and the other takes it the wrong way.

“I’m still angry,” she said. “He didn’t understand what I was going through.”

When the family moved into the new home just before Thanksgiving, Jan did not move in with them.

“I don’t think I’m ready,” Jan said. “I want to be stronger when I go back.”

Greg got a truck and some help from friends, and when they moved into the little home surrounded by trees, one of the first things they did was set up the bed frames and hang pictures.

From the first moment there, they seemed happier. Bethany thrilled at the notion of having a headboard on her bed again. Genna busied herself arranging the kitchen cabinets.

“I’m so excited,” she said. “I want everything to be perfect.”

Greg thought about the journey that led them there. He recalled a saying that there are four keys to motivation: love, hate, survival and just being scared.

“I feel like I’ve been through them all,” he said. “I felt like giving up sometimes, but I never gave up.”

Throughout, he felt most compelled by one feeling: “Love of my family.”

MEET THE REPORTER AND PHOTOGRAPHER

Craig Schneider joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1997. He has exposed problems with the state child protection system, personal care homes, trucking regulations and credit card fraud. Since the recession began, he has written about people’s struggles with employment, poverty and the housing crisis. He has also done stories on his obsession with the musical Les Miserables and his sad attempt to meet Bruce Springsteen.

Bita Honarvar has been a photojournalist and photo editor at the AJC for nearly 12 years. She was born in Detroit, Mich., but spent most of her childhood in Atlanta, save three years in Shiraz, Iran. She is a graduate of Boston University, and has been a photographer at the Cherokee Tribune in Canton, Ga., and freelanced for the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and a string of papers around Boston, Mass.

Her work has taken her around the United States as well as abroad, including stints in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. But she firmly believes there are compelling images to be made and stories to be told anywhere.

HOW WE GOT THE STORY

AJC Reporter Craig Schneider posted requests on Twitter and Facebook looking for people impacted by the recession. From there, he found Greg and Jan Clement and their family. They agreed to share their story and allow the reporter to follow their lives over several months. Schneider read the final story to the entire Clement family, and he is grateful for their courage, openness and honesty.

Next week: Hurricane Sandy forces a daughter to confront the challenge of caring for an aging parent.


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