- By Greg Bluestein The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Mondays were the worst.
Oscar Reyes worked a grueling 12-hour overnight shift on a tufting machine at a carpet plant, emerged bleary-eyed at 7 a.m., and drove to Dalton High School for a long day of classwork. But it was work, and he thrived on it.
He was a chatty 16-year-old kid from Mexico whose family was trying to carve out a new life in the rolling hills of north Georgia, with a new language to perfect and a culture to learn. And working hard seemed the best way to smooth the transition.
Oscar didn’t have to work. His dad was making good money at a carpet plant. But Oscar did it anyway. Perhaps it was his way of coping with this strange new land where carpet was king.
“I do it because I want to do good,” he says. “And I do it because I like it.”
Oscar and his family arrived in Dalton on a bitterly cold January morning in 1997 from the tiny town of San Diego on Mexico’s western outskirts. Within weeks, he’d landed a job at Taco Bell, where he made fast friends in the kitchen by beating his coworkers in taco slinging contests. Soon he was hungering for more money, more responsibility, so he took a job working the dreaded weekend third-shift at one of the carpet giants in town.
He did it so he could buy his own car and new clothes and meals at nice restaurants and, even though his parents didn’t demand it, chip in $1,000 for his family’s monthly house payment.
Now 32, Oscar has lived in Dalton half his life and he’s as much a part of the city’s fabric as the carpet mills that power its economy. Tall and burly with a hint of a fuzz on his cheeks, he’s managed to retain his stubborn optimism.
But his incessant urge to work has had drawbacks. It has cost him a college degree and taken him on an exhausting journey of highs and lows; he lost his last job a year ago.
Time and again, he’s worked his way up the ranks only to get knocked off by the economy and start again. Even today, his temptation to earn a steady paycheck complicates his long-term dreams in ways he wouldn’t have predicted.
The recession and its rough recovery have tested his confidence and shaken his faith in his adopted city. But with each setback comes a fierce determination to make life better for his growing family.
Many of Dalton’s residents lost their jobs, their homes, their savings when the bottom fell out of the carpet industry. But some, like Oscar, are using the recession as a rebirth, ever mindful of the lessons they learned during these otherwise forgettable years.
Like his town, Oscar refuses to go down without a fight.
2. The ‘Carpet Capital’
Dalton, a 90-mile hop north of Atlanta, was a sleepy railroad stop in the early 1900s when a local woman named Catherine Evans Whitener began making bedspreads using a groundbreaking new tufting technique. Soon, homes stretching from Dalton to the Tennessee state line were decorated with her bedspreads and bath mats.
Eventually the technique was applied to carpet making, beckoning corporations that found a home in Dalton’s welcoming embrace.
By the 1990s, the “Carpet Capital of the World” had lived up to its name. Nearly 90 percent of the carpet produced worldwide was made within 25 miles of the city’s borders, and the manufacturers and their spinoffs employed tens of thousands of workers.
The community’s churches and charities were supported by carpet executives who provided the civic backbone for the growing town.
The runaway growth embedded Dalton’s residents with a well-intentioned promise: Manufacturing jobs that offered solid middle-class wages with little education.
It was an offer that quickly spread far beyond Dalton’s borders. Thousands of immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere moved to town to work the grueling shifts.
In 1980, only a few hundred Hispanics called Dalton’s Whitfield County home. By 2010, one-third of the county’s residents — more than 30,000 people — were Hispanic.
Parks across Dalton were converted to soccer pitches, fast food joints became Mexican restaurants, schools struggled with an influx of new students for whom English was a second language.
The carpet industry’s strength amid a domestic housing boom meant there were plenty of jobs. Local leaders focused so much on sustaining the flooring industry that they failed to broaden Dalton’s economy. They rarely sought to recruit new industries. Who could blame them? There always seemed to be plenty of jobs to go around.
But the carpet industry is glued to the housing market, and when home sales plummeted in the late 2000s and new construction screeched to a halt, Dalton was floored.
Dalton lost about 20,000 jobs since the peak of production in mid-2006, and carpet executives say some of those jobs may never return.
The city holds the distinction of losing more jobs than almost any other metropolitan area in the nation between November 2011 and November 2012. Metro Dalton’s unemployment rate hovered around 3 percent in 2004. It was at 11 percent last November.
Nevertheless, a sense of optimism pervades the town, and it’s not gallows humor. City leaders are pushing an ambitious literacy program and county commissioners talk of luring in new industries that few other areas could seek. One day, chemical companies could cluster here alongside the flooring plants.
A billboard that greeted visitors on the northbound drive into Dalton seems to sum it up. “Recession 101,” it proclaims. “It’s a test not a final.”
3. Hard work pays off
Oscar’s work ethic came from his mother, who once ran a water-purifying business, and father, a college graduate who taught high school science and later was an elementary school principal in Mexico. He found steady work at a Dalton carpet mill when he arrived in the U.S., putting in 60-hour work weeks into his 50s.
At his father’s urging, Oscar enrolled in college after high school, but his GPA plummeted as he juggled classes and night shifts at the carpet plant. The siren’s call of a steady paycheck proved too much, and he dropped out.
It was a decision he’d come to regret, but he didn’t see it that way at first. College was a door he thought would always remain open.
“I was exhausted, and I was making good money so I figured I’d go later,” he said. “But I didn’t go back. And I didn’t save money.”
With a gregarious attitude and flawless bilingual language skills, Oscar quickly worked up the plant’s ranks, becoming a carpet inspector and then a backup supervisor. He also became a naturalized citizen, which further brightened his work prospects.
Working in the mills, though, never completely fed Oscar’s appetite to get ahead.
As a teen, Oscar recalls his father growing quiet whenever a popular Hispanic realtor’s ads would air on TV. He’d tell his son that real estate was the way to earn solid money, and a seed was planted in the teen’s mind. It blossomed in Oscar’s 20s when a friend who was making a nice living selling property on the side encouraged Oscar to join him.
Oscar shelled out $4,000 at a time when he didn’t have much money to spare for a real estate license, but he made it back with the commission on his first sale — a $250,000 house. Soon, he was unloading property around town while working full-time at the carpet plant. He wasn’t just a bit player. Once, he managed to sell a $1.25 million apartment complex.
By 2006, Oscar’s real estate career was so successful, he quit his job at the carpet plant to focus on his passion. For a time, it worked. By early 2007, he had made enough money to plow his earnings into a spacious three-bedroom place with a swimming pool on a quiet one-acre lot.
The money came and the money went. It went to California vacations, $100 shirts and restaurant meals. It also went toward wooing Claudia, a beautiful Army veteran with a steely wit and an infectious laugh, who eventually agreed to marry Oscar. One place it did not go was his savings account. But that didn’t worry him too much. The money would keep rolling in, right?
4. The economy tanks
In late 2007, Oscar returned from a honeymoon in Mexico with his new wife, Claudia, but he might as well have stayed on vacation. The economy was in shambles and the housing market was drying up. Soon, the carpet kings would roll back production even more.
He was hardly making his monthly mortgage and Claudia would soon be laid off from her job as a secretary in a real estate attorney’s office.
During the boom, Oscar often wondered why his clients would let a few thousand dollars of debt bog down their credit scores. Now he was juggling multiple credit cards loaded with thousands of dollars in debt he couldn’t pay off and wishing he had stored away some more savings.
Oscar refused to relinquish his dying real estate business, even as debt circled his family. He was so worried about missing a potential sale that he didn’t dare turn off his cellphone. Claudia couldn’t sleep at night.
Sometimes, you’re the last to know what seems so obvious to everyone else.
Oscar can’t pinpoint what made him finally return to the daily grind, but there’s still a part of him that regrets it. Running his own business had taught him the skills to interact with people, to read their wants and needs. And he loved the thrill of the sale.
In May 2009, he returned to the humdrum life of the plant when he was hired by Beaulieu of America. He refused to call it defeat, though. Even when he was back driving forklifts on the overnight shift, he channeled his work ethic toward moving up the ranks all over again.
Yes, it was a giant step back, he told himself. But it was also a step toward fiscal stability.
This time, there was a greater urgency to his climb back up the ladder. Claudia was pregnant with their first child.
Oscar impressed his managers with his dependability and talent, and was promoted to a dizzying series of new jobs with increased responsibilities. Within a year he was a safety manager at a different Beaulieu plant. He rose so quickly that he decided to deactivate his real estate license.
It didn’t last long. In January 2012, the plant’s HR staff delivered the bad news: The facility where he worked would be shuttered.
The rung snapped and Oscar was out of work again.
5. A second chance
When Oscar lost his job, he looked for a sign. He got two.
The first was a call from tenants who rented a fixer-upper he had bought when times were better. They were moving.
The second was a visit from a social worker who told him about a federally funded training program that would help pay for his courses and books and allow him to receive unemployment checks if he went back to college.
Sometimes it takes a crisis to put your life back on track.
Oscar decided to walk away from the expensive dream home and move his family into the rental. It was a heart-wrenching decision for someone who once made a living selling property.
Their new home is a cozy two-bedroom in an edgy neighborhood. But it’s hard to beat the mortgage of less than $400, and it’s a snap to clean.
“More importantly, we’re comfortable again,” Claudia says. “I can sleep again at night. Honestly, once I let the house go, I was more at peace.”
The second decision was no less difficult. Oscar had long regretted dropping out of college, and he saw his misfortune as a rare opportunity to make things right. But Claudia knew her husband too well to believe that the lure of work wouldn’t stall his plans again.
This time, she warned him, there would be no excuses.
“If you’re going to school, this time you have to do it 100 percent.”
A quick look at a jobs site pushed him over the edge. Just about every decent gig required education beyond high school. Three days later, he was a full-time student at Georgia Northwestern Technical College.
Every now and then, the temptation of a paycheck threatens to delay Oscar’s dreams.
During the winter holidays, as the fiscal cliff loomed, he printed up new résumés, cast about for night openings and flirted with the idea of renewing his real estate license. But he abandoned those plans when Congress struck a deal in January, extending his unemployment payments a few more months.
“The recession was a good thing for me,” Oscar says. “I see it as an opportunity to go back to school.”
It’s early November and Oscar is surrounded by loving family members.
About a dozen relatives are crowded around a long kitchen table at his parents’ spacious house to celebrate his 32nd birthday, and his brother and sister are going after him. The kids are watching TV in a den covered wall-to-wall with family photos.
Soon, his siblings are regaling the crowd with tales about Oscar’s haircut, his studying habits, his awkward adolescence. But safely out of earshot from Oscar, his brother Mario grows earnest.
Mario, 24, also dropped out of college to work in the carpet mills. But he, too, hopes to go back one day.
“A lot of people freak out when their plant shuts down, but Oscar never saw this as a bad thing. And the first thing he did was go back to school,” said Mario. “He’s an inspiration to me.”
Oscar’s loading up on enough coursework to graduate this summer. Just in time, too. He plans to receive his diploma around the time he and Claudia’s second child is born.
In the corner of the room, Oscar’s dad, Mario Sr., quietly watches his son. He had just come home from working a long shift, bringing with him a few cases of soft drinks.
When Oscar failed to complete college, his father was disappointed. Now, as his family gathered to celebrate his son, he beamed with pride.
“I’m proud of him,” Mario Sr. says in Spanish. “He’s preparing for life and the future of his family.”
The dessert comes out along with a call for the birthday boy to say something to mark this occasion.
For the first time, Oscar says with a smile, he feels like his future is squarely in his hands.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said. “And I’m taking advantage of it.”
How we got the story
AJC reporter Greg Bluestein wanted to go beyond the numbers to tell the story of how people are using the recession as a chance for a renewal, and he decided there were few better places to base the story than Dalton. The north Georgia city was uniquely impacted by the recession, but the resilience of its residents was inspiring. Bluestein made a half-dozen trips to the north Georgia city and interviewed dozens of residents, business leaders and politicians to develop the story. He is grateful to Oscar Reyes and his family for agreeing to share their story.
About the reporter and photographer
Greg Bluestein covers the governor in the AJC’s statehouse bureau. He previously covered economic development and real estate. Greg joined the AJC in June after seven years at the Atlanta bureau of the Associated Press. A graduate of the University of Georgia, he also worked for The Daily Report in Atlanta. A native Atlantan, he lives in west Atlanta with his wife and young daughter.
Bob Andres, a San Francisco native, worked as a photographer and editor for San Francisco area newspapers before moving to Florida to be the photo director of the Tallahassee Democrat. A graduate of San Francisco State University, Andres has also worked as the AJC’s metro photo editor. He is married, with three grown children, and plays blues guitar in a band with some of his fellow photographers.