By Bill McClellan
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
More than 500,000 Americans lost their jobs last month. Paul Marasa was one
He was a salesman at a lighting company for eight years. But when the
housing market began to crash, the lighting market began to flicker. It’s
difficult to sell lighting fixtures if people aren’t building and buying
homes. That’s what’s called the ripple effect. Hard times are contagious.
Paul applied for unemployment benefits. He filled out the appropriate forms
and checked the box to have 10 percent of his weekly benefit check withheld
for federal taxes. Unemployment benefits are taxable. That realization
stuns a lot of people. Not Paul. His wife, Nancy, already had lost her job
as a shoe designer, and she has had taxes taken out of her unemployment
check. Still, the notion bugged Paul enough that he called me.
I went out to see him last week. It was an unnerving experience. I have
been writing newspaper columns for 25 years, and many of them have been
about people who find themselves sliding out of the middle class. But it
used to take something dramatic — a serious illness, an accident, an arrest
— to knock a family out of the middle class. Not just getting a pink slip.
A resourceful person could always find another job.
These days it is not so easy.
Paul is 56. He has never been hugely successful in a financial sense, but
he has always done fine. He comes from a middle-class family. He grew up in
Glasgow Village in north St. Louis county. He attended St. Louis Community
College at Florissant Valley but did not graduate. He seemed destined to
neither rise above nor fall below the economic circumstances into which he
was born and raised.
He worked as an X-ray technician for 17 years and when he tired of that, he
went into sales. He is personable. Sales would seem to fit him.
Nancy grew up in Washington, Mo. She earned an associate degree in
advertising design at Florissant Valley.
She and Paul were married in 1994. It was the second marriage for both.
Neither had children. They bought a home in Florissant. Their home is nice,
but not fancy.
You could say the same thing about their lifestyle. They are not
extravagant people. Nancy drives a 1997 Pontiac. Paul drives a 1991 Chevy
S-10 truck. It looks new, but it has 372,000 miles on it. He didn’t have to
replace the clutch until the truck had gone 230,000 miles. He wrote a
letter to Chevrolet: “You’d think you people could build a clutch that
could go more than a quarter of a million miles.” The company sent him a
pen and a thank-you letter.
The truck is one of his two indulgences. The other is history. More
precisely, World War II history. His father served in the Army Air Forces,
and Paul has dedicated a bedroom to his father’s service. Photos, medals,
various relics from the war.
By the way, his dad did not go to college but still had a nice career at
Sverdrup and Parcel, an engineering firm. He worked there for years.
The old days were like that. People had careers. They stayed at one company
Paul has had to be more nimble. He’s had a number of jobs. In addition to
sales, he’s worked as a dealer at a casino and he’s worked as a termite
inspector. Nancy has had a variety of jobs, too.
She lost her job in March of last year. She used up her unemployment
benefits and then had those benefits renewed when the government extended
benefits. She showed me a check. She cleared $252 and paid $28 in federal
She has been trying diligently to get a job. She keeps track of her
applications. She recently hit the 390 mark. It is hard to stay positive.
“You know when I feel most out of the mainstream?” she asked. “It’s when I
listen to the radio and I hear the ads about things like cruises. Cruises.
I just feel so disenfranchised.”
I mentioned that it was unnerving to visit the Marasas. It’s not just that
they’re nice folks, it’s that they’re so normal. They’re the people at the
next table at Pasta House. They’re in line in front of you at the movie.
And no dramatic catastrophe has befallen them. Just a bad economy. They’re
the faces behind the stories about layoffs.
Many people have mentioned that this does not seem like the Great
Depression. People aren’t selling apples on the streets. They’re not living
That’s true. At least so far, this is mostly playing out behind closed
doors. Down the street from the Marasas lives a man who worked at Granite
Steel. What will happen to him? For that matter, what will happen to the
They’ve had to eat up most of their savings already. Even before Paul lost
his job, his commissions were way down. Now they’ve got living expenses,
health insurance — COBRA coverage will cost $893 a month — and mortgage
payments. For a while, anyway, they can use their home equity line of
But the real solution has to be jobs. X-ray technology has changed, and
Paul would need to be recertified. That would require training. Sales seems
a better bet.
“I’ll do anything,” Paul said.