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Postcards from the Recession

Nguoi-viet.com, Commentary, Ky-Phong Tran Posted: Aug 08, 2009

In the working-class neighborhood where I grew up, you wont see abandoned homes or foreclosures signs swaying like white flags of surrender. Hemmed in by two freeways, an oil-storage facility and train tracks, North Long Beach, Calif., is not that kind of neighborhood. People didnt speculate on homes here; they bought them to live in. (Imagine that).

To understand the effects of the current economic crisis, you have to talk to these folks. So I got in my car and drove this part of town, one of the most diverse in an already diverse city.

In an indiscreet strip mall polluted by the dust and rubble of the metal recycling plant next door, I met with the woman whos been cutting my hair for over a decade. The soft-spoken Cambodian says her customers come much less often, and when they do, they spend only for the basics. She offers free services like styling and extra coloring to entice them to return.

At the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Artesia Boulevard, just bordering Compton, I found more of the same. My auto mechanic used to fix almost 20 cars a day. Now the Vietnamese man with the big smile is lucky if seven are brought in for service. The giggly Vietnamese ladies at the nail salon across the street sometimes go whole days without customers. While getting her nails done, a nurse worries about her mortgage payment increasing next year. The young, pretty black woman bought her first home here two years ago.

In the local skate park, a pack of pierced and tattooed kids chill on a concrete bench. While skaters soar behind them and two cops make a dope bust to the side, they tell me no one needs employees. Not Wal-Mart. Not KFC. Not even the city, which has frozen new hiring. A scraggly-haired white kid, one of the few still left around here, breaks my heart when he tells me with a straight face, ''Theres less food in the house.''

On my street, where the houses look well-kept and the lawns tended, were used to lean times so you have to look carefully to see how were dealing with this economic crunch. In the morning, notice the weary eyes of the young man coming home from the late shift of his second job at the airport. Or in the afternoon, see the grandma watching a whole slew of grandkids so their parents dont have to pay for child care.

In areas already zoned for duplexes and triplexes, look for windows and doors added onto garages, which now serve as extra bedrooms or rentals. Or late at night, note the four or five cars (mostly late-model imports) that fill each driveway and crowd the street because we live two or three generations in our homes. Like the probation officer who resides nearby tells me, ''We stick together around here. We make do.''

The other night, full of worry, I went outside to get some fresh air. It was one in the morning and the road was quiet. As streetlights formed a low constellation, I looked down the row of boxy World War II-era homes and thought of my neighbors. Across the board, from nail salon to auto shop, and dry cleaner to skate park, one thing is clear: Everyones income is down about 50 percent.

But what exactly does that number mean?

I wondered about the Mexican family that just moved in next door. They have young kids and their mom stays at home. Whats going to happen to them if their dad loses his job, gets his hours cut, or their mortgage re-adjusts beyond their means?

And I think of the Vietnamese girl who lives in our duplex. The high school seniors mom is already disabled by a stroke, and now her dad is on furlough two days a month as a state employee. Shes been accepted to Cal State Long Beach to study nursing, but I wonder if she can afford to attend.

On my street, were hardy folk. Our histories prove that. Many of us lived through the Vietnam War. Others trekked north through the deserts from Mexico. The neighbors across the street survived the Cambodian holocaust. And together, we all lived through the riots in 92.

I know were tough and well make it through these times. As the hungry white kid at the park says, ''What can you do, but just deal with it?'' But how well look when theyre over is another matter entirely.

K-Phong Trần, writer and journalist, lives in his hometown of Long Beach.

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