The Good People of Dalton Would Like Jobs Now, Please
First came the carpet industry, then the undocumented workers, then the transformation of a midsize city in northwest Georgia to a Mexican diaspora. Then came the night one neighborhood almost burned to the ground. Today Dalton is ground zero for the state’s economic collapse.
By Thomas Lake
Ghosts came to work in the carpet mills. They tried to be silent and invisible. The government ignored them, as it had the ghosts who brought in the onion crop and built the Olympic village, because there were too many jobs and not enough workers. The ghosts were willing. They were hungry. They filled apartments along Fifth Avenue and Morris Street and paid the rent on time and fixed their own broken showers because they were too timid to call the landlord, and they obeyed traffic laws while driving to work in their busted-up Geo Metros because they were deathly afraid of police. They worked quickly, without complaint, their heartbeats lost in the hum of the tufting machines. Their money was ghost money, vanishing dollars, born again in another country, called by another name.
But even the lightest footstep leaves a mark. The ghosts pulled down their kitchen cabinets and put up wire cages for chickens so they could have fresh eggs in the morning. They pulled doors off the hinges and laid them on foundations of old car batteries to make beds. In time their habit of customization began to leak into the open air. They wanted tacos with lime juice and cilantro, instead of gringo cheddar cheese, and stores where they could buy cowboy hats embroidered with golden scorpions. And so the butcher became the carniceria, and open seats became scarce at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, and softball gave way to futbol on the field outside the Dalton Community Center, and inside they had quinceañeras, with fifteen-year-old celebrants in pink dresses and dancing shoes.
The ghosts settled alongside their documented compatriots in Newtown, a historically black neighborhood on the east side of Dalton, and they repossessed it for Mexico so that if you walked down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on a Friday night you could hear the sliding trombones of Duranguense and see fleets of taxis carrying the cowboys to bars called Brisas and Los Amigos. And there were young men on the streets, wearing blue bandannas and sunglasses on the backs of their heads, in a gang called the Tiny Winos, with names like Primo, Chico, Sleepy, and Creeper. Also Smurf, who had brass knuckles and a mid-caliber handgun.
Dalton is in northwest Georgia, ninety miles from Atlanta, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s known as the Carpet Capital of the World because three-quarters of all American carpet gets tufted and woven into being right here, and nearly 90 percent of the county’s jobs depend one way or another on floorcovering. This was fine in the days when America was cramming every field and hillside with small mansions and lining them with acres of Marblestone nylon and Butterfly Wings with Stainmaster and eight-millimeter Belle-vue Cocoa from the Earthworks Collection. Then the sky fell on the housing market and there were not so many floors to cover. The tufting machines slowed down and the pool of overtime evaporated. Dalton’s labor problem shifted 180 degrees: too many workers, not enough jobs. In 2008, Dalton’s unemployment rate increased second-most among all metro areas in the United States. It stood at 13.7 percent in March, second-highest in Georgia, and there was no way to count the unemployed ghosts.
What follows is a tale about Dalton’s metamorphosis, the ragged arc of gain and loss, as witnessed by three of its residents. One is black. One is white. One is Mexican. They do not know each other, but all three have worked in the mills, and so their lives are intertwined with those of the ghosts like the woven threads of a carpet. Among them they have lost the tip of a finger, the last days of a brother, the life of a son.
And on the night when Newtown nearly burned to the ground, one of them had a mob at his command.
The White Man
James Grigsby always said his cuttin’ machine was like a woman: You either respect her or she’ll get a hold of you. One day he lost his manners for half a second and sure enough, that slitter blade took off the tip of his right ring finger. Blood gushing from here to the wall. He was at the emergency room three hours and got a pressure bandage and came back to finish his shift.
“I don’t believe in missing work,” he says one night, twenty-six weeks into his unemployment benefits. “I think I missed three days in eight years.”
Grigsby has an angular face and a cross made of bullets tattooed on the back of his left hand above the caption Bless These For My Enemies. He spent twenty-five years in the carpet industry, most recently as floor boss at a sample house, where his machine slashed room-sized rolls of carpet to three-inch-by-three-inch swatches for customers to consult while considering their floor-covering options. Grigsby lost his job under hazy circumstances last August and, as of April, had not worked since.
“I even wanted to join the military,” he says. “They say I’m too old. I’m not but forty-six.”
It’s a crisp night on a sharp hill ten miles northwest of Dalton, and Mr. and Mrs. Grigsby sit on a plaid couch in their living room behind a coffee table that holds a glass jar of peppermints and a copy of the Natural Remedies Encyclopedia.
“Everywhere I worked, you’ve got people who are illegal,” Mr. Grigsby says. “They’ll have one name inside the plant, and then they go outside and they have another.”
“We are American people,” says Mrs. Grigsby, drinking coffee from a mug printed with Scottie dogs. “They’re not.”
“Basically,” Mr. Grigsby says, “if you get rid of the fuckin’ illegals, everything would be doing good.”
His point makes a certain mathematical sense. If Newtown had caught fire on the night of May 28, 2007, it may have thinned out the competition. If 1,000 ghosts still work in the mills (the real number is nearly impossible to determine), that means there are 1,000 jobs that could be given to legal American workers but instead are unavailable. These workers—hourly laborers without high school diplomas, like James Grigsby—have always borne the heaviest burden of America’s tacit bargain with ghost labor. The ghosts make goods and services cheaper for the average consumer, thus raising the general standard of living, but they also cheapen labor by making it more plentiful. “In the end,” writes Harvard economist George Borjas, “all laborers, regardless of where they live, are worse off because there are now many more of them.”
Grigsby believes there were three ghost workers for every legal one in the mills where he worked.
“It’s a godawful high percentage,” he says.
Others think so too. In 2004, four women filed a federal class-action racketeering lawsuit that accused the floorcovering conglomerate Mohawk Industries of conspiring to keep wages down by hiring illegal workers. (Mohawk denies the allegations; at press time, the case was still pending in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.) The women said they had seen shadowy figures named Carlos and Maria handing out Social Security cards in a Mohawk warehouse. Two of the four plaintiffs have since died of natural causes, and one of those two, Shirley Jane Williams, gave a deposition on August 16, 2007, four months before her death, in which she accused her former boss of abusing the workers.
JUAN MORILLO, MOHAWK ATTORNEY: What else did you mean by abuse?
WILLIAMS: Just like we would be doing those orders and it would be so hot and he would be standing over us timing us. I mean, that’s just awful. You know, and he would say, “I tell you what, I can get me some illegal people come in over here. They can do their jobs. They don’t talk to me. I don’t have to talk to them. They do their jobs.”
They do their jobs. James Grigsby hates being out of work, hates being a househus-band, hates going out every morning and coming back with nothing, hates sitting in the living room at 11 a.m. watching stock quotes crawl across the television screen even though he has pulled all his money out of the market. But as much as it might hurt him to admit this, he would tell you the same thing. The ghosts do their jobs. Back when he was a boss, he sometimes needed to borrow workers from other departments.
“I’d take a Hispanic person, ’cause they’re durn good workers.”
“I mean, we would lose a lot of terrific workers if we sent everybody back.”
“We’ve all had a part in creating this monster.”
He drives home from the mill at daybreak with the windows down on his ’96 Lumina, hoping the cool wind will keep his eyes open. It does, for nearly twenty-five miles. And then, two blocks from his apartment on the west side of Dalton, after twisting carpet fibers all night, Abad Marroquin falls asleep.
Let him remain there a moment, in his rolling dreamworld on Mount Haven Drive, and return with me to his homeland: Chiapas, at the southern edge of Mexico, on a farm of coffee and cantaloupes. Abad was twenty-one years old in 1999, the sixth of eight children, and his older brother Nereo had a problem. Nereo was one year away from an engineering degree at Instituto Tecnológico de Comitán, but his scholarship money had just dried up. Abad had a vision of his brother laboring for forty pesos a day, never enough to finish school, and he made a plan.
“I don’t think you will have to drop out of school,” he told Nereo as they sat on a park bench near the institute. “I will make sure you have enough money.”
Nereo gave him a skeptical look, because Abad sold bus tickets for a living, but it happened that their uncle Ramon was visiting for the summer, and in Uncle Ramon lay possibility. Uncle Ramon made real money. Uncle Ramon worked in an American carpet mill. And in those glorious days, a worker could get a $500 bonus for recruiting a friend or relative. Uncle Ramon told Abad to come on up.
The airplane ticket cost about $300, six months of savings, and he got a student visa from the consulate after proving that his family owned property. He was the first from his immediate family to leave for America. They crowded around him on the night before he left and showered him with tears and Catholic blessings. He woke at three the next morning to leave for his trip, expecting them to be asleep, but they had all gotten up to see him one last time before he left, and his mother gave him a sandwich and an apple to eat on the three-hour drive with his father to the airport in Tapachula to join the largest wave of immigrants to America in the last hundred years.
Abad was one of five people in Uncle Ramon’s two-bedroom apartment in Dalton, and he shared a bedroom with two of his nephews. He got a job with Mohawk on the night swing shift, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., making ten dollars an hour, fifteen with overtime. They say Dalton was built on overtime, because the laborers took the cash from those precious extra hours and bought a place in the middle class. Abad came home from work, showered, and went straight to learn English. He was a creeler, then a mender, then a twister. The machines roared and hummed with the pulse of a thousand needles. They never stopped unless they broke down. His earplugs could not drown out the noise. By morning his head felt like a balloon. He worked and studied so much that he had no time left to waste his money, and he wired Nereo a few hundred dollars a month.
But textiles were never part of Abad’s career plan. He wanted to be a schoolteacher, which meant he had to go to college just like Nereo did. His wages would have to put two men through college at the same time. He picked up every overtime shift he could. He slept four or five hours a night. He kept improving his English until he could pass the GED and enroll at Dalton State College. He kept himself going with a book by the inspirational author Og Mandino, which included a passage that, when translated to Spanish and back again, says, approximately, “Failure will not come upon me if my determinations to succeed are strong enough.”
Day blurred with night and biorhythms went haywire. He found himself unable to sleep at home and unable to stay awake at work. Failure will not come upon me. He bought a pair of sunglasses and wore them to his 8 a.m. computer class so that when he rested his chin on his hand his teacher could not see his eyes closed.
Two years before the night Newtown almost ignited, Abad’s mother called to say his older brother Max had been diagnosed with leukemia. Abad did not know what leukemia was, but he knew that Max was his kindest and most trustworthy brother. They talked regularly over the next few months, and Max always told him he was recovering.
“You have to keep up with everything in school and work,” Max said in their last conversation. “I’m going to be fine.” He died the next day. Abad missed the funeral.
Time now to rejoin Abad in his temporarily unmanned ’96 Lumina as he rolls along Mount Haven Drive. Two things go right in this near-catastrophe. First, his foot slips off the gas as he falls asleep. Second, he nods off as he approaches an uphill stretch in the road, further slowing the car, so that when he drifts into a concrete barrier he does so with merely enough force to jolt him awake. It’s almost 8 a.m. He hurries home, takes a shower, and heads off to computer class, making sure to bring his sunglasses.
Failure will not come upon me. Abad’s dollars put Nereo through school and into a job as an engineer. In December 2008, after eight years of study, Abad earned his education degree from Dalton State with a GPA of 3.48.
“It’s like my ticket to go anywhere in the world,” he says, spreading out his arms. “It’s like my wings.”
The Black Man
The Mini Super Tienda Mexicana sits on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Redwine Street, two miles southwest of Fred Johnson’s house. You go to the Mini Super if you’re thirsty, for a box of tamarind juice or a bottle of Jarritos Lima-Limon; or if you’re hungry, for a bag of mayocoba beans to boil for soup; or if you need to wire cash to your mother in Queretaro. The Mini Super’s sign is red and green and white like the Mexican flag. And if Newtown had been torched on the night of Memorial Day 2007, this store might have been fuel for the first fire.
To reach Fred Johnson’s house from the Mini Super, you go north on Fredrick Street, past the Dalton Community Center, which has been a black stronghold since the days of segregation. The stronghold has weakened since the Mexican invasion. There are times when young black men who would like to use the gym for basketball must share it with Mexicans who want to play volleyball and throw exuberant parties.
“I wouldn’t say that there’s resentment,” Thomas Pinson, the center director, was saying the other day, “but there’s some resentment.”
“They feel that the Hispanics are slowly taking over this facility.”
“Because when they come, they come in such big numbers.”
“When they come, they bring the whole family.”
On your way to Fred Johnson’s house from the Mini Super, you also pass within a quarter-mile of Blue Ridge Elementary School. Ordinarily an elementary school would have nothing to do with a turf war, and come to think of it this one doesn’t either. To have a war you need a fight. There was no fight here. Only surrender.
Look, I wouldn’t say there’s resentment. But there’s some resentment.
Story goes like this. Dalton needed a new elementary school. Why? Remember that public schools screening potential students are not like employers screening potential workers. When you go to hire someone, you have to ask for papers, to make sure you’re not hiring a ghost, and by sure I mean you can later say, Those papers looked real, regardless of whether they were cockamamy, and on the other hand you would also emphasize that you didn’t hassle that brown-looking guy too much about it, because God forbid discrimination. Well. Schools can’t even go that far. Oh, no. Think Dalton’s carpet factories are full of ghosts? You can be certain that Dalton’s schools are full of ghost children. Because when a kid shows up and wants to learn, federal law prohibits anyone at the school from asking anything about immigration status. There is really only one relevant question: Do you live in our district? Answer is yes, kid gets in.
So anyway, Dalton needed a new elementary school. And you can’t plunk down a school just anywhere. The state wouldn’t have it. One site was too close to a reservoir. One straddled a gas pipeline. One was bisected by massive power lines. One would have created a dangerous blind spot for bus drivers. The good people of the Dalton Public Schools looked and looked and finally they found the site of an old elementary school that was already graded and would require them to obtain only 7.3 new acres, instead of the twenty-five they would have needed elsewhere, and they went with it. That site was here in Newtown, along Blue Ridge and Straight streets. There was only one complication. Nineteen families lived there, most of them black. They would all have to go.
The city asked nicely, of course, because the man with the gun can whisper if he is so inclined. He still has the gun. And the city had the threat of condemnation, which meant it could force people off their land if necessary.
Let me tell you about one of those nineteen families. Curtis and Eva Rivers had four bedrooms, two baths, and a carport. Curtis was a preacher and a crane operator and Eva grew okra and tomatoes out back. They could sit on the porch and holler at their neighbors and walk across the street to church. Eva always told her children she would live in that house on Blue Ridge Street until the funeral man came to get her. Someone else got there first. The offer was $87,000. They couldn’t refuse. They left in a hurry, to a place out in the county where they didn’t know anyone. There was barely enough time to gather all the things they had spent more than fifty years accumulating in that old house. Then the bulldozers rumbled in. Blue Ridge Elementary School opened in 2005 with fanfare and celebration. Nearly 90 percent of its students are Hispanic.
Now to Fred Johnson’s house.
Fred Johnson’s house is an immaculate ranch in northeast Dalton with white shutters on a redbrick facade. Fred and his wife, Elsie, have just come home from dinner at Chili’s, where someone recognized them and paid their bill. This has happened many times since the night of May 28, 2007. Now they’re sitting together on their living room couch next to a row of potted plants. Soft harp music is playing from a stereo in the next room, just as it played at the funeral.
“André was just like I birthed him,” Elsie is saying. “He was my son.”
First he was her brother’s son, taken by the state for reasons she would rather not discuss, and he had been to nine or ten foster homes in four months. He was eight years old when they rescued him, already eighty-five pounds and taking Adderall, the only kid they ever saw who could dismantle a Tonka truck.
“He thought nobody loved him,” says Fred, a preacher, a truck driver, and a veteran of the carpet mills. “We finally broke through the crust, the hard part, and inside was a beautiful young man.”
Fred used to spank him when he did wrong, and he always made sure André knew precisely what he had done to deserve it. Finally André said, “Dad, quit talkin’ to me. Just go on with the whuppin’.” Fred went to André’s teachers and principals and coaches and gave them his phone numbers and said, “Please call me immediately if my boy does anything,” and finally André complained, “Dang, Dad, everybody know you. I can’t get away with nothin’.” When André beat up a smaller boy, Fred dragged him to the boy’s house and made him apologize in front of everyone, to worsen the shame.
In middle school, André was mocked for his portly bearing, and he told Fred about it, and Fred told him, “André, God made you perfect just as you are. You can’t make people stop talking about you, but you can learn to love yourself.” André did. He began eating even more—pork chops, macaroni, Fred’s barbecue ribs with his grandfather’s secret sauce—and rising at 5 a.m. to lift weights. By age sixteen he was six feet four, 265 pounds, a fearsome defensive end for the Dalton Catamounts.
On May 28, 2007, seventeen days before his seventeenth birthday, as dusk fell and the temperature slouched toward 80, André Johnson and his posse cruised Newtown in a blue Ford Focus. This could be seen as an act of defiance, an incursion into hostile territory. There are gang members and there are gang members, a spectrum that runs from teenagers at play to hard men and criminal enterprise, and the weight of evidence puts André closer to the first. But he surely had some allegiance to the Deuce Squad, aka the Goon Squad, aka Dalton’s homegrown Crips. And this being 2007, the boys of the Deuce Squad knew not to roll down Fourth Avenue unless they were ready to fight.
They found one on the blacktop outside the Mini Super Tienda Mexicana, where they stopped for beverages. Along came a blue Honda Accord containing Chico and Primo and Smurf and two more of the Tiny Winos, coming from a Memorial Day cookout with a white girl named Precious.
The Winos might have kept driving, too, but someone yelled, “It’s all about the Deuce Squad,” and there was a waving of bandannas and a raising of hands, and the Winos could not ignore the bait. They pulled over.
“Winos trece!” Primo cried, because thirteen is a meaningful number to the Winos. Derisive laughter from both sides. Fists closed. A bottle shattered. An object appeared, shiny and silver and black.
That supposed to scare me?
Smurf was born in Mexico. He was eight inches shorter than André and a hundred pounds lighter. But he had the gun, and his aim was good. One shot to the chest, right by the heart. Blood on the blacktop. André hung on for a few minutes and then an officer checked his pulse and heard André let out a sigh and another officer raised André’s right eyelid and saw his eye frozen in place, down and to the right, and there was no more breath.
A crowd gathered. Fred and Elsie were there too, and they could see André but the police would not let them touch him because he was no longer their son but a piece of evidence. Fred was burning. He looked around and saw some Mexican-looking people standing close and he went to tear them apart.
Elsie grabbed him and hugged him, and he cooled down and felt something rushing through him that he would later describe as the Holy Ghost.
Kids swarmed by the hundreds outside the hospital, murmuring about vengeance, and a man called Fred from the jailhouse on his girlfriend’s phone, saying, “Mr. Johnson, I have one of them over here with me—what do you want me to do?” Some rough acquaintances of Fred’s older daughter in Chattanooga offered to come down and show the Mexicans what a street gang could really do. Everyone was looking to Fred.
Fred was thinking. He remembered his neighbor Antonio across the street and his Latino coworkers who were asking his permission to sign the sympathy card and attend André’s funeral. He thought of the Latinas André used to date. He saw the kids keeping watch outside his house: black, white, bronze, all André’s friends, and his fellow Dalton Catamounts, with names like Martinez and Diaz and Sanchez and Aragon and Ramos.
And Fred told the mob to stand down.
Yesterday’s in the grave, he told them.
Tomorrow’s in the womb.
All that matters is what you do today.
How many times should you forgive your brother?
Seventy times seven.
The mob stood down, and Dalton wept. They needed two wakes to accommodate all the mourners and two guestbooks to fit all the names. Fourteen hundred people crammed into Rock Bridge Community Church for the funeral and another 600 were turned away because there was no more room.
At the trial, when Smurf was sentenced to twenty years for voluntary manslaughter, Judge Jack Partain took a moment to recognize Fred and Elsie Johnson.
“They have urged peace and nonviolence,” he said, “in a moment when our community could have erupted.”
Now it is 2009, and the white man, James Grigsby, is going back to school at age forty-six to earn his GED. His job search has taken him as far as Florida and Mississippi.
The Mexican man, Abad Marroquin, has opened his own language school in a storefront in Newtown that offers intensive six-month English classes for $95 a month. He is the only employee. His back is recovering from a recent assignment stacking welcome mats in a mill for $8.50 an hour.
There’s the black man, Fred Johnson, one of Dalton’s most beloved citizens. His phone is ringing. Fred drives an eighteen-wheeler for $15 an hour, delivering ground-up rocks across the South. He loves his job because it is quiet and undramatic and because it gives him plenty of time to pray. Fred picks up the phone. He is sixty years old. His boss is calling. Fred, he says. I’m sorry. We’re eliminating your position.
And yours. And yours. And yours. The ghosts are fleeing to places like Texas and North Carolina. Apartment complexes in Newtown are half-empty. You might think crime would go up in an economy like this, but it has fallen. There are simply fewer people to misbehave.
At the Harvest outreach on Morris Street, an unemployed forty-two-year-old house painter named Roger Porter is sweeping the floor to earn his free room. He has recently tried and failed to get a job at McDonald’s.
“Keeps going like this,” he says, “it’ll be a ghost town.”