November 26, 2009

Man In A Van captures stories of the recession, reminds us of what we’re thankful for

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There was the Detroit hotel and restaurant owner who tried to kill himself.

Then there was the Maryland political analyst who lost her $760,000 home to foreclosure. Aaron Heideman found her living in a Toyota Camry.

And who could forget the guy running a food bank in Georgia who said he was going into debt at the rate of $1,000 a month to help his neighbors?

Those are just three of the hundreds of stories Aaron Heideman, aka The Man In A Van, collected on a cross-country odyssey to hear from Americans, in their own words, how their lives have been affected by the recession.

“How has the recession affected you?” A sign atop his van asks.

“Tell me your story,” beckons the van’s side.

Laid off from his job at a paint store in southern Oregon, Heideman decided he would do a conceptual art project, driving his pencil-yellow Dodge van through California, Nevada, Colorado, Texas, Florida, up the Eastern Seaboard and through New England to Grand Rapids, Mich.

Heideman outside a Wallingford laundromat

Heideman outside a Wallingford laundromat

That’s where he entered himself in the annual ArtPrize competition in September, hoping to win the $250,000 prize.

He didn’t. So he recently moved to Seattle, where he went to art school and lived for some years. That’s where I caught up with him.

A South Florida news reporter who met Heideman in the summer described him as “not-surprisingly scruffy” because the bearded, sandal-clad artist was living in his van. This week the clean-shaven 29-year-old was dressed in a light-blue button-down shirt, neatly pressed grey slacks and shiny black shoes. He’s job hunting. He even walked around downtown handing out 100 resumes to pretty much anyone he saw. He’s still living in his van.

On his trip, Heideman asked people he encountered to sign a large banner. Selected stories were recorded, usually with a Sharpie, right on the van itself.

Orlando, FL – downtown – people with less money – from unemployment – come downtown. With no money to pay meters, they get $22 tickets. It’s a vicious cycle – Meter eater Mike

Heideman’s summer sojourn was documented in a series of news articles, including a post on Western Exposure as well as stories in the Providence Journal, the Washington Post and the Miami Beach Lead, which Heideman said was formed by journalists laid off from The Miami Herald.

I work at a major newspaper . I’ve never used the word furlough until this year. K

Along the way Heideman sold t-shirts to pay for his trip. And sometimes people gave him food or bought him gas or handed him a few bucks. (And there’s still a place to donate on his Web site.)

Being a felon in this country bans you from working class citizenship. People change for the good. We need more health care available in the good ole USA. RIP

From Peoria, AZ:

My grandma lost her house and my dad is working less hours.

And from Rain City:

I work for Seattle Public Schools. I’m lucky to still have my job. My students are more stressed, there is more bullying – their families are really struggling and it shows in their behavior and their ability to focus. They are angry. So am I. Maggie AS#1 Seattle.

Self-explanatory, sort of:

Fredricksburg, Va., 22407 SEND HELP.

Heideman said plenty of people blamed the president:

Obama said change was coming – well, when?

The Detroit hotel and restaurant owner who put a gun to his chest and pulled the trigger lived. The bullet missed his heart. He said the experience demonstrated that he is on Earth for a reason, Heideman said, and was he was rededicating himself to finding that purpose.

man in a van 009But the suicide theme was one that came up a lot. In Orlando, a young couple signed the van. The young man didn’t look at what his girlfriend had written on the van, nor did Heideman right away. Later, though, he noticed the inscription:

I want to kill myself. (True story)

Sue W. wrote:

I lost my home, my care + was homeless for 6 months. This was the 1st time in 27 yrs I was out of work.

Heideman said he met plenty of folks like Sue W.:

I talked to people who are homeless – they’re dressed nice, they’re out looking for work. You’d never know they were homeless to look at them.

Sandra, in New Jersey, wrote:

Due to the recession I lost property that I owned because I couldn’t afford to keep up with the high mortgage. I thank God for giving me the guidance +  wisdom to keep going on with life + a new beginning.

Sandra’s sentiments, Heideman said, are shared by lots of Americans he met. They’re less focused on money. More likely to be going to church. More concerned about those around them – friends and relatives as well as members of their community they are just getting to know. Yes, it’s grim out there. But at least when people met Aaron Heideman, there was someone to listen.

This week, as he did his laundry in Wallingford, Heideman chatted with a retired teacher whose retirement accounts lost one-fifth of their value, who told him:

We’re going through our golden years without the gold.

After going on a while, the retired teacher had a sudden realization. Looking up at Heideman gratefully, she said:

You’re a good listener. I can see that.

  

— Robert McClure

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