Tuesday, September 1, 2009


The textile industry used to be the heartbeat of rural towns in the South. When cotton was king, the mills were the royal treasure chest that kept the citizens employed, drove the local economy, and ensured the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness for all. Mill towns thrived, thanks to the sweat equity of the mill workers, locally known as "lint-heads" for the cotton fibers that would cling to their scalps after a grueling day of labor. Then, as the south struggled to resist the labor unions that were crippling the manufacturing industry, the textile industry quietly shifted to overseas production, where cheap non-unionized labor and lax standards insured profitability for the investors. One morning, the locals woke up and discovered their jobs were gone, the mills were closed, and life as they knew it was over.

Many small southern towns simply dried up and disappeared. Others struggled to survive as lucrative drug money made on the streets replaced honest pay earned in the mills. Crack was the new cotton. Suddenly, 18 year old kids were driving Mercedes instead of tractors, pit bulls replaced blue tick hounds, and marijuana fields replaced cotton. It was easier to sell a rock of crack than to work for minimum wage slinging burgers.

As the south struggled to survive, outsiders saw opportunity and jumped in. Empty textile mills were sold to salvage companies looking to profit from the old brick and heart pine they contained, were demolished to provide space for strip malls and parking lots, or were converted into new business ventures: old warehouses rebirthed as reception halls, apartment lofts carved from mills, and completely new capitalistic ventures rising from the cotton dust.

Drive out Hwy 9, right past Cooter's Carpet and Vinyl: Celebrating 30 Years in the Business, and one such venture rests by the tracks of the old L&C rail line. WOW! Yes, I say, WOW! Situated on the Fort Lawn site of a once-thriving cotton mill, two warehouses have been converted into mass-marketing, consumer-driven, discount-retailer. One enters WOW! and immediately, in an awe-inspired whisper, breaths, "Wow." My former college buddy and I first visited WOW! dragging along her 10 year old son. We walked the aisles mesmerized by the abundance of merchandise at obscene prices and just mouthed "Wow", "Wow", and "Wow". A frustrated Andrew stomped his foot and yelled, "Is that all y'all can say? What's the matter with you?" We had been brainwashed by the sheer impact of a warehouse full of deeply discounted rugs, furnishings, and home decor. It was like a virus. We had been infected and couldn't help ourselves. Visa was the only known vaccine. With buggies laden with merchandise, we plowed through the aisles yelling back and forth to each other, "Nancy, quick, come look at this, " "Over here, look what I found," and if we couldn't be reached by screaming, we'd pull out cell phones and text each other when treasures were unearthed. We called husbands, friends, and relatives to alert them about deals, ask for measurements, and confirm credit card numbers and security codes. We pulled out PDA's to schedule future visits and coordinate shopping sprees with our out-of-town friends. Never once did we stop and think that we were actually perpetuating the decline of the local economy by supporting the "local " economy. The warehouse owner was Indian, the merchandise was Romanian, the manufacturer Asian, the laborers Mexican. Hmmm....it had been a long, long time since I had taken Econ 101, but the something was not adding up. Although ashamed that I was taking part in the transfer of the American dream, I was proud of the $87.16 I had saved on my wrought iron sconces, copper poodle, and sisal rug.

As proud as the day I went to the Talbot's outlet in Springfield, Va. where my purchases totaled $232. 62, but my receipt stated that I had SAVED $2367.47! The cashier was enthusiastic in announcing that I had SAVED $2367.47. When I told him that I would like it back in cash, he stammered and stuttered and called the manager, completely unsure as to how to handle the situation. "Ma'am, you don't get the cash back" he said. "Why not? You just told me I had saved it. I'd like to have it in cash," I argued. I hated to do that to him, but I couldn't stop myself, it was just so wicked watching him squirm. I had learned early in my marriage to never, ever tell my husband how much I had spent. You only tell them how much you have SAVED! WOW! I had also trained him that I expected to receive my savings in cash. DOUBLE WOW! After all, as I reminded him, I was out there saving him more money on a daily basis than other wives brought home in their paychecks. I figured he had a really good deal.

But as I ran up and down the aisles of WOW! I was haunted by the fact that this site had once provided the only source of income for many local workers. Generations of families had been loyal to the mills in exchange for steady shift work. Now their jobs were gone in exchange for cheap foreign labor and cheap foreign goods purchased with greedy American dollars. I'm not proud of it, but I bought the sconces, the sisal rug, the $24.00 copper poodle (splurge, yes), and a pair of zebra-striped +1.50 readers, tucked them into the back of the Suburban, and crawled back home.

The South is changing. America is changing. Some parts of it are even disappearing.

Finally I understood what WOW really meant...




did the American dream go?

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