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Close to Home

Ofra Bikel

OFRA BIKEL, Filmmaker: [voice-over] The Upper East Side is one of the most affluent and powerful neighborhoods in America. Even to New Yorkers, it seems special, a world apart, of privilege and security. One day, walking across Park and Madison Avenues, I reflected on how far away the country's economic troubles seemed to be from these streets.

Then I arrived at my hair salon, a place I've been going to for many years.

BARBARA: [on the telephone] Deborah Hair Design. Can I help you? OK, when do you want an appointment for?

OFRA: I shared my thoughts with Deborah. She gave me a wry smile. "You might see things differently," she said, "if you stay here with me and listen."

DEBORAH: How's the boyfriend?

FRANCA: We actually- we broke up.



DEBORAH: Is that because he couldn't find work and had to go home?

FRANCA: He couldn't find work and he had to go home.

DEBORAH: It's not supposed to happen that way.

FRANCA: I know it. I know it.

EMILY: So you pick up an extra class, or you try to get a couple of extra hours at work because your rent keeps going up but your paycheck's not.

DEBORAH: Every day, every one of my clients sit in my chair and talk about the economy.

SCOTT: We lost a deal in Miami, which is not so good.

EMMA: We don't have a lot of money. I don't know how else to put it.

CHRIS: Last week, I had an unemployment check and two notices of foreclosure from two different banks on my home.

DEBORAH: Somebody's willing to listen. Somebody's willing to hear the problems that they're facing because of this economic crisis.

OFRA: So we asked Deborah if we could come back to her salon to listen some more.

Deborah agreed to let us spend a week with her at the salon.

DEBORAH: Lori, you good? You need tea, coffee, or some cold water? It's a little too early for wine. So are you good? So sit and relax.

BARBARA: [on the telephone] Hi. How are you?

OFRA: Barbara, Deborah's sister, was answering the phones.

BARBARA: Wednesday at 3:00? Is that good?

OFRA: Fatima, the assistant, was washing hair, and Deborah tended to her customers while I listened.

DEBORAH: So how're you doing?

SHARON: Great.

DEBORAH: Good? Everything's good?

SHARON: Yeah. It's been a good week.

OFRA: [on camera] Sharon, when you say good, it's really, really good or-

DEBORAH: How's it actually going? In other words, now that we did the pleasantries-

SHARON: Now that we did the pleasantries. You know, the whole thing is this. Why complain? Because everybody else is, too, you know? You know, it's sort of, like, why should I complain? I know the fellow next to me is losing his job. But I mean, if you said, "All right, well, what was it like last year at this time?" It was a different story. We had just taken several trips and we had this to look forward to and that to look forward to. And now we talked last night about it, we're not so sure we're going to be able to take any trips.

OFRA: [voice-over] Sharon is a retired flight attendant. Her husband is a salesman whose income dropped in half. She says that now they must count on her pension and Social Security.

SHARON: My husband used to be able to cover all our expenses. That doesn't work that way anymore. Now he can't afford to cover all our expenses, and so I have to cover mostly everything. So I'm paying for about 90 percent of everything, and that's really stretching things. I mean, it's just a matter of a lot of doctor bills that are not able- I'm not able to cover. And I- and I'm having to say, "Lookit, I'll- I'll pay for it when I can. Believe me, I know you're there, but I can't pay them."

OFRA: [on camera] Do you have a plan B?

SHARON: Plan B? No, our Plan B is just to keep on-

DEBORAH: This is plan B.

SHARON: Yeah, this is plan B. Just keep on keeping on.

DEBORAH: And C and D.

SHARON: And just- you know, we don't go to dinner anymore. We don't go out to dinner.

DEBORAH: We don't get a haircut every month.

SHARON: No, we certainly don't get a haircut every month. I mean, I just lost my cell phone. I'd like to rush up the street and get another one. I can't get another cell phone. That's out of the question right now. I'll miss it, but I don't know where it is. And you know, you just know- there's nothing expendable. There's just nothing expendable. It's not a matter of-

OFRA: No luxuries.

SHARON: No, no, no, no.

OFRA: There's no chance of getting, or you don't even want another job?

SHARON: I'd love another job. I mean, I really would love another job. But I mean, there are a lot of people in this company- or country that would like another job. I mean, where am I going to find another job?

OFRA: [voice-over] It didn't take me long, hanging out in the salon, to realize that the recession not only hits the pocketbook but is also redefining family relations.

DEBORAH: Say hi to your wife.

ANDY: Hi, wife.

DEBORAH: What's doing with you?

ANDY: I'm working hard.

OFRA: Emma and Andy are a young couple with a small child. A few years ago, they opened a personal training business with a good following. But now with the recession, they have been losing clients.

EMMA: And although we have a somewhat wealthy clientele and they seemingly don't get as affected, there's still the psychology behind it. So we still lose business because people are starting to cut back on things. So we never know week by week how things are going to be financially. I mean, we're making a lot less money this year than we did last year or the year before. So we don't know how to really plan for our future.

ANDY: You know, my business is off about 40 to 50 percent now. And meanwhile, I feel like I just can't- like I can't get on top of it.

OFRA: So they now count on their parents for help.

EMMA: My mom is 60- early 60s. She probably wouldn't want me to tell you how old she is. But she's a grandma of five. She's got three daughters. And she retired, but she's still- she's still working because she's helping us financially with our kids.

OFRA: [on camera] It makes you feel guilty?

EMMA: Of course it makes me feel guilty. She's worked her whole- I mean, she's worked her whole life. She gave me an education, both my sisters an education. I'm a Columbia University graduate. You know, I'm smart, I should be able to completely stand on my own two feet without my mother.

DEBORAH: At this stage in the game, right?

EMMA: I'm almost 40 years old. Why should my mother have to give me money? So this is just- it's embarrassing. I can't even believe I'm admitting to it. [crosstalk] It's so embarrassing.

OFRA: [voice-over] Emma says she's now going back to business school, in the hope that the new skills will help their small company.

EMMA: My mom still is in this illusion that she thinks I'm going back to school so that I could get a job, like, get a real job kind of thing, like, work for a company. I mean, she's always talking about, "Yes, you could get all the benefits."

OFRA: [on camera] She doesn't realize.

EMMA: She doesn't- yeah, I think she's still- you know, she's still maybe of that mindset, the generation where you work for a company- she was working for a large, very large company and-

ANDY: Yeah, my mother worked for a very large corporation, too.

EMMA: Well, the government.

ANDY: Yeah.

EMMA: I mean, does that really exist anymore? Like, do I really go to school and then go out and try to find a real job? And so there's that pressure from the family that what we- what Andy and I do, it's like they- my mom sees it as very-

OFRA: Juvenile?

EMMA: It's so funny. Why am I even talking about my mother? I'm a woman who's, like, almost 40 years old, and I keep talking about my mother. [crosstalk] I feel like a child. I do. I feel- you know what I feel like right now with this economy, and it's, like- I feel like a child. We're like children.

BARBARA: [on the telephone] Deborah Hair Design. Can I help you?

OFRA: [voice-over] Laurie and Betsy are both mothers and grandmothers who have been supporting their families.

LAURIE: I've been doing an analysis of when am I going to run out of money and- and how many years. I just spent a whole lot of money taking care of my mother. I was very generous with my family. I helped put- helped put people through college, helped keep people out of bankruptcy, and you know, thinking that that cash is going to be replenished. That cash is not going to be replenished.

DEBORAH: Hi, Trace.

LAURIE: And how can I keep cutting back my spending?

DEBORAH: We'll be with you in just a few minutes, all right?

OFRA: According to Deborah, she has noticed a big change in her clients in the last two years.

DEBORAH: I just see a lot of fear, a lot of sadness, a lot of concern. You worked very, very hard, you did everything you had to do, and it's just been struggle after struggle after struggle.

TRACI: Oh, thank you.

DEBORAH: How're you doing?

OFRA: Traci and her husband struggled, and lost.

DEBORAH: What's doing, anything?

TRACI: Just trying to get- trying to work.

OFRA: [on camera] I thought you had a business?

TRACI: Oh, gosh, that's a long story. [laughs] We thought we had a business. [laughs] And the recession is just so bad that it's just mom and pop stores can't stay open, you know?

We had a coffee lounge called The Grind in Sunnyside, Queens. And my husband pretty much ran it, but I did all the finances and stuff. We did a really good job. We brought music to the community. We brought standup comedy, open mic, poetry jams, everything. We had someone playing during brunch time. I mean, we did everything we could possibly do to keep it open and create a second home for the community. And it just didn't help. It didn't help. Everyone's suffering. They're not going to spend $4 for a coffee. Any other time, it would have been fine. It's just-

DEBORAH: You would have at least had a shot.

TRACI: We- yeah, we would have at least had a chance. And we didn't have a shot at all. It's just the recession just hit. I think that was- that's what's upsetting is because my husband did everything he could do. We tried to do marketing. We renovated the whole thing ourselves. We did everything ourselves. And it just- it almost deflates your ego when something like that happens, you know? And you just have all the burden afterwards, and it's really not your fault. Everything would have worked out if it was a different time, you know?

OFRA: [voice-over] It has been six months since Mike and Traci had to close their business. Mike found a job as a salesman in a fitness center and has taken over the cooking at home.

TRACI: To this day, we have all of our to-go packages in our house. We got a coffee thing, so we now make coffee and use the to-go cups. I mean, we're making positive out of it, you know?

OFRA: [on camera] Do you feel bad that the business failed?

MIKE: Oh, absolutely. Failure. Big time. You know, over and over, I'm, like, "This is supposed to work. Why is this not working," you know? And we were using up the money that she was earning to keep this thing going. So it was kind of, like, "I need your check again this month. I need to pay this off this month," so-

TRACI: And it's just I wasn't earning enough, he wasn't earning enough, nothing was coming in. So then it's just stressful. And nothing- we lost fun for four years.

MIKE: My mind was constantly on that business, to make it work.

TRACI: And not on the marriage.

MIKE: And not on the marriage. Absolutely. Marriage was, like, fifth or sixth down the line.

TRACI: Great.

MIKE: Maybe. Maybe that far. Because it's such a- I mean, personally, it was such a kick in the shin because it's not working and you could just see it not only deteriorate at the work, but then you see it deteriorate here at home, that it was getting to the point where I was happy to be at the store.

TRACI: And what's ironic is he- the whole reason he wanted to do the coffee lounge was so that we could have money coming in, we could start a family and calm down and have more time together. And it's so ironic how it wasn't anything like that.

MIKE: Nothing at all like that.

TRACI: Because he was gone all the time. We had no money. We never saw each other. And kids? Whatever.

MIKE: No way. [laughter]

OFRA: [voice-over] They remain $200,000 in debt.

[on camera] Does the debt bother you?

MIKE: Oh, every day. Every day. Just having that financial burden that has my name written all over it is something that I wake up with. You know, a lot of our debt is on credit cards, so it's still continuing. It's not done because there's interest compounding on that debt that we built up. So it's a race to get that credit card bill down because, you know, every month, we're still paying off that, you know, box of cups that we bought.

TRACI: But it's funny. When you go through these times, you start taking care of yourself. You know that? Because I'm working out. I am getting a massage every once in a while. I'm getting my hair done.

DEBORAH: Where do you get the money?

TRACI: I just charge it. [laughter]

DEBORAH: You're already so deep in debt!

TRACI: But I pay it off. I try to pay off my monthly, anyway.

OFRA: [voice-over] Traci is hardly the only client with credit card debt. Adam first came to Deborah 25 years ago, when he wanted to change his image.

ADAM: You know, you should have kept a before and after picture of that day-

DEBORAH: I know.

ADAM: -when I came in here with that '80s style. What'd you call that? What was that style?

DEBORAH: The mullet?

ADAM: Yeah. [laughs]

DEBORAH: Yeah, that was very interesting.

ADAM: Well, we- you know, listen, the whole- the whole community fell into that. I mean, it was a societal thing.

DEBORAH: But people got out of it.

ADAM: Yeah, I didn't get out of it.

DEBORAH: You didn't get out of it. [laughs]

OFRA: Adam worked in real estate in New York City until the business dried up.

ADAM: You know, it's interesting. Now I'm in the gym at 8:00 o'clock in the morning, obviously, rather than at work, and everyone at the gym that I meet is- they're either bouncers or they're unemployed financial people from Wall Street. I met one girl who was a party planner, lost all her customers. I met two people that were financiers, and bankers. And everyone's in the gym wondering what to do next. And I tell them all the same thing. Go get your master's degree.

OFRA: After he lost his job, he became seriously ill, and that led him to an unexpected path, to study theology.

ADAM: I think God gave me another lease on life. And I think going back to school and studying theology is going to really make a difference for a lot of people other than myself. You know, business can be very selfish and it can just serve immediate needs and wants.

DEBORAH: Answer me a question. Since you've just graduated from college, how'd you pay your way through college?

ADAM: Oh, well, student loans and MasterCard. [laughs] Let me tell you something. The first time I bought food on MasterCard, that's when I knew- oh! When the Pathmark went on the credit card, I said, "You know what? You're in debt. You're in debt." And then the-

DEBORAH: That's a major reality. That's when you know you're in trouble.

ADAM: Yeah, especially when you're doing it in Coney Island and the person in front of you is using their welfare card.

DEBORAH: Yeah, there you go.

ADAM: And you say, "You know what? I don't think there's much of a difference here." [laughs] We're both using this some type of system to get by.

DEBORAH: That's right.

OFRA: [on camera] Do you owe a lot of money?

ADAM: I would say I owe about $80,000.


ADAM: Between my car, the MasterCard- the two cards-

DEBORAH: $80,000?

ADAM: -and the student loan. Yeah. Yeah, $25,000, $15,000 and $40,000- $80,000.

DEBORAH: Wow. How do you plan on paying that back? You went to school for theology, so-

ADAM: Well, I won't be getting a job any time quickly.

DEBORAH: Do you become a priest at the end of the day?

ADAM: Well, that's a decision you have-

DEBORAH: But that's- how're you going to earn a living?

ADAM: You can't be a priest if you owe money. Let's all live in reality here!

DEBORAH: That's my point.

ADAM: Yeah, the archdiocese isn't taking you to the seminary if you owe $80,000. [laughs]

DEBORAH: Well, they- I don't know. Who knows? But so what's your plan?

ADAM: I'll tell you what I learned. I learned to surrender to God's will, and he makes- he makes the way.

OFRA: So you trust God to manage your credit card debt, basically?

ADAM: He makes the way. He doesn't manage the credit cards, but he gives us the capacity for the knowledge to how to deal with these problems. That was the great mystery of the saints, was to just surrender everything to God and let him take over.

[ Inside the making of this film]

KAREN: Hi, Deborah.

DEBORAH: Hey, hey! How are you?

KAREN: Good. How are you?

DEBORAH: What's doing?

KAREN: Not too much.

DEBORAH: Not too much? How was work today?

KAREN: Long.

DEBORAH: Long. OK. All right, we need to touch up your hair just a tad, right? You're going out tonight?

KAREN: Yes. A blow dry would be great.

DEBORAH: No problem. Have a seat and we'll get your coat and everything.

OFRA: [voice-over] I used to refer to Karen as the Porsche lady, since she had a Porsche which I admired.

KAREN:: I grew up in a very comfortable home. My father was in the steel business, and when I graduated college, I went directly into the steel business. And I traveled primarily to Western Europe and I sold steel.

OFRA: [on-camera] How did you plan- how did you think about your retirement?

KAREN:: I thought about my retirement the same way most of us did, which is the big problem. I had a brokerage account, an IRA. Everything was in place. And now it's practically worth nothing.

OFRA: Deborah just told me that you don't have the Porsche anymore.

KAREN:: I sold the Porsche because there was a question of maintaining the Porsche or maintaining my health insurance. And since I have to carry my own health insurance, I sold the car.

OFRA: Wasn't it difficult for you to part with it?

KAREN:: Honestly, I can tell you that losing the car was worse than getting a divorce. And yet I'm fortunate enough that I had the car and I was able to sell it and I'm able to pay my health insurance. Had I not had the car, I would be in worse condition. So I'm not that upset. But I miss it. A little bit. Yes.

OFRA: [voice-over] Alan's car became his source of livelihood. Married with two children, Alan was a successful construction manager for over 20 years. Now he's a driver.

ALAN: I was laid off about eight- eight months ago.

DEBORAH: So now you're a driver.

ALAN: So now I try and get some cash so I can put food on the table by driving people to the airport, into New York City.

DEBORAH: Wow. It's amazing how imaginative you have to be just to put food on the table.

ALAN: Oh, yes.

DEBORAH: I mean, it's not, like, "OK, this didn't work, so now I'm going to go try this," because you've got a lot of skills. Twenty years of doing something, you learned a lot of skills in management, I'm sure.

ALAN: I'm a very good problem solver, and detail-oriented, but right now-

DEBORAH: But where are you going with it?

ALAN: That's right.

DEBORAH: It's amazing, isn't it?

ALAN: It is amazing. I never thought my whole life that this is where I'd wind up being when I was 55 years old.

DEBORAH: It's crazy.

ALAN: When I go to, like, the supermarket or I go out and I'm with people that are part of the regular part of society, they're just going about the same way they had done a year or two ago. And here I am, like, in this bubble.

DEBORAH: Funk. Yeah. It's like a death. You know, like, when somebody dies in your family and you go to the funeral, and then the funeral is over and you're, like, "Why is the world still going on? And why can't I?" That's kind of what- [crosstalk] Yeah. It's- it's like being in the twilight zone. Remember Twilight Zone when we were kids?

ALAN: No one prepared me for that.

DEBORAH: Yeah. Right. How long do you think you can hang on like this?

ALAN: My savings have become depleted and I can see the end in sight, and it's not-

DEBORAH: It's not pretty.

ALAN: It's not pretty. I don't know what's going to happen.

BARBARA: Deborah Hair Design. Can I help you? Hi. How are you? Oh, I'm sorry!

OFRA: [voice-over] A cancellation. Someone, I'm told, was laid off.

STEVEN: You know, the perception about unemployed people used to be, you know, they're unemployed for a reason. But in this market, they're really unemployed for no fault of their own. These are people with tremendous skills, with great work habits, and now their industry has collapsed around them and they're-

OFRA: Steven is the founder of a job search Web site for older people, which today means people over 40.

STEVEN: The market is just so tough for really so many people out of work, but particularly for older workers.

DEBORAH: I have clients who've been out of work, you know, well over a year. They've gone through their savings. Their stocks are gone. Their pension's gone. They're in their 50s. There's nowhere for them to go.

STEVEN: Well, that's the tragedy of what's going on right now, right? These are people with- with skills and talent and great work ethic. And you know, these people who in many cases were pillars of their communities where they lived.

DEBORAH: Hey, Rob! How are you? [crosstalk]

ROB: Good to see you, too.

DEBORAH: Long time no see.

ROB: Yeah, really.

OFRA: Rob, who had been a high-paid executive, has been out of a job for over a year.

ROB: So how have you been?

DEBORAH: I've been OK, you know? You? Any prospects? Anything happening?

ROB: A few prospects. I'm actually- I'm actually- I actually have an interview later this evening.

DEBORAH: Oh, that's the haircut.

ROB: That's right. There are an awful lot of candidates out there right now in all different fields. So you're constantly having to- to hone your skills and reinvent yourself.

OFRA: He talks about his old job with nostalgia.

ROB: I bounced out of bed every morning. I was responsible for the recruiting, the employee relations, the training. And I enjoyed this every single day.

OFRA: He remembers vividly the day it ended.

ROB: It was a beautiful day. Drove to work. It was early in the morning. And I was sitting in my office and my boss walked in. I was kind of surprised that she was there that early. And she closed the door and immediately said that the company was having a reduction in force and that I was a part of it, that- wanted me to- she was sorry, that she wanted me to pack up my- my things. And I was shocked. I was stunned. I was sad. I was distressed.

OFRA: [on camera] What did you do?

ROB: I- I looked her. You know, she asked me if I had any questions. But I was really in- in quite somewhat of a daze. And she said, really, if I could pack up in about 10 minutes, that would be helpful, And I said, "It's going to take me"- I'd been there for many years and it was going to take me longer than 10 minutes. And it was, if I could do it as- you know, quickly as possible. And she opened the door and she handed me a package and an envelope and I- and- and she left my office.

You get in your car, somewhat disoriented, totally dejected. Which way did I want to go? Did I even want to go home? I stopped and I sat in the car for about 20 minutes or so, and just sat there. At that point, I wasn't sure who I was.

OFRA: [voice-over] He had been a human resource executive for a marketing company, in charge of hundreds of people whom he had the power to hire and fire. He now found himself on the other side of the fence.

ROB: It took me probably somewhere in the neighborhood of five months to realize how difficult a task this was going to be, that the challenge to get a job was insurmountable. I've probably sent out, as far as resumes, somewhere in the neighborhood of 200. And it takes me somewhere between an hour to an hour-and-a-half to write a cover letter sometimes. It takes me an hour sometimes to re-tweak a resume correctly.

Companies have specific ways that they need an application submitted. So you may have to go to their Web site and then submit the application directly through their Web site. And so you have to follow the directions to a T, or else they'll just take your- your resume and throw it in the garbage. And this takes time. It takes hours.

And then in the event that you are called for an interview, you have to speak about those key words that are important and those specifics. And you have to continue to follow up with that. And all of this takes so much time. And each time you do it, you have to bring- bring yourself up every single time. You have to constantly be up, constantly be up. And that takes an emotional drain from you. Ofra, it's an emotional drain.

OFRA: Many of Steven's clients are in the same situation.

STEVEN: These are people who probably have never had to look for a job in their life.


STEVEN: These are the people that-

DEBORAH: These are the people, the phone rang for them.

STEVEN: Exactly. Exactly. We see so many people who haven't done a resume in 20 years or have never done a resume at all. And now you're asking them to not only come up with a resume but to create a whole skill set in terms of finding a job. And it does require specific skills that many of these people don't have.

DEBORAH: Several of my clients have gone to these work fair things, and they said-

STEVEN: They're a disaster- [crosstalk]

DEBORAH: It's so ridiculous because it's down to a point where they tell them, "Now, watch how you cross your legs and watch how you move your hands. Always make sure your hands are open, but use your hands. It's very nice. People like you to animate. But don't use them too close together because then you're kind of shutting them out."

And it's all this psychological drama. And they're, like, "Do you understand? You know, I was a so-and-so or I'm a this, or I'm a that. Like, you know, I don't- I have people- I have staff who hire people for me. I have to worry about how I'm sitting?"

OFRA: There may be hundreds or even thousands of resumes for every job opening, so Rob's search can never stop. There's networking to do and classes to attend.

[on camera] How much time do you spend driving since you've been out of- since you've been looking for a job?

ROB: [laughs] Oh, my gosh. I spend an exorbitant amount of time driving. I actually could not believe the thousands of miles that I clock going between networking functions and coaching functions. It's an amazing number.

JUDI: Cold companies are companies that are not actively hiring.

OFRA: [voice-over] Judi is Rob's new career coach.

JUDI: Sometimes you've got somebody going, "Oh, maybe we need to do this, maybe we need to do that." Your resume lands on the right desk at the right time.

OFRA: The goal is to get through to someone, who may know someone else who can get you an interview which would end in a job.

JUDI: So when you start mailing those out- and it should be about 30 a week. And at the bottom of your letter, you don't say, "Please let me know," you say, "I look forward to following up with you the week of"- general rules for following up are two to three times, about every three days, OK? Now, the other thing about this is there are times you're going to look at-

OFRA: After the session with Judi, Rob is off to a networking meeting, one of the hundreds taking place across the country. This one is organized by the state labor department in Danbury, Connecticut.

ROB: I go to almost every meeting. One of the things that I lost were my work friends, and one of the things that I've gained are network friends.

NETWORK FRIEND: I want to thank you for really opening the door because I'd contacted them a couple of times and went no place, but with your lead, it really worked.

ROB: My pleasure.

OFRA: This is a weekly support group where unemployed members check with each other, give and ask for advice, and let down their guard.

LEADER: OK, fellas, let's get back on track here. You're going to stand up, you're going to introduce yourselves. You get 15 seconds to do it.

OFRA: An important part of the meeting is to practice the elevator speech- your work history and career goals in the time it takes an elevator to reach the ground floor.

LEADER: All right, fellas, it's all yours.

NETWORKER: Let's start with Rob.

ROB: Good morning. I'm Rob Weiss. I'm a human resource management executive with an expertise in recruiting, employee relations and training. My most recent position, I was responsible for 7,300 people, 300 full-time people, 7,000 part-timers. So I'm looking for a position in a similar company, probably a small to medium-size company now, in the Tristate area. Thank you very much.

NETWORKER 1: I'm a marketing person looking for an opportunity with companies that are technology-related growth companies. And I will entertain any offers. Thank you.

NETWORKER 2: I'm a telecommunications technician, and I'm looking for a job to upgrade phones at any mid-size company.

NETWORKER 3: My specialty is infrastructure-

OFRA: It is hard not to notice that most of the members are over 50.

NETWORKER 4: I've been in the pharmaceutical industry for the past 20 years.

ROB: Age is a problem. Age is a big problem. The large companies don't want people at my age anymore. That's plain and simple.

NETWORKER 5: Companies could include IBM, Texas Instruments-

ROB: And the number of members that have joined the networking groups that I belong to keeps increasing weekly, and they're all in the same age bracket as I am.

NETWORKER 6: And I'm really open to any industry and target company. I'm looking for a job, so- thank you.

STEVEN: Deborah, do you remember hearing about the- the plane crash in the Hudson River, right?

DEBORAH: Right, right.

STEVEN: And the pilot, Sully Sullenberger, was a hero for saving all those people.


STEVEN: You know, the irony of that is- I mean, he was 57 years old. The irony is that every HR manager on that plane before he took off wouldn't have given Sully Sullenberger even an interview for a job. And yet it was because of all the skills and experiences that he had that is what allowed him to land that plane safely and save the lives of all those people.

OFRA: But age bias aside, Rob goes on and we go with him. There is another event which he will not miss. This one, called Whine and Dine - that's whine with a W-H - is for human resource executives.

NETWORKER 7: I really appreciate the referral. Let me give you my card.

OFRA: It began a couple of years ago with working professionals only.

NETWORKER 8: I put my Twitter on the other side of my business card because-

OFRA: Now about half of those present are, as they say, "in transition," which optimistically means between jobs.

ROB: Don't talk about children or grandchildren. Absolutely not. That's a big, big no-no. Talk about- you know, talk about something that's high technology.

NETWORKER 9: And you talk about that stuff because with the young people- because you're competing against the younger people, you know?

NETWORKER 10: Hi. I'm Jan Davis and I work in training and professional development.

NETWORKER 11: And I have almost 20 years of experience in HR leadership.

NETWORKER 12: I administer health and welfare plans, as well as pension plans.

ROB: Hi. I'm Rob Weiss. I'm a skilled HR management professional with an expertise in recruiting-

[ Watch this program on line]

OFRA: More elevator speeches. Rob seems tired, but he's determined to go on to one more late meeting. We decide to call it a night.

Deborah Boles, 55, grew up in Brooklyn in a working-class Irish-American family and is the only one in the family to have her own business.

DEBORAH: I started doing hair about 35 years ago. In 1985, I went in business for myself.

OFRA: She rents two units in the same building. One she lives in, the other is the salon.

DEBORAH: I wanted a place where people can go and they can feel comfortable. They know they belong here. Nothing intimidating about it.

[on the telephone] Hi. I need to order some color. OK?

OFRA: She developed a large and loyal clientele, but with the downturn of the economy, this is now changing. There can now be hours when no one is there.

DEBORAH: It's very hard. It's very hard. Sometimes you have a good week, sometimes you don't. But it's nowhere near what it was. Nowhere near what it was. Now it's guess. Guess who still has a job. Guess who still has money. Guess who's coming. Guess who's not.

SONIA: So how've you been?

DEBORAH: I've been OK. Can't complain. You?

SONIA: Hanging in there, you know? Business is slow. It's a tough time. It's just difficult. You know, we leave work, and you know, you're just happy to have a job. They cut me back to a four-day work week.

OFRA: [on-camera] With the four days, do you make enough money?

SONIA: I'm finding I'm getting more into debt now than I've been in- in years. I'm more in debt now.

DEBORAH: I wish I could somehow cut back my prices for everybody. But if I've lost so much of my business already, and I'm, you know- you know, I'm hanging onto what I can. And my clients, God love them, they're wonderful and they're still coming. But if I cut back too much, how do I pay my bills?

You know, people are coming less and less, you know?

SONIA: Less frequently?

DEBORAH: Yeah. You know, we're their- this is one of the places they're cutting back, you know?

SONIA: They don't color their hair as often, like me?

DEBORAH: It's- you know, yeah, like you. You used to come all the time, color your hair, get a haircut. You know, they- so many of them are losing their jobs or their family members are losing their jobs and they have to go back home, or you know, it's just- it- there's no one issue here.

SONIA: And you see so much-

DEBORAH: It's everything.

[ More of the salon's stories]

SONIA: Oh, I know. And you know, one of the things I notice, it's easier to get a cab in New York City now. Have you noticed that? Even in the rain, you can get a cab.


CHARLIE: If someone travels up Madison Avenue from about 46th Street, 60-plus stores went out just during the month of January, which is pretty serious. And then if you're driving up and down and you see Lexington and Second and Third, it's amazing how many shops are out. When you drive by and you look at how many people are in the stores, it's just the proprietor, that's it.

JINNY: It's the Upper East Side. This isn't supposed to happen here.

CHARLIE: Why not? It's part of America?

JINNY: I know, but it's just not supposed to happen here.

OFRA: One doesn't have to walk more than a block or two from the salon to see what is happening.

DEBORAH: I've lost so many good neighbors. They've lost their business. I mean, I'm still here, but I worry how long I can be here, and am I next?

OFRA: Barbara, Deborah's sister, who lives in Florida, came to New York to help.

BARBARA: Right now, I'm here and I have to go back to Florida, and I'm concerned about, you know, what could happen with her business and her. And she's worried about it. You know, we're not young anymore.

OFRA: Barbara has her own concerns, serious ones. Her home in Florida is in danger of being foreclosed. So when she went to Florida, we went with her. Barbara bought her house in 2006, at the height of the market, believing that it was a great investment.

BARBARA: There was a boom going on here that was incredible. There were investors buying up, you know, five and six houses at a time. Friends were buying houses. It was like- you know, it was like a candy store. And I really thought I was- you know, had done a good thing and I would make some money. And I wouldn't have to worry about a college loan for my daughter. I could use my house as collateral. And the bottom fell out. And it was- that's not going to happen. My daughter goes to a city college now, and it's difficult. But that was not, you know, my hopes and dreams for her.

OFRA: Barbara, divorced, is the mother of Katie, who's 19.

KATIE: I start at CR Chicks on Monday. I start training.

BARBARA: OK. Is that necessary?

KATIE: Yeah. I need to pay rent.

BARBARA: I didn't think that at this time in my life, I would be in this position. And my daughter knows about it. And I don't want her to have this on her head, but she does. She knows.

KATIE: Don't worry. I'll get rich. I'll pay it off. Just give me a couple of years.

OFRA: All around her, Barbara sees houses that have been foreclosed and signs of neighbors who have lost their homes.

BARBARA: It's like in your face kind of stuff, and it's like this is the reality. This can happen real easily. So I don't sleep.

OFRA: Barbara's home has lost nearly half of its value, but she still faces steep payments she cannot afford.

BARBARA: My interest is 9.25 on a $236,000 mortgage. That's the killer. That 9.25 is what's killing me. So all I need is a reduced rate and I- I can keep my house.

OFRA: She has applied for both refinancing and modification. But the bank forced her to buy hurricane insurance, and then rejected her applications for having too much debt and not enough income. In the meantime, she has had to take in renters to help her pay the mortgage.

David was the first tenant. Once a vice president of a bank, then real estate appraiser, he could afford to pay rent that covered the whole mortgage until his business dried up. Then there was Richie, a Rutgers University graduate who found work in the financial industry until his company folded. Now he sells telephone lines.

Then came Mike and Steve, whose houses were both foreclosed. Steve was a friend of both David and Barbara. He had a brokerage firm and lived well in a high-end gated community until his house was foreclosed, his business dried up, and he had a stroke.

DAVID: Steve had a beautiful home in PGA National and he fell three months behind. And he tried to pay the three months to the bank, and they said, "Now you owe us four months, so we're not going to take the three months." If Steve had been able to bring those three payments in, he could have made up the other payment eventually and they wouldn't have had to go through- the bank wouldn't have to go through the process they went through, and obviously, Steve wouldn't be in the circumstances he's in. It's easier for them to foreclose, take possession and sell it, than it is to renegotiate the loan.

OFRA: Mike's story is particularly tragic. Working as a carpenter, he now lives in a small room at the back of the house with his two dogs.

MIKE: My wife was dying up at the hospice. And then I lost my job. So I became two months in arrears, and that's when I got scared. So I went down to the housing development company here. And they said, "Fine. What we'll do, we'll hook you up with an individual and he will fix it for you." So we got in there and he says, "Yes, we have a grant for this. You have nothing to worry about. Just keep looking for a job." So that's what I did, I kept looking for a job and I found one.

OFRA: He found a job as a carpenter and spent the coming months visiting his dying wife and working to pay his mortgage. But somehow, things went wrong. The development department would not release the grant money until Mike made up the difference, which he couldn't do, and the bank did not agree to modify the loan. So Mike's case fell through the cracks.

Three days after his wife died, Mike found his house locked up and everything he owned in the street.

MIKE: When you lose your loved one and you lose your house at the same time- it was the worst time in my life, anyway. I don't know. The pain was just so great, I just- I've been a recluse ever since. I've been just going to a little humble job and then coming back here. I mean, I haven't been able to- it was just devastating. It just kind of wipes you out when you lose everything and then you go, "Man!" You know?

OFRA: Mike wasn't always a recluse. He was a deep sea diver who was part of an expedition that had found sunken treasure. And in his youth, he was an acclaimed dancer in the Florida Ballet Company.

MIKE: You know, there's got to be more to life than this, huh? When you fall out of rhythm like that, you just- man, it's a bummer, you know?

OFRA: Before we left Florida we passed by Mike's former home, for which he had paid $125,000. There was a man watering the trees. He said he was the new owner and that his name was Reynaldo.

REYNALDO: I got it, like, about two months ago. I bought it for $55,000. The people that had it, I guess they wasn't paying the mortgage. They were, like, seven months behind on the mortgage and they kicked them out. They threw all their stuff out on the street, and then they put the house up for foreclosure.

So me and my wife, we came across the street, we read the number. We called them up and we bought the house. And me and my wife are going to rent it out, and probably when the economy gets better five or six years from now, then we'll turn around and sell it for a profit. But for right now, we're just going to rent it to try to get that money we put into the house, try to get it back.

OFRA: [on camera] Do you feel that on the whole, it was a good buy?

REYNALDO: Yes, I think it is. It's a real good bargain. You know, you can never go wrong with real estate, you know?

OFRA: [voice-over] I didn't argue.

Barbara is back in New York, helping Deborah while waiting for some news from the bank. Friends and family drop by. Vince, Barbara and Deborah's nephew, son of their late sister, is a medical secretary who barely gets by.

VINCENT: I mean, I live in a studio apartment with basically no windows. I pay $850 a month. You know, so you can- you know, you start to do the math, and it's- you know, my- my meager paycheck does not, you know- you know, so-

OFRA: Vincent has always counted on Deborah.

VINCENT: I'm lucky to have her, you know? The whole family's lucky to have her. She was always the inspiration. She was somebody that made it. So we had someone to look up to, you know, that aspired to do a small business and actually achieved their dreams. You know, so if we had tough times, we always had someone to go to.

OFRA: Deborah knows it and she is worried. She tells us what she doesn't tell them.

DEBORAH: Business started slowing up, for quite a while now. I could be forced to close it if I don't have enough customers, you know? So what do I worry about at night? I worry about my family. I worry about my customers. I worry about everything, my business first and foremost because that's- that's what helps me make everything else run, you know?

OFRA: She's worried, and like many people, she's angry. She's angry at the banks. She's angry at the big companies. She's angry at the bail-out. And she's angry at the big Wall Street bonuses.

DEBORAH: Nobody turns around and gives me a check for failing. These people failed at what they did. They shouldn't be getting anything. They should be getting fired. That's what would happen to me. If I gave you a bad haircut, Emanuel, would you come back?

EMANUEL: I'd still come back because I love you. [laughter]

DEBORAH: You're a nice boy!

EMANUEL: Everyone deserves a second chance. You know, a haircut's not a life-and-death situation. I'm not losing a house. You know, it'll still grow.

[Just as Alan's unemployment benefits ended, a friend gave him work manufacturing signs. He hopes to find another opportunity.]

[Except for a one-month consulting contract, Rob has been unemployed for 16 months. He continues to look for work.]

[Barbara is now $11,000 behind in her mortgage payments. Her chances of keeping her home are slim.]

Close to Home

Ofra Bikel

Daisy Wright

Ted Gesing

Ofra Bikel

Tom Hurwitz

Brian Keane

Peter Miller

Daniel Svanberg

Stephen McCarthy
Ben McCoy

Jim Ferguson

Jim Sullivan

Ned Hallick

Kristy Rodriguez

Kelcey Edwards
Orlando Muniz

Daniel Svanberg

Pat Casteel Transcripts

J. Alton Murphy
Ballet Florida

CT Department of Labor
EZ Ride
Molten Java
Pasta Fair


Tim Mangini

Chris Fournelle

Missy Frederick

Jim Ferguson
John MacGibbon
Michael H. Amundson

Tyrra Turner

Megan McGough

Mason Daring
Martin Brody

Jessica Smith

Diane Buxton

Sandy St. Louis

Peter Lyons

Elizabeth Lowell

Christopher Kelleher

Carla Borras

Lisa Palone

Eric Brass
Jay Fialkov
Janice Flood
Scott Kardel

Lisa Sullivan

Varonica Frye

Tobee Phipps

Maya Carmel

Bill Rockwood

Gretchen Gavett

Arun Rath

Sarah Moughty

Sam Bailey

Robin Parmelee

Sharon Tiller

Ken Dornstein

Marrie Campbell

Michael Sullivan

Jim Bracciale

Raney Aronson-Rath

David Fanning

A FRONTLINE Co-Production with Ofra Bikel Productions

© 2009 WGBH Educational Foundation

FRONTLINE is a production of WGBH Boston, which is solely responsible for its content.

ANNOUNCER: There's more to explore at our Web site, where you can watch the full program again on line, learn more about the making of this film and producer Ofra Bikel, check out videos of others who visit the salon, telling their stories about how they're getting by, and then share your own experiences and comments at [Dear Frontline, One Guest Street, Boston, MA 02135]

Next time on FRONTLINE-

- Everywhere we looked, it was, "Take meds, take meds, take meds."

ANNOUNCER: Six million American children are taking psychiatric drugs.

- We have no idea how we got on as many meds as he was on.

ANNOUNCER: But most have not been tested on children.

- I don't know what the long-term side effects are going to be for him.

ANNOUNCER: Is this good medicine or an uncontrolled experiment?

- Taking my medication makes me more like I'm supposed to be.

ANNOUNCER: The Medicated Child.

FRONTLINE's Close to Home is available on DVD. To order, visit or call 1-800-PLAY-PBS. [$24.99 & s/h]

FRONTLINE is made possible by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

With major funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant and peaceful world. Additional funding from the Park Foundation. With additional funding for this program from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

posted october 27, 2009

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