Bill’s Man’s Shop, a western-wear supply store in San Angelo, Texas, just celebrated its 35th year in business. On the side of the store’s squat, orange-brick building, a large and colorful mural depicts the past century of the region’s history: A shepherd with a cracked face stands determinedly with his crook, white men on horses wrangle crowds of dazed cattle, black oil plumes from the base of a tall wooden derrick.
“Our boot wall takes up a lot of the store,” says the 20-year-old saleswoman who answers the phone, speaking with a sassy West Texan wobble in her voice. Her name, after I ask for it again, is still Treasure Ensminger. “We’ve got crocodile boots, ostrich boots, calfskin boots, bullhide boots, snakeskin boots, elephant skin boots…”
“Elephant skin?” I say. “I’d thought elephants were endangered.”
“They’re really nice boots,” she tells me.
Treasure just started her shift about an hour ago. In addition to her job at the Man’s Shop, she’s also a student at the nearby Angelo State University. This morning she attended her first class of the new semester: Business and Communications. “It’s funny, but I think being a salesperson here has helped me a whole lot in my business classes. I sort of have a head for it already, you know?”
Bill’s Man’s Shop is actually owned by Treasure’s family (the famous “Bill” from the store’s name sold the store to the Ensmingers more than two decades ago), and Treasure says she spends a lot of her time thinking of ways to improve the place. When I ask her if she ever gets out of San Angelo to have any fun, she offers me a story about going to a Cabela’s in Austin.
“What’s a Cabela’s?”
“It’s like a hunting shop. You ever been to a Bass Pro Shop?”
“Well, anyway, it’s a really big store. They’ve got clothes and tents and outdoor gear. Even appliances for your house.” She smacks her lips. “That was some fun.”
“Do you hunt?”
“No, not really,” she says. “But I do like western wear.”
“Do you ever try out clothes from the Man’s Shop?”
“It’s not just for men!” she says, sounding offended. “Not anymore. We have dresses, too, and women’s belts and hats. We have fringed boots. I personally like the stuff just for its durability. It’s high quality for not a lot of money, which is really important to people who don’t have a lot of money.”
I mention that President Obama is giving his State of the Union address in a few hours. “How do you feel about where the country’s going?”
“Well, things are definitely worse off,” Treasure says. “I don’t know about the whole US, but work is pretty scarce around here.” For years the oil business in West Texas was booming, but lately growth has dropped off entirely, she explains. “A lot of the oil fields have had to fire people. There’s been a lot of layoffs.”
“I’ll probably always stay in San Angelo. However bad things get, they can’t get that bad, you know?”
Any plans for Treasure after getting her Business degree?
“I’d like to stay in sales, if I can.”
“Maybe you’ll take over the store one day,” I say hopefully—which sounds a little patronizing, I realize too late.
Treasure groans. “Sure, I’d like that,” she says, “but it’s best to take things one step at a time.”
“On that note, any plans for tonight?”
“Not really. First I got to close the store at six. Then I have a little boy and a fiancé to get to.”
“A little boy?”
“A one-year-old, yeah.”
“Is that ever overwhelming? Having a child, being a student, and working a job?”
“I’m lucky to have a supportive family,” Treasure says. “That’s why I think I’ll probably always stay in San Angelo. However bad things get, they can’t get that bad, you know?”
Behind the deli counter at the Nelson Cheese Shop in the small college town of Eau Claire, Wis., a woman answers the phone with a long, rueful yawn. “Sorry, but it’s been such a slow day,” she says, catching her breath. This is Liz R., 20, who’s lived in Eau Claire her whole life.
“During the holidays, it gets very busy,” she explains. “People like to buy gift boxes of different Wisconsin cheeses and sausages and other little treats. It’s a huge seller. Around this time of year, though, it’s mostly just the occasional guy coming in for a sandwich.”
Liz doesn’t currently go to college, but says she’d like to teach art for a living one day. It takes a while to coax Liz into talking about her own art. “I guess I like to paint naturalistic scenes the best,” she concedes finally. “Lots of wildlife and trees and stuff like that. Lots of Wisconsin-y stuff.”
“Any badgers?” I ask, referring to the mascot of the University of Wisconsin.
She laughs. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a real one, to be honest.”
About her family, Liz doesn’t have much to say. “My dad left a long time ago, so I’m really not sure what he does for a living. I guess that’s kind of terrible, not to know a thing like that. And my mother, well, she’s a homemaker. She hasn’t worked for a long time. I moved out last year, but I still see her a lot.”
Liz already knows all about the State of the Union address, but says she doesn’t have any plans to watch it. “I’ll probably read something about it. I don’t expect it’ll be too different from last year.” She adds that of course she voted for Obama, but that she generally doesn’t enjoy following politics.
How does Liz personally feel about the state of the union?
“I’d say it’s going pretty well,” she says. “I’m not as informed as I’d like to be, but it seems like it’s going well. This store definitely isn’t going anywhere. Not as long as so many people keep buying cheeses. Hey, hang on a second. A customer just came in finally. I better go make him a sandwich or whatever. Nice talking to you, Matt. Bye.”
In Bakersfield, Calif., homeless people have lately been loitering outside Beehive Books, a Christian bookstore on Chester Avenue next to the Jack in the Box.
“They’re not threatening, verbally or physically,” Claire E., 56, a bookseller at Beehive, tells me, “and I don’t mind them personally. But still, it’s, um… complex? We aren’t really sure how to handle them.”
Claire was raised in Bakersfield but only recently moved back to be closer to her brothers and sisters. She has a tiny, quavering voice and a polite commitment to finishing every sentence to the end.
She started work for Beehive Books about a week ago. “The owner and I have known each other, gosh, about 30 years now,” Claire says. “We met through a Young Single Adult organization. You know, where you go out to movies and dances with people from your church?”
“Look at gas prices. When I was a boy, they never fluctuated this much. It’s just greed. America today? It’s crap. Of course it’s better than any other country I’d want to live in.”
“What books are your biggest sellers?”
“Well, the Bible is a big one,” she says with a laugh. “Tends to be important to Christians. But also we have lots of books written by people affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons, as we’re sometimes called by non-members.”
Claire, who I call on Wednesday, the day after Obama’s address, says she didn’t get home in time to see the speech. But she did catch some of the Republican rebuttal. “I was folding laundry in the other room, so I was only half-listening. But I remember there was this lady from Iowa, and she was talking about how her mother used to make her to wear bread bags over her shoes. Because they didn’t have winter shoes. And how none of the other kids on the school bus cared because they all were wearing bread bags, too. It resonated with me, I guess, because my family also grew up pretty poor.”
In the early ’70s, Claire briefly attended Bakersfield College but had to drop out in order to take care of her mother, who was dying of colon cancer. Since then she’s lived in Rochester, NY, where she worked as a waitress in a restaurant, and in Salt Lake City, where she worked as a home care practitioner for the elderly. She’s currently trying to become accredited as an elementary schoolteacher, but finds the process difficult. Mainly she doesn’t have the money for the entrance fees at the nearby community college.
I ask Claire if she’s heard about the president’s new plan to drive down the tuition of community colleges. “I did hear about that. I’m real skeptical about it. Not sure if that would include the entrance fees. Also I’d still have to buy the books for the class, which can be really expensive. But sure,” she says, giving up finally. “Wouldn’t that be nice?”
“I’ll tell you what I think of Obama. He’s the antichrist, that’s what I think about Obama.”
This is Jack Palmer, 56, who runs Jack Palmer Upholstery in Asheboro, NC. I didn’t actually ask Jack his opinion about Obama, I just mentioned the State of the Union address. But that set him off on a long speech about the president’s health care and immigration policies.
“OK, well,” I say, trying to interrupt him politely. “What about you, Jack? Where are you from?”
“That’s about all I’ve got to say,” Jack says firmly, as though he’s about to hang up. Then without warning he suddenly starts up again. “You know, my father did two tours in Korea. When I was a boy, this was a country to be proud of. Now look at what’s happening. Look at ISIS. And Paris. It’s pitiful. I’m not prejudiced, but this president is just about the sorriest we’ve ever had.”
Jack takes a deep, significant breath, as though to drive home this final point: “That’s about all I’ve got to say. That’s my total opinion.”
After that, Jack’s initially reluctant about being interviewed about his own life, but over the course of 20 minutes I manage to pry loose a few facts about him. He’s lived in North Carolina his entire life, but only moved to Asheboro about 10 years ago. Since then, his upholstery business has thrived. “I’ve been upholstering since I was 15 years old,” he says. “Taught myself. I do a lot of specialty jobs. Cars. Household furniture. I work with only the materials I want. I’m very high-end at what I do, I’m very picky at what I do.”
Jack lives upstairs from his shop. “I just keep my business and pay my bills. I don’t have a family,” Jack says. “My daughter was killed three years ago. She was crossing a four-lane highway in Johnston County. Thirty-one years old.” Here he pauses, as though suddenly remembering himself. “There’s so much greed in this country. Look at gas prices. When I was a boy, they never fluctuated this much. It’s just greed. America today? It’s crap. Of course it’s better than any other country I’d want to live in, but—”
“I’m sorry about your daughter. That’s terrible.”
“Yeah, it took me a long time to get over it.” By the sound of his voice, I’m not sure he has.
“Things aren’t all that bad,” he mentions. “I’m getting married in September. My fiancée, we had a falling out about 15 years ago, but then recently she just came back into my life. Life is full of weird surprises like that.” He takes another long, dramatic breath. “Yep. I guess that’s my story.”
“Would you say you’re hopeful about the future, then? Despite where you think the country’s heading?”
“Oh, of course,” Jack says, clearing his throat. “You’ve got to have hope. Hope that things will change and get better. What else is there sometimes?”