Americans or economic beasts of burden?

On the night of Aug. 21, 2001, my husband and I checked into a motel in Miles City, Mont. Once settled, we poured ourselves a glass of wine and turned on the TV in order to relax after a long day's drive. I've never forgotten that night. It's haunted me ever since.

An economist on the evening news was discussing the economy, then in the midst of a serious slump. The economist looked into the camera and said, "If the American consumer packs it in, the entire global economy is in jeopardy. The American consumer better hang tough or we're in real trouble."

I don't think I had ever before quite understood in such stark terms just what beasts of burden we'd become. What the economist said made me realize something I'd never considered -- that the entire global economy, as he put it, depended on Americans continuing to consume.

Over the years, that phrase -- "the American consumer better hang tough" -- has passed through my mind many times. And, each time, what those words conjure is a great herd of donkeys so loaded down with goods that they're staggering beneath the weight.

Three weeks later, three planes piloted by terrorists flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, leaving almost 3,000 Americans dead and the rest of us in shock. The reaction of our president to these events was to advise us to go out and keep shopping -- to continue our "participation ... in the American economy" were his exact words. Not even the worst terrorist nightmare could deter the beasts from being asked to carry more -- hanging tough, in the words of that economist. Not even in the midst of national mourning were we allowed to give our frantic consumption a rest.

I had been in Miles City as part of a trip with my husband through Wyoming, Montana and North and South Dakota. He's a photographer and was taking pictures of thrift stores throughout the West. Thrift stores are where the poorest of the poor do their shopping. Many people rely on the inexpensive, recycled goods just to get by.

Over time, on that trip and others, I've witnessed events in thrift stores that surprised and moved me. The frail, elderly woman, for instance, whom we observed stealing a $2 blouse from a thrift store in Reno by shoving it into her purse. Or the young couple in Jerome, Idaho, who had just gotten married and were carefully picking out plates and silverware, trying to find items that matched.

There was the young man in Butte, Mont., who put $1 down in order to take advantage of a layaway plan and purchase $10 worth of clothes, with a month to pay off his bill. And the father in Winnemucca, Nev., who bought oversized shoes for his boy, even though the dejected kid could hardly walk in them. "They'll last you two years instead of one," the father said encouragingly. "Don't worry, you'll grow into them."

But perhaps one of the most poignant moments occurred in a Salvation Army thrift shop in Billings, Mont., during that August 2001 trip. A woman and her children were discussing some items they wanted to buy, and the woman was explaining to her kids that they had to wait because she didn't have the money right then. The mother said, "Well, if we can make it till September, we'll come back and get some things." Her son, a boy of about 8, frowned, obviously disappointed, then looked up and said, "When is September, Mom?"

Thrift stores are places where not only the poorest of the poor shop but where one can also see the incredible turnover in the products Americans have consumed and then discarded, often perfectly good items that simply don't get used any more. In thrift stores, you see the evidence of our gluttony.

Now, of course, we're all thinking differently. It's time to pull back. The beast of burden simply can't carry any more. Few Americans have much in the way of savings. Many of us have lived beyond our means. The typical American carries credit card debt of more than $8,000, and credit is tightening. The party is over, and for many Americans it wasn't even that much fun.

It seems to me there might be a good side to this. It's as if the consuming fever has broken, if only temporarily. We're disinclined to carry more debt or keep shopping, even if we could, even knowing that the entire global economy might depend on us getting and spending. We're all wondering where this economic meltdown is headed, and how long it might last -- how long till September? And will there be a time when we can hope to be relieved of our burden of hanging tough? Can there be some different kind of engine to drive the world economy other than the endless, often mindless consumption by ordinary Americans?

These are the questions I'd like answered. But I'm not holding my breath.

Judith Freeman is the author, most recently, of "The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved," published in paperback later this month. Her husband, Anthony Hernandez, is a photographer whose most recent book is "Waiting, Sitting, Fishing, and Some Automobiles."

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