A family struggling, traveling and surviving in the Great Recession

Kai Ryssdal Mar 10, 2011

A family struggling, traveling and surviving in the Great Recession

Kai Ryssdal Mar 10, 2011


Kai Ryssdal: Back in the fall of 2007, Caitlin Shetterly and her husband Dan Davis had it pretty good. Newly married, doing work they loved. She was a writer and a freelance radio reporter. He was a photographer.

When the economy started to go south in their hometown of Portland, Maine, they decided to do something they’d always wanted to do — pull up stakes and move west to L.A. And for a while things were pretty good. Until the financial crisis and the Great Recession, and lost jobs and no money.

Caitlin Shetterly writes about their story and their travels in a new memoir based on audio diaries she did for Weekend Edition on NPR. It’s called “Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home.” Good to talk to you both.

Caitlin Shetterly and Dan Davis: Thank you, great to talk to you.

Ryssdal: The place I want to start is, pardon me, that moment in your bathroom in the apartment in Santa Monica, where you found out you were pregnant. And you look at Dan, and you describe the shock and fear that crosses his face, and in what might be my favorite line in this whole book, there was also a little hint of exultation at the corner of his mouth.

Shetterly: That’s my guy.

Ryssdal: There you go. But little did you know what was coming.

Shetterly: I had no idea, of course, that I would get very sick with this pregnancy and have something called hyperemesis gravidarum where I would basically puke for nine months. And nor did I know that the recession would hit our lives as hard as it did.

Ryssdal: So there you are, first week of January 2009, you have a brand new baby, but your husband’s jobs have all been canceled; he’s getting no contracting, no freelancing. The whole country is literally thinking that this is it, because we’ve had the crash in the fall of the previous year. What was going through your mind?

Shetterly: What was going through my mind? I mean, I was angry. I think many of us, many people in my generation anyway — I can’t speak for say, my grandparents’ generation who went through the Depression — but we’ve grown up believing that if we work hard and strive for our dreams, they will come true. And I believed that.

Ryssdal: Past tense, you’re speaking in the past tense. “I believed that.”

Shetterly: Yeah, I did believe that. Now I don’t believe it anymore. I don’t know that just hard work makes it. I don’t know, I think a lot of luck makes it.

Ryssdal: Was there a moment, Dan, when you knew? And I think there was a moment where you said, ‘This isn’t working Caitlin, we gotta hit it, we gotta go.’

Davis: There was one moment when I was in a strip mall in Culver City, looking for work. And I had parked my car at the end of the parking lot, and started to make my way down the row of department stores. And by the time I got to the end, something in me just couldn’t turn around and walk the same direction. I just felt so ashamed that I had a college education and I felt like all of my hard work didn’t mean anything anymore. I walked around to the backside of all the buildings and walked back through the back parking lots so nobody could see me. I just felt too beaten down and too embarrassed to turn around and walk past the same people whom moments before I was just asking for a job.

Ryssdal: There is, Caitlin, besides you and your husband and your dog and your cat and eventually your son, there is another character in this book, and that’s this country.

Shetterly: I’m so glad you said that. I mean, I wrote about driving across this country and how beautiful it was, both ways. But also, America reached out to us, and that was what was so moving, is that after that first piece aired on NPR, there were the people who were not nice and who said things that were very hurtful to Dan. I mean, ‘What a wimp,’ ‘You never should have married such a wimp loser guy,’ or something. But people across this country, good people, reached out to us. They offered us homes. Somebody did offer us land. They offered us plane tickets. They offered us their homes to sleep in for the night. They offered us food. Americans are good.

Ryssdal: Dan, the quote in the beginning of this book before the prologue is from John Steinbeck, it’s from “The Grapes of Wrath.” And this is your wife who’s quoting this, right? And you know what’s coming here, it says: “Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole.” No pressure, right?

Shetterly: I love that you just read that, Kai. That means so much to me, because that’s the story of the book.

Ryssdal: You, Caitlin, characterized Dan as the strong, silent type. The guy who, you say the same thing about him that my wife says about me, which is that he has a hard time not working. That if there’s a problem, he has to do something, because he can’t just sit there. But Dan, you talk, or Caitlin talks, about how this trip back East, when you guys eventually knew it was time to leave California and head back East, you talk about being broken.

Davis: Yeah, it’s true. I think what I was experiencing on the way back, one of the things that I knew how to do when our lives was collapsing was to just put my head down. We had a plan, and our plan was to leave, and I had to execute that plan. So I just put my head down, and packed. And got us ready to move. As we got closer to finally stopping, our journey being over, I think it all hit me. I mean, one of the last real stress for me was coming across the country on tires that were the original tires that we had on our car. And we didn’t have the money to put new tires on before we left. And the entire trip across the country, that was always in my mind, like ‘our tires aren’t good. I have to drive, slowly, I have to keep both hands on the steering wheel.’ And I knew that I couldn’t share that information with Caitlin, because someone needed to have some corner available for our son. So I told her about the tires when we got back to Maine, I said

Shetterly: The day we got back. We pulled into the driveway at my mother’s, Dan said, “I can’t believe we made it on these tires.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, I mean, we were in Tennessee in a snowstorm — anyway, we made it.

Ryssdal: Yeah, you did. And it’s worth pointing out that two years later on, your son’s doing fine, Dan’s in graduate school, and you sold a book. The book, by Caitlin Shetterly is called “Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home.” There’s an excerpt and a whole bunch more on our book blog. Thanks you guys.

Shetterly and Davis: Thank you so much.

Follow Caitlin and Dan’s journey as told to NPR: A Man, Woman, Baby And An Empty Bank Account; A Turn In Fortunes; The Long And Winding Road Home; From Mom’s Home To Their Own.

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