Kody Foster had finished his Wednesday afternoon shift at the warehouse where he earns $12.50 per hour. Normally, he would be packing himself into his Ford Focus, with its Bernie Sanders sticker and plaque with the number 48, in honor of the stock-car racer Jimmie Johnson.
But this week, Foster, 26, couldn’t get the Ford’s check engine light to turn off, and the dealership told him that fixing it would cost $1,000, which he didn’t have. So instead, he borrowed his sister’s ancient red minivan, with its sliding door that doesn’t shut right.
He drove along River Road, the hillsides lush and tangled with kudzu, then up Main Street in this faltering Piedmont town, the largest in a county that has seen its factory jobs wither, its NASCAR track shutter and its homegrown business – Lowe’s, the home-improvement chain – move its headquarters to a Charlotte suburb in 2003.
Foster’s destination, wedged between a pizza parlor and the opioid addiction clinic, was the Tapering Vapor, a bare-bones e-cigarette shop and makeshift lounge that serves as his modest oasis, a place to catch a mild nicotine buzz and let a world of worry float away on banks of big, cloying, candy-flavored clouds.
In an America riddled with anxieties, the worries that Foster and his neighbors bring through the doors of the Tapering Vapor are common and potent: Fear that an honest, 40-hour working-class job can no longer pay the bills. Fear of a fraying social fabric. Fear that the country’s future might pale in comparison with its past.
Wilkes County, with a population of nearly 69,000, has felt those stings more than many other places. The textile and furniture industries have been struggling here for years, and the recession and the loss of the Lowe’s headquarters have helped drive down the median household income. That figure fell by more than 30 percent between 2000 and 2014 when adjusted for inflation, the second-steepest decrease in the nation, according to an analysis of census data by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Still, the regulars at the Tapering Vapor – overwhelmingly white, mostly working class and ranging from their 20s to middle age – provide a haze-shrouded snapshot of an anxious nation navigating an election year fueled by disquiet and malaise.
‘It’s not just me’
Karen Chapman came in to the Tapering Vapor and ordered a bottle of nicotine-laced liquid flavored like dark chocolate and tobacco. Chapman, 47, said she had two master’s degrees and was currently holding six part-time jobs – a mix of clerical, academic and online work, none of which provided health insurance.
“This is not the life I saw for myself,” she said.
Meanwhile, Foster was at work at the counter, his eyes locked in concentration under his ball cap. He was building a custom heating coil for the kind of powerful vapor-delivery device he and his friends prefer: a walkie-talkie-size gadget called a vaporizer, or a mod.
Foster has always had a knack for building. Before the recession, his father built fancy mountain retirement homes here. Now retirees were nosing around the North Carolina mountains again, and his father was building again. Sometimes Foster pitches in.
But this afternoon, as he sucked on a mod loaded with a banana-strawberry concoction, he was trying not to think about the trouble he was in. About how he messed up by buying the little white Ford off the showroom floor in 2012; the $265 monthly payments were killing him.
How his Verizon bill inched close to $300 the month before because he lost track of how much video he had streamed.
How he, his wife and their 4-year-old son were living at his mother-in-law’s place after the landlord sold the house they had been renting for $400 per month. How even a two-bedroom trailer in a crummy neighborhood around here was going for $600 per month. “More than I can handle,” he said.
And how his second child was due in July.
“It’s not just me. There are other people in similar boats,” Foster said. He acknowledged that maybe he was to blame for some if it. Maybe he should have stayed in college. Maybe he should have kept better track of his cellphone’s data plan.
But in his America, he said, it seemed that just a few bad choices could doom anybody who wasn’t born with Donald Trump money. “If you make just one poor decision,” he said, “then you’re screwed.”
Foster likes Sanders’ promise of universal health care, and his pledge to make tuition free at public colleges and universities. His dream, which seems distant now, is to one day return to school and study marine biology.
Lapsed golden age
Foster’s support for Sanders makes him an outlier in largely conservative Wilkes County. Trump won the March 15 Republican primary here with 47 percent of the vote, garnering more than twice the votes of Hillary Clinton, who won the Democratic primary.
Among those who chose Trump was Taylor, a native of western North Carolina who never knew the world before the North American Free Trade Agreement or the Internet. He is a gamer and amateur musician.
And though globalization provides him with his preferred instruments of leisure – a foreign-made Xbox and a cheap, sturdy Japanese acoustic guitar – he is also one of globalization’s discontents.
On the whole, Taylor agrees with Trump that the United States, particularly places like Wilkes County, received raw deals from the trade pacts that began with the passage of NAFTA. Some of the textile and furniture industry remains here. But it is not like it was. Or at least the way people tell him it was.
He has long been skeptical of big government, and the way government works generally. It did not help that the Food and Drug Administration announced greater regulation of the e-cigarette industry this month. He figured it would soon put little shops like this one out of business.
“I don’t think he’s going to be worse than anybody else up there,” Taylor said of Trump. If nothing else, he said, “He’d be somewhat more interesting to watch things unfold under.”
Like many others here, both successful and not, Taylor and Foster are united in their belief that they are living among the ruins of a lapsed golden age.
The post-World War II success story that people once told about themselves here was captured in a 1948 promotional film, uploaded to YouTube by the State Archives of North Carolina, called “This is Progressive Wilkes County.” It shows the locals of that era bustling on now-sleepy downtown thoroughfares here and in Wilkesboro, the smaller sister city across the Yadkin River, as shopkeepers offered pies and pastries, men’s suits and prescription drugs.
“Every day is Saturday in these thriving mountain towns,” a narrator says.
Michael A. Cooper, Jr., 30, a lawyer who grew up in North Wilkesboro, compares the county to a Jenga tower whose pieces scattered when the old industries pulled out. The methamphetamine phenomenon crested here two or three years ago, but the labs continue to flourish among its 754 square miles of hollows and low mountains. Perhaps even more prevalent are prescription drugs – particularly opioids like Oxycodone and Opana.
Cooper is a rare young white-collar professional who stayed in town. Many of his clients are people he went to high school with and are now in trouble over drugs or caught in the tangle of family court and dead-end jobs. It doesn’t surprise him that Trump’s message resonates.
“If there were winners or losers in America in this century, they were the losers,” he said. “You’re talking to people who haven’t won in 30 years, and now somebody is telling them they’re going to win again.”
Trump is popular here for a number of reasons. The county is 93 percent white, but from 1990 to 2014, the Hispanic population there grew from 360 people to 4,154, according to census figures. On a Wednesday in March, Brona Wood, 58, a maintenance worker at the county courthouse, came in to the Tapering Vapor for a bottle of liquid called Fruity Juice. If Trump is elected, she said, “The Mexicans is going to stop coming in here and taking everybody’s jobs.”
Eddie Settle, the chairman of the County Commission, was giving a driving tour of the county a few days before the March primaries when a pickup truck adorned with a Confederate flag passed by. It is a common sight here, Settle said, though he argued that the Confederate symbol has less to do with racism than an ingrained suspicion of those in power. He said the same dynamic explained Trump’s appeal: “It’s not because he’s Donald Trump. It’s because he’s anti-establishment.”
As part of his tour, Settle drove by the large chicken processing plant in Wilkesboro, operated by Tyson Foods. Pay on the production line ranges from $10 to just under $14 per hour. It employs about 2,800 people.
Out on Route 421, near the bustling Wilkesboro Wal-Mart, the highway is lined with common American chains – Sonic, Chik-fil-A, Dollar Tree, Hardee’s, Taco Bell, Sally Beauty Supply – a sign of the area’s low-wage jobs. The county’s unemployment rate was almost 15 percent in February 2010. In April, it was 5.4 percent, about the same as the national rate.
“We don’t have an unemployment problem here,” said Jim Smoak, the chairman of the Wilkes Economic Development Corp. “We have a wage problem.”