The recession can be chronicled through Aaron Heideman's van.
The Oregon native has spent the past six weeks driving across the country and asking people to write on his orange van stories of how the financial crisis has affected their lives. He provides the Sharpies; they spill their guts.
"Lost my job. Became homeless. Been robbed, abused, discriminated, arrested, and neglected. There is no compassion in America," reads one tale scrawled on the side of his van, parked in downtown Washington on Wednesday.
Heideman, 29, has traveled through 11 states since starting his journey on July 1 in Eugene, Ore., and plans to end in mid-September in Grand Rapids, Mich. He has dubbed the project Man in a Van and will enter it into an art competition at his final destination. The top prize is $250,000.
That's roughly 833 times the amount of money that Heideman has now, which is about $300. He was laid off from his job at a paint store late last year and had been living on unemployment benefits, which have run out. Listening to contractors who came into the paint shop day after day, complaining about how the recession had dried up demand for their work, Heideman had become distraught.
He tried to write a screenplay inspired by their stories, but he couldn't figure out how to end it. Then he realized that there was no end -- at least not yet. He had to go find it.
"I decided I would just be that character," Heideman said.
He has found ample fodder as the national unemployment rate flirts with double digits and consumer sentiment wobbles unsteadily. Confidence fell for the second straight month in July, according to the Conference Board, amid fears that the job market is stuck in a rut. Heideman has listened to the tale of a former Navy SEAL so disgusted by the economy that he is planning to move to the Philippines; a farmer who had to take a job as a security guard to pay the bills; and a woman who gave custody of her daughter to her ex-husband because she could no longer afford to care for the girl.
"I want to get to the heart of how people feel," Heideman said.
He has tried to visit places that have been hit particularly hard by the recession, such as Stockton, Calif., and Las Vegas, relying on his iPhone to guide him. Of course, he is tweeting and blogging about the road trip. This is 21st century art, after all.
"I'm sitting at a Shell station somewhere in Florida with everything plugged in. Free wifi. Unshowered. People stare," he tweeted earlier this month.
In Washington, he first set up shop at McPherson Square, and his van garnered more than a few stares. A giant sign reading "How has the recession affected you?" sat on top where a bike rack would normally be. On the side of the van he had painted "Tell me your story." And people had:
Forced to go back to school . . . unemployed for 7 months.
My grandma lost her house and my dad is working less hours. Peoria, Az.
I signed a van.
In Washington, he got no takers at first, as the morning rush of harried workers hurried to their offices. But when he moved his operation to the sidewalk in front of the White House, across the street from the seemingly ubiquitous Falun Gong supporters, he quickly drew a crowd. He had to leave the van a few blocks away, so he unscrolled a 50-foot banner reserved for such occasions.
Monica Lee of the District was the first to sign. Her mother was visiting from Florida, so Lee was playing tour guide for the day. But what she really should be doing, she said, was looking for a job. She was laid off from her position as a program analyst in the District's education department in March.
"Things are still tough out there," Lee said. "The recession has cost me my livelihood."
An elementary school teacher wrote that funding for her program had been cut, forcing her to find a second job. A middle-aged man stooped down to write encouraging words to those who have been laid off. A group of guys scribbled that they are broke and eating at Taco Bell every day, then snapped photos of their handiwork.
Heideman worked the crowd, echoing the refrain that has carried him across the country.
"If you have a story," he said, "you're welcome to share it."