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motorcycle diaries

Globe and Mail writer Patrick Martin.The Globe and Mail

After four years, Patrick Martin returns on his 1974 BMW motorcycle to the U.S. battleground states of Ohio and Michigan to see if voters' attitudes and preferences have changed as, once again, two presidential candidates are locked in a surprisingly close race. First up, Ohio, because no Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio – not in 160 years.

I met the fellow in a biker bar just outside Youngstown. He was sitting by himself at the counter, sipping a Labatt Blue from the bottle, not paying any attention to the baseball game on the television screen right in front of him.

He was friendly enough; indeed, seemed eager to talk.

He called himself "Jack," though I doubt that's his real name – he told me he didn't trust the media.

"I'm retired," he said, proudly, though he didn't look over 50. He wore a frayed brown cotton cap pulled low over his forehead.

When the auto manufacturer for which he had toiled closed its doors a few years ago, he saw no point in working any more, he explained – not that he's affluent.

"I learned I can live on a lot less," he said. "I moved out of town; found a little place." The government or other benefits he receives cover his modest needs.

It hasn't all been happy though. Jack said his wife wanted a divorce soon after he was let go at work, and he was forced to sell his Harley-Davidson motorcycle to settle their affairs. "It cost me $23,000, and I had just paid it off."

What do you ride now? I asked. "Nothing," he said, though he showed me a picture of an old-model Harley that he's slowly building, whenever he can find the parts.

He told me he comes to the bar once a month and has a couple of beers, then takes home a huge order of the wings for which the bar is renowned. He spends a lot of his time watching YouTube movies, he said.

There's a lot of people like Jack around Youngstown – people who have given up the fight, who have concluded the only way to take control of their lives is to drop out of the working-class rat race they now disdain.

The city, once known as "Steel Town USA," has been hit hard the past four decades. In fact, it was 39 years ago last week that Youngstown Sheet and Tube closed a big part of its steelmaking operation and put almost 5,000 workers on the street. They called it Black Monday, and the city has mostly been in decline since then. It wasn't because the workers here were inferior; it was because of changing market forces and lack of demand for their particular skills and experience. But it hurt them, nonetheless.

Almost all the mills are long gone and there are hundreds of vacant buildings in the city. More than 25,000 well-paid workers were laid off in the 1980s alone. Youngstown's population declined at a rate faster than any other U.S. city.

General Motors is one of the few big manufacturers to stick it out in the region and has managed to maintain and upgrade a massive car-production facility where the popular Chevrolet Cruze is manufactured.

Youngstown has mostly been a union town and that meant the people voted Democrat, the party that protected the working people. Not any more.

This past spring in the Youngstown area, during the Republican primaries, several thousand independents and registered Democrats voted for Donald Trump, making them now registered Republicans, according to Ohio law.

Mr. Trump's anti-free-trade message hit home with these people, and Democratic Party organizers say they have an uphill battle to try to get people motivated to vote for Hillary Clinton.

"They see her as part of the problem," said a fortysomething woman named Stacy who declined to give her family name. Stacy is married to a retired policeman, she said, and the mother of two mixed-race daughters from a previous marriage to an African American. One of the girls is in high school; the other attends Youngstown State University downtown, now the city's biggest employer.

The city is known for its high crime rate, but Stacy said her daughter is safe downtown, "as long as she's home before dark."

"Something has to change," she said. "People here are hurting."

"My husband and I think Trump will make things change."

I asked Jack if he, too, will vote for Trump.

"No," he said firmly. "I don't vote. There's no point."

"The results have already been determined," he said. "Trump's going to win, but the elites will still run the country."

About 45 minutes south of Youngstown, in a once-picturesque spot on the Ohio River, sits East Liverpool, Ohio, a city of about 11,000 caught in the vortex of the area's industrial decline and the abandonment of its coal mining.

This is the community in which a man and a woman earlier this month passed out from a heroin overdose in the front seat of their moving car while the woman's four-year-old grandson sat buckled in his car seat in the back. Police released photos of the scene to show how bad things have become in this warped city.

Indeed, the day before I rode through town, East Liverpool police reported they had handled six cases of heroin overdoses in one eight-hour shift from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. They didn't have enough ambulances to handle all the cases and had to send across the river to West Virginia to get help.

The city looked bad four years ago, when I was last here, but it's worse now.

There are more empty stores than open ones throughout the downtown, hardly anyone is on the street in the middle of a working day; even the Chamber of Commerce was closed.

At one downtown corner there was a For Sale sign in the middle of a weed-infested empty lot: "Imagine the possibilities," it read.

Getting lost, and unable to find my way out of town, I got directions from one of the few people I did see.

There are a lot of dead ends in this place, I noted, referring to the streets.

"You can say that again," the woman said.

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