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'Lost on Long Island' - Baby boomers abandoned by so-called economic recovery

I know we have become a nation of such short attention spans and long-term addiction to instant gratification that asking viewers to spend even an hour with a documentary that could change the way they see the world is probably a fool's errand.

But this fool is asking -- no begging -- you to see "Hard Times: Lost on Long Island," an HBO documentary premiering at 9 Monday night and repeating throughout the month on HBO and HBO2.

I have not seen anything on-air, online or in print that so deftly nails one of the most important and least reported stories of our economic and political lives in this presidential election year. And "Hard Times" so eloquently humanizes the issue that you will be haunted by the people and stories featured in this searing film long after the final credits play over the Otis Redding ballad "I've Got Dreams to Remember."

"Hard Times" follows four couples living on Long Island for six months starting in the summer of 2010. Levittown in Nassua County, Long Island, is as good a symbol as you could want for post-World-War-II, suburban prosperity and the bounty of the American Dream that many baby boomers took for granted. Until the recession of 2008, that is.

All four couples consist of well educated professionals, some with graduate degrees, who lost their jobs and have come to understand that President Obama's plan for recovery has no place for them in it.

That's the political dimension of this film -- and it cannot be escaped even though director Marc Levin and producer Daphne Pinkerson appear to be driven only by the desire to deliver first-rate non-fiction storytelling, not any political agenda.

But you can't help but constrast the heart-breaking stories they tell of these highly qualified workers who are left behind with the self-assured Washington pronouncements that the recession ended in the summer of 2009 and we are now in "recovery." And isn't that "stimulus" stuff working out fabulously?

And, by the way, all the Washington journalists who have reproduced that story line from Team Obama without questioning it hard enough to find stories like the ones Levin and Pinkerson tell should be ashamed.

Such stories are not hard to find. In fact, the Washington area itself is filled with former fully employed journalists downsized into the margins if not economic oblivion -- just like these Long Island teachers, Wall Street brokers, corporate managers and public relations professionals. But thinking about the victims of what happened in 2008 to the American Dream gives those of us who are still employed the three-o'clock in the morning jitters. Better to look the other way and focus instead on the happy talk about recovery.

A prediction: If Mitt Romney and the GOP can find a way to make voters pay attention to these kinds of stories, we could have a new president in 2012. And the votes of formerly middleclass, college-educated professionials in their fifties and sixties will be the ones that make that happen.

At the center of the film are Alan and Susan Fromm. They met and married in Brooklyn. They raised two children in Long Island, and as the film opens, they are about to lose their home.

With an M.A. degree, he spent most of his career in corporate training and education. Fromm is a remarkable survivor. He was struck by lightning at 15. He was in the World Trade Center when it was first bombed, and one of the towers literally fell around him on 9/11.

But the recession finally took this aging manager out in a way such events and acts of terrorism couldn't. Viewers meet him as he goes about his rounds every day trying to find work. They also accompany him to a diner where he is part of support group of similar victims of the so-called new economy. Halfway through this film, if a number popped up on the screen to call, I bet half a million viewers would dial in to offer this guy a job. But not the companies who are hiring.

Nick Puccio met his wife, Regina, at Lehman Brothers where he spent his entire Wall Street career until getting laid off in 2008. Now they need help from a local charity's pantry to have enough food for the month -- and she wants to sell her engagement ring. He's against it, but he is as a broken a man as I have ever seen in any account of The Great Depression.

Mel and Anne Strauss met while commuting back and forth to Manhattan jobs on the Long Island Railroad. They have both since lost their salaried positions. She was laid off in 2008 from a job in public relations. Like Fromm, he has a master's degree, but now, the only job he can get is selling on commission. And to get that, he has to live in upstate New York with a married son, while Annette stays in Long Island. He has cancer. This is beyond Willy Loman anguish - honest.

And it is not just baby boomers. One of the harshest story lines involves involves David and Heather Hartenstein, a chiropractor and a former third-grade teacher. They were denied on their application for a modification on their home loan the same day that one of their children was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. The toll it takes on their marriage and their lives is almost impossible to witness.

The film is not without its flaws. The largest involve not answering questions some viewers are likely to have as to whether there might be particular reasons for some of these folks not finding work. That is especially true in the case of the Hartensteins.

Still, this is one of the most important hours of TV that the medium will offer this year, yet I am not optimistic about it finding a large audience

But if you decide not to watch, at least be honest with yourself. Do a gut check and ask yourself why. Is it because you don't want to bear witness to such pain? Or, is it because it will keep you up all night worrying about losing your job?

I am not judging. But I am saying the next time you talk about how there is nothing authentic on TV that is worth watching, ask yourself if that is really true? And could you handle authentic if TV gave it to you -- or would you rather watch anything else?

 

 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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