Some towns measure time as a state of constant expansion. In Eden, a mill town in North Carolina's gently rolling hills, life registers in terms of loss: the factories that closed and the jobs that went with them, the lives interrupted. Janice Armstrong lost her job when one of Eden's last giant textile companies closed its gates. After sputtering on for years through cutbacks and down-sizing, the Pillowtex company declared bankruptcy last year, and Ms Armstrong's lifetime of labour, 29 years spent folding and inspecting bedspreads, ended with a brief phone call from her supervisor. It was the only job she has ever had.
"I made a really good living, and I liked my job, and what is so bad is that we have come out with nothing after all those years no pension, no insurance, no nothing," she says. "The day it closed, our insurance was gone, our pension was gone. It was devastating."
The shutdown at Pillowtex was the largest single lay-off in North Carolina, with the loss of 4,800 jobs. Since then Ms Armstrong has racked up her share of humiliation: job retraining classes at 52 and, with less than a high school education, having to admit after a lifetime of self-sufficiency that she has no money to get the washing machine repaired, and, on this day, lining up at first light to get a place in line at a food bank run by a local Baptist church.
Life does not promise to get any easier. In the last good years at Pillowtex, before the firm cut overtime and pay scales to try to stay afloat, Ms Armstrong took home $13.50 an hour. She supported a stepdaughter and a grandchild, and helped out her aging mother.
No one is paying those wages now in Eden. In Greensboro, 40 miles away, she was offered $6 an hour for work in a fast food restaurant. "That wouldn't cover the price of gas," she says. Her unemployment benefit, which is $165 a week, barely covers her mortgage, and runs out in November. Ms Armstrong hopes something will turn up before that. "The only reason I am surviving is that I have savings," she says.
Since July 2000 North Carolina has lost 175,900 factory jobs, according to the US bureau of labour. Across the country, America has entered the deepest and longest recession the manufacturing sector has ever known, shedding 2.7 million jobs since early 2001.
Fewer Americans now work in manufacturing than at any time since the second world war. For North Carolina the decline has been especially cruel, with more people out of work proportionally than in the heartland of America's heavy industrial belt in the mid-west. A quarter of North Carolina's manufacturing jobs have simply disappeared.
Economists say those jobs are unlikely to return because the industries which were North Carolina's speciality apparel and home furnishings face intense foreign competition.
"It was painfully obvious," says Gordon Allen, the manager of the local branch of the Employment Security Commission. "We saw companies moving equipment out of their facility and straight to Mexico. Jobs virtually disappeared."
In his 27 years at the job centre, Mr Allen says these are the hardest times he has ever seen.
There has been no mercy for Eden. The town of 16,000 has lost 6-7,000 jobs over the past decade, says mayor Philip Price. Red brick factories on roads named after well-known brands of sheets and towels sit abandoned, with shattered windows on once proud facades. Shops are closed. The clubs where mill managers used to mix are desperate for new members. Attendance at the town's 85 churches is dwindling.
And so a town where workers could live well has been relegated to the underclass, where people struggle to find jobs, feed their families and pay for healthcare.
John Edwards, a native son who was raised in a mill town 100 miles south of Eden, describes the divide between the haves and the newly created have-nots as the land of "two Americas". He has made the gap the central theme of his vice-presidential campaign.
Although George Bush won here by a convincing margin in 2000, the Democrats hope to whittle away his lead with Mr Edwards's Carolina credentials and his direct appeal to the dispossessed.
In Eden, their ranks are growing. A year ago a retired magistrate, Andrew Collins, set up a food bank at the Hampton Heights church in town. It was a modest undertaking at first; now most weeks he sends 400 people home with cartons of frozen meat, tinned food and bananas.
The people on line are young and old, African-American like Ms Armstrong, and white. All say they could not manage without the handout; none feel confident that they will ever find full-time work again.
For Maria Coleman, 61, it is simply too late, though she goes to the mandatory two job interviews a week. Thirty-four years ago, when she started at Pillowtex, it did not matter that she had not finished high school and had trouble reading. Now that is the only thing potential employers notice.
A few days ago she was offered a place on a course at the local community college in ice sculpture. Ms Coleman has no illusions it will lead to a job. "How many people do you know in this area who are going to have the kind of party where they are going to need an ice sculpture?" she asks. "The factory got the best years of my life 34 years. All my life is hell now."
Mr Price insists that Eden is not lost. A boilermaker from Indiana is taking over one of the abandoned factories; an Israeli manufacturer of baby wipes is thinking of moving to town, attracted by the notion of a cheap and willing workforce. But the Edenites who can are leaving. "The young people aren't staying here," Mr Price says. "There is a mass exodus of young people with any skills at all."
Those left behind face diminishing options. After a year or so without work, Jason Anderson has hit the wall. He left school with a ninth grade education to work as a car mechanic. Business fell off when the economy turned, and Mr Anderson lost his job.
At 23 he is raising a three-year-old son, Rod. He is no longer with the child's mother, and he says his parents are in no position to help financially. He worked for a time as a house painter, leaving home at 4am to get to jobs, or sleeping overnight on building sites. Then he lost his car and now he is stuck in Eden. "It doesn't seem like most places are hiring," he says. "It's really hard without an education. There are lots of office jobs, but they all need computers."
Behind Mr Anderson in the line, 20-year-old Heather Servin is determined not to fall into that trap. The daughter of tobacco share croppers, she made sure she finished high school and has a line on a job as a nursing assistant.
It won't pay much at first less than $8 an hour, though that is more than she earned as a shop assistant. But it is better than her friends are doing, and steadier than her boyfriend's work in the building trade.
"A lot of my friends are trying to get jobs at the factory, but those jobs are not what they used to be," she says. In time, she would like to study nursing at the local community college, although there is a two-year waiting list for courses. People are always going to need nurses," she says.