At the Bullfrog, Those Left Behind by the Global Economy Find Relief—and a Place to Talk Trump

In a Jamestown, N.Y., hotel and bar, down-and-out former factory workers seek solidarity and camaraderie—often expressed in shared rants about immigrants or liberals.

Kari Lydersen July 25, 2017

Teddy Langworthy, owner of the Bullfrog, sits behind the counter. (Kari Lydersen)

I went to the Bull­frog look­ing for Dan and Rhonda.

But clearly something about the Bullfrog, like countless such bars in other hardscrabble towns, offers a balm beyond the alcohol: a feeling of solidarity and camaraderie—often expressed in shared rants about immigrants or liberals—that people can depend on even when everything else is uncertain.

Or rather, look­ing for their pasts. I knew Dan was liv­ing on the streets of down­town Chica­go and Rhon­da had died the pre­vi­ous sum­mer from an infec­tion relat­ed to her hero­in addic­tion. I was report­ing on their lives as part of a larg­er project on hero­in and homelessness.

Dan and Rhon­da had met at the Bull­frog Hotel and Bar in their home­town of Jamestown, N.Y., when Dan was liv­ing in the cut-rate rooms above the bar. He described it as a seedy and rau­cous place.

When I walked into the Bull­frog on Valentine’s Day, the first thing that caught my eye was a grin­ning, larg­er-than-life print of Don­ald Trump’s face. It was posi­tioned right behind a ceram­ic bull­frog with a huge, erect penis.

At first I assumed the por­trait of Trump was a protest sign. But soon I learned that Trump is the Bullfrog’s patron saint. Near­ly all the Bull­frog reg­u­lars are Trump true believ­ers, and the hotel is owned by an ardent Trump backer, Ted­dy Lang­wor­thy, Jr. Teddy’s son, Nick Lang­wor­thy, runs the Repub­li­can com­mit­tee for near­by Erie Coun­ty, N.Y., and served on Trump’s tran­si­tion team.

Bullfrog Hotel

The Bull­frog hotel (Kari Lydersen)

Dur­ing three 2017 trips to James-town, I learned about Rhon­da and Dan’s for­mer lives. And I learned a lot more about Jamestown, a strug­gling town like so many oth­ers across the Rust Belt, hard-hit by dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion and unem­ploy­ment and fall­en prey to the opi­oid epidemic.

Jamestown is 88 per­cent white, and 29 per­cent of its res­i­dents live below the pover­ty line, more than twice the nation­al aver­age. Many of the patrons and res­i­dents I met at the Bull­frog are scared, frus­trat­ed and angry at how the glob­al econ­o­my has left them behind. As unions were bust­ed and jobs shipped to oth­er coun­tries or nonunion South­ern states, they were laid off or had their wages slashed. Some became addict­ed to alco­hol and drugs. Many strug­gle to sur­vive on mea­ger month­ly checks from gov­ern­ment pro­grams for dis­abil­i­ty, Social Secu­ri­ty, work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion or unemployment.

Most have been com­ing to the Bull­frog for a long time. For many, it’s been a rock in a sea of instability.

Ted­dy Langworthy’s father, Theodore, bought the Bull­frog in 1979. Both men also worked for decades at the near­by Black­stone fac­to­ry, which made auto­mo­tive radi­a­tors and oth­er prod­ucts. Now renamed TitanX and owned by the multi­na­tion­al Tata Group, the fac­to­ry has laid off a large por­tion of its work­force — includ­ing some Bull­frog patrons — over the years, includ­ing when it opened a plant out­side Mon­ter­rey, Mex­i­co, in 2015.

In its hey­day, Jamestown was known as the fur­ni­ture cap­i­tal of the coun­try. Through­out most of the 20th cen­tu­ry, it was a thriv­ing city, its streets lined with depart­ment stores, bak­eries, butch­er shops and ice cream par­lors, its bars packed with fac­to­ry work­ers. The Bull­frog, which sits on the swift Chadakoin Riv­er, once served as a stage­coach stop and way sta­tion for vis­it­ing mer­chants. Today, it’s a short walk from the brick build­ings, many now emp­ty, that once housed fur­ni­ture fac­to­ries, yarn mills and oth­er indus­tri­al shops.

As he tends bar, Ted­dy rails against lib­er­als, sanc­tu­ary cities and the wel­fare state. He and his fam­i­ly have worked hard all their lives — my father nev­er took a vaca­tion,” he says. Now, as Ted­dy sees it, unde­serv­ing peo­ple are get­ting their food, hous­ing and med­ical care paid for by the gov­ern­ment. When his moth­er was in a nurs­ing home, his father drained their sav­ings to pay for her care, while the woman in the next bed was on pub­lic assis­tance and got the same treat­ment for free, he says. He also bit­ter­ly recounts the sto­ry of a local man who got a free ambu­lance ride to the den­tist for a toothache.

Many of the Bull­frog patrons and ten­ants share Teddy’s views. They are espe­cial­ly upset at the grow­ing num­bers of Puer­to Ricans liv­ing in Jamestown, who (they believe) are mov­ing into sub­si­dized hous­ing and col­lect­ing oth­er pub­lic benefits.

The may­or wants to take every­one from New York City and make this a wel­fare state,” says Rita Swan­son, 52, who has a room at the Bull­frog and spends much of her time at the bar. She worked for 16 years at a near­by fac­to­ry that makes truck lights. But when the com­pa­ny laid off work­ers and, she recalls, invit­ed her to reap­ply for her job at $8 an hour instead of $15, she said no thanks. I loved my job. … Now I just do this,” she says, ges­tur­ing at her drink. I couldn’t help but be struck by the irony of the antipa­thy toward peo­ple on pub­lic assis­tance despite the fact that many of the Bullfrog’s ten­ants and patrons are them­selves sur­viv­ing on dis­abil­i­ty and oth­er social wel­fare pro­grams. You should see this place on the first of the month,” says one patron, refer­ring to the day gov­ern­ment checks come in. 

Those checks don’t pro­vide for a very com­fort­able life. The hall­ways and shared bath­rooms above the bar can only be described as filthy, suf­fo­cat­ing and sad. Ten­ants do their best to make homes out of the cramped, stuffy rooms.

I was ini­tial­ly dis­turbed that Ted­dy was charg­ing des­per­ate peo­ple mon­ey to live in such con­di­tions. But as with much sin­gle-room-occu­pan­cy hous­ing, the hotel is actu­al­ly a cru­cial last-ditch option for peo­ple who might oth­er­wise be out on the street. 

And while Ted­dy told me repeat­ed­ly how much he detests peo­ple who live off the gov­ern­ment, I soon real­ized that he and his niece and nephew, who also tend bar, gen­uine­ly care about their cus­tomers, includ­ing those who depend on the country’s frayed safe­ty net.

Ed Gustafson has lived at the Bull­frog on and off for almost 40 years, after a child­hood bounc­ing between fos­ter homes. Ted­dy pays him to answer the phone and do odd jobs. One evening, Gustafson is in a bad mood. He yells at Ted­dy and scrapes his hand along the bar, say­ing, If I had claws!” with the most men­ac­ing atti­tude his small frame and wide blue eyes can muster. Ted­dy smiles kind­ly and calms him down. 

I remem­ber when Ed would sell pork pies for one cent each,” he says. It was three cents!” Gustafson cor­rects him. 

Bill, 40, is also not hav­ing a good day. He is wor­ried about an upcom­ing surgery for a seri­ous back injury he suf­fered in 2014 in a fall at his job installing retail dis­plays. After a pre­vi­ous surgery, Bill was pre­scribed Oxy­con­tin and Per-cocet — opi­oid painkillers. He real­ized he was addict­ed when he missed a dose and went into con­vul­sions at a birth­day par­ty for his girlfriend’s daughter.

You could get addict­ed in a heart­beat,” says Bill, who declined to give his last name because he’s pur­su­ing a law­suit over the acci­dent. He man­aged to stop tak­ing opi­oids after a painful with­draw­al. But he’s wor­ried what will hap­pen after the next surgery. 

Two pain clin­ics not far from the Bull­frog dis­pense the same pre­scrip­tion painkillers that start­ed the nation­al opi­oid cri­sis, which has espe­cial­ly rav­aged Rust Belt towns like Jamestown. As in Bill’s case, opi­oid addic­tion often starts with a work­place injury. In an indus­tri­al or post-indus­tri­al area like Jamestown, such injuries are com­mon. A 2013 state assess­ment of Chau­tauqua Coun­ty, which con­tains Jamestown, found there were 397 work-relat­ed hos­pi­tal­iza­tions for every 100,000 employed peo­ple between 2009 and 2011, com­pared to 172 for the state as a whole. 

Inter­est­ing­ly, opi­oid addic­tion also has been sta­tis­ti­cal­ly cor­re­lat­ed with vot­ing for Trump, even when oth­er fac­tors like race and pover­ty are con­trolled. As in count­less oth­er towns, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of pre­scrip­tion opi­oids has sparked a hero­in epi­dem­ic. In 2012, Jamestown police seized 119 bags of hero­in, which amounts to a lit­tle less than half an ounce. In 2014, they seized a total of 18 ounces, and in 2015, they seized 31.6 ounces. 

Dan and Rhon­da actu­al­ly didn’t start doing hero­in until they got to Chica­go, but they used oth­er drugs and drank heav­i­ly while hang­ing out at the Bull­frog. Though Rhon­da didn’t offi­cial­ly live there, ten­ants would some­times care for her and let her stay in their rooms when she was in bad shape.

Patrons at the Bull­frog were not sur­prised to hear that Rhon­da had died from a hero­in-relat­ed infec­tion; they’ve lost mul­ti­ple friends and fam­i­ly mem­bers to the drug.

Research has been incon­clu­sive on whether opi­oids are help­ful in man­ag­ing long-term chron­ic pain — like the kind caused by work­place injuries or just a life­time of hard phys­i­cal labor. One recent study found they were inef­fec­tive. Mean­while, hero­in and oth­er drugs will not real­ly soothe the emo­tion­al pain of see­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties dis­si­pate, dreams fal­ter, jobs leave, bore­dom set in. Alco­hol can, of course, dull pain, calm anx­i­ety and make one feel cheer­ful and empow­ered, while the buzz lasts. 

But clear­ly some­thing about the Bull­frog, like count­less such bars in oth­er hard­scrab­ble towns, offers a balm beyond the alco­hol: a feel­ing of sol­i­dar­i­ty and cama­raderie — often expressed in shared rants about immi­grants or lib­er­als — that peo­ple can depend on even when every­thing else is uncertain. 

Jamestown used to be the great­est place; it was boom­ing,” says Al, 55, whose grand­fa­ther and father both worked at Black­stone until retire­ment. Al was laid off by Black­stone in 1991 and hasn’t found a job as good since. Back then, there were so many bars. With the loss of work, the bars closed too — the loss of big busi­ness means the loss of small busi­ness. But we’ve still got this. We still have the Bullfrog.”

The print ver­sion of this sto­ry in the August 2017 issue erro­neous­ly stat­ed that Nick Lang­wor­thy is the chair of the Repub­li­can Com­mit­tee in Erie, Pa. He is the chair of the Erie Coun­ty, N.Y.

Kari Lyder­sen is a Chica­go-based reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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