HOUSTON - In December 2001, more than 4,200 people had their lives upended by the collapse of Houston's Enron Corp.
Laid off with little warning, stunned to see savings and severance evaporate, Enron employees quickly faded into the background while the executives who led their company became the focus of an intense federal investigation.
Now those executives are back in the news, with plea bargains and criminal indictments. But what of the rank-and-file workers?
Dan Ayers, who had been in software sales, went from Enron to WorldCom, then to a small private company that went bankrupt in December. "I'm feeling kind of snakebit," he said.
Linda Walker, a 52-year-old secretary with Enron for 30 years, found another job. But lower pay means she's taking the bus rather than her car to work and cutting out movies with her teenage son. "I tell him, "Momma don't make money like she used to,' " she said.
Adam Plager, a software developer who witnessed Enron's reckless spending for five years, started his own company using programmers in Argentina. "Enron taught me the wrong way to do things and why," he said. "They shot the moon."
Jeffrey Skilling, Enron's former chief executive, faces criminal charges for his role in the company's downfall. His next court date is Thursday, when the judge will schedule future proceedings in the case. Meanwhile, here's a look at how a few of his ex-employees are faring.
At 59, Dennis Alexander is living out of a hotel room in Kuwait and donning body armor for armed escorts to the reconstruction project he's overseeing in Iraq.
Alexander, a former Enron vice president, had been unemployed more than a year when he finally signed up in December for what he calls "the only game in town."
"If you want to be in construction, building things, this is the place to be," said Alexander, who has met several ex-Enroners working in Iraq. "The budgets here are huge. But it's highly volatile, highly dangerous."
A former Navy submarine commander and industrial engineer by training, Alexander joined Enron in 1994.
"I was a pretty senior guy in the engineering and construction business," he said. "But I didn't know a damn bit about what those turkeys were doing in finance."
Though his division developed pipelines and power plants around the world, Alexander and others say their work was considered irrelevant by Skilling, who wanted to transform the company into a trading powerhouse unfettered by hard assets.
With his division being sold off and pared down, Alexander left in April 2001, seven months before the parent company collapsed. But since much of his retirement and bonuses were still tied up in Enron stock, Alexander lost about a half-million dollars when Enron filed for bankruptcy.
Though he found some consulting work after Enron, Alexander said a permanent job eluded him. He said there were two strikes against him: age and Enron. When he was offered the job in Iraq, paying about two-thirds of what he was earning at Enron, Alexander said he and his wife prayed about it, then he packed.
"This was the only job available, so we figured it's the one I'm supposed to do," he said. "We've turned our lives over to the Lord and asked for his protection."
It took a toothache and two years of scrambling for work to transform David Tonsall from a mechanical engineer with an MBA into a rapper known as NRun.
Tonsall, who worked in Enron's pipeline and energy divisions for nearly five years, said the company's self-conscious swagger and fast pace was exhilarating.
"The environment was such that you couldn't slow down," he said. "Then it came to a dead stop. That's why it's such a shock."
A doubler shocker for Tonsall, because his wife, an employee of Enron Broadband, also lost her job. About $200,000 of Enron stock in his retirement account disappeared.
A new engineering job lasted less than a year, as other energy companies felt the ripple effects of Enron's collapse. Tonsall, a 40-year-old father of three, started a consulting business, but work has been sporadic.
When he found himself with a toothache, forced to ask fraternity brothers for free dental care, the desperation of his situation hit him.
"It was the first time in my life I had no medical insurance," he said. "It opens your eyes."
Casting about for way to express his anger and frustration, Tonsall began to write rap songs. He finished a dozen in less than three weeks, then spent the little savings he had left - $15,000 - to record and press his first CD. It debuted in December, on the second anniversary of Enron's demise. Among the selections: Drop the S off Skilling.
"The Pipeline boys have turned to street justice," Tonsall entones to the sound of gunfire.
Tonsall has sent his CD to record labels, radio stations and newspapers across the country. His efforts have yielded media attention but not many sales. Hits on his Web site (www.nrunwrekords.com) haven't yet translated into income.
But Tonsall, equally at ease in a business suit or diamond-cross necklace, will not stop trying to remind people of the promising and well-paying careers taken from him and thousands of other Enron employees by misdeeds at the top. In one song yet to be recorded, he taunts ex-Enron chairman Ken Lay by saying, "How's it feel to be sitting in jail, Ken?"
"I guess I was ahead of the game," Tonsall said recently of Lay, who has neither been charged nor convicted of wrongdoing. "The judicial system will get these guys. It's just a long time coming."
In a shop on the edge of Houston's wealthy River Oaks enclave, Linda Lay, wife of Enron's former chairman, tries to raise cash by selling cast-offs like a $6,500 French Normandy sideboard and slightly scuffed slippers for $160.
Twenty-five miles away, in a housing development off Houston's Highway 6, Angelique Chappell is trying to raise cash as well. But she's doing it by selling her kids' old clothes at a garage sale.
Chappell, in her early 30s, had been an administrative assistant at Enron for four years when the bankruptcy was filed. She misses the company still.
"I mattered there," she said. "I wasn't just a secretary. I haven't found that anywhere since."
Chappell found another job in mid 2002, but that work ended in December. Once again Chappell finds herself sending out resumes, calling staffing agencies, doing interviews.
As much as Enron raised Chappell's appreciation for what a secretarial job might be, it also raised her salary expectations. She made $47,000 in salary and bonuses during her last year at Enron and had socked away $12,000 in stock, which is now worthless.
Emboldened and embittered by the experience, Chappell said she'll refuse jobs paying less than $17 an hour.
"When you figure in the cost of commuting and day care, it's just not worth me working for less," said Chappell, whose sons are 7 and 10 and whose husband is a Houston firefighter. "And though there seem to be lots of jobs around, nobody wants to pay."
But Chappell's tough talk may soften. Her husband's $28,000 salary only goes so far and her car payment is overdue. She admits to having a "pity party" on occasion, giving in to the urge for a good cry. Then she pulls out posterboard and begins making garage sale signs to hang on trees and telephone poles in her neighborhood.
"You think Ken Lay or Jeff Skilling will be worried if we go bankrupt?" Chappell said, dry eyes flashing. "They didn't think about us. No one is going to look out for me and my family but me."
For more years than she cares to remember, Lois Black took a bus every weekday morning to downtown Houston, worked as a legal secretary, and returned home, bored but certain she was saving for a comfortable old age.
Then Enron, where she had worked for three years, collapsed, taking along her retirement savings. And Black, a 63-year-old divorced woman, realizes it was the best thing ever to happen to her.
"I used to think that if I didn't work in a big company with benefits, I'd be a bag lady when I got old," Black said. "But that was an illusion. Now I believe if I use the talents God gave me, with a full heart, the universe will take care of me."
Black, who has three children and three grandchildren, always loved throwing themed birthday parties for her family. She also toyed with the idea of opening a tea room, but knew she couldn't handle the debt. So she created Tea Parties to Go, taking dress-up parties to birthday girls all over Houston.
Charging $350 for a group of 12, Black provides everything, from tables and chairs to topiaries to tea sandwiches. Dressed as a fairy godmother, she presides over the two-hour affairs, doling out princess costumes, boas and high heels to girls from 3 to 11 and sometimes their moms. Then, like a wizard, she packs it all back neatly into her aging Toyota and is gone, taking the corners carefully lest a wayward container decapitate her.
"I'd like to make enough money to buy a van, but it's not about the money," said Black, who does about six parties a month. "I had money and I lost it. Now I figure I paid my dues and I'm going to get it back in a way I'm not going to worry about."
So when Black's finances got uncomfortably tight a few months ago and she began looking for a part-time job, she was not at all surprised when one fell in her lap. She's now working three days a week for a tax lawyer, a job that keeps the bills at bay.
Determinedly optimistic, Black said she pays little attention to news about her former Enron bosses. But even her good-natured demeanor was tested when she read about the recent trial of Martha Stewart.
"If they take Martha Stewart to trial and not Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay, I'm carrying a placard," she said. "Those prosecutors need to get a grip."
For many of his eight years in computer drafting at Enron, Eric Eden had a secret in his desk drawer: drawings of a low-cost lawn sprinkler system he had patented and wanted to market.
But as a father of two girls with a stay-at-home wife, Eden couldn't justify leaving the energy giant, even as the company culture changed from one of limitless possibility to a single-minded focus on share price.
"I had a steady income and plenty of money," Eden, now 35, said. "I thought I'd work there the rest of my life."
Then Enron imploded and his dad was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Three months later, his dad was gone and Eden took his drawings out of storage and started Watering Made Easy.
His product is a hybrid between an old-fashioned, end-of-the-hose sprinkler and an expensive in-ground system. Made of plastic and buried at lawn level, the sprinkler heads cost about $40 each. Full lawn coverage costs about $200, compared with $2,000 for an in-ground system, Eden boasts.
After initially hawking his sprinklers at home shows around Houston, Eden has moved to wholesale hardware shows and direct sales to major retailers. He has landed agreements to supply 13 Wal-Marts, eight Lowe's and 13 independent hardware stores. His goal: to have his product in 500 stores.
As he tries to create a profitable business out of a brainstorm, Eden is looking for a loan or investor.
"I'm way upside-down in credit," he said. "I've learned what a balance sheet is and what a messed-up thing accounting is. I've also learned how every little thing affects the bottom line."
Engrossed in his new endeavor, Eden has little sympathy for people who failed to diversify and lost savings or severance at Enron. Nor does Eden think Jeff Skilling owes him a dime.
"I think he drove the company to failure, but that's not an opportunity for me to get some of his millions," Eden said. "But it would be nice if he had to move to a house without an underground sprinkler system."
Should that happen, Eden would have just the right sprinkler to keep his lawn green.