Date of publication: 2017-08-25 09:55
Once again, Ehrenreich sets her hopes on a new, idealized slice of the country. Once again, those hopes meet with a rude dose of reality. A tone of defensiveness has by now crept into her writing, as though she senses her enterprise is hitting the rocks: “If some enterprising journalist wants to test the low-wage way of life in darkest Idaho or Louisiana, more power to her. Call me gutless, but what I was looking for this time around was a comfortable correspondence between income and rent, a few mild adventures, a soft landing.” At the same time, hitting the rocks is the point. Ehrenreich’s investigation, time and again, demonstrates a central, salient fact: wages are too low in America and rent is too high.
Stuck (temporarily of course) on the losing end of the equation, Ehrenreich finds herself watching Survivor in her motel one night. “Who are these nutcases who volunteer for an artificially daunting situation in order to entertain millions of strangers with their half-assed efforts to survive?” she asks. Of course, she is rhetorically aiming the question at herself. But consider her word choice: the situation is not “daunting” but “ artificially daunting”, the efforts to survive it “ half-assed ”. Here, Ehrenreich seems—intentionally or not—to be critiquing her own performative stance. Is what she is doing—laptop still in tow, a bank account at her disposal in times of emergency, the tendency to switch cities once one becomes too much to handle— half-assed?
While waiting for her drug test results, Ehrenreich looks for some more jobs, attending a group interview for a sales company called Mountain Air—which bills itself as an “‘environmental consulting firm’ offering help to people with asthma and allergies as a ‘free service.’” That said, Ehrenreich finds the interviewer’s emphasis on the “bottom line” refreshing when compared to Wal-Mart’s “unctuous service ethic.” However, after a personal three-minute interview in which she explains that she wants to help asthmatics, she is told there is no job for her: “Maybe it was the residency issue that did me in,” she considers, “though I suspect it was the misplaced hypocrisy.”
Wal-Mart, however, only pays $7 an hour. Ehrenreich reflects on how she wound up in this crutch, unable to bargain her way up. After all, Minneapolis has a tight labor market surely her labor is in high demand. Part of the answer, she realizes, “lies in the employers’ deft handling of the hiring process.” First you’re an applicant, then you’re an orientee, and gone is the intermediate time during which you know you have been offered the job and can negotiate with the employer as a “free agent.” The drug test “tilts the playing field even further,” Ehrenreich explains, “establishing that you, and not the employer, are the one who has something to prove.” It’s all a way of making sure the employee feels perennially “one down, way down, like a supplicant with her hand stretched out.”
It is telling to note, for example, Ehrenreich’s reasoning for keeping a car. “Yes, I could have walked more or limited myself to jobs accessible by public transportation,” she writes. “I just figured that a story about waiting for buses would not be very interesting to read.” This self-imposed limitation is in the interest of entertainment, or at least good storytelling. These are not the words of a scientist these are the words of a performer. My analysis in the coming chapters will seek in part to examine the fine line between those two stances.
Ehrenreich goes on to explain that the notion seemed at first crazy to her. She was a long way from the days of radical journalism, and her own extended family had enough brushes with and proximity to poverty that doing what she did for a living—sitting at a desk and writing—seemed not just a privilege “but a duty”—something she “owed to all those people […] who’d had so much more to say than anyone ever got to hear.”
Nickel and Dimed is a book by Barbara Ehrenreich. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America study guide contains a biography of author Barbara Ehrenreich, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.
Ehrenreich arrives in Minnesota, hoping to find there a slightly more comfortable environment than what she has so far experienced. It’s a liberal state, with clean air, friendly people, and affordable housing. She picks up her Rent-A-Wreck and is able to shack up for a few days in the apartment of friends of a friend—in exchange for looking after their cockatiel, whom she refers to as “Budgie.”
pointing to a notion she echoes in her interview, . that employees should use discretion when following rules, that otherwise “you might as well have machines doing all the work.” She is once again positing, but through sly comedy this time, a vision of the modern American work-environment as a 6989 -style dystopia, a land of automatons and blind followers, of brainwashing and four-hand salutes, where Sam Walton is a prophet and Made in America a Bible. Roberta serves, therefore, as a useful caricature of the willingly (one might even say eagerly ) submissive and content low-grade employee.
Ehrenreich did of course overcome her concern, and the book is the chronicle of her efforts. For the remainder of her introductory chapter, Ehrenreich details the parameters she set for her endeavor. First off, three rules: she was not allowed to fall back on skills derived from her usual work she must take the highest-paying job offered to her and do her best to hold it she must accept the cheapest housing she could find.
A major problem facing Ehrenreich around this time is the perennial issue of affordable housing. The Clearview Inn is not a sustainable option—especially given that the daily rate has risen to $55 for any additional time. Ehrenreich had hoped to move into the Hopkins Park Plaza, but that itself is not a long-term option either, at $679 a week. The Rainbow supermarket—a potential second job to buttress her income—will not let her work only weekends, so it proves not an option at all.
In other asides, Ehrenreich emphasizes the sense of separation between the low-wage and high-wage worlds to work at Wal-Mart is to be “Wal-Martian”—as though one might as well be an alien. She also notes the physical dangers of the low-wage world. Her motel makes this clear to her: “Poor women […] really do have more to fear than women who have houses with double locks and alarm systems and husbands and dogs.” She adds: “I must have known this theoretically or at least heard it stated, but now for the first time the lesson takes hold.”
That said, in other ways there was less play-acting going on than one might think. One does not pretend to be a waitress, for example when Ehrenreich worked as a waitress, even for a short period of time, she was a waitress. She was not marked out by employers for special intelligence or education, but rather for inexperience. The “role” she was playing was not even so much a role as a vague concept, muddled and complicated by the diversity of humanity. Ehrenreich writes: “Low-wage workers are no more homogenous in personality or ability than people who write for a living […]. Anyone in the educated classes who thinks otherwise ought to broaden their circle of friends.”