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ehrenreich_nickel_dimed - FOIL I O icke ~and—Dimed ‘...

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Unformatted text preview: FOIL I O icke ~and—Dimed * ‘ On (not) getting by in America BY BARBARA EHRENREICH t the beginning ofJune 1998 I leave behind everything that nor« mally sOothes the ego and sustains the body—home, career, companion, reputa— tion, ATM card—for a plunge into the low«wage workforce. There, I become another, occupationally much diminished “Barbara ' Ehrenreich”——-—depicted on job«application forms as a divorced homemaker whose sole work experia ence consists of housekeeping in a few private homes. I am terrified, at the beginning, of being unmasked for what I am: a middlerclass journal— ist setting out to explore the world that welfare mothers are entering, at the rate of approximately 50,000 a month, as welfare reform kicks in. Hap pily, though, my fears turn out to be entirely un« warranted: during a month of poverty and toil, my name goes unnoticed and for the most part un« uttered. In this parallel universe where my far ther never got out of the mines and I never got through college, I am “baby,” “honey,” “hlondie,” and, most commonly, “girl.” My first task is to find a place to live. I figure that if I can earn $7 an hour—«which, from the want ads, seems doable—I can afford to spend $500 on rent, or maybe, with severe economies, $600. In the Key West area, where I live, this pretty much confines me to flophouses and trailer homes— ~ like the one, a pleasing fifteenaminute drive from town, that has no airrcondiv tioning, no screens, no fans, no television, and, by way of diversion, only the challenge of evading the landlord’s Doberman pinscher. The big problem with this place, though, is the rent, which at $675 a month is well beyond my reach. All right, Key West is expensive. But so is New York City, or the Bay Area, or Jackson Hole, or Telluride, or Boston, or any other place where ' tourists and the wealthy compete for living space with the people who clean their toilets and fry their hash browns.1 Still, it is a shock to realize that “trailer trash” has become, for me, a demograph« ic category to aspire to. So I decide to make the common tradeaoff be tween affordability and convenience, and go for a $500—aamonth efficiency thirty miles up a two— lane highway from the employment opportunities of Key West, meaning forty«five minutes if there’s no road construction and I don’t get caught behind 1 According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the “fair—market rent" for an efficiency is $551 here in Monroe County, Florida. A comparable rent in the five boroughs of New York City is $704; in San Francisco, $713; and in the heart of Silicon Valley, $808. The fairrmarket rent for an area is defined as the amount that would be needed to pay rent plus utilities for “priv vater owned, decent, safe, and sanitary rental housing of a modest (nonduxury) nature with suitable amenities." ' Barbara Ehrenreich is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author of twelve books, including Fear of Falling and Blood Rites. Her Iast article for the magazine, “Spinning the Poor into Goid,” appeared in the August 1997 issue. Photographs by Jason Fuiford FOLIO 37 TI: ikn‘ L. 5,". ‘51 38 some sun'dazed Canadian tourists. I hate the drive, along a roadside studded with white cross' es commemorating the more effective head~on collisions, but it’s a sweet little place—a cabin, more or less, set in the swampy back yard of the converted mobile home where my landlord, an af~ fable TV repairman, lives with his bartender girl~ friend. Anthropologically speaking, a bustling trailer park would be preferable, but here I have a gleaming white floor and a firm mattress, and the, few resident bugs are easily vanquished. Besides, I am not doing this for the anthro~ pology. My aim is nothing so mistily subjective as to “experience poverty" or find out how it “really feels" to be a long~term low~wage'work' er. I’ve had enough unchosen encounters with poverty and the world of low~wage work to know it’s not a place you want to visit for touristic purposes; it just smells too much like fear. And with all my realalife assets—bank account, IRA, health insurance, multiroom home»—waiting,, indulgently in the background, I am, of course, ‘ thoroughly insulated from the terrors that afflict the genuinely poor. No, this is a purely objective, scientific sort of mission. The humanitarian rationale for welfare reform——as opposed to the more punitive and stingy impulses that may actually have motivat~ ed it—~—is that work will lift poor women out of poverty while simultaneously inflating their self esteem and hence their future value in the labor market. Thus, whatever the hassles involved in finding child care, transportation, etc., the tran‘ sition from welfare to work will end happily, in greater prosperity for all. Now there are many problems with this comforting prediction, such as the fact that the economy will inevitably undera go a downturn, eliminating many jobs. Even without a downturn, the influx of a million for’ mer welfare recipients into the low'wage labor market could depress wages by as much as 11.9 percent, according to the Economic Policy In' stitute (EPI) in Washington, DC. ' But is it really possible to make a living on the kinds of jobs currently available to unskilled peo« ple? Mathematically, the answer is no, as can be shoWn by taking $6 to $7 an hour, perhaps sub— tracting a dollar or two an hour for child care, multiplying by 160 hours a month, and compar~ ing the result to the prevailing rents. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, for ' example, in 1998 it took, on average nationwide, an hourly wage of $8.89 to afford a one~bedroom HARPEIK'S MAGAZINE / JANUARY 1999 apartment, and the Preamble Center for Public Policy estimates that the odds against a typical welfare recipient’s landing a job at such a “living wage" are about 97 to 1. If these numbers are -right, low~wage work is not a Solution to pover’ ty and possibly not even to homelessness. It may seem excessive to put this proposition to an experimental test. As certain family members keep unhelpfully reminding me, the viability of lowéwage work could be tested, after a fashion, To stack Cheer’io boxes in'chemically fascist America, you have to be willing to pee in front of a‘health—care worker without ever leaving my study. I could just pay my' self $7 an hour for eight hours a day, charge my— self for room and board, and total up the numbers after a month. Why leave the people and work that I love? But I am an experimental scientist by , In that business, you don’t just sit at a desk and theorize; you plunge into the everyday chaos of namre, where surprises lurk in the most mun' dane measurements. Maybe, when I got into it, I would discover some hidden economies in the , world of the. low~wage worker. After all, if 30 per- cent of the workforce toils for less than $8 an . hour, according to the EPI, they may have found some tricks as yet unknown to me. Maybe—who knows ?—-—I would even be able to detect in myself the bracing psychological effects of getting out of the house, as promised by the welfare wonks at places like the Heritage Foundation. Or, on the other hand, maybe there would be unexpected costs~—physical, mental, or financialm-ro throw off all my calculations: Ideally, I should do this with ' two small children in tow, that being the welfare average, but mine are grown and no one, is will' ing to lend me theirs for a month'long vacation in penury. So this is not the perfect experiment, just a test of the best possible case: an unencum’ bered woman, smart and even strong, attempting to live more or less off the land. I n the morning of my first full day of job searching, I take a red pen to the want ads, which are auspiciously numerous. Everyone in Key West’s booming “hospitality industry" seems to be looking for someone like me—étraina able, flexible, and with suitably humble expec' ' rations as to pay. I know I possess certain traits that might be advantageous-I’m white and, I like to think, well~spoken and poised—«but I decide on two rules: One, I cannot use any skills derived from my education or usual work—not that there I are a lot of want ads for satirical essayists anyway. Two, I have to take the best'paid job that is of: fered me and of course do my best to hold it; no Marxist rants or sneaking off to read novels in the ladies’ room. In addition, I rule out various oc’ cupations for one reason or another: Hotel front; desk clerk, for example, which to my surprise is regarded as unskilled and pays around $7 an hour, gets eliminated because it involves standing in one spot for eight hours a day. Waitressing is similar, ly something I’d like to avoid, because I remema her it leaving me bone tired when l was eigha teen, and I’m decades of varicosities and back pain beyond that now. Telemarketing, one of the first refuges of the suddenly indigent, can be dismissed on grounds of personality. This leaves certain supermarket jobs, such as deli clerk, or housekeeping in Key West’s thousands of hotel and guest rooms. House; keeping is especially appealing, for reasons. both atavistic and practical: it's what my mother did before I came along, and it can’t be too different from what I’ve been doing part’time, in my own home, all my life. So l put on what I take to be a respectful; looking outfit of ironed Bermuda shorts and scooped’neck T»shirt and set out for a tour of the local hotels and supermarkets. Best West/ ’ern, Econo Lodge, and Holo’s all let me fill out application forms, and these are, to my relief, interested in little more than whether I am a legal resident of the United States and have committed any felonies. My next stop is Winn; Dixie, the supermarket, which turns out to have a particularly onerous application process, featuring a fifteen’minute “interview” by com’ ‘ puter since, apparently, no human on the premises is deemed capable of representing the corporate point of view. I am conducted to a large room decorated with posters illusa trating how to look “professional” (it helps to be white and, if female, permed) and warning of the slick promises that union organizers might try to tempt me with. The interview is multiple choice: Do I have anything, such as child’care problems, that might make it hard for me to get to work on time? 1301 think safety on the job is the responsibility of management? Then, pope ping up cunnineg out of the blue: How many dollars’ worth of stolen goods have I purchased in the last year? Would I turn in a fellow employee if I caught him stealing? Finally, “Are you an hone est person?” Apparently, I ace the interview, because I am told that all I have to do is show up in some doctor's office tomorrow for a urine test. This seems to be a fairly general rule: if you want to stack Cheerio boxes or vacuum hotel rooms in chemically fascist America, you have to be will; ing to squat down and pee in front of some health worker (who has no doubt had to do the same thing herself). The wages 'Winn’Dixie is offering-«$6 and a couple of dimes to start with—are not enough, l decide, to compensate for this indignity.Z . l lunch at Wendy's, where $4.99 gets you un’ limited refills at the Mexican part of the Super; bar, a comforting surfeit of refried beans and “cheese sauce." A teenage employee, seeing me studying the want ads, kindly offers me an appli’ cation form, which I fill out, though here, too, the 'pay is just $6 and change an hour. Then it's off for a round of the locally owned inns and guest; houses. At “The Palms,” let’s call it, a bouncy manager actually takes me around to see the rooms and meet the existing housekeepers, who, I note with satisfaction, look prettymuch like me—faded ex’hippie types in shorts with long hair pulled back in braids. Mostly, though, no one speaks to me or even looks at me except to prof; fer an application form. At my last stop, a pala’ 2 According to the Monthly'Labor Review (November 1996) , 28 ercent of work sites surveyed in the service in/ dustry c act clmg tests (corporate workplaces have much higher rates), and the incidence of testing has risen marked ly since the Eighties. The rate of testing is bi st in the South (56 Elegant of work sites polled), with Midwest in second [9 e (50 percent). The drug most likely to be de/ tected—‘marijnana, which can be detected in urine for weeksuis also the most innocuous, while heroin and cocaine are generally undetectable three days after use. Prospec’ rive employees sometimes try to cheat the tests by consume ing excessive amounts of liquids and taking diuretics and even masking substances available through the Internet. FOLIO 39 tial 8&3, I wait twenty minutes to meet “Max,” only to be told that there are no jobs now but there should be one soon, since "nobody lasts more than a couple weeks.” (Because none of the people I talked to knew I was a reporter, I have changed their names to protect their privacy and, in some cases perhaps, their jobs.) Three days go by like this, and, to my chagrin, no one out of the approximately twenty places I’ve applied calls me for an interview. I had been. vain enough to worry about coming across as too educated for the jobs I sought, but no one even seems interested in finding out how overqualified I am. Only later will I realize that the want ads are not a reliable measure of the ac; ’ tual jobs available at any particular time; They are, as I should have guessed from Max’s come ment, the employers’ insurance policy against the relentless turnover of the low’wage work; force. Most of the big hotels run ads almost cone tinually, just to build a supply of applicants to re; place the current workers as they drift away or are fired, so finding a job is just a matter of being at the right place at the right time and flexible enough to take whatever is being offered that day. This finally happens to me at a one of the big dis— count hotel chains, where I go, as usual, for housekeeping and am sent,instead, to try out as a waitress at the attached “family restaurant,” a dismal spot with a counter and about thirty ta— bles that looks out on a parking garage and fea tures such tempting fare as “Pollish [sic] sausage and BBQ sauce” on 95’degree days. Phillip, the dapper young West Indian who introduces him; 40 HARPER'S MAGAZINE/JANUARY 1999 self as the manager, interviews me with about as much enthusiasm as if he were a clerk process! ing me for Medicare, the principal questions be ing what shifts can I work and when can I start. I mutter something about being woefully out of practice as a waitress, but he’s already on to the uniform: I’m to show up tomorrow wearing black slacks and black shoes; he’ll provide the rust! colored polo shirt with HEARmSIDE embroidered on it, though I might want to wear my own shirt to get to work, ha ha. At the word “tomorrow,” something between fear and indignation rises in my chest. I want to say, .“Thank you for your time, sir, but this is just an experiment, you know, not my actual life.” ‘ o begins my career at the Hearthside, I shall call . it, one small profit center within a global dis; count hotel chain, where for two weeks I work from 2:00 till 10:00 PM. for $2.43 an hour plus tips.3 In some futile bid for gentility, the management has barred employees from using the front door, so my first day I enter through the kitchen, where a redefaced man with shoulder’length blond hair is throwing frozen steaks against the wall and yelling, “Fuck this shit!” “That’s just Jack,” ex; , plains Gail, the wiry middleaaged waitress who is assigned to train me. “He’s on the rag again”———a condition occasioned, in this instance, by the fact that the cook on the morning shift had forgotten ' to thaw out the steaks. For the next eight hours, ’ I run after the agile Gail, absorbing bits of in; suruction along with fragments of personal tragedy. All food must be trayed, and the reason she’s so tired today is that she woke up in a cold sweat thinking of her boyfriend, who killed himself re; cently in an upstate prison. No refills on lemon; ade. And the reason he was in prison is that a few DUIs caught up with him, that’s all, could have happened to anyone. Carry the creamers to the table in a monkey bowL never in yOur hand. And after he was gone she spent several months living in her truck, peeing in a plastic pee bottle and reading by candlelight at night, but you can’t live in a truck in the summer, since you need to have the windows down, which means anything can get in, from mosquitoes on up. At least Gail puts to rest any fears I had of ap" pearing overqualified. From the first day on, I find . ' that of all the things I have left behind, such as ' home and identity, what I miss the most is com; 3 According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers are not required to ay "tipped employees,” such as‘restaurant servers, more t n-$2.13 an hour in direct wages. How; ever, if the sum of tips plus $2.13 an hour falls below the minimum wage, or $5.15 an hour, the employer is re; quired to make up the difference. This fact was not men— tioned by managers or otherwise publicized at either of the restaurants where I worked. , petence. Not that I have ever felt utterly compe— tent in the writing business, in which one day’s suc— cess augurs nothing at all for the next. But in my writing life, I at least have some notion of proce— dure: do the research, make the outline, rough out a draft, etc. As a server, though, I am beset by requests like bees: more iced tea here, ketchup over there, a tovgo box for table fourteen, and where are the high chairs, anyway? Of the twen— Want ads are not a reliable measure of available jobs but customers, or “patients,” as I can’t help thinking of them on account of the mysterious vulnerability that seems to have left them temporarily unable to feed themselves. After a few days at the Hearth side, I feel the service ethic kick in like a shot of oxytocin, the nurturance hormone. The pluraL ity of my customers are hard—working locals—— truck drivers, construction workers, even house— keepers from the attached hotel—and I want rather employers’ insurance policy against relentless turnover ty«seven tables, up to six are usually mine at any time, though on slow afternoons or if Gail is off, I sometimes have the whole place to myself. There is the touch—screen computer~ordering system to master, which is, I suppose, meant to minimize server—cook contact, but in practice requires con— stant verbal fine—tuning: “That’s gravy on the mashed, okay? None on the meatloaf,” and so forth———while the cook scowls as if I were invent— ing these refinements just to torment him. Plus, something I had forgotten in the years since I was eighteen: about a third of a server’s job is “side work” that’s invisible to customers—sweeping, scrubbing, slicing, refilling, and restocking. If it isn’t all done, every little bit of it, you’re going to face the , 6:00 PM. dinner rush defenseless and probably go down in flames. I screw up dozens of times at the beginning, sustained in my shame entirely by Gail’s support—“It’s okay, baby, every« one does that sometime”———because, to my total surprise and despite the scientific detachment I am doing my bestto maintain, I care. The whole thing would be a lot easier if I could just skate through it as Lily Tomlin in one of her waitress skits, but I was raised by the absurd Book« er T. Washingtonian precept that says: If you’re going to do something, do it well. In fact, “well” isn’t good enough by half. Do it better than any— one has ever done it before. Or so said my fa— ther, who must'have known what he was talking about because he managed to pull himself, and us with him, up from the mile—deep copper mines of Butte to the leafy suburbs of the Northeast, as« cending from boilermakers to martinis before booze beat out ambition. As in most endeavors l have encountered in my life, doing it “better than anyone” is not ...
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