Every time I go home to my parent’s house, I crawl up into the sometimes sweltering hot, sometimes freezing cold, but rarely comfortably temperate attic, where I dig through my tubs and tubs of unread books, picking one or two to finally get around to reading so I can either throw them in a donation pile or transfer them into my tubs and tubs of ‘keeper’ books. That’s how I finally got around to reading Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, about 15 years after its heyday. Maybe having lived the nickel and dimed life my whole working life, this book never held much appeal for me. Maybe I had put it away, hoping to take it out one day when I had a well paying job. I would read about the sad grunts living a minimum wage life and appreciate the fact that this was no longer me. So it wasn’t with the greatest excitement that this severely underemployed lady finally cracked open Nickel and Dimed.
And my misgivings, as usual, were proven correct.
The author begins by telling us that she’s going to go about her research in a real half-assed manner. She won’t do anything that makes her life too uncomfortable — She’ll have a car, she will never go hungry, she will never go without a roof over her head, and she’ll give herself a nice chunk of starter money. From the get-go she warns us that she sucks at her job, so we know not to expect too much from the rest of the book.
I should have heeded her warning and put the book down, but I continued. And, after stating these caveats, she jumps right in to bore us with her tales of working as a waitress in Key West, a maid in Maine, and a retail worker in Minnesota. She gives us the play-by-play of each job, spending most of her time describing mundane details: how to properly dust a house or how to serve different tables at once. My personal favorite was when she was describing how to take the unwanted clothes from the dressing room and put them back out on the floor. Where a normal person would say, “My second week went better because I knew where things went,” Barb forces me to read a sentence like this: “And then it happens — a magical flow state in which the clothes start putting themselves away. Oh, I play a part in this, but not in any conscious way. Instead of thinking, ‘White Stag navy twill skort,’ and doggedly searching out similar skorts, all I have to do is form an image of the item in my mind, transpose this image onto the visual field, and move to wherever the image finds its match in the outer world. I don’t know how this works.” It’s as if Barb thinks she has suddenly acquired some magical power, which makes me wonder how she goes about her normal life. When she’s in the kitchen in need of a fork does she not just go to the utensil drawer right away because that is where forks go? Instead does she engage in an internal monologue to reason where a fork would be kept?
Now, I’ve read plenty of boring books in my day, so if that was my chief complaint, I wouldn’t say I hated the book. It was admirable that she was trying to show the minimum wage should be increased to a living wage, and how it is practically impossible for a single person to make it on low wages, much less a single parent trying to support their children. But she did so in a way that was so incredibly patronizing and condescending, she shouldn’t have bothered.
Barb’s imagined superiority seeps into every sentence of the book, making it abundantly clear that she always felt herself above the minimum wage work and the minimum wage people. Instead of focusing on the characters she meets and their stories, she decides to mainly focus on physical appearances, their fat faces, their crooked or missing teeth. She makes a point, on more than one occasion, to note that she has a slim build, just in case you were beginning to lump her in with the overweight poor. At one point she decides to describe the hairdos of the working poor, her coworkers at Walmart: pony tails or hair pinned back at the sides. Is she really so dumb that she think this is how all poor people wear their hair, rather than it being a rational decision on their part to keep their hair from falling in their faces with the constant bending over their job requires or to keep it from getting tangled in hangers? Perhaps, this is something that could only be deduced through the commonsense of the commonfolk. I hope now, fifteen years later, she is suffering from weight gain, tooth decay, and has her hair pulled back with a scrunchie, and I hope someone out there is writing about it in cruel detail.
Throughout this whole project, she remains utterly clueless. In one instance, a girl she works with sprains her ankle but insists on working through the pain. With all her might, Barb holds back yelling at the girl how she is a ‘highly educated Ph.D’ (this is not the only time she wants to shout from the rooftops about her education) and that the girl needs to go to the hospital. Does she really believe that because this girl never went to college she doesn’t know she should see a doctor? Despite struggling to get by, does Barb really still not understand what would happen to this girl if she lost a day’s wages? Does she not understand that it would be virtually impossible for her to pay her hospital bills? And at other times Barb wonders why her coworkers won’t go on strike or why they don’t just switch jobs to something higher paying. Does she really think it would be that easy to find another job that pays better? Wouldn’t everyone be doing that if they could? And again, despite being barely able to afford rent just for herself, does she think her coworkers are in a place where they could go on strike and lose the wages they so desperately need to get by? I was continually shocked by her lack of understanding of their situations, even though she was doing her half-best to immerse herself in their lifestyles. And then there was her mind-boggling tirade against Walmart, who forced her into a role of womanly servility. How you may ask? Because company rules stated that she could not curse or raise her voice on the sales floor. Really? This is the worst thing she can write about Walmart? Their insistence of professionalism, which is called for in almost every workplace and is not at all tied to gender or gender roles? Her other sore point with Walmart is that when her schedule changed from one week to the next no one told her, she was forced to look at the schedule to find this out. How absurd! In the end, this book was probably most interesting not because it shed some light on how people working minimum wage get by, but for providing us with a glimpse into the mind of a lunatic.
I could go on and on, but I want to get to the part that really sent me over the edge. Of course I think it’s horrible to subject me to a boring book. And of course I think it is completely despicable to look down on a class of citizens based on their lack of dental care, lack of education, and occupation. But what I can never forgive is when she describes a maniac on the road who passes her at 80mph on the right. I cannot forgive some dumb Ph.D flaunting jerk who doesn’t understand driving etiquette. YOU were in the wrong, no one should ever pass you on the right. You are creating traffic and are enraging others. It is not Walmart, it is YOU who is making this world a terrible place.