June 17, 2003

Penny Ante Stuff

For the record, my links will no longer forcibly open new windows. I figure if you want to open a new window, you can right-click or tab using Safari or whatever.

I'm on to another book, thanks to the local library. This time, it is Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed", the story of an upper-middle-class author of many books in the social sciences who kinda goes "underground" for a year and works a bunch of tough, low-paying jobs. Her idea was to get a handle on how the minimum wage, two-job, paycheck-to-paycheck people actually live.

Well, my first thought was to compare this to another "role-playing" book I once read about the social sciences, the famous "Black Like Me" by John Howard Griffin. Only in that book, Griffin actually goes through a much more irreversible transformation and really immerses himself in the life of a black person in the South (this is in the mid-1950's). Great book, by the way. This book, while good so far, just isn't up to Griffin's high standard. But it *is* entertaining and funny at times.

In Ehrenreich's book, she works as a waitress/hotel room cleaner for a few weeks, then as a maid/nursing home worker, then as a Walmart employee, usually holding down more than one job and living in a low-rent rat trap (she writes that she now aspires to be trailer trash so at least she'd have a place of her own). She sees how difficult it can be to get into a decent place, because if you start out with very little money, how are you supposed to scrape together enough for first/last month's rent plus a deposit? Plus there's so little time even to physically recover when you have two full-time jobs, etc.

I think what works the best are just her own stories from her experiences. She's pretty funny at times, and she has a keen eye for things that most people usually ignore. I don't think this works all too well as a huge social commentary or anything, and I don't think she's trying to do that anyway. She has all kinds of disclaimers about how she "cheats", where she kinda falls back on her middle-class friends and contacts and so on when the going gets rough. She never really "faces the Abyss", I guess, which is a bit of a letdown.

I think the funniest part I've read so far was when she lived out the working woman's fantasy. She was waitressing and had a bunch of snotty customers who were giving her grief, a manager giving her grief and yelling at her, an incompetent cook screwing things up, way behind, and she just walked right out and drove away from her job. I can only imagine the chaos left behind, and I had a good laugh about it. The thing is, I don't understand why more people don't do this.

One thing that is very clear from Ehrenreich's experiences is that most of the help-wanted ads in the paper from restaurants and hotels and such don't represent jobs that are available. They are just an insurance policy against the inevitable turnover since employees only last for a few weeks/months. The job interview usually consists of ascertaining whether you are a citizen and whether you are in any legal trouble or do drugs. With such a lack of background checks and so on, you can pretty much walk off any job with carte blanche and go get another job in the exact same field doing the exact same thing the next day, provided your timing is good and you apply after someone else quit.

Posted by Observer at June 17, 2003 07:18 AM
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