selections from Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

one: SERVING IN FLORIDA

Not that I have ever felt 100 percent competent in the writing business, where one day’s success augurs nothing at all for the next. (17)

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I was raised by the absurd Booker T. Washingtonian precept that says: If you’re going to do something, do it well. (18)

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That’s the other powerful motivation—the 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. (18)

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“If you seek happiness for yourself you will never find it. Only when you seek happiness for others will it come to you.” (20)

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Serve the people. (21)

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Cooks want to prepare tasty meals, servers want to serve them graciously, but managers are there for only one reason—to make sure that money is made for some theoretical entity, the corporation, which exists far away in Chicago or New York, if a corporation can be said to have a physical existence at all. Reflecting on her career, Gail tells me ruefully that she swore, years ago, never to work for a corporation again. “They don’t cut you no slack. You give and you give and they take.” (22)

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He’s also been riding the cooks, prompting Andy to come out of the kitchen and observe—with the serenity of a man whose customary implement is a butcher knife—that “Stu has a death wish today.” (24)

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In poverty, as in certain propositions in physics, starting conditions are everything.

There are no secret economies that nourish the poor; on the contrary, there are a host of special costs. If you can’t put up the two months’ rent you need to secure an apartment, you end up paying through the nose for a room by the week. If you have only a room, with a hot plate at best, you can’t save by cooking up huge lentil stews that can be frozen for the week ahead. You eat fast food or the hot dogs and Styrofoam cups of soup that can be microwaved in a convenience store. If you have no money for health insurance—and the Hearthside’s niggardly plan kicks in only after three months—you go without routine care or prescription drugs and end up paying the price. (27)

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Picture a fat person’s hell, and I don’t mean a place with no food. Instead there is everything you might eat if eating had no bodily consequences—the cheese fries, the chicken-fried steaks, the fudge-laden desserts—only here every bite must be paid for, one way or another, in human discomfort. The kitchen is a cavern, a stomach leading to the lower intestine that is the garbage and dishwashing area, from which issue bizarre smells combining the edible and the offal: creamy carrion, pizza barf, and that unique and enigmatic Jerry’s scent, citrus fart. The floor is thick with spills, forcing us to walk through the kitchen with tiny steps, like Susan McDougal in leg irons. Sinks everywhere are clogged with scraps of lettuce, decomposing lemon wedges, water-logged toast crusts. Put your hand down on any counter and you risk being stuck to it by the film of ancient syrup spills, and this is unfortunate because hands are utensils here, used for scooping up lettuce onto the salad plates, lifting out pie slices, and even moving hash browns from one plate to another. The regulation poster in the single unisex rest room admonishes us to wash our hands thoroughly, and even offers instructions for doing so, but there is always some vital substance missing—soap, paper towels, toilet paper—and I have never found all three at once. You learn to stuff your pockets with napkins before going in there, and too bad about the customers, who must eat, although they don’t realize it, almost literally out of our hands.

The break room summarizes the whole situation: there is none, because there are no breaks at Jerry’s. For six to eight hours in a row, you never sit except to pee. Actually, there are three folding chairs at a table immediately adjacent to the bathroom, but hardly anyone ever sits in this, the very rectum of the gastroarchitectural system. Rather, the function of the peritoilet area is to house the ashtrays in which servers and dishwashers leave their cigarettes burning at all times, like votive candles, so they don’t have to waste time lighting up again when they dash back here for a puff. Almost everyone smokes as if their pulmonary well-being depended on it—the multi-national mélange of cooks; the dishwashers, who are all Czechs here; the servers, who are American natives—creating an atmosphere in which oxygen is only an occasional pollutant. My first morning at Jerry’s, when the hypoglemic shakes set in, I complain to one of my fellow servers that I don’t understand how she can go so long without food. “Well, I don’t understand how you can go so long without a cigarette,” she responds in a tone of reproach. Because work is what you do for others; smoking is what you do for yourself. I don’t know why the antismoking crusaders have never grasped the element of defiant self-nurturance that makes the habit so endearing to its victims—as if, in the American workplace, the only thing people have to call their own is the tumors they are nourishing and the spare moments they devote to feeding them. (29-31)

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Never make an unnecessary trip; if you don’t have to walk fast, walk slow; if you don’t have to walk, stand. (32-33)

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Ideally, at some point you enter what servers call a “rhythm” and psychologists term a “flow state,” where signals pass from the sense organs directly to the muscles, bypassing the cerebral cortex, and a Zen-like emptiness sets in. (33)

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Consumers are in fact the major obstacle to the smooth transformation of information into food and food into money—they are, in short, the enemy. And the painful thing is that I’m beginning to see it this way myself. There are the traditional asshole types—frat boys who down multiple Buds and then make a fuss because the steaks are so emaciated and the fries so sparse—as well as the variously impaired—due to age, diabetes, or literacy issues—who require patient nutritional counseling. The worst, for some reason, are the Visible Christians—like the ten-person table, all jolly and sanctified after Sunday night service, who run me mercilessly and then leave me $1 on a $92 bill. Or the guy with the crucifixion T-shirt (SOMEONE TO LOOK UP TO) who complains that his baked potato is too hard and his iced tea too icy (I cheerfully fix both) and leaves no tip at all. As a general rule, people wearing crosses or WWJD? (“What Would Jesus Do?”) buttons look at us disapprovingly no matter what we do, as if they were confusing waitressing with Mary Magdelene’s original profession. (35-36)

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mephitic (adj.)
(especially of a gas or vapor) foul-smelling; noxious.
At eight, Ellen and I grab a snack together standing at the mephitic end of the kitchen counter, but I can only manage two or three mozzarella sticks, and lunch had been a mere handful of McNuggets. (46)

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two: SCRUBBING IN MAINE

Maybe, I reasoned, when you give white people a whole state to themselves, they treat one another real nice. (52)

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There are two kinds of low-rent motel rooms in America: the Hampton Inn type, which are clearly calibrated, rather than decorated, to produce an atmosphere of menacing sterility—and the other kind, in which history has been allowed to accumulate in the form of carpet stains, lingering deposits of cigarette smoke, and Cheeto crumbs deep under the bed. (53)

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Among the propositions I am asked to opine about are, “Some people work better when they’re a little bit high,” “Everyone tries marijuana,” and, bafflingly, “Marijuana is the same as a drink.” Hmm, what kind of drink? I want to ask. “The same” how—chemically or morally? Or should I write in something flippant like, “I wouldn’t know because I don’t drink”? (59)

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I can’t help letting my mind wander to the implications of Alzheimer’s disease for the theory of an immortal soul. Who wants an afterlife if the immediate pre-afterlife is spent clutching the arms of a wheelchair, head bent back at a forty-five degree angle, eyes and mouth wide open and equally mute, like so many of my charges at the Woodcrest? Is the “soul” that lives forever the one we possess at the moment of death, in which case heaven must look something like the Woodcrest, with plenty of CNAs and dietary aides to take care of those who died in a state of mental decomposition? Or is it our personally best soul—say, the one that indwells in us at the height of our cognitive powers and moral aspirations? In which case, it can’t possibly matter whether demented diabetics eat cupcakes or not, because from a purely soteriological standpoint, they’re already dead.

The preaching goes on, interrupted with dutiful “amens.” It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd that Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage. But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth. (68-69)

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“Cleaning fluids are less expensive than your time.” It’s good to know that something is cheaper than my time, or that in the hierarchy of the company’s values I rank above Windex. (74)

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cineast (n.)
a filmmaker; an enthusiast for or devotee of movies or filmmaking.
Somehow all this information exhausts me, and I watch the second video, which explains the actual procedures for vacuuming, with the detached interest of a cineast. (74-75)

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Today, the color of the hand that pushes the sponge varies from region to region: Chicanas in the Southwest, Caribbeans in New York, native Hawaiians in Hawaii, native whites, many of recent rural extraction, in the Midwest and, of course, Maine. (79)

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That’s not your marble bleeding, I want to tell her, it’s the worldwide working class—the people who quarried the marble, wove your Persian rugs until they went blind, harvested the apples in your lovely fall-themed dining room centerpiece, smelted the steel for the nails, drove the trucks, put up this building, and now bend and squat and sweat to clean it. (90)

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Let’s talk about shit, for example. It happens, as the bumper sticker says, and it happens to a cleaning person every day. The first time I encountered a shit-stained toilet as a maid, I was shocked by the sense of unwanted intimacy. A few hours ago, some well-fed butt was straining away on this toilet set, and now here I am wiping up after it. For those who have never cleaned a really dirty toilet, I should explain that there are three kinds of shit stains. There are remnants of landslides running down the inside of toilet bowls. There are the spash-back remains on the underside of toilet seats. And, perhaps most repulsively, there’s sometimes a crust of brown on the rim of a toilet seat, where a turd happened to collide on its dive to the water. You don’t want to know this? Well, it’s not something I would have chosen to dwell on myself, but the different kinds of stains require different cleaning approaches. One prefers those that are interior to the toilet bowl, since they can be attacked by brush, which is a kind of action-at-a-distance weapon. And one dreads the crusts on the seats, especially when they require the intervention of a Dobie as well as a rag.

Or we might talk about that other great nemesis of the bathroom cleaner—pubic hair. I don’t know what it is about the American upper class, but they seem to be shedding their pubic hair at an alarming rate. You find it in quantity in shower stalls, bathtubs, Jacuzzis, drains, and even, unaccountably, in sinks. Once I spent fifteen minutes crouching in a huge four-person Jacuzzi, maddened by the effort of finding the dark little coils camouflaged against the eggplant-colored ceramic background but fascinated by the image of the pubes of the economic elite, which must by this time be completely bald. (92)

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On the subject of interior decorating, my general feeling has long been that it’s too bad we’re fur-less and have to live indoors. (93)

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Janitors, cleaning ladies, ditchdiggers, changers of adult diapers—these are the untouchables of a supposedly caste-free and democratic society. (117)

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The moneylenders have finally gotten Jesus out of the temple. (118)

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three: SELLING IN MINNESOTA

From the air Minnesota is the very perfection of early summer—the blue of the lakes merging with the blue of the sky, neatly sculpted clouds pasted here and there, strips of farmland in alternating chartreuse and emerald—a lush, gentle landscape, seemingly penetrable from any angle. (121)

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Now, my approach to preemployment personality tests has been zero tolerance vis-à-vis the obvious “crimes”—drug use and theft—but to leave a little wriggle room elsewhere, just so it doesn’t look like I’m faking out the test. My approach was wrong. When presenting yourself as a potential employee, you can never be too much of a suck-up. (124)

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In 1990, the federal government spent $11.7 million to test 29,000 federal employees. Since only 153 tested positive, the cost of detecting a single drug user was $77,000. (128)

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If I want that job in plumbing at Menards, I have to make myself into an unobstructed pipe: water in and water just as pure and drinkable coming out. (129)

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Thievery is nothing, apparently, compared to the crime of victimhood. (134)

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“If you’re not a hemorrhoid, get off my ass.” (138)

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aphasia (n.)
loss of ability to understand or express speech, caused by brain damage.
The shelves of plumbing equipment, and there seem to be acres of them, contain not a single item I can name, which gives me an idea of what it feels like to be aphasic. (142)

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For sheer grandeur, scale, and intimidation value, I doubt if any corporate orientation exceeds that of Wal-Mart. (143)

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Wal-Mart is booming; unions are declining: judge for yourself. (145)

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East Indians seem to have a lock on the midwestern motel business. (151)

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“Don’t steal, the government hates competition.” (152)

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congenital (adj.)
(of a person) having a particular trait from birth or by firmly established habit.
I am not a congenitally fearful person, for which you can blame or credit my mother, who never got around to alerting me to any special vulnerabilities that went with being a girl. (152)

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depredation (n.)
an act of attacking or plundering.
No one will go hungry or die or be hurt if I screw up; in fact, how would anyone ever know if I screwed up, given the customers’ constant depredations? (156)

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Tonight I find the new sensation, Survivor, on CBS, where “real people” are struggling to light a fire on their desert island. Who are these nutcases who would volunteer for an artificially daunting situation in order to entertain millions of strangers with their half-assed efforts to survive? Then I remember where I am and why I am here. (160)

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According to Wal-Mart expert Bob Ortega, Sam Walton got the idea for the cheer on a 1975 trip to Japan, “where he was deeply impressed by factory workers doing group calisthenics and company cheers.” Ortega describes Walton conducting a cheer: “‘Gimme a W!’ he’d shout. ‘W!’ the workers would shout back, and on through the Wal-Mart name. At the hyphen, Walton would shout ‘Gimme a squiggly!’ and squat and twist his hips at the same time; the workers would squiggle right back.” (178)

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But if it’s hard to think “out of the box,” it may be almost impossible to think out of the Big Box. Wal-Mart, when you’re in it—a closed system, a world unto itself. I get a chill when I’m watching TV in the break room one afternoon and see . . . a commercial for Wal-Mart. When a Wal-Mart shows up within a television within a Wal-Mart, you have to question the existence of an outer world. Sure, you can drive for five minutes and get somewhere else—to Kmart, that is, or Home Depot, or Target, or Burger King, or Wendy’s, or KFC. Wherever you look, there is no alternative to the megascale corporate order, from which every form of local creativity and initiative has been abolished by distant home offices. Even the woods and the meadows have been stripped of disorderly life forms and forced into a uniform made of concrete. What you see—highways, parking lots, stores—is all there is, or all that’s left to us here in the reign of globalized, totalized, paved-over, corporatized everything. I like to read the labels to find out where the clothing we sell is made—Indonesia, Mexico, Turkey, the Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Brazil—but the labels serve only to remind me that none of these places is “exotic” anymore, that they’ve all been eaten by the great blind profit-making global machine. (178-179)

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Wal-Mart’s appetite for human flesh is insatiable. (184)

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What you don’t necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you’re actually selling is your life. (187)

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Evaluation

No job, no matter how lowly, is truly “unskilled.” (193)

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Each job presents a self-contained social world, with its own personalities, hierarchy, customs, and standards. (194)

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A lot of what we experience as strength comes from knowing what to do with weakness. (195)

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Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high. (199)

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So if low-wage workers do not always behave in an economically rational way, that is, as free agents within a capitalist democracy, it is because they dwell in a place that is neither free nor in any way democratic. When you enter the low-wage workplace—and many of the medium-wage workplaces as well—you check your civil liberties at the door, leave America and all it supposedly stands for behind, and learn to zip your lips for the duration of the shift. The consequences of this routine surrender go beyond the issues of wages and poverty. We can hardly pride ourselves on being the world’s preeminent democracy, after all, if large numbers of citizens spend half their waking hours in what amounts, in plain terms, to a dictatorship.

Any dictatorship takes a psychological toll on its subjects. If you are treated as an untrustworthy person—a potential slacker, drug addict, or thief—you may begin to feel less trustworthy yourself. If you are constantly reminded of your lowly position in the social hierarchy, whether by individual managers or by a plethora of impersonal rules, you begin to accept that unfortunate status. To draw for a moment from an entirely different corner of my life, that part of me still attached to the biological sciences, there is ample evidence that animals—rats and monkeys, for example—that are forced into a subordinate status within their social systems adapt their brain chemistry accordingly, becoming “depressed” in humanlike ways. Their behavior is anxious and withdrawn; the level of serotonin (the neurotransmitter boosted by some antidepressants) declines in their brains. And—what is especially relevant here—they avoid fighting even in self-defense.

Humans are, of course, vastly more complicated; even in situations of extreme subordination, we can pump up our self-esteem with thoughts of our families, our religion, our hopes for the future. But as much as any other social animal, and more so than many, we depend for our self-image on the humans immediately around us—to the point of altering our perceptions of the world so as to fit in with theirs. My guess is that the indignities imposed on so many low-wage workers—the drug tests, the constant surveillance, being “reamed out” by managers—are part of what keeps wages low. If you’re made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you are actually worth.

It is hard to imagine any other function for workplace authoritarianism. Managers may truly believe that, without their unremitting efforts, all work would quickly grind to a halt. That is not my impression. While I encountered some cynics and plenty of people who had learned to budget their energy, I never met an actual slacker or, for that matter, a drug addict or thief. On the contrary, I was amazed and sometimes saddened by the pride people took in jobs that rewarded them so meagerly, either in wages or recognition. Often, in fact, these people experienced management as an obstacle to getting the job done as it should be done. Waitresses chafed at managers’ stinginess toward customers; housecleaners resented the time constraints that sometimes made them cut corners; retail workers wanted the floor to be beautiful, not cluttered with excess stock as management required. Left to themselves, they devised systems of cooperation and work sharing; when there was a crisis, they rose to it. In fact, it was often hard to see what the function of management was, other than to exact obeisance.

There seems to be a vicious cycle at work here, making ours not just an economy but a culture of extreme inequality. (210-212)

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That is how we should see the poverty of so many millions of low-wage Americans—as a state of emergency. (214)

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The “professional-managerial class” is the home of our decision-makers, opinion shapers, culture creators—our professors, lawyers, executives, entertainers, politicians, judges, writers, producers, and editors. When they speak, they are listened to. When they complain, someone usually scurries to correct the problem and apologize for it. If they complain often enough, someone far below them in wealth and influence may be chastised or even fired. (215)

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According to a recent poll conducted by Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based employment research firm, 94 percent of Americans agree that “people who work full-time should be able to earn enough to keep their families out of poverty.” I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that “hard work” was the secret of success: “Work hard and you’ll get ahead” or “It’s hard work that got us where we are.” No one ever said that you could work hard—harder even than you ever thought possible—and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt. (220)

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The “working poor,” as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. (221)

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