I forgoed my usual Economist + Cosmo double threat for on-the-plane reading this week, and picked up a copy of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

The book created quite a splash when it came out a few years ago, but I had never gotten around to reading until now. Oh boy. I was enthralled and finished it in one RT flight, with time to spare! As a premise, it follows the author (who is a very respected political journalist / writer with a Ph.D in Biochemistry before switching fields) as she tries to survive in America as an unskilled, working class citizen working minimum wage jobs. Her experiences take her to Maine, Florida, and Minnesota, working as a waitress, hotel housekeeper, maid service, and Walmart associate along the way. As a white, native English speaker with no kids or physical disabilities, one theme that she reiterates throughout the piece is that she is a best case scenario, and that most of her coworkers actually have it far, far worse. Even so, her experiences are harrowing–she must keep two jobs throughout the book to make ends meet (in addition to typing up journalistic notes every night), and is often forced to live in “expensive” motels because she either can’t find or afford the advance payments for cheaper apartments and trailers. Despite her hardest efforts to cut costs (forgoing medical care, a healthy diet, and with no family to support), she is usually left with less than $50 in savings at the end of every month.

She writes superbly about her own experiences, but I found it most poignant when she touches on the lives of her coworkers and managers, who don’t have the luxury of escaping these experiences at the end of the social experiment, who must survive everything Ehrenreich does with the added desperation of looking forward to their minimum wage lifestyle for the rest of their lives. People who can’t afford to leave abusive jobs because the boss lets them park and sleep in their cars for free overnight in the restaurant parking lot. Women who hop on one leg to vacuum and dust after spraining their ankles because their boyfriends will beat them if they miss a day of work. Coworkers who beg for an additional 10% discount on a stained work uniform polo (clearance price: $5.70), and are crushed when the manager comes by and evilly mentions that there are no employee discounts on clearanced items.

Ultimately, this book could use a little more insightful analysis on the experiences detailed, but it’s worth reading as is. Even if it doesn’t offer any solutions, it’s guaranteed to make you a little more compassionate towards those who pay daily in blood, sweat, and tears to support that comfortable yuppie lifestyle.

It was also interesting to read this book while traveling and staying in hotels and eating out. Ehrenreich works as a hotel housekeeper at one point, and gives a detailed description of the priorities when cleaning rooms, which mostly involve speed and the appearance of cleanliness..and not actual cleanliness.

At first I find the videos on kitchens and bathrooms baffling…germs are never mentioned by The Maids. Our antagonists exist entirely in the visible world–soap scum, dust, counter crud, dog hair, stains, and smears–are to be attacked by damp rag, or, in hardcore cases, by Dobie (the brand of plastic scouring pad we use). We scrub only to remove impurities that might be detectable to a customer by hand or eye; otherwise our only job is to wipe. Nothing is said about the possibility of transposing bacteria, by rag or hand, from bathroom to kitchen or even from one house to the next. It is the “cosmetic” touches that the videos emphasize…

Really makes you think twice the next time you’re putting your toothbrush on the counter in a sparkly hotel…

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