Saturday, January 3, 2015

Nickel and Dimed, a dozen years later (for me)

I'm re-reading "Nickel and Dimed" by Barbara Ehrenreich - it's a much lauded book about a middle aged woman who lives a comfortable, upper-middle-class life, deciding to go "undercover" as a member of the working poor for 3 months, one month in each location. When I first read this book about a dozen years ago, I was living the hardscrabble, working poor life. I was often working two part-time jobs or one full time one, and all the work was pretty physically and emotionally draining. When the author was recounting the fatigue and the utter lack of appreciation that low-wage workers experience, I remember feeling both glad that someone was telling the story and a sense of "duh!" - you don't think those clerks and waitresses are there for the endless joy of dealing with the public, do you? The way the employees are casually mistreated by management (having their first paycheck withheld until the day they quit, for example, to prevent people from starting and quitting immediately) is so common none of us would have dared to challenge the legality of it.

I remember after a year of working in a retail store, idly reading the federal employment law poster and being shocked that I was supposed to be receiving a half hour unpaid lunch break when a shift went over 6 hours. We might occasionally get to dart to the food court if our store had double coverage, but invariably we had to bring our meal back and gobble it either in the back room or behind the counter. I mentioned it to my manager, and she shrugged and said "legally, yes, that's what we're supposed to do, but corporate only allows me so many employee hours to staff the store. I honestly can't schedule the lunch/dinner breaks with the hours we're given". I looked. She was right. Then there was the time that the messenger service who delivered all the store paychecks for the whole region had some sort of delivery SNAFU, and all of us were paid 4 days late. It was a crisis for every single person who wasn't signed up for direct deposit (which wasn't as common in those days). We were borrowing money for gas from friends who worked elsewhere, so we could afford to get back and forth to our jobs for which we hadn't gotten paid. The company said "Well, we sent the checks! There's nothing we can do - why didn't you sign up for direct deposit?"

While all those moments weigh in my mind, this time around reading Nickel and Dimed, a  person stood out that I hadn't remembered in previous readings. In Florida, she mentions a restaurant hostess who was always well-groomed and well-dressed, in a variety of personal outfits (hostesses wore their own clothes, waitresses wore a uniform). The author was shocked to discover that those lovely clothes had come from thrift stores, and the hostess was living in her car.

That hostess is now my hero. The rest of the book has a few strong people, working through many personal struggles and miseries, but that hostess now holds a place in my mind as a person holding on to her dignity in the most challenging circumstances. She wore beautiful clothes that she didn't pay much for, showing up for work even when she likely hadn't gotten much sleep from sleeping in a car. She shows poise and grace, not complaining that she can't afford clothes from Macy's, but getting pretty clothes at the price she could manage.

The rest of the book now reads to me as navel-gazing culture shock - a pampered well-to-do woman (though she keeps referring to her parents blue-collar past) stunned that getting by on minimum wage is hard on the body, mind and spirit. Especially she realization that she isn't getting any acknowledgement for her hard work - we all love praise, but she seemed to be upset that she wasn't getting an "atta girl" after working while tired and sore.

The book has a purpose, I guess - many people have never struggled to the extent that I did, and would still be doing if I hadn't married. They have no idea of the hollow boned feeling you have after working long, physical shifts, and realizing that the pay you earned today won't even pay half your electric bill. It will just about fill your gas tank, if you drive a small car or prices are down. It might buy a weeks' groceries, if you stick with the cheapest stuff. And you have a car payment that's late, rent that's late, the heat could be switched off if you don't hustle something quick, and people are depending on you to provide a stable environment. But when you're working with the public, you're not allowed to let any of that show - you wouldn't want to anyway, because it's embarrassing and takes away from the real focus, the customer. 

That's why the hostess is now my hero - she barely merited 3 lines from Ms. Ehrenreich, but she came off as displaying true grace under fire. Maybe if more had been written about her, I would have found out that she was a major whiner in her off hours, or got good and drunk every night so she could sleep. But as it is, she seems like a person making the very best out of the bad hand she had been dealt. I admire her. And I pray that she was ultimately able to get a comfortable home.

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