Author Robert Masterson critiques Barbara Ehrenreich's still-popular 1999 undercover/nonfiction bestseller “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.”
Bestseller Not Worth $15 (300 Nickels)
BY ROBERT MASTERSON
“Sometime around four in the morning it dawns on me that it’s not just that I’m a wimp. Poor women — perhaps especially poor ones and even those who are just temporarily living among the poor for whatever reason — really do have more to fear than the women who have houses with double locks and alarm systems and husbands and dogs. I must have known this theoretically or at least heard it stated, but now for the first time the lesson takes hold.” – Barbara Ehrenreich, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America”
Say this aloud with me, please: “What? Are you stupid? Or just so overprivileged that you think this counts as a legitimate epiphany?”
With a premise as weak as this one, it comes as no real surprise that Barbara Ehrenreich and her reportage — first published in Harper’s in 1999, where I originally read it — remain the darlings of the well-intentioned limousine-liberals yearning to understand what’s wrong with “them.” I mean “us.” I mean “you.” Whatever.
Coat-tailing on this year’s “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Matthew Desmond (Crown Publishers, 2016)¹, renewed sales of “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” written by Barbara Ehrenreich in 1999, 2001 and 2011, takes us where no Streisand, Beatty or even Clinton has gone before: my old apartment on Grand Avenue.
¹A book which, if things work out, I’ll be reviewing later this summer. Lobby the editor, please. I’ll explain later.
I hope they’ve put in some A/C by now, because they hadn’t when I lived there. The tub drain was clogged with plaster fallen from the ceiling, and the toilet had to be flushed using a bucket filled from the tub. Sort of vicious cycle there, not unlike the poverty Ehrenreich so eloquently discovers. Right under her nose. The whole time.
“Nickel and Dimed” (paperback; $15; Picador) has become a primary source to explain the plight of the working poor and the plain poor-poor to the decidedly not-poor. A very well-off writer takes an assignment from legendary Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham to go “undercover” as a make-believe poor person to find out firsthand what it’s like to pretend to be poor and report her faux-poor experiences to real-life subscribers.
The deal was sealed over “a $30 lunch at some understated French country-style place. … [Ehrenreich] had the salmon and field greens.” Thirty dollars for a piece of fish and dandelions was a real chunk of change back in the olden days ($30 equals 600 nickels or 300 dimes), and alcohol must have been involved. Lots of it.
The staff of that restaurant, wherever they may be today, still talk about the time when a shitfaced duo decided to find out what their busboys’ lives were like — to imagine that busboys had lives beyond diners’ sight lines and demands for more rolls.
Ehrenreich waitresses in her hometown of Key West, Fla., but she lives in the “bad” part of the tiny island town/tourist trap (think Scottsdale, Ariz., but sweatier). She works as a scullery maid in Maine, and Wal-Marts it up in Minnesota. She lives in an actual trailer, in a cheap motel. She has a weird roommate with a bird.
And guess what? Go on. Guess.
Ehrenreich discovers — like Columbus discovered India — that living on minimum wage, on less than minimum wage, on public assistance or with no assistance at all is icky. (There are no field greens at the corner store or McDonald’s.) Ehrenreich never truly grasps how “they” — those hardscrabble losers at the bottom of the American food chain — do it.
But, day after day, do it, they do — without the certainty that when their assignment ends, they can slough off those paper hats, uniforms, vinyl gloves, name tags, thrift store khakis and polo shirts to return home to the good part of Key West with a fat check from Lapham, and drink some more wine. A lot more.
For now, that’s all you need to know. Brush up, though, because whatever sympathy the rich may have for the poor is expressed most eloquently and ingenuously between the covers of “Nickel and Dimed.” It’s Number One on the required revolutionary reading list for those of us who really want to get to know the enemy.
Award-winning writer and editor Robert Masterson is an alum of UNM and Naropa’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, a professor at City University of New York and author of “Garnish Trouble,”“Artificial Rats & Electric Cats” and “Trial by Water.” Email him at email@example.com
Featured photo: CC Nicholas LabyrinthX via Flickr