Discuss each question in 1-2 paragraphs. Answer the questions in “answer and question format”, that is, include both the questions and your answers.
1. Housing costs pose the greatest obstacle for low-wage workers. Why does our society seem to resist rectifying this situation? Do you believe that there are realistic solutions to the lack of affordable housing?
2. Ehrenreich is white and middle class. She asserts that her experience would have been radically different had she been a person of color or a single parent. Do you think discrimination shaped Ehrenreich's story? In what ways?
3. Ehrenreich found that she could not survive on $7.00 per hour—not if she wanted to live indoors. Consider how her experiment would have played out in your community: limiting yourself to $7.00 per hour earnings, create a hypothetical monthly budget for your part of the country and post to discussion board.
4. Why do you think low-wage workers are reluctant to form labor organizations as Ehrenreich discovered at Wal-Mart? How do you think employees should lobby to improve working conditions?
TWO Scrubbing in Maine
I chose Maine for its whiteness. A few months back, in the spring, I had been in the Portland area for a speaking engagement at a local college and was struck by what appeared to be an extreme case of demographic albinism. Not only were the professors and students white, which is of course not uncommon; so were the hotel housekeepers, the panhandlers, and the cab drivers, who, in addition to being white, also spoke English, or at least some r-less New England variant thereof. This might not make Maine an ideal setting in which to hunker down for the long haul, but it made it the perfect place for a blue-eyed, English-speaking Caucasian to infiltrate the low-wage workforce, no questions asked. As an additional attraction, I noted on my spring visit that the Portland-area business community was begging piteously for fresh employable bodies. Local TV news encouraged viewers to try out for a telemarketing firm offering a special “mothers' shift”; the classic rock station was promoting “job fairs” where you could stroll among the employers' tables, like a shopper at the mall, playing hard to get. Before deciding to return to Maine as an entry-level worker, I downloaded the help-wanted ads from the Portland Press Herald's Web site, and my desktop wheezed from the strain. At least three of the thousand or so ads I scanned promised “fun, casual” workplace environments, and I pictured flannel- shirted teams bantering on their afternoon cider-and-doughnut breaks. Maybe, I reasoned, when you give white people a whole state to themselves, they treat one another real nice.
On the evening of Tuesday, August 24, still summer but with back-to-school sales shouting for attention from every shopping center, I arrive at the Trailways bus station in Port land and take a cab, since it's too late in the day to pick up my Rent-A-Wreck, to the Motel 6 that will be my base until I find the perquisites of normal citizenship—job and home. This is, admittedly, an odd venture for anyone not involved in a witness-protection program: to leave home and companionship and plop down nearly two thousand miles away in a place where I know almost no one and about which I am ignorant right down to the most elementary data on geography, weather, and good places to eat. Still, I reason, this sudden removal to an unknown state is not all that different from the kinds
of dislocations that routinely segment the lives of the truly poor. You lose your job, your car, or your babysitter. Or maybe you lose your home because you've been living with a mother or a sister who throws you out when her boyfriend comes back or because she needs the bed or sofa you've been sleeping on for some other wayward family member. And there you are. And here I am—as clueless and alone as I have ever been in my grown-up life.
One of the steps A.A. asks of recovering alcoholics is to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory” of themselves, and now, alone in my motel room, I find myself fairly obsessed with my stuff, how much of it there is and how long it will last. I have my laptop and a suitcase containing T-shirts, jeans, and khakis, three long-sleeve shirts, one pair of shorts, vitamins, and an assortment of toiletries. I have a tote bag stuffed with books, which will, along with the hiking boots I have brought for weekends, turn out to be the most useless items in my inventory. I have $1,000, plus some small bills crumpled in pockets. And now, for an alarming $59 a night, I have a bed, a TV, a phone, and a nearly unobstructed view of Route 25. 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. This Motel 6 is in the latter category, which makes it, homier, you might say, or maybe only more haunted. Walking out from the main entrance, through the VIP Auto Parts parking lot, you reach the Texaco station with a Clipper Mart attached. Crossing the turnpike from the Texaco—a feat that, performed on foot, demands both speed and nerve—brings you to more substantial sources of sustenance, including a Pizza Hut and a Shop-n-Save. This is, of course, a considerable step up from the situation described in J. G. Ballard's harrowing novel Concrete Island, in which the hero crashes onto a median island and finds himself marooned by the traffic, forced to live off the contents of his car and whatever food items he can scrounge from the debris left by motorists. I bring pizza and salad back to my room for dinner, telling myself that anything tastes better when acquired at some risk to life and limb, like venison fresh from the hunt.
How many people, other than fugitives and refugees, ever get to do something like this—blow off all past relationships and routines, say bye-bye to those
mounds of unanswered mail and voice-mail messages, and start all over again, with not much more than a driver's license and a Social Security card to provide a thread of continuity to the past? This should be exhilarating, I tell myself, like a dive into the frigid New England Atlantic, followed by a slow, easy swim beyond the surf. But in those first few days in Portland the anxieties of my actual social class take over. Educated middle-class professionals never go careening half-cocked into the future, vulnerable to any surprise that might leap out at them. We always have a plan or at least a to-do list; we like to know that everything has been anticipated, that our lives are, in a sense, pre-lived. So what am I doing here, and in what order should I be doing it? I need a job and an apartment, but to get a job I need an address and a phone number and to get an apartment it helps to have evidence of stable employment. The only plan I can come up with is to do everything at once and hope that the teenagers at the Motel 6 switchboard can be trusted to serve as my answering machine.
The newspaper I pick up at the Clipper Mart bears the unexpected news that there are no apartments in Portland. Actually, there are plenty of condos and “executive apartments” for $1,000 a month or more, but the only low-rent options seem to be clustered in an area about a thirty-minute drive south, in the soothingly named town of Old Orchard Beach. Even there, though, the rents are right up at Key West levels—well over $500 for an efficiency. A few calls confirm my impression that winter housing for the poor consists of motel rooms that the more affluent fill up in the summer. You get the low rates after Labor Day, and your lease expires in June. What about a share, then? Glenwood Apartments (not its real name) in Old Orchard Beach is advertising a room at $65 a week, share bath and kit with a woman described to me on the phone as “a character, but clean”—and I think, hey, that could be me or at least my new best friend. Navigating with my Clipper Mart map, I reach the declining, and evidently orchardless, beach town at about ten and am shown around Glenwood by Earl. He repeats the “character, but clean” part about my potential housemate, adding that they are “giving her a chance.” I ask if she has a job, and, yes, she does cleaning. But I'll never meet her because the place is so disturbing, to the point of probably being illegal. We go into the basement of this ramshackle combination motel and boardinghouse, where Earl indicates a closed door—the kitchen, he says—but we can't go in now, because a guy is sleeping there. He chuckles, as if sleeping in kitchens is just another one of the eccentricities you have to put up with in the landlord business. So how do you cook? I want to
know. Well, he isn't in there all the time. The room itself, just down the hall from the “kitchen,” is half the size of my little outpost in Motel 6 and contains two unmade twin beds, a two-drawer chest, a couple of light bulbs on the ceiling, and nothing else. There is no window. Well, there is a windowlike structure near the ceiling, but it offers a view only of compacted dirt, such as one might normally see when looking up from the grave.
I walk back to the main street of town and set up my “office” at the pay phone near the pier, from which I secure invitations to view a few more apartments, forget the shares. At the SeaBreeze, I'm shown around by a large, contemptuous guy who tells me there are no problems here because he's a retired cop and his son-in-law is a cop too, and everyone knows this, but I can't tell whether I'm supposed to feel reassured or warned. Another putative plus: he keeps down the number of children in the place, and the ones that he gets don't make any trouble, you can take his word for that. But the rent is $150 a week, so it's on to the Biarritz, where a jolly gal shows me the efficiency for $110 a week—no TV, no linens, no dishware. What I don't like is the ground-floor part, right on a well- traveled commercial street, meaning you have a choice between privacy and light. Well, that's not all I don't like, but it's enough. I'm heading back to Portland in defeat when I notice that the Blue Haven Motel on Route 1 has apartments to rent, and the place looks so cute, in an Alpine sort of way, with its rows of tiny white cottages set against deep blue pines, that I stop. For $120 a week I can have a bed/living area with a kitchen growing off of it, linens included, and a TV that will have cable until the cable company notices that the former occupant is no longer paying the bill. Better yet, the security deposit is only $100, which I produce on the spot.
Given a few days or weeks more to look, maybe I could have done better. But the meter is running at the rate of $59 a day for my digs at the 6, which are resembling a Ballard creation more every day. On the afternoon of my third day there, I return to my room to find that the door no longer responds to my key. As it turns out, this is just management's way of drawing my attention to the fact that more money is due. It's a bad moment, though, lasting long enough for me to glimpse a future without toothbrush or change of clothes.
Now to find a job. I know from my Key West experience to apply for as many as possible, since a help-wanted ad may not mean that any help is wanted just now. Waitressing jobs aren't plentiful with the tourist season ending, and I'm
looking for fresh challenges anyway. Clerical work is ruled out by wardrobe limitations. I don't have in my suitcase—or even in my closet back at home— enough office-type outfits to get me through a week. So I call about cleaning (both office and homes), warehouse and nursing home work, manufacturing, and a position called “general helper,” which sounds friendly and altruistic. It's humbling, this business of applying for low-wage jobs, consisting as it does of offering yourself—your energy, your smile, your real or faked lifetime of experience—to a series of people for whom this is just not a very interesting package. At a tortilla factory, where my job would be to load dough balls onto a conveyor belt, the “interview” is completed by a bored secretary without so much as a “Hi, how are you?” I go to Goodwill, which I am curious about since I know from past research it has been positioning itself nationwide as the ideal employer for the postwelfare poor as well as the handicapped. I fill out the application and am told that the pay is $7 an hour and that someone will get back to me in about two weeks. During the entire transaction, which takes place in a warehouse where perhaps thirty people of both sexes are sorting through bins of used clothing, no one makes eye contact with me. Well, actually one person does. As I search for the exit, I notice a skinny, misshapen fellow standing on one foot with the other tucked behind his knee, staring at me balefully, his hands making swimming motions above his head, either for balance or to ward me off.
Not every place is so nonchalant. At a suburban Wal-Mart that is advertising a “job fair” I am seated at a table with some balloons attached to it (this is the “fair” part) to wait for Julie. She is flustered, when she shows up after about a ten-minute wait, because, as she explains, she just works on the floor and has never interviewed anyone before. Fortunately for her, the interview consists almost entirely of a four-page “opinion survey,” with “no right or wrong answers,” Julie assures me, just my own personal opinion in ten degrees from “totally agree” to “totally disagree.” As with the Winn-Dixie preemployment test I took in Key West, there are the usual questions about whether a coworker observed stealing should be forgiven or denounced, whether management is to blame if things go wrong, and if it's all right to be late when you have a “good excuse.” The only thing that distinguishes this test is its obsession with marijuana, suggesting that it was authored by a serious stoner struggling to adjust to the corporate way of life. 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”? The pay is $6.50, Julie tells me, but can shoot up to $7 pretty fast. She thinks I would be great in the ladies' department, and I tell her I think so too.
What these tests tell employers about potential employees is hard to imagine, since the “right” answers should be obvious to anyone who has ever encountered the principle of hierarchy and subordination. Do I work well with others? You bet, but never to the point where I would hesitate to inform on them for the slightest infraction. Am I capable of independent decision making? Oh yes, but I know better than to let this capacity interfere with a slavish obedience to orders. At The Maids, a housecleaning service, I am given something called the “Accutrac personality test,” which warns at the beginning that “Accutrac has multiple measures which detect attempts to distort or 'psych out' the questionnaire.” Naturally, I “never” find it hard “to stop moods of self-pity,” nor do I imagine that others are talking about me behind my back or believe that “management and employees will always be in conflict because they have totally different sets of goals.” The real function of these tests, I decide, is to convey information not to the employer but to the potential employee, and the information being conveyed is always: You will have no secrets from us. We don't just want your muscles and that portion of your brain that is directly connected to them, we want your innermost self.
The main thing I learn from the job-hunting process is that, despite all the help-wanted ads and job fairs, Portland is just another $6-$7-an-hour town. This should be as startling to economists as a burst of exotic radiation is to astronomers. If the supply (of labor) is low relative to demand, the price should rise, right? That is the “law.” At one of the maid services I apply at—Merry Maids—my potential boss keeps me for an hour and fifteen minutes, most of which is spent listening to her complain about the difficulty of finding reliable help. It's easy enough to think of a solution, because she's offering “$200 to $250” a week for an average of forty hours' work. “Don't try to put that into dollars per hour,” she warns, seeing my brow furrow as I tackle the not-very- long division. “We don't calculate it that way.” I do, however, and $5 to $6 an hour for what this lady freely admits is heavy labor with a high risk of repetitive- stress injuries seems guaranteed to repel all mathematically able job seekers. But I am realizing that, just as in Key West, one job will never be enough. In the new
version of the law of supply and demand, jobs are so cheap—as measured by the pay—that a worker is encouraged to take on as many of them as she possibly can.
After two days of sprinkling job applications throughout the greater Portland area, I force myself to sit in my room at the 6, where I am marooned until the Blue Haven will let me in on Sunday, and wait for the phone to ring. This takes more effort than you might think, because the room is too small for pacing and too dingy for daydreaming, should I have been calm enough to give that a try. Fortunately, the phone rings twice before noon, and more out of claustrophobia than any serious economic calculation—I accept the first two jobs that are offered. A nursing home wants me on weekends for $7 an hour, starting tomorrow; The Maids is pleased to announce that I “passed” the Accutrac test and can start on Monday at 7:30 A.M. This is the friendliest and best-paying maid service I have encountered—$6.65 an hour, though as a punishment this will drop to $6 for two weeks if I fail to show up for a day. I don't understand exactly what maid services do and how they are different from agencies, but Tammy, the office manager at The Maids, assures me that the work will be familiar and easy, since “cleaning is in our blood.” I'm not so sure about the easy part after the warnings I got at Merry Maids, but I figure my back should be able to hold out for a week. We're supposed to be done at about 3:30 every day, which will leave plenty of time for job hunting on weekday afternoons. I have my eye on a potato chip factory a ten-minute drive from the Blue Haven, for example, or I can always search out L.L. Bean and fill catalog orders from what I hope will be an ergonomically congenial seat. This is beginning to look like a plan: from maids' service to something better, with the nursing home tiding me over during the transition. To celebrate, I eat dinner at Appleby's—a burger and a glass of red wine for $11.95 plus tip, consumed at the bar while involuntarily watching ESPN.
On my fourth full day in Portland, I get up at 4:45 to be sure to get to the Woodcrest Residential Facility (not its real name) for the start of my shift at 7:00. I am a dietary aide, which sounds important and technical, and at first the work seems agreeable enough. I get to wear my own clothes, meaning T-shirt and khakis or jeans, augmented only by the mandatory hairnet and an apron at my own discretion. I don't even have to bring lunch, since we get to eat anything left over after the residents, as we respectfully call them, have eaten their share.
Linda, my supervisor—a kindly-looking woman of about thirty-even takes time to brief me about my rights: I don't have to put up with any sexual harassment, particularly from Robert, even though he's the owner's son. Any problems and I'm to come straight to her, and I get the feeling she'd appreciate getting a Robert-related complaint now and then. On the other hand, there is severe discipline for screwups that could endanger lives, like when some of the teenage boys who work on weekends put butter pats in a light fixture and the melted butter leaked onto the floor, creating a hazardously slippery region—not that she expects that kind of thing from me. Today we will be working the locked Alzheimer's ward, bringing breakfast from the main kitchen downstairs to the smaller kitchen on the ward, serving the residents, cleaning up afterward, and then readying ourselves for their lunch.
For a former waitress such as myself, this is pretty much a breeze. The residents start drifting in forty minutes before breakfast is ready, by walker and wheelchair or just marching stiffly on their own power, and scuffle briefly over who sits where. I rush around pouring coffee—decaf only, Linda warns, otherwise things can get pretty wild—and taking “orders,” trying to think of it as a restaurant, although in a normal restaurant, I cannot help thinking, very few customers smell like they're carrying a fresh dump in their undies. If someone rejects the French toast we're offering, Linda and I make toast or a peanut butter sandwich, because the idea, especially at breakfast, is to get them eating fast before they collapse into their plates from low blood sugar or escape back out into the corridor. There's a certain amount of running but no big worry about forgetting things—our “customers” aren't strong in the memory department themselves. I make an effort to learn names: Marguerite, who arrives in the dining room clutching a teddy bear and wearing nothing but a diaper below the waist; Grace, who tracks me with an accusing stare and demands that her cup be refilled even when it hasn't been touched; Letty, a diabetic who has to be watched because she sneaks doughnuts from other people's plates. Ruthie, who softens her French toast by pouring orange juice over it and much of the table, is one of the more with-it gals. She asks my name, and when I tell her, she hoots “Barbara Bush!” Despite my vigorous protestations, the joke is repeated twice during the breakfast service.
The ugly part is cleaning up. I hadn't realized that a dietary aide is, in large measure, a dishwasher, and there are about forty people—counting the nurses
and CNAs (Certified Nursing Assistants) who have scrounged breakfasts with the residents—to clean up after. You scrape uneaten food off the dishes and into the disposal by hand, rinse the dishes, presoak them, stack them in a rack, and load the rack into the dishwashing machine, which involves bending down almost to floor level with the full rack, which I would guess at about fifteen to twenty pounds, held out in front of you. After the machine has run its course, you let the dishes cool enough to handle, unload the rack, and reload the dishwasher—all the while continuing to clear tables and fetch meals for stragglers. The trick is to always have a new rack ready to go into the machine the minute the last load is done. I've been washing dishes since I was six years old, when my mother assigned me that task so she could enjoy her postprandial cigarette in a timely fashion, and I kind of like working with water, but it's all I can do to keep up with the pace of the dishwashing machine on the one hand and the flow of dirty plates on the other. With the dishes under control, Linda has me vacuum the carpet in the dining room, which really doesn't do anything for the sticky patches, so there's a lot of climbing under tables and scratching mushed muffins off the floor with my fingernails.
At my midmorning break I join Pete, one of the two cooks on duty in the main kitchen, for a cigarette date. I had chatted with him when I first arrived at seven, before Linda showed up, and he had three questions for me: Where was I from? Where was I living now? Was I married? I give him the short answer to the last question, leaving out the boyfriend for the moment, partly because it doesn't make sense to talk about “the man I live with” when I'm not living with him just now and partly, I admit, because of a craven desire to recruit Pete as an ally, on whatever terms should present themselves. A dietary aide, as I understand the job, is as dependent on a cook as a waitress is. He or she can either make life relatively easy for a server or, if so disposed, set her up for a serious fall. So I go out to the parking lot with him and sit in his car smoking his Marlboros, which feels awkwardly like a real date except that the car doors are wide open to let out the smoke. How do I like the place? Just fine, I tell him, and since my dad ended his days in an Alzheimer's facility I feel almost at home— which is, creepily enough, the truth. Well, watch out for Molly, he warns me. She's good to work with but she'll stab you in the back. Linda's OK but she came down hard on Pete last week for letting a dessert slip onto a diabetic's tray (residents who can't make it to the dining room have trays made up for them in the kitchen), and what does she think this is, a goddamn hospital? Look, nobody
gets out of here alive. Watch out for Leon too, who has a habit of following his female coworkers into service closets.
In fact, watch out for everyone, because the place feeds on gossip and whatever you say will be public knowledge in a matter of hours. And what do I do for excitement? “Oh, read,” I tell him. No drinking or carousing? I shake my head primly, feeling like a real goody-goody or at least a barren subject for the gossips, present company included.
I should make it clear that we're not talking about boyfriend material here. Pete is probably ten years my junior (though he doesn't seem to realize that and I see no reason to point it out) and, despite a striking resemblance to a currently popular comic actor, has no evident sense of humor. If his story is to be believed, he's as much an impostor as I am (though of course he doesn't know that either). See, he makes only $7 an hour himself, he tells me, though he's made a hell of a lot more in restaurants, but it doesn't bother him, on account of some big gambling wins a few years ago and clever investments since. If he's so rich, I can't help wondering, then why is he driving this rusty old wreck and how come his front teeth are so scraggly and sparse? And what is a self-respecting restaurant cook doing in this flavor-free environment anyway, where a third to a half of the meals get pureed as soon as they're prepared? But of course the question I ask is different: So why work at all if you have so much money? Oh, he tried staying home, but you get stir-crazy, you know, you start feeling like an outcast. And this touches me, somehow, even more than the presumptive lie about his assets: that this place he has described as so morbidly dysfunctional could amount to a real and compelling human community. Would I maybe like to go for a walk on the beach someday after work? Yeah, OK—and I bound back to brace myself for lunch.
Surprisingly, a number of the more sentient residents seem to recognize me at the lunch service. One of them grips my arm when I bring her ham steak, whispering, “You're a good person, you know that?” and repeats the accolade with each item I deliver. Another resident tells me I'm looking “gorgeous,” and one of the RNs actually remembers my name. This could work, I am thinking, I will become a luminous beacon in the gathering darkness of dementia, compensating, in some cosmic system of justice, for the impersonal care my father received in a far less loving facility. I happily fill special requests for ice cream and grilled cheese sandwiches; I laugh at the Barbara Bush joke when it
comes up again, and again. The saintly mood lasts until I refill the milk glass of a tiny, scabrous old lady with wild white hair who looks like she's been folded into her wheelchair and squished. “I want to throw you,” she seems to be saying, and when I bend down to confirm this improbable aspiration, the old …
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