Separating “Job” from “You”

In the introduction to Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, she talks fairly well of her life in the modern era, and her reasons for working despite the bare, and cruel depth of the low-wage crisis. Despite having some contrast to the many narratives in Working by Stud Terkel, she finds some common grounds with him, where in one of the praises on her novel Terkel says that she “attempts to be that nobody who barely subsists on her essential labors.” Barbara presents herself as “of course, very different from the people who normally fill America’s least attractive jobs, and in ways that both helped and limited” (6) her, dictating her advantages with “being white and a native English speaker,” (6) “the car,” (7) and “made no effort to play a role or fit into some imaginative stereotype of low-wage working women” (7). What she presents in her brief autobiographical work tale, is fitting to almost every single working class member of society in connection to getting jobs.

In most jobs today, we must be presentable, and most definitely have to sell ourselves in order to get the “best” jobs, or rather, the ultimate goal, which are careers in society. It is not a surprise that her autobiographical piece works as another narration, similar to Terkel’s adaptations of numerous narrators, like the Waitress, who is proud of her social skills and portrays her ability to work at what she does, like what Barbara does in her introduction but also play out as different from the rest. Hoping to stand out and to remain sane and away from the “drone-like workers” as she states, she dictates “the supposition being that an educated person is ineradicably different, and in a superior direction, from your workaday drones,” (8) hinting on the difference of speculation ability between both sides. It is interesting that she takes this common, overarching approach on how many, but not all, people in middle-class respects feel superior and completely reverses it on us, saying that “low-wage workers are no more homogeneous in personality or ability than people who write for a living, and no less likely to be funny or bright” (8). 

Tying that back to Martin Eden, we can definitely say that, his machismo, and his sailor life reflected on the “writer,” this “cog-like” machinery did affect his work, as much as his work did him. Presenting the ability to read, and ambition to write, while having such a physicality to him, he had such a driving “work-a-holic” narrative that made it inseparable. With this in mind, it is similar to how Barbara in “Nickel and Dimed” gets us ready by presenting herself, and what she was presented as “people knew as a waitress, a cleaning person, a nursing home aide, or a retail clerk, not because she acted like one but because that’s what she “was”” (9). The only, and most interesting difference is how she dictates her separation from others, not phased by any other people, which allows for that radical effort away from society.

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“In their shoes”

                Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed” is a very interesting book that acts like an open book about the experience of the low wage American workers and their workplaces. Ehrenreich’s experience as a low wage worker opens her eyes to the truth and the reality of the “other half” that are forced to live in difficult situations in order to support themselves. Even though she breaks some rules and is not completely experiencing the low wage workers in their shoes, she imagines the impossibility of earning a decent living. Low wage workers who have to work two jobs have to eat unhealthy cheap food, have body aches, a little rest, and risk their health. In addition, she is not really a low wage worker and believes that pretending to be a waitress at “Jerry’s” or “Hearthside is not entirely different from being an actual waitress working for tips. Even if she pretends to be somebody she is not, she cannot pretend not to do her job and fulfill her task as a waitress.

            She understands the true meaning of living in a low wage workers work shoes. As a waitress, housekeeper or a maid, she is experiencing the pain of labor pressing hard on her shoulders by each day that passes by. Therefore, she understands the troubles and financial difficulties that a worker has to go through just to be alive. While I was reading this book, I thought of the graphic adaptation of Stud Terkel’s “Working” where the waitress, Dolores is explaining the struggles she has to go through every day. Dolores is different from Ehrenreich because Dolores is optimistic and takes pride in doing her work. But on the other hand, Ehrenreich is being a pessimist and a realist stating how hard it is to serve people for long hours on foot. One thing that they have in common is that they both believe that serving others and providing food to starving people is a positive aspect of their jobs. Ehrenreich states that she imagines that she is a princess and it is her duty to provide assistance by feeding her subjects by hand. (Ehrenreich 19) As an observer and an undercover low wage worker, she is seeking truth and justice. She feels the workers needs and wants.

 

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Nickel and Dimed and Working

            After reading only the first chapter of Nickel and Dimed, I was struck by the many ways in which it connects back to several of the readings we’ve discussed so far this semester. In particular, I found some connecting threads between Nickel and Dimed and Working.

            The first and perhaps most obvious similarity to the “Serving in Florida” chapter is the profile of the waitress in Studs Terkel’s Working. Both Barbara Ehrenreich and Dolores Dante talk about feeling a sense of nurturance and caretaking for the customers. Ehrenreich talks about her motivation while working at Hearthstone: “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… I feel the service ethic kick in like a shot of oxytocin, the nurturance hormone” (18). Likewise, Dante says, “Everyone wants to eat, everyone has hunger. And I serve them. If they’ve had a bad day, I nurse them, cajole them” (Terkel 75). They clearly both feel the role of waitress/server brings out a nurturing, motherly side of their personalities.

            Additionally, they both discuss taking pride in their work, and liken it to a performance. Ehrenreich compares herself to a princess, “who, in penance for some tiny transgression, has undertaken to feed each of her subjects by hand” (19). Meanwhile, Dante associates her work with ballet: “I feel like a ballerina, too… It is a certain way I can go through a chair no one else can do. I do it with an air. If I drop a fork, there is a certain way I pick it up. I know they can see how delicately I do it. I’m on stage” (Terkel 85). Both women care about the quality of their work performance, and one of the ways this seems to manifest is engaging in fantasy play, which could also perhaps function as an escape from the mundane reality of their daily physical labor.

            Another piece from Working that connects to this chapter is the profile of the supermarket box-boy, Brett Hauser. In class we discussed the notion of “upstairs”/”downstairs” dynamic, and the reality of the “underbelly” of a work environment. Hauser says in the supermarket “everything looks fresh and nice” to the customer (Terkel 66). And yet, “you’re not aware that in the back-room it stinks and there’s crates all over the place and the walls are messed up. There’s graffiti and people are swearing and yelling at each other” (Terkel 66). There’s a clear difference between the environment a worker sees, and the sanitized, muzak-ed version the customer is allowed to see. There’s a disconnect.

            Likewise, in Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich describes a truly disgusting work environment at Jerry’s, which seems infinitely worse because it’s a place that prepares food for immediate consumption by the customer. “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 never found all three at once. You learn to stuff your pockets with napkins before going in there, and too bad for the customers, who must eat, although they don’t realize it, almost literally out of our hands” (Ehrenreich 30). Here we see a gulf between the reality of the working conditions back in the kitchen, and the customer’s blissfully ignorant illusion of clean, wholesome food in the front of the restaurant.

            Though there are many more similarities, these are just a few ways Barbara Ehrenreich’s personal account of waitressing is closely connected to the workers’ experiences profiled in Working.

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Calculations in Nickel & Dimed

Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed expresses the full chaos of the consciousness of the laborious servers in America, not earning nearly as much as they should in wages (and being aware of it). I found chapter one to be rich in insight, yet highly accessible because, really, who hasn’t worked as a waiter or waitress at some point? Knowing what it’s like to keep the body moving in this way, whether it’s waiting tables or cleaning counters, helps the reader understand the point of this novel beyond the physical aspect of working. Splitting tips with the dishwasher is a good example of some kind of solidarity that is created in an atmosphere where virtually nobody has anything at all in common (besides the work itself).

Ehrenreich describes the people who work at Hearthside, giving them their own characteristics, but also gives them detail according to their interaction with her as an unexperienced worker. The interaction is especially important in her first job, as she says, “I find that of all the thing that I have left behind, such as home and identity, what I miss the most is competence,” (17). Even before she is throwing herself into a “foreign environment” of some sort, being that she has only experienced these places as a consumer, she examines what is needed to “fit in” or push production to the maximum. In this case, that’s production of a smile, stamina, cheerfulness, bodily strength, juggling roles, and overall likeness among the other workers and customers.

 

Of course, the main concern is money and how to get by on $3 an hour plus whatever tips you can manage to make. We see the constant calculation of quantity vs. quality circulating and taking up a lot of mental energy. Caring, as she explained, about her customers is a burden. She observes the other workers as sort of detached, the way the hooker explained her story in Studs Terkel’s Working, where the only way to get by is to be concerned only with getting by for the day. Forget about healthcare or long term goals, just make enough tips to pay for your gas and lunch. The robotic element of this text and work comes about on her first day as a housekeeper, “I strip and remake beds, taking about four and a half minutes per queen-sized bed, which I could get down to three if there were any reason to,” (42). This attention to amount of time taken for any given task contributes to the idea that these lower class people are only living to hack out the same work over and over again, much like on the assembly line.

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NYT on income inequality

Interesting piece from the NYT recurring feature, THE GREAT DIVIDE, that’s devoted to discussions of inequality.  Relevant to us now especially because ON THE LINE/ON THE ROAD issue from a period of much greater equity of assets and income.  Something on equality/inequality would be interesting for a final essay topic, no?  And see the nice interview of Ehrenreich in the magazine: not much on NICKEL there, but fun to see her in the spotlight this week anyway.

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