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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