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.


One thought on “Nickel and Dimed and Working

  1. Good to have you with us! And nice connection. The Ehrenreich passage also closely resembles Orwell’s expose of working as a “plongeur” (dishwasher) in Paris in DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON. In all three cases (including Terkel/Pekar) we see the text turn out to an middleclass audience and say “if you don’t care about the lives of the workers, I can at least gross you out when you think about what really happens to your goods/services”!

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