New Part Three - May 11:
Part Two - May 4:
Part One - May 2:
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of Blood Rites; The Worst Years of Our Lives (a New York Times bestseller); Fear of Falling, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award; and eight other books. A frequent contributor to Time, Harper's, The New Republic, The Nation, and The New York Times Magazine, she lives near Key West, Florida.
James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author, most recently, of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996). His new book, Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel will be published next month.
Previously in Fallows@large:
The Work of Words (February 21, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Christopher Hitchens, author of Unacknowledged Legislation and would-be prosecutor of Henry Kissinger.
Darwin Had It Backwards (January 17, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.
More by James Fallows
More on books
More on politics
More on poverty
Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.
Atlantic Unbound | May 2, 2001
Dialogues with James Fallows
From: Barbara Ehrenreich
To: James Fallows
Subject: Re: Daily life among the "invisible class"
Thanks for your kind words about Nickel and Dimed. I should have asked you for a blurb!
I have to begin by admitting I've never read Black Like Me or even seen the movie, but my guess is that mine was a very different kind of project. I wasn't "undercover," in the sense of being disguised or using a different name, and I engaged in only two kinds of deceptions: one, I omitted some of my education (a year of college and the rusty old Ph.D. in biology) from job applications, because I didn't want to come across as some kind of downwardly tripping alcoholic washout, or worse. Two, I didn't tell any of my co-workers about my real reasons for working until the very end of each job. (When I did tell them they were invariably underwhelmed; almost everyone, it turns out, considers herself a writer.)
As for worrying about seeming to be "slumming": Truth is, it never occurred to me. Due to accidents of marriage and birth, I've spent a lot of my life with blue- and pink-collar people, both low and medium wage. My husband of many years, for example, was a warehouse worker, truck driver, and steel worker—and not exactly by choice!—before landing a job as a union organizer, after which our house was routinely filled with factory workers, janitors, nurses, or whomever he happened to be organizing at the time. Plus, in those days, between his wages and my piddling freelance income, we weren't doing so well ourselves. So when I waded out into the low-wage work world for this project, I didn't feel I was entering some exotic new social environment.
But this doesn't mean that I was a hundred percent prepared for the world I entered as a journalist/low-wage worker. I'm a full-time freelance writer, meaning that, in real life, I work when I want, in any old condition of dress or undress, pausing to pace, sip, nibble, or curse as the situation on the computer screen demands. So the first shock, starting almost from day one, was how little freedom or even elementary privacy you have in the low-wage workplace (and a lot of medium-wage workplaces too, I've heard). There's the drug test (not everywhere, but often enough), the "personality" test (to determine whether you're a thief or a misfit), the fact that your purse or backpack can be searched by management at any time (for drugs, I suppose, or stolen goods). And the rules: No eating, for example, which is particularly rough in a job that doesn't offer meal breaks. No drinking, and I mean water, a rule that can be actually hazardous when you're sweating hour after hour, as I was in the housecleaning job I had for a while in Maine. Or my favorite: no "talking," or, as it was sometimes put, "gossiping"—meaning that conversations with fellow workers often had to be undertaken by stealth.
The second big surprise was how hard these jobs were, and I don't mean just physically hard. You think waitressing is "unskilled" labor? Try handling five tables while struggling to master the computerized ordering system and finesse the ever-delicate waitperson/cook relationship. You think only morons take those $7 an hour Wal-Mart jobs keeping the stock organized? Try memorizing the locations of several hundred clothing items (e.g., "White Stag clamdiggers with front pleats"), only to see those locations cunningly switched around every three or four days. Even housecleaning, which I have a lifetime's experience in, has been transformed into a Taylorized pseudo-science by the nationwide cleaning chain I worked for: mentally divide each room into sections no wider than your arms' reach, proceed from left to right and from top to bottom within each section and around each room, leave all jars and shampoo bottles with their labels facing outwards....
Not to complain or anything, but the whole thing did serve as an exercise in vanity-abatement and self-esteem reduction, in case I needed that. I got reamed out by supervisors. I had food thrown at me by nursing-home residents. I screwed up monumentally from time to time, smashing a darling objet in a mini-mansion we were cleaning and flaming out catastrophically as a waitress in a well-known low-priced breakfast-and-burgers chain. And the odd thing is how much I cared. I would wake up in the middle of the night, chagrined by my latest error, promising to do better the next day. Maybe I don't have a very strong personality structure. Or maybe when you work as a waitress or cleaner or nursing-home aide eight to nine hours a day that is, for the time being, what you are.
But the biggest challenge, emotionally speaking, was something I should have been prepared for. In almost every job, I had to work alongside people who were in pretty difficult straits, and sometimes visibly suffering. A few of my fellow restaurant workers were homeless, though they didn't describe themselves that way so long as they had a van or a truck to sleep in. At the housecleaning service, I had co-workers who were actually going hungry during our workday, and I confess it took me a while to realize they weren't just dieting. Everywhere, there were people with health problems that couldn't be solved without insurance, so they popped a lot of ibuprofen or tried to search out some charitable care. When one of my fellow housecleaners hurt her ankle on the job—to the point that it couldn't support her weight—I begged, I nagged, I even staged a tiny work stoppage to try to make her get help—and ended up feeling like a total fool. I should have realized at the outset: if you're going to venture into the low-wage world, you better have the stomach for other people's pain.
Now, you ask why there isn't more in the media about the working poor (who, incidentally, make up almost a third of the workforce, even going by the wildly inaccurate official definition of poverty). But you're being way too modest here, Jim. A year ago, you had a cover story in The New York Times Magazine on the "disappearing poor," based on interviews with nouveau riche software designers, who, as you wrote, found it "hard to understand people for whom a million dollars would be a fortune ... not to mention those for whom $246 is a full week's earnings." You attributed their extreme class insularity to growing class polarization, combined with the fact that the upper middle class has withdrawn from public spaces into private schools, gated communities, and fortress-like apartment buildings. Even their children don't waitress or bus tables anymore, they "intern." And when the affluent are in the presence of an actual working-class person—a cab driver or manicurist for example—they're likely to be insulated by their cell phones.
Add to the growing class gap the media moguls' general aversion to low-income viewers and readers, who can only drag down the "demographics." Publishers aren't interested in having their magazine known as "the favorite among forklift operators;" they want readers who can attract advertisers. A few years ago, I tried pitching a story on women in poverty to the top editor of a major national magazine. We were at a pricey restaurant, and he was openly unenthusiastic. Finally, over the decaf espressos and death-by-chocolate dessert, he said, "Okay, do your thing on poverty. Only make it upscale."
That's the kind of thing you're up against when you try to make poverty visible. I've tried all kind of journalistic approaches—profiles of people in poverty, statistic-ridden essays, witty attacks on the rich and indifferent. Nickel and Dimed represents a sort of desperate last-ditch attempt. During one low moment in my waitressing career—at the end of a shift, when I was utterly exhausted, just sagging against a counter— I found myself thinking, If I were a better writer—cleverer, more influential—I wouldn't have to have gone to this extreme; I would have made my point already, without ever leaving my home. But that was probably wasted self-blame; frank talk about class isn't encouraged in wealth-ridden America. It's our last taboo.
From Atlantic Unbound:
Interviews: "Unhappy Meals" (December 14, 2000)
Eric Schlosser, an award-winning investigative journalist, uncovers the "dark side of the all-American meal." By Julia Livshin
Yes, sure, more writers should undertake "immersion journalism," which, I learned while teaching for a semester at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, is the real term for this kind of venture. There's no end to the possibilities: Why not follow up Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, for example, with some reports from inside McDonald's or, more dauntingly, a meat-packing plant? But it would be nice, too, if more of the people who live the low-wage life year in, year out, could get a chance to tell their own stories, and finally get the attention they deserve.
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