“The idea that led to this book arose in comparatively sumptuous circumstances.”
Ehrenreich is referring here to the fancy French lunch she shared with the editor of Harper’s—the lunch at which the concept of conducting an undercover investigation of the low-wage workplace was first proposed. What is significant about the line—apart from the fact that it opens the book—is its deadpan quality, its casual division of “circumstances”. Ehrenreich begins in one world and journeys to a vastly different one. She and Lewis Lapham occupy a rarefied realm, one of “salmon and field greens” where various ideas are pitched regarding one of Ehrenreich’s “more familiar themes—poverty.” Ehrenreich does not evade what is fundamentally problematic about her posing as a member of America’s bottom class, but instead underlines it, draws attention to it, milks the discrepancy for all the irony it is worth.
“I don’t mind, really, because I guess I’m a simple person, and I don’t want what they have. I mean, it’s nothing to me. But what I would like is to be able to take a day off now and then…if I had to…and still be able to buy groceries the next day.”
Colleen, one of the employees at The Maids, betrays what strikes Ehrenreich—and, by extension, the reader—as a sad complacency. Browbeaten by Ted and rewarded only meagerly for her exhausting work, Colleen shrugs and implies that it’s only fair—in other words, such is her lot. Ehrenreich cannot accept that premise, and neither can the reader. Where is the justified rage of the low-wage workforce? Ehrenreich suggests that those sorts of feelings have been slowly drained by the nature of the low-wage workplace. Jobs so tiring, so demeaning, so taxing, leave little energy for fighting back.
“The chance to identify with a powerful and wealthy entity—the company or the boss—is only the carrot. There is also a stick.”
In this passage, Ehrenreich describes the way the low-wage workplace crushes the spirit in broad brushtrokes, with nearly cartoonish imagery. One imagines a looming employer holding out a carrot, wielding a heavy stick behind his back. The imagery echoes turn-of-the-century political cartoons—when whole countries could be represented by crying babies, warfare rendered a tussle in the sandbox, abstract notions like prosperity cast as concrete objects. Indeed, Ehrenreich has something of the traditional muckraker in her, and her journalism indulges in the occasional flash of sensationalism. In more ways than one, hers is an avowedly “old-fashioned” approach.
“If some enterprising journalist wants to test the low-wage way of life in darkest Idaho or Louisiana, more power to her.”
If Ehrenreich’s style harkens back to turn-of-the-century agitation, the persona she fashions for herself in Nickel and Dimed is pure 70’s New Journalism. Here, the larger thesis of the book is temporarily eclipsed by a confession of fear—fear of the “darker” reaches of the country—and that confession is communicated in a distinctively comical tone. It’s almost a Woody Allen moment, Ehrenreich poking fun at her own trepidation, deflating any association her persona might have with “heroic” journalism. She’s not a daredevil, and she is sure to remind us. At the same time, while Ehrenreich herself is the true subject of the passage, one cannot help but note the reference to other parts of the U.S.—states just as “American” and therefore, one would think, democratic as, say, Maine or Florida—as though they were vestiges of the Dark Ages. There’s a sense of scorn there, but also defeatism—no point bothering with Idaho or Louisiana, as they’re already Third World anyway.
“Who are these nutcases who volunteer for an artificially daunting situation in order to entertain millions of strangers with their half-assed efforts to survive? Then I remember where I am and why I am here.”
Ehrenreich is watching Survivor and catching herself in her own incredulity at it. What is interesting here is Ehrenreich tacitly compares herself to a Survivor contestant. She’s struggling to survive in a harsh landscape, but with a safety net always ready to catch her should she fall; what is more, her travails are being recorded for the entertainment of the masses. What makes her better than a game-show participant? Sure, there are social issues at play, a political message to communicate, but Ehrenreich seems here to worry about the validity (artistic or moral) of her enterprise.
"See, I am the vacuum cleaner."
Ehrenreich is watching what she describes as a “disturbing” training video on vacuuming for The Maids. The moment is shot through with absurdist comedy—except it’s all real. A man in the video is demonstrating a special vacuum contraption that hooks onto the body; everything is presented as though to third-graders, with the fake smile that is ubiquitous in these environments; and Ehrenreich and her fellow trainees are forced to sit and watch, silently taking in the lessons like automatons. The vacuum contraption renders the employee machine-like—he or she is the vacuum, and, by implication, nothing more (certainly nothing human)—and the training as a whole seems like nothing so much as a brainwashing session. The result is a workforce of robots—made to feel as such and treated as such.
“Maybe, it occurs to me, I’m getting a tiny glimpse of what it would be like to be black.”
Ehrenreich opens the door in this passage to what could be an entirely different book. Nickel and Dimed is very much a class-oriented treatise; race rarely plays a large role in it. Yet is Ehrenreich’s disguise akin to “passing”? Or to donning blackface? In other words, is her hop-scotching from class to class analogous in any way to moving from race to race? On the surface, the answer would seem to be no, as America prides itself on social mobility. Class is fluid, race is fixed. But Ehrenreich argues that class is far more fixed than we think it is, and that being a maid is akin to being an oppressed minority. At the end of the day, perhaps it all boils down to the roles society requires us to play.
“Each potential new job requires (1) the application, (2) the interview, and (3) the drug test—which is something to ponder with gasoline running at nearly two dollars a gallon, not to mention what you have to pay for a babysitter.”
In clear and cogent terms, Ehrenreich outlines the tyranny of the low-wage workplace. It is often prohibitively difficult to change jobs, as each new job means such a production. As a result, low-wage employees are left defenseless; they can complain, but at the end of the day they need to hold their jobs. They cannot walk out in a huff, as the consequences are too dire. One wonders if it is all a conscious attempt on the part of employers to keep employees in line, to tamp down mobility; if so, it is the mendacity of it, the way in which employers hide their true intentions, that is the most galling thing of all.
“If you hump away at menial jobs 360-plus days a year, does some kind of repetitive injury of the spirit set in?”
It’s a rhetorical question. Throughout Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich continually suggests that low-wage employees lose much of their willpower and fighting spirit in the exhaustion and quiet brutality of the workplace. Ehrenreich does not write of steel mills, of employers beating incalcitrant workers, of starvation and widespread disease. She writes instead of hours so long that there is nothing to do in between work shifts but sleep; of work so repetitive and tiring that one must fight to stay alert; of a culture of debasement. The vision is in its own way as depressing as Dickens’.
“This is not me, at least not any version of me I’d like to spend much time with, just as my tiny coworker is probably not usually a bitch.”
Back to New Journalism: Ehrenreich herself is the subject here. Yet the issue at stake is very much a social one, and very much related to Ehrenreich’s larger thesis. The low-wage workplace is stripping her of her humanism, rendering her a more hostile and short-tempered person, more judgmental, quicker to take offense. It may have done the same to her coworker. Ehrenreich’s own performance has begun to affect her; the act bleeds back into reality, and the boundaries are blurred. If “this is not me”, who is it? The question may seem formalist, but in this case what it concerns is the very humanity of the workplace. How does one stay “good” in a cruel world? Do adverse circumstances bring out the best in us—or the worst?
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Barbara Ehrenreich develops a rash of unknown origin. She also has aches and pains from her physical job. The itching becomes so intense that she falls back on her old safety network and gets a prescription from her dermatologist. Meanwhile,...
Study Guide for Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
Nickel and Dimed is a book by Barbara Ehrenreich. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America study guide contains a biography of author Barbara Ehrenreich, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.