Barbara Ehrenreich decides to start her “low-wage life” in Key West, Florida. It’s the town closest to where she lives, so she attributes the decision mostly to “laziness.”
She starts looking for a place to live, settling eventually on a $500-a-month “efficiency.” The upside is “it’s a sweet little place—a cabin, more or less, set in the swampy backyard of the converted mobile home where my landlord, an affable TV repairman, lives with his bartender girlfriend.” The downside: it’s thirty miles away from Key West’s employment opportunities.
Next, Ehrenreich looks through the want ads, ruling out certain occupations, such as hotel front-desk clerk, and trying to steer away from waitressing. After some searching, housekeeping seems to be the most attractive option. She applies at Best Western, Econo Lodge, and HoJo’s, and also applies to a few supermarket posts. At Winn-Dixie, she is escorted to a “room decorated with posters illustrating how to look ‘professional’ (it helps to be white and, if female, permed) and warning of the slick promises that union organizers might try to tempt [her] with.” The Winn-Dixie interview is multiple-choice and laced with moralistic questions: “Would I turn in a fellow employee if I caught him stealing?” for example. Ehrenreich aces the interview, but she is told she must do a urine test before beginning work. She decides that the paltry wages Winn-Dixie offers—barely over $6 an hour for starters—are insufficient “to compensate for this indignity.”
After shuffling from one hotel and supermarket to another for three days and not hearing back from a single one of the twenty or so places to which she has applied, Ehrenreich begins to realize that the want ads are highly unreliable indicators of the jobs available at any given time. “They are,” she writes, “the employers’ insurance policy against the relentless turnover of the low-wage workforce.”
One day Ehrenreich finally lands a job, at a big discount chain hotel. She has come in search of a housekeeping gig, but she is conducted to the attached restaurant—“a dismal spot looking out on a parking garage”—and told to come into work tomorrow wearing “black slacks and black shoes.”
So begins Ehrenreich’s stint as a waitress at Hearthside. She works from 2:00 to 10:00pm for $2.43 plus tips. On the first day she follows Gail, a waitress, to learn the tricks of the trade. She quickly feels overwhelmed by the work, and mortified by her lack of competence. “Of the twenty-seven tables, up to six are usually mine at any time,” she writes, “though on slow afternoons or if Gail is off, I sometimes have the whole place to myself.”
She offers brief descriptions of her coworkers. Gail is kind and supportive, quick on her feet and full of energy, a “wiry, middle-aged” woman whose boyfriend was killed a few months ago in prison. Lionel, the busboy, is Haitian and still in his teens; he and Barbara will listen to the older Haitian dishwashers’ Creole—“musical” in its tones and sounding “like French on testosterone.” There is also Timmy, a fourteen year-old who buses by night and loves to spatter out the plots of Jaws movies; Joan, the hostess and a “militant feminist”; and Billy, a kitchen worker with a shoulder-length hair and a short temper.
Then there are the customers. There is Benny, a sewer repairman “who cannot even think of eating until he has absorbed a half hour of air-conditioning and ice water.” There are the German tourists, a lesbian couple, and a “kindly retired cop” named Sam.
Ehrenreich drives home at night while listening to tapes in her car, then eats Wheat Thins and Monterey Jack as a midnight sack while watching AMC. She’s in bed by 1:30 or 2, up by 9 or 10; in the morning she reads while cleaning her uniform in her landlord’s washing machine. Then it’s back to work.
Two problems soon present themselves to Ehrenreich. First, the restaurant’s management is oppressive; the assistant manager, Stu, sits around watching for any moment of relaxation on the part of the employees, swiftly diving in when he sense things aren’t moving quickly enough. His only job seems to be to make sure people are always working—even when business is slow and the restaurant is empty of customers. There is always some duty that can be fulfilled: vacuuming the floor, freshening up the desserts, rechecking supplies, folding napkins, etc. On Ehrenreich’s first Friday at Hearthside, there is a “mandatory meeting for all restaurant employees” in which Phillip, the top manager, lectures the employees about the “disgusting” break room, warns that a break room is a privilege, not a right, and declares that employee gossiping must stop, that off-duty employees are barred from eating in the restaurant, and that lockers can be searched at whim at any time. Four days later, Phillip gathers the employees again and announces there has been a report of “drug activity” in the workplace, and that all new hires and possibly current employees will hereon out be tested. Shortly thereafter, gossip emerges that Stu is in fact “the drug culprit” and has been using the restaurant phone to procure marijuana.
The second problem is that the job itself does not pay enough for Ehrenreich to cover her expenses. She wonders how her coworkers make it work, only to realize they don’t: they all seem to have major housing problems. Gail is sharing a room with a man who is hitting on her and driving her crazy, but without whom she couldn’t afford the place; Claude, the Haitian cook, shares a two-bedroom apartment with three people; Tina, a waitress, pays $60 a night for a room in the Days Inn with her husband; Joan, the hostess, lives in a van and showers in Tina’s motel room. The workers also have trouble purchasing necessary medications, as the Hearthside’s slim plan “kicks in only after three months.”
Ehrenreich, for her part, can’t see how to significantly cut her expenses. “True, I haven’t gone the lentil stew route yet,” she notes, “but that’s because I don’t have a large cooking pot, potholders, or a ladle to stir with (which would cost a total of about $30 at Kmart, somewhat less at a thrift store), not to mention onions, carrots, and the indispensable bay leaf.” The Hearthside offers its employees dinner for $2, but by midnight every night Ehrenreich is hungry again.
She resolves therefore to find a second job. She would still prefer working as a housekeeper, but none of the hotels and guest houses at which she applied offer her anything. Either someone knows she’s not a good housekeeper at her own home, she reasons, “or I am at the wrong end of some infallible ethnic equation: most, but by no means all, of the working housekeepers I see on the job are African Americans, Spanish-speaking, or refugees from the Central European post-Communist world, while servers are almost invariably white and monolingually English-speaking.” Yet again, she gets hired as a server—this time at Jerry’s (like Hearthside, not the real name), which is attached to a budget hotel and “attracts three or four times the volume of customers as the gloomy old Hearthside.”
Working at Jerry’s is exhausting and makes the Hearthside look like leisure in comparison. “Hands are utensils here,” Ehrenreich writes, and the place is packed; the kitchen emanates strange odors, while the bathroom is always missing either soap, paper towels, or toilet paper, and for “six to eight hours in a row, you never sit except to pee.” There are no breaks to speak of, and many of the employees seem to respond to the situation by smoking heavily. “I complain to one of my fellow servers that I don’t understand how she can go so long without food,” Ehrenreich writes. “‘Well, I don’t understand how you can go so long without a cigarette,’ she responds in a tone of reproach.”
For the first two days, Ehrenreich is at least able to manage the hours: 8:00am to 2:00pm at Jerry’s, and 2:00pm (or 2:10pm, rather) to 10:00pm at Hearthside. But soon enough, Ehrenreich finds herself struggling to stay mobile, awake, and alert at Hearthside, and she decides to quit. Still, the exhaustion at Jerry’s is difficult to handle, and she also starts taking drugstore ibuprofens to ease a “mouse-related repetitive stress injury” in her upper back that has sprung back to life. She writes of Joy, a mood-swinging management fixture, and B. J., “whose contribution is to stand by the kitchen counter and yell, ‘Nita, your order’s up, move it!’ or ‘Barbara, didn’t you see you’ve got another table out there? Come on, girl!’” She writes of the customers—the “traditional asshole types”, the “Visible Christians”, and a man with a crucifixion T-shirt who leaves no tips at all. She makes friends with other servers: Nita, twenty-something and tattooed; Ellen, who once managed a place in Massachusetts but won’t apply for management here because she’d rather not order people around; Lucy, fiftyish with a leg problem that cannot be diagnosed or treated without health insurance. No one is homeless, it seems, though no one “ever brings up anything potentially expensive [in conversation], like shopping or movies.”
Ehrenreich’s “saving human connection” is George, a hard-working nineteen year-old dishwasher from the Czech Republic who has been in the U.S. for only a week. Ehrenreich sets out to teach George English, and soon learns that he is paid not by Jerry’s but by the “agent” who sent him to the U.S.—meaning that George gets $5 an hour, less than the other dishwashers, while the agent gets the dollar or so in difference. George also lives in an apartment with a multitude of other Czech “dishers” (his term), and “he cannot go to sleep until one of them goes off for his shift, leaving a vacant bed.”
Ehrenreich moves from her efficiency to a trailer in the Overseas Trailer Park, closer to Key West, so as to cut down on driving. Back at Jerry’s, she notices the dry-storage room has been locked. An assistant manager named Vic explains the situation as he opens the storage room up for her: apparently he caught a dishwasher trying to steal something, and, “unfortunately, the miscreant will be with us until a replacement can be found—hence the locked door.” It turns out the dishwasher in question is George. Though convinced the incident was a matter of linguistic misunderstanding, or else that George had simply taken some Saltines or cherry pie mix out of hunger, Ehrenreich finds herself unable—or unwilling—to stand up for him.
Finally, Ehrenreich lands a job housekeeping—ironically at the hotel to which Jerry’s is attached. The job pays $6.10 an hour. “I don’t have to ask about health insurance once I meet Carlotta, the middle-aged African American woman who will be training me,” Ehrenreich writes. “Carlie, as she tells me to call her, is missing all of her top front teeth.”
The first day (and what will turn out to be the last) is spent cleaning nineteen rooms, mostly “checkouts,” with Carlie. “It is the TV that keeps us going,” Ehrenreich writes—from Jerry Springer to soap operas.
Ehrenreich returns to the subject of Jerry’s—and in particular George, who, while seeming not to understand what kind of trouble he was in the first few days after the incident, now seems “listless” and “looks like the ghost we all know him to be, with dark half-moons hanging from his eyes.” Ehrenreich promises herself to give him all her tips that night, but a “perfect storm” of customers descends on Jerry’s, and in the mad rush of it all Ehrenreich forgets to honor that promise.
Through with low-wage work in Key West, Ehrenreich gives the key to her trailer to Gail and arranges for her deposit to be transferred to her. “I never found out what happened to George,” she concludes.
This first chapter comes with its fair share of asides, regarding just how Ehrenreich feels she is measuring up as an investigator—or actor. Here is one particularly intriguing passage: “The whole thing would be a lot easier if I could just skate through it like Lily Tomlin in one of her waitress skits, but I was raised by the absurd Booker T. Washingtonian precept that says: If you’re going to do something, do it well. In fact, ‘well’ isn’t good enough by half. Do it better than anyone has ever done it before.” She refers to an actress—Lily Tomlin—and a man who, though a deep thinker, great writer, and a catalyst of change, was also a political and public persona, and therefore in his own way a performer—Booker T. Washington. These twin poles inform Ehrenreich’s own performance; either she merely engages in a “skit”, or else she obeys some sort of golden rule or Platonic ideal, subsuming her own desires in the name of a philosophical abstraction.
Aside from the references to acting, Ehrenreich seems here to comment on—and perhaps mock—the traditional American work ethic, as though it were a psychological handicap. Her word choice is telling: the precept in question is “absurd”. She later points to the example of her own father, noting that it was from him that she derived such an “absurd” philosophy. Yet Ehrenreich’s father sounds to us like the very embodiment of the American Dream. He “managed to pull himself […] up from the mile-deep copper mines of Butte to the leafy suburbs of the Northeast, ascending from boiler-makers to martinis.” He’s a true Horatio Alger, a veritable self-made man.
Ehrenreich thus hints that perhaps the ever-lauded “American Dream” breeds concepts that are not always helpful or pragmatic. The dreamscape collides against reality—quite forcefully in the teeming and noisy workplaces of Hearthside and Jimmy’s. What good is that golden work ethic if it does little to quiet the noise and gains you no extra dough?
Moreover, abstract ideals that supposedly appeal to our better nature seem ill-suited to the low-wage workplace as described by Ehrenreich. She writes of the humiliations wrought by management, the demeaning lectures that make employees feel like berated children, the locker searches and rules against “gossiping”. She writes of poverty as pernicious, almost a malevolent force in its own right. “There are no secret economies that nourish the poor,” she notes; “on the contrary, there are a host of special costs.” Poverty is a vicious cycle, one that bends back on itself and impedes escape—at least of the physical variety.
What remains then is escape of the mental or emotional variety. Emptiness is what Ehrenreich seeks, in order to drift through the grueling work hours like a ghost: “Ideally, at some point you enter what servers call a ‘rhythm’ and psychologists term a ‘flow state,’ where signals pass from the sense organs directly to the muscles, bypassing the cerebral cortex, and a Zen-like emptiness sets in.” Though she does not go so far as to argue this, the notion of the working-class seeking emptiness implies that a kind of social and emotional invisibility becomes necessary; thus, the working-class blend into the wall without so much as a whimper, since it is all they can do to stay awake and alert. Exhaustion cripples the spirit, crushes defiance without a sound. The result is a class of ghosts, floating underneath and silently holding the economy up with blank stares and empty motions.
This spirit is echoed later when Ehrenreich does not stand up for George. “So why didn’t I intervene?” she asks herself. It is not a rhetorical question; significantly, Ehrenreich has no definitive answer. She reasons that something happens in the workplace that is perhaps not too different from that which occurs in POW camps. This analogy is striking, to say the least, since Ehrenreich comes close to equating the workforce with war and a workplace like Jerry’s with prison. “In real life I am moderately brave,” she writes, “but plenty of brave people shed their courage in POW camps, and maybe something similar goes on in the infinitely more congenial milieu of the low-wage American workplace.” The “crusading spirit” is extinguished; the prisoners are reduced to pets, obediently serving without a thought of independence or a shred of dignity.
Yes, in a month or two Ehrenreich may regain her willfulness, her ability to stand up for her beliefs; perhaps it is just the torrent of work and the bruising hours of those first few weeks at Jerry’s that mow her down. “Then again,” she notes ominously, “in a month or two I might have turned into a different person altogether—say, the kind of person who would have turned George in.” Though it may seem outlandish to say so, we are not far here from the tone of accounts concerning prisoners and genocide victims going to their deaths like sheep to the slaughter, and in certain cases even aiding their captors in the process. Ehrenreich is not making broad, sweeping statements about human nature, but contemplating a small way in which the mentality bred by the low-wage workplace can be extrapolated into far more terrible and terrifying forms.