Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America Summary and Analysis of Chapter Two: "Scrubbing in Maine"


Ehrenreich moves to Portland, Maine, on August 24. She chooses it for its “whiteness.” In other words, this seems to be a place where she finally won’t stick out like a sore thumb in low-wage jobs for being Caucasian, blue-eyed, and a native English speaker. She looks through ads, sees signs of “friendly workplace” and entertains rosy notions of “flannel-shirted teams bantering on their afternoon cider-and-doughnut breaks.”

The reality does not quite live up to the fantasy. First of all, despite the plenitude of ads and “job fairs”, and what seems like a paucity of potential laborers, the average rate for low-wage jobs is still $6-$7 an hour.

The other catch-22 concerns finding a home. To find a home you often need to show signs of stable employment, while to find employment you need an address. Not knowing anybody, bereft of all markers and bearings, with only limited items in her suitcase (some of which, like her books, she realizes are close to useless), Ehrenreich dives in.

She finds a room at Motel 6, right on a stretch of the turnpike, which she hopes can serve as her temporary base while she finds something longer-lasting. Traversing the highway to the nearby Pizza Hut to get food, Ehrenreich remarks, is like an experience out of J. G. Ballard.

Ehrenreich realizes that there are few cheap housing options in Portland itself, because the more affluent take the motel rooms during the summer and those rates don’t drop until after Labor Day. She visits a place in Old Orchard Beach—which turns out to be orchardless. It’s tiny, has no window, and seems like it might be illegal. After a few more dead-ends, she happens upon the Blue Haven Motel on Route 1—a charming place, “rows of tiny white cottages set against deep blue pines,” in which the room is $120 a week. Pleased with her find, she sets out in her Rent-A-Wreck to apply for as many jobs as possible—having learned from her Key West experience about the unreliability of “wanted” ads. She looks for positions in: cleaning, nursing home work, warehouse work, manufacturing, and as a “general helper.” At some interviews, no one even makes eye contact with her. “It’s humbling,” she notes, “this business of applying for low-wage jobs, consisting as it does of offering yourself—your energy, your smile, your real or faked lifetime of experience—to a series of people for whom this is just not a very interesting package.”

At Wal-Mart, she is, as she was in Winn-Dixie, asked all sorts of moralistic questions. She notes in a footnote that “personality testing in the workplace is at an all-time high,” in the words of Margaret Talbot of The New York Times Magazine. At a housecleaning service called The Maids she is administered an “Accutrac personality test.” Luckily, she nabs a spot at a nursing home for $7 an hour and a spot at The Maids for $6.65 an hour. To celebrate, she dines at Appleby’s.

She gets up the next day at 4:45am to make it to the Woodcrest Residential Facility (not the real name) for her 7am shift as a “dietary aide.” Linda is her supervisor, a kindly woman who shows her the ropes. Essentially what Ehrenreich has to do is feed the residents when they come in for breakfast, and then wash the dishes afterwards. The serving part is easy—especially when compared with the frenetic atmosphere at the Hearthside or Jerry’s—but the dishwashing is grueling, since the machine goes at breakneck speed and Ehrenreich has trouble keeping up. It’s surprising to her that she has difficulty with this function, because she’s been cleaning dishes since her mother assigned her the task as a little girl (so that her mother could enjoy her post-meal cigarettes).

Ehrenreich strikes up a cordial relationship with the cook, Pete. Realizing that she is more or less at his mercy—he has the power to make a dietary aide’s work very smooth and easy or very difficult—she tells him she is single. They share a cigarette break together in his car, which feels to her something like “a date.” She wonders if he is something of an impostor, since he brags about having worked at a real restaurant before and explains he doesn’t need to worry much about money because of sound investments and lucky gambling streaks. If he is so well-off, Ehrenreich wonders, why the beat-up car and the “scraggly” teeth verging on decay?

The residential facility gets Ehrenreich to thinking about her father again, who spent his final years suffering from Altzheimer’s in a similar place. Ehrenreich, trying to find something to do her last night at Motel 6, goes to a “tent revival” outside a nearby church, just to observe, perhaps to be entertained. Her thoughts drift to the afterlife: if a soul represents the person at the moment of death, does Heaven “look something like the Woodcrest, with plenty of CNAs and dietary aides to take care of those who died in a state of mental decomposition?”

The following day she moves into the Blue Motel. It’s smaller than she remembered; the stove is only four feet from the tiny kitchen area, the bed seven feet from the stove. “Not to worry,” Ehrenreich writes. “I have an address, two jobs, and a Rent-A-Wreck. The anxiety that gripped me those first few days at the 6 is finally beginning to ebb.”

On Monday she arrives at The Maids’ office suite at 7:30am. The rules are laid out: no smoking, no drinking, eating, or gum chewing, no cursing. Uniforms are “kelly-green pants” and “sunflower-yellow” polos. Training lasts a day and a half. The primary part of it consists of watching four videotapes, each on a single cleaning process—dusting, vacuuming, bathrooms, and kitchens. “Dusting” seems to be the easiest of the bunch; for “vacuuming,” The Maids uses a special vacuum that attaches to the user’s back, so that maid and vacuum essentially become one. “I am the vacuum,” proudly proclaims the prototype’s inventor on the video. For “kitchens,” Ehrenreich notices that the maids are instructed to use only half a bucket of water, meaning that by the end of a clean a maid will only be spreading dirt around. The key, it seems, is to make a kitchen (or any part of a house or apartment) look clean, and to this end The Maids employs a variety of tricks: spreading oil on the silverware to make it gleam, fixing up the ends of the carpets because they are the most visible parts, spraying air freshener everywhere, etc.

The work is exhausting, particularly because the maids must move so quickly. They shuttle from house to house and speed through the rooms as fast as they can (which befuddles Ehrenreich, since, after all, they are being paid by the hour). Though the rate is $6.65 an hour per person, Ehrenreich learns that The Maids actually charges customers $25 per person-hour. Why does she see such a small fraction of that money?

The other maids seem almost desperately poor. None of them are homeless, but they never have enough change in their pockets to pay for the tiniest of things—a toll booth, more than a bag of Doritos for lunch. Maids are not allowed to drink or eat anything on the job—which becomes a moot point anyway, because the owners almost never offer anything. Barbara provides a particularly vivid account of cleaning the enormous house of a rich lady—referred to as “Mrs. W.”—and scrubbing on her hands and knees right next to the owner. Mrs. W. looks at her for some time, and then asks if she can do the same thing to the entryway while she’s at it. Never a mention of anything to drink or eat.

Lockouts are blamed on the employees; Ted, the franchise owner, insists that if a customer forgets the cleaners are coming or changes his mind when they arrive, it must “mean something.” Ehrenreich develops terrible rashes and bumps on her arms and legs—either from vegetation like poison ivy or from a detergent (though the latter seems unlikely because the rash would have started on the hands). The itching becomes so intense that she falls back on her old safety network and gets a prescription from her dermatologist. Meanwhile, though she looks like a “leper,” she shows up to work and is told to soldier on. “Work through it,” Ted likes to say to or of ill employees. From the muscular pains to the rashes, from the stink to the occasional shit in the toilets, from the five-minute pit stop for lunch (when a thirty-minute break had been promised when Ehrenreich applied) to the degradation of it all (Ehrenreich notes that throughout her own life hardly ever has she managed to bring herself to hire a cleaning person or service), the job is something of a nightmare.

Fall comes, and Ehrenreich finds herself assigned day after day to Holly’s team. What she notices about twenty-three year-old Holly is that “she is visibly unwell.” She is alarmingly pale, seems abnormally thin, and never seems to eat more than a tiny cracker sandwich during her eight-to-nine-hour-long shift. One day, Marge, the oldest, most affluent, and normally bubbliest and most loquacious of the bunch, takes note of Holly’s appearance and asks her if she feels nauseous. When Holly says yes, Marge demands to know if she is pregnant. Holly doesn’t answer. Marge asks again. Still no answer. Ehrenreich tries to take over as much of Holly’s workload as she can, but Holly finally slumps over the counter in the kitchen and confides that she had a “big fight” with her husband and didn’t want to go to work this morning but was told she had to. She reveals that she is probably pregnant; “it’s been seven weeks and the nausea is out of control,” but, as Ehrenreich learns, “she wants it to be a secret until she can call Ted herself.”

Ehrenreich tries to persuade Holly to go home, but to no avail. She tries to work harder so as to cut down on Holly’s duties, but winds up dropping a pot into a marble-filled fishbowl in a fancy home. Then, that weekend, she finds herself without enough money to make ends meet. (She is informed a new employee’s paycheck at The Maids is withheld until the employee leaves or quits, “apparently to keep her from rushing off on a spending spree and failing to show up for the second week.”) Moreover, the Blue Haven rent is more than she expected (the tourist season is not yet over, apparently), and her rash has cost her quite a bit of money in ointments and such. She calls up the Prebles Street Resource Center, which closes at 3:00pm but forwards her to 774-HELP, which in turn sends her off to another voluntary agency. After several calls, Ehrenreich finally obtains food vouchers to take to the grocery store. “Bottom line,” Ehrenreich writes: “$7.02 worth of food acquired in seventy minutes of calling and driving, minus $2.80 for the phone calls—which ends up being equivalent to a wage of $3.63 an hour.”

Then, Saturday at the Woodcrest, Ehrenreich runs into another near-calamity. Her fellow dietary aide doesn’t show up, and Ehrenreich becomes the sole dietary worker for the entire Alzheimer’s ward that day. Moreover, the upstairs dishwasher is broken and the keys to the upstairs kitchen are missing. “I consider myself—and my patients—extremely fortunate,” Ehrenreich writes in a footnote, “that I did not inadvertently harm someone on this day when I fed the Alzheimer’s ward by myself.”

“The goal for my third week at The Maids is to achieve a state of transcendental detachment,” Ehrenreich asserts a few paragraphs later. She sees no evidence after all that any of the other employees share her sense of outrage. The only forms of rebellion she has either witnessed or sensed the possibility thereof are theft and violations of The Maids’ code of decorum (speeding, loud music in the car, etc.).

In the usual rush from one house to another, Holly trips in a hole in the ground, falls, and screams in pain. Sobbing, she says: “Something snapped […] I heard it snap.” Ehrenreich tells Holly they have to take her to an emergency room, but Holly only consents to calling Ted on the phone. This she does, apologizing in tears, arguing that “Barbara is making a fuss.” After trying to attain a Zen-like detachment from work for the past few days, Ehrenreich feels her old outrage returning, and she takes the phone and blows up at Ted. “I can’t remember the exact words, but I tell him he can’t keep putting money above his employees’ health,” she writes, “and I don’t want to hear about ‘working through it,’ because this girl is in really bad shape.” Then she hangs up on him. Despite her protestations, Holly keeps on doing work.

Later in the day, Ehrenreich mentions she is “bracing for a confrontation with Ted.” Marge assures her she won’t get fired. Ehrenreich responds that she’s not worried, that there’re “millions of jobs out there.” “But we need you,” Marge says. “You can’t just leave Ted in the lurch.” Ehrenreich counters that Ted will have no trouble replacing her, that he’ll just “take anyone who can manage to show up sober at 7:30 in the morning.” Holly disagrees: “That’s not true. Not everyone can get this job. You have to pass the test.” “The test,” Ehrenreich snaps, “is BULLSHIT! Anyone can pass that test!”

Immediately Ehrenreich regrets her outburst. It irrevocably changes the tone, and she knows she has insulted Holly and the other employees. She notes that “misdirected rage is not an easy thing to hold on to; the last sparks of it get snuffed out, as they deserve to be, in the icy waters of humiliation and defeat.” She has never felt lower, and though Ted does not fire her and even offers her a raise, she resolves to leave. She asks Ted if Holly will be paid for her day off. (Ted finally did send her home, we learn.) “Oh yes, of course,” he says. “What do you think I am, an ogre?” No, Ehrenreich thinks, “the word I am thinking of is pimp.”

Why do people stay in this job? Changing jobs is difficult, can mean a week or more with no paycheck, and Ted’s approval has a special lure. He may be cruel, “but at The Maids he is the only living representative of that better world where people go to college and wear civilian clothes to work and shop on the weekends for fun.”

On Ehrenreich’s last afternoon at The Maids, she tells the women on her team who she really is and why she has been working here. Lori laughs that The Maids “could use some investigating,” and with that pronouncement the other women seem to understand “that whatever [Ehrenreich is] up to, the joke is on Ted.” So Ehrenreich asks them: “How do they feel, not about Ted but about the owners, who have so much while others, like themselves, barely get by?”

Lori says: “All I can think of is like, wow, I’d like to have this stuff someday. It motivates me and I don’t feel the slightest resentment because, you know, it’s my goal to get to where they are.” Colleen, a single mother of two, says: “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.”


Ehrenreich’s stint in Maine presents a series of befuddlements—first economic, then psychological. To begin with, the $6/$7 per-hour model in Portland strikes Ehrenreich as counter-logical. It seems to disregard basic economic “law.” “If the supply (of labor) is low relative to demand,” she writes, “the prices should rise, right?” Next, Ehrenreich finds herself perplexed at the attitudes of her fellow employees at The Maids. Why do they put up with Ted’s mistreatment of them? Why do they not react more forcefully to the revelation of Ehrenreich’s true identity? And then there are the customers. Why do they never seem to offer the maids anything to drink or eat? Why does Ted run his business as though he were a pimp?

Ehrenreich comes to Maine dreaming of flannel shirts, apple juice and doughnuts, and clean air. What she gets instead is a dispiriting slice of humanity, a vision of our capacity to dehumanize each other. Though Woodcrest presents its own set of challenges—and its own troubling image of residents in various states of “mental decomposition”—The Maids is the focus of the chapter. Ehrenreich notes that she has rarely hired a cleaning service herself, that it is “not the kind of relationship [she wants] to have with another human being.” She describes the outfit required for the job—“kelly-green pants” and “sunflower-yellow” polos—as though it were an actor’s costume. The maids are not allowed to smoke, drink, or curse: those kinds of behavior would be out of character. Yes, the maids must slip into pre-assigned roles whenever they enter a customer’s house; that house becomes their stage, they menial sideshow performers acting out a scripted routine. As she describes the near-ritualistic training session, the specific parameters of the workplace, the codes of behavior, Ehrenreich implicitly reminds us of the fine line between the kind of performance she is doing and the kind her fellow maids must do every day on the job.

Later, Ehrenreich describes the stares she experiences as a maid, stares translatable into: “What are you doing here?” While a waitress’s uniform might be a conversation starter, a maid’s uniform is the exact opposite; Ehrenreich compares the outfit to “prison clothes on a fugitive”. It occurs to her that she may be “getting a tiny glimpse of what it would be like to be black.” Earlier she writes: “Maids, as an occupational group, are not visible, and when we are seen we are often sorry for it.” Indeed, America may be a caste-free society in theory, but the maids are the true untouchables of the country’s hierarchy: “Even convenience store clerks, who are $6-an-hour gals themselves, seem to look down on us,” Ehrenreich concludes.

Whether we speak of The Maids or Woodcrest or Hearthside or Jerry’s, however, the low-wage workplace in general seems to exert a soul-crushing effect. “If you hump away at menial jobs 360-plus days a year, does some kind of repetitive injury of the spirit set in?” Ehrenreich asks. She even concocts her own religious ideology to guide her through her workload and achieve some kind of detachment from it all. “I draw on the Jesus who was barred from the tent revival,” she writes, “the one who said that the last shall be first and that, if someone asks for your cloak, give him your robe as well.” Is Ehrenreich implicitly positing an explanation for religion’s roots (or at least Christianity’s) among the poor and dispossessed, the fundamental attraction of religion to those lower down the social ladder? “In the beautiful fantasy that results,” Ehrenreich continues, “I am not working for a maid service; rather, I have joined a mystic order dedicated to performing the most despised of tasks, cheerfully and virtually for free—grateful, in fact, for this chance to earn grace through submission and toil.”

Certainly, the maids seem to submit to their work without much complaint. But what do they actually think of it? How do they actually feel? Their attitudes remain essentially a mystery to Ehrenreich, who, as journalist, can see only “evidence” (or lack thereof) of given feelings or convictions. As a writer of nonfiction (and not fiction), however, she is relegated to the set of facts at her disposal, the physical indices that are tangible and can be interpreted. Holly’s silence, in this case, conceals a whole world.

Perhaps the fundamental problem is that Ehrenreich remains at a remove from her fellow employees. She remains an actor, and one whose acting falters when she must resort to her old dermatologist. Note her choice of words in the following passage: “I should, if I were going to stay in character, find an emergency room after work and try to cop a little charitable care.” The italics are mine.

At the same time, Ehrenreich seems for the first time swept up in her own performance, to the extent that she grows anxious and afraid—when in reality she has the safety net of her real (old) life. “This should be exhilarating, I tell myself, like a dive into the frigid New England Atlantic, followed by a slow, easy swim beyond the surf,” she writes. And isn’t redefining oneself part and parcel of the American Dream? The role-playing, however, is bounded by class; Ehrenreich displays veritable class-consciousness in her writing, as though this role-playing is revealing to her (a liberal, it seems) the fundamental differences between classes even more than the similarities—differences not just physical and concrete but philosophical, psychological, characterological. She writes: “the anxieties of my actual social class take over.” Note the use of the word “actual,” as though Ehrenreich were trying to reassure herself.

After these broader reflections, the spirit of New Journalism creeps into Ehrenreich’s writing: “Message to me from my former self: slow down and, above all, detach. If you can’t stand being around suffering people, then you have no business in the low-wage work world, as a journalist or anything else.” This is a personal testament, and the first-person is paramount. Time and again, Ehrenreich lets us sink into her new world, only to pull us back with a reminder of the act, the piece of theater, that is at play. She seems aware that her most honest moments, per New Journalism’s credo, are when her own role as journalist/author is brought into question.