Thursday, August 28, 2003

On Being Nickel & Dimed

I recently finished Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel And Dimed: On not getting by in America. I had been excited to read this book ever since a professor I had 2 years ago recommended it as an excellent commentary on the social mores and culture of status in America.

I was bitterly disappointed.

The premise of the book, for those who do not know, is fairly simple. Ehrenreich, a journalist, sets out to see if one can "get by" on the meager salaries provided by low-wage jobs such as retail, cleaning, and waiting tables. She travels to several cities in various places around the country, procuring low-rent housing (the cheapest she can find) and low-paying jobs, writing all the while about her experiences.

To some, I'm sure that reading about this could be a very enlightening experience. Actually going through it certainly was to her. But her surprise at the maltreatment of her amused me at the very least, and made me roll my eyes scornfully at worst. For the love of God, had she never worked a crap job before? Are people really that out of touch with what it's like to work a crap job?

I guess they are. But for me, I've been through much worse than anything she described. I had to laugh at her shock when management at a restaurant informed the staff that their "break room" was a "privilege, not a right" and could be "taken away at any time". Ha! Break room? At a restaurant?!? Every place I ever waited tables, we were not allowed breaks. We were usually not allowed to eat while we were "on the clock" (usually a 7 + hour shift)--except rolls we could quickly snatch and inhale. Bathroom breaks evoked nasty looks from the management. In fact, I usually didn't take one. I once worked a 13-hour shift and didn't take a bathroom break. I just didn't have the time.

And sheesh, I could go on and on! That's not the worst of it!
I had a customer at a retail establishment grab me by my smock and threaten to kill me; while the manager watched placidly, then forced me to return the customers' money for his (opened) CD.
A manager of a restaurant once tried to rip my clothes right off me--pinning me against the wall by my chin and grabbing at me with his other hand.
A cook threw an ashtray at me when I suggested that he make my customer's steak medium-rare, as they had ordered, instead of well done. Then I was reprimanded for talking to him "disrespectfully".

God, there are countless stories like that. It's not about the huge incidents, but more the day-to-day small humiliations that management in these types of establishment feels compelled to inflict upon their underlings. I've always said that I never had problems with customers in these types of postions, per se; but more the Napoleon-complexed managers who were trapped in crappy jobs.

It's sad to think that enough people haven't experienced the reality of a low-wage job and lifestyle that a book like this is met as such a groundbreaker. Don't get me wrong--she (Ehrenreich) did a great job. I just find it sad that this common-sense information isn't so common-sense.

There are a few things I have taken from the book, though; such as her observations of herself as a Wal-mart employee. She observes that, after having worked there for a reasonable stint, that she has changed as a person. "Barbara" is her Dr. Jekyll side; kind, caring, and reasonable. But at work she becomes "Barb"; a mean, nasty, spiteful, unhappy person. She wonders who she would be if she had worked there indefinitely, if "Barb" would have taken over and reshaped her as a person.
She also observes that, when every day's tasks are exactly like those of the day before's, time blends together seamlessly. It flies by, leaving her wondering what month it is and what happened to all the months previous.

I find some parallels to my own situation there. Since I've been in this godawful repetitive joke of a job, I find that I'm in a constant state of annoyed impatience. I used to be this starry-eyed world-saver, now I have fantasies about kicking people who get in my way on the T. And time? God, where HAS it gone? The weeks do blend together, marked only by the occasional weekend event.

Another thing that touched me deeply, and actually reminded me of the reasons I once went vegetarian, was a comment she made near the book's closing. I don't have the exact quote with me, unfortunately; but the jist was this: When you hire cheap cleaners, when you pay very little for a meal at a fast-food restaurant, when you buy merchandise at a discount store; you are perpetuating this miserable existence. The money the company is saving by lowering their prices so you can put the extra cash towards your Lexus comes out of the pay and benefits of their low-paid and mistreated employees. People are paying for your convenience with their blood, sweat, and tears.

Think of that, as you live your life of spoiled privilege. There are people who still suffer so that you can have it. And I don't just mean your mommy and daddy...

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