Prole Like Me
In the course of the book, after much buffeting by rude customers, abusive supervisors and unreliable co-workers, a kind of working-class alter ego of the author emerges--the "Barb" of her Wal-Mart ID who "is not exactly the same person as Barbara" (nor as sympathetic):
"Barb" is what I was called as a child, and still by my siblings, and I sense that at some level I'm regressing. Take away the career and the higher education, and maybe what you're left with is this original Barb, the one who might have ended up working at Wal-Mart for real if her father hadn't managed to climb out of the mines. So it's interesting, and more than a little disturbing, to see how Barb turned out--that she's meaner and slyer than I am, more cherishing of grudges, and not quite as smart as I'd hoped.
The author sounds more like her usual self when, as a house cleaner for Merry Maids--the McDonald's of its industry--she is forced "to meet the aesthetic standards of the New England bourgeoisie" down on her hands and knees, with a scrub brush. A particularly obnoxious client, the owner of a million-dollar condo on the coast of Maine, takes Ehrenreich into the master bathroom whose marble walls have been "bleeding" onto the brass fixtures--a problem she wants Ehrenreich to address by scrubbing the grouting "extra hard."
That's not your marble bleeding, I want to tell her, it's the worldwide working class--the people who quarried the marble, wove your Persian rugs until they went blind, harvested the apples in your lovely fall-themed dining room centerpiece, smelted the steel for the nails, drove the trucks, put up this building, and now bend and squat and sweat to clean it.
Unable to deliver this political tirade--lest she blow her cover--Ehrenreich instead fantasizes about exacting revenge similar to that witnessed and described so memorably by Orwell in Down and Out (i.e., the disgruntled cook who spat in the soup, the waiters who put their dirty fingers in the gravy, etc.). "All I would have to do," she muses angrily in a gorgeous country house, "is take one of the E. coli-rich rags that's been used on the toilets and use it to 'clean' the kitchen counters." No one, she concludes, should be asked to wipe out someone else's "shit-stained" bathroom bowl or gather up the pubic hairs found in their "shower stalls, bath tubs, jacuzzis, drains, and even, unaccountably, in sinks."
Ehrenreich has long been a rarity on the left--a radical writer with great wit and a highly accessible style. While often sad and grim, Nickel and Dimed is nevertheless sprinkled with the author's trademark humor. She is, for example, frequently struck by the oddity of her circumstances. Sitting alone in a cheap motel, eating takeout food after a hard day at Wal-Mart, she watches an episode of Survivor. "Who are these nutcases who would 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."
Half-assed as her attempts to learn unfamiliar jobs may have been--and as funny as she sometimes makes the experience seem--Ehrenreich is still engaged in a serious project. Nickel and Dimed may not be prime-time fare for millions. Yet, hopefully, it will still reach enough readers to expand public awareness of the real-world survival struggles that many Americans faced even before the current economic downturn. If anything, this book should command greater attention now because the life of the working poor--never easy in good times--is about to get harder in ways we'll never see on "reality TV."