There was always, of course, the difference that only I knewthat I wasn't working for the money, I was doing research for an article and later a book. I went home every day not to anything resembling a normal domestic life but to a laptop on which I spent an hour or two recording the day's eventsvery diligently, I should add, since note taking was seldom an option during the day. This deception, symbolized by the laptop that provided a link to my past and future, bothered me, at least in the case of people I cared about and wanted to know better. (I should mention here that names and identifying details have been altered to preserve the privacy of the people I worked with and encountered in other settings during the course of my research. In most cases, I have also changed the names of the places I worked and their exact locations to further ensure the anonymity of people I met.)
In each setting, toward the end of my stay and after much anxious forethought, I "came out" to a few chosen coworkers. The result was always stunningly anticlimactic, my favorite response being, "Does this mean you're not going to be back on the evening shift next week?" I've wondered a lot about why there wasn't more astonishment or even indignation, and part of the answer probably lies in people's notion of "writing." Years ago, when I married my second husband, he proudly told his uncle, who was a valet parker at the time, that I was a writer. The uncle's response: "Who isn't?" Everyone literate "writes," and some of the low-wage workers I have known or met through this project write journals and poemseven, in one case, a lengthy science fiction novel.
But as I realized very late in this project, it may also be that I was exaggerating the extent of the "deception" to myself. There's no way, for example, to pretend to be a waitress: the food either gets to the table or not. People knew me as a waitress, a cleaning person, a nursing home aide, or a retail clerk not because I acted like one but because that's what I was, at least for the time I was with them. In every job, in every place I lived, the work absorbed all my energy and much of my intellect. I wasn't kidding around. Even though I suspected from the start that the mathematics of wages and rents were working against me, I made a mighty effort to succeed.
I make no claims for the relevance of my experiences to anyone else's, because there is nothing typical about my story. Just bear in mind, when I stumble, that this is in fact the best-case scenario: a person with every advantage that ethnicity and education, health and motivation can confer attempting, in a time of exuberant prosperity, to survive in the economy's lower depths.
From Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. Copyright Barbara Ehrenreich 2001. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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