This month, Our Daily Lives presents a first-person account of journalist Barbara Ehrenreich. The author went undercover to take a series of low-paying, entry-level jobs and tried to live on her wages. “This is really a story of how hard you have to work to fail,” Ehrenreich said at a presentation of her book, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” (Metropolitan Books, New York), at the New School in New York on May 14.
The author describes starting work for a maid service in Maine:
I get pushy with Rosalie, who is new like me and fresh from high school in a rural northern part of the state, about the meagerness of her lunches, which consists solely of Doritos–a half bag from the day before or a freshly purchased small-sized bag. She just didn’t have anything in the house, she says (though she lives with her boyfriend and his mother), and she certainly doesn’t have any money to buy lunch, as I find out when I offer to fetch her a soda from a Quick Mart and she has to admit she doesn’t have 89 cents. I treat her to the soda, wishing I could force her, mommy-like, to take milk instead. So how does she hold up for an eight- or nine-hour day? “Well,” she concedes, “I get dizzy sometimes.”
How poor are they, my coworkers? The fact that anyone is working this job at all can be taken as prima facie evidence of some kind of desperation or at least a history of mistakes and disappointments, but it’s not for me to ask. In the prison movies that provide me with a mental guide to comportment, the new guy doesn’t go around shaking hands and asking, “Hi there, what are you in for?”
So I listen, in the cars and when we’re assembled in the office, and learn, first, that no one seems to be homeless. Almost everyone is embedded in extended families or families artificially extended with housemates. People talk about visiting grandparents in the hospital or sending birthday cards to a niece’s husband; single mothers live with their own mothers or share apartments with a coworker or boyfriend. Pauline, the oldest of us, owns her own home, but she sleeps on the living room sofa, while her four grown children and three grandchildren fill up the bedrooms.
But although no one, apparently, is sleeping in a car, there are signs, even at the beginning, of real difficulty if not actual misery. Half-smoked cigarettes are returned to the pack. There are discussions about who will come up with the 50 cents for a toll and whether Ted (the franchise owner of The Maids) can be counted on for prompt reimbursement.
One of my teammates gets frantic about a painfully impacted wisdom tooth and keeps making calls from our houses to try to locate a source of free dental care. When my–or, I should say Lisa’s–team discovers there is not a single Dobie in our buckets, I suggest that we stop at a convenience store and buy one rather than drive all the way back to the office. But it turns out I haven’t brought any money with me and we cannot put together $2 between the four of us.
The Friday of my first week at The Maids is unnaturally hot for Maine in early September–95 degrees, according to the digital time-and-temperature displays offered by banks that we pass. I’m teamed up with the sad-faced Rosalie and our leader, Maddy, whose sullenness, under the circumstances, is almost a relief after Liza’s relentless good cheer.
Liza, I’ve learned, is the highest-ranking cleaner, a sort of supervisor really, and said to be something of a snitch, but Maddy, a single mom of maybe 27 or so, has worked for only three months and broods about child care problems. Her boyfriend’s sister, she tells me on the drive to our first house, watches her 18-month-old for $50 a week, which is a stretch on The Maids’ pay, plus she doesn’t entirely trust the sister, but a real day care center could be as much as $90 a week.
After polishing off the first house, no problem, we grab “lunch”–Doritos for Rosalie and a bag of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish for Maddy–and head out into the exurbs for what our instruction sheet warns is a five-bathroom spread and a first-timer to boot. Still, the size of the place makes us pause for a moment, buckets in hand, before searching for an appropriately humble entrance. It sits there like a beached ocean liner, the prow cutting through swells of green turf, windows without number. “Well, Well,” Maddy says, reading the owner’s name from our instruction sheet, “Mrs. W. and her big-ass house. I hope she’s going to give us lunch.”
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of “Blood Rites,” “The Worst Years of Our Lives,” “Fear of Falling” and eight other books. A frequent contributor to Time, Harper’s Magazine, The New Republic, The Nation and the New York Times Magazine, she lives near Key West, Florida.