Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Saturday, March 25, 2006

"Nickel and Dimed" Is the Book All of Vigo County Will Be Reading

[gary daily col. 51 January 26, 2003]

“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them." -- Mark Twain

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich is the book chosen to be the “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” selection for 2003. The announcement on Thursday of last week at the Vigo County Public Library, the mover and shaker behind the program, made it official.

“If All” initiatives are launched with hope and propelled by focused energy. “If All” aims at getting an entire community to read the same book. It promotes efforts that will help the community think about what they have read in that book and it provides individuals opportunities to sit down and talk about what they discovered in the book. Not many books are chosen or read with these goals in mind. It takes a special book to make such a program work --Nickel and Dimed is that special book.

What Ehrenreich does in this book (she refers to it as a kind of “experiment”) is go out into the country and become a low-wage worker. (It should be noted that at no time does she take a minimum wage job.) Her goal in this foray into immersion journalism is to simply report on her experience. Here’s how she puts it:

“So this is not the story of some death-defying ‘undercover’ adventure. Almost anyone could do what I did, look for jobs, work those jobs, try to make ends meet. In fact, millions of Americans do it every day, and with a lot less fan fare and dithering.”

Ehrenreich works jobs in three parts of the country-- Florida, Maine and Minnesota. As mentioned, these are far from “death-defying” endeavors. Wal-Mart goon squads do not beat her up; the supervisor at a chain restaurant does not threaten to break her thumbs; house cleaning service henchmen do not escort her to the edge of the city with the warning, “You’ll never scrub toilets in this town again.”

But there are tensions of a different sort in this book--the subtitle of Nickel and Dimed hints at this: “On (Not) Getting By in America.” Those who have experienced the gnawing fears and the draining frustrations that come with working long and hard and never quite making ends meet know these tensions. Ehrenreich quietly yet movingly gets these down of the page.

Ehrenreich joins workers caught in a social-economic net that frustrates them at every turn. In very personal terms she tells the story of being caught in this net. She tells it with empathy, realism and touches that are memorable and often very funny. And there is not a maudlin or patronizing sentence in the book.

Her ventures into low-wage jobs in America reveal that this work and the difficulty of “Getting By” on the take-home pay from these jobs is hidden in plain sight from many Americans. She writes of work that often requires significant skills. She stingingly reports on the indignities she encounters and the corners she must cut as she struggles to “Get By.” She flounders and fails.

Readers who feel they must rush for the exits when a book threatens to become a catalogue of depressing statistics need not despair. This is not a book filled with numbers about, say, the homeless or single-mothers on welfare. And it’s not a book about bad luck or even bad decisions. It’s a book about someone you know or once knew, maybe one of your neighbors, or a relative, or you.

Our elected officials are aware of this world. But seeing it through the journalistic art of Ehrenreich may give them a fresh perspective. I ask Mayor Anderson and her staff, the Terre Haute City Council, and the Vigo County Council to sit down and spend a few hours with Ehrenreich in the world of the working poor. They should all become a part of the “If All” dialogue.

I will be calling them about their reactions to Nickel and Dimed and reporting back in this column.

I specifically ask that members of academic departments of management, sociology, and economics at our local universities study this book carefully. I ask them to perform a service to the “If All” community by using their expertise and reporting on the applicability of Ehrenreich’s personal journey, observations, and conclusions to circumstances in our community.

Their thoughts and critiques of the “If All” book will also be given an airing in the “Reading at the Crossroads” column.

Ehrenreich worked as a waitress in a chain restaurant, a housekeeper in a motel, as clean-up help in a nursing home, a cleaning person with a contract housecleaning company, and as a Wal-Mart “associate.” Using the local telephone book, I estimate that we have thirty-six motels, fifteen nursing homes, eight house cleaning agencies, two going on three Wal-Marts, and too many chain restaurants to count in our community.

If you know this work, if you work this work and can compare your experience to that described in Ehrenreich’s book, call or write me. I am most anxious to pass your thoughts on the “If All” book along to the readers of this column.

Right now the “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” selection for 2003, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, is available at the Vigo County Public Library. Pick it up, read it and I’m certain you will start talking about it.

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