Four years ago, the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich had lunch with the editor of a rather serious American magazine called Harper’s (not to be confused with Harper’s Bazaar; it is one place where you’re unlikely to find Liz Hurley talking about the dastardly Bing). Over salmon, greens and fizzy mineral water, the pair discussed a few ideas. Soon, however, the talk drifted to one of her favourite themes – poverty. How, she mused, does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled? In particular, how were the four million women then about to be booted into the labour market by welfare reform going to survive on just $6 an hour? It was at this point that Ehrenreich, who is in her fifties, said something that she subsequently had more than a few opportunities to regret (though, these days, she is pretty happy that she uttered the dread words, as we shall see). ‘Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism,’ she said, fork in hand. ‘You know, go out there and try it for themselves.’ In her mind, she pictured some hungry ‘neophyte’ hack with, as she puts it, ‘time on her hands’. But, no. The editor of Harper’s, a man with the wonderfully Tom Wolfe-ish name of Lewis Lapham, looked at her and, a crazy half smile spreading slowly across his face, replied: ‘YOU.’
And so it was that she abandoned her writerly lifestyle in tropical Key West and set about living on the breadline. Over the next two years, she waitressed in Florida, cleaned houses in Maine and worked in Wal-Mart in Minnesota. First, though, she set some ground rules. During the endurance test ahead, she was not allowed to rely on skills learned in her old life; she had to accept the best-paid job available, then hang on to it for all she was worth; and she had to take the cheapest housing she could find. It was the last rule that proved the toughest; even the most drearily basic accommodation turned out to be so expensive that the term ‘trailer trash’ quickly became ‘a demographic category to aspire to’.
Thanks to all this hard graft (luckily, Ehrenreich, the daughter of a copper miner, is a stubborn old boot), what started out as an article was soon a book, Nickel and Dimed – and, to its author’s astonishment, it has taken America by storm, rushing up the New York Times bestseller list. ‘Yeah,’ she says, in her wry way. ‘The paperback is still up there with Seabiscuit, a story about a horse – a book I’ve never read but one which I deeply resent.’ A play based on Nickel and Dimed is about to open in Seattle and a documentary soon to be screened on TV. There is even talk of a film. ‘I want Catherine Zeta Jones to play me, obviously,’ she says. However, in the circumstances, it seems rather more likely that the role will go to the redoubtable Susan Sarandon.
By anyone’s standards, Nickel and Dimed is an extraordinary achievement. Though the terrain is depressingly mundane (eating in the ‘family’ restaurant of a budget hotel is hateful enough, never mind working in one), Ehrenreich has produced what is surely one of the most gripping political books ever written. There is misery – the lives of her fellow workers are very miserable indeed – but her story is also a page turner. Will she survive the night in her seedy motel? Will she stand up to Ted, her odious boss at the Maids? And what will her colleagues think when she unmasks herself to them? She writes with sardonic verve and has a woman’s eye for the Orwellian minutiae of life in post-industrial America.
‘That was the biggest – and nastiest – surprise,’ she says. ‘Discovering how big an atmosphere of suspicion there was, how much surveillance we were under. First, there were the drug and personality tests, then the endless rules. At Wal-Mart, we were not even allowed to say “damn”.’ She touches the discreet gold hoops in her ears. ‘These would have been way too big for Wal-Mart. All that was a shock and it got to me. I found that I could not distance myself from the situation as much as I would have liked. The work took over. I’d imagined that I would do all this reading. But I never opened a book, not even a novel. Nothing was really going on apart from the job, my attempts to make ends meet and my note-taking.’
For the duration of her visit to London, Ehrenreich is staying in a curiously old-fashioned West End hotel where she is a big hit on account of her propensity for generous tipping (a by-product of her labours in the low-wage economy). Small and bird-like, she was born in Butte, Montana, a city whose mines have since been replaced by a vast toxic waste dump.
‘It was a strong working-class town,’ she says. ‘I grew up knowing you should never cross a picket line or vote Republican. We were upwardly mobile – my father got some education, became a metallurgist and drifted into administration – but my extended family is mixed. I have one cousin who is a physician, but I have others who are low-wage workers.’
Ehrenreich is divorced with two grown-up children, so untangling herself from everyday life was not difficult. In fact, she was able to tell prospective employers an almost truthful story: to them, she was simply another middle-aged woman starting out all over again. Her age certainly did not put them off. As she soon discovered, turnover in the low-wage world is so fast that companies simply use people up – literally working them until their backs give up the ghost or their knees buckle beneath them – and then spit them out. The poor are unlikely to have health insurance or pensions, so there is no prospect of retirement. ‘This book justified all my visits to the gym,’ she says. ‘I was glad of every weight I’d ever lifted.’
Her odyssey begins – out of laziness – in Key West. She gets a job at the Hearthside restaurant (‘your basic Ohio cuisine with a tropical twist’), where she is paid $2.43 an hour. Here, she finds that ‘Joan’, whose job it is to greet customers, is living in a van parked behind a shopping centre and showers in the motel room inhabited by another colleague. Ehrenreich, alas, is not in possession of a van and so, struggling to come up with enough funds to pay for her tiny bedsit and the gas required to drive to work, moves to a different joint, where she hopes to earn more tips (though her basic pay is still a paltry $2.15 an hour). At Jerry’s, she works with a Czech dishwasher whose digs are so crowded he cannot sleep until someone else goes on shift, leaving a vacant bed.
But even with her new job – and, whoopee, how she loves mixing up those four-gallon batches of blue cheese dressing – Ehrenreich cannot make the figures add up. To save on petrol, she moves to a trailer park, closer to town. Her berth, No 46, is just eight feet wide. Outside is a liquor store, a bar – ‘free beer tomorrow’, says the sign – and a Burger King, but no supermarket or launderette. Desolation rules. ‘There are not exactly people here,’ she writes, ‘but what amounts to canned labour, being preserved between shifts from the heat.’ A month’s rent and the deposit are $1,100. Amazingly, this is one of the better places she finds to live.
‘Yes, that was quite cosy, looking back,’ she says. It was during her third experiment, in Minneapolis, that she hit rock bottom and found herself in a stench-ridden room at a place someone with a sick sense of humour had christened the Clearview Inn. She had no cooker, fridge or fan.
‘The curtains were so thin, I could only get undressed in the dark; the door had no bolt. Anyone could have come into that room if they’d wanted. Sure, I was scared. I slept in my clothes.’ Don’t imagine for a minute that she could have done better than this. Minneapolis has a chronic shortage of low-cost housing. This hovel cost $245 a week; at the time, Wal-Mart, the biggest retail corporation in the world, was paying her a mere $7 an hour.
In Maine, she joins a national cleaning franchise, The Maids. Ehrenreich has always done her own housework, so it is with a mixture of glee and bewilderment that she learns how the pro fessionals do it. Rooms are cleaned left to right. Steel sinks are brightened with baby oil. The fringes of a Persian carpet are combed out with a pick. The vacuum cleaner, a crushing 14lb backpack affair, is used to make fern-like patterns on the carpets. Worse, the women are worked like so many mules – except that these beasts are not allowed to stop for even so much as a glass of water on a sweltering morning. Lunch is eaten in the car en route to the next house: a bag of Doritos and a couple of Advil to deal with the aches and pains.
‘I’ve been asked what was the saddest story I came across,’ she says. ‘Well, the thing that upset me most happened at The Maids. It was the last day of a much older woman, Pauline. She’d worked there for two years – longer than anyone else – but was leaving to have surgery on her knees. At the morning meeting, Ted [the boss] didn’t say anything to her – no goodbye, no thank you, nothing. I drove her home that day. She was so hurt. Yet all she could say was: “He’s never liked me since I had to stop vacuuming because of my back.”‘ When another (pregnant) worker at The Maids falls and sprains her ankle, she is too afraid of losing her job to admit to Ted what has happened – and her colleagues are too terrified of losing theirs to join Ehrenreich in a mutiny over her plight.
But while the dirty corporate secrets revealed in Nickel and Dimed have given low-pay campaigners new focus, Ehrenreich has had no comeback from the companies themselves. ‘I gather my book’s been a big hit in the Wal-Mart ladies department,’ she grins. ‘But so far as the high-ups go, nothing. I was very careful, you see, not to criticise anything the company was selling – and their employment practices are increasingly well known. Only the other day, it was revealed that in some states Wal-Mart has not been paying workers the overtime to which they are entitled by law.’ Other companies were not identified by their real names.
‘The only reaction I had at all was from the guy who owned the restaurant where I worked in Key West. His wife recognised the place and he invited me out for lunch. I agreed to coffee. I was a little nervous. I was afraid he might send his lawyers after me. But he was a nice guy, though I kept thinking how manicured his nails were. He had these spreadsheets with him. I thought he was going to say he was paying out so much in labour it was killing him. In fact, he admitted that everything I’d said was true. He was embarrassed and apologised. So I said: “Why don’t you raise the wages?” But he shrugged that off.’ Their lattes drunk, the only concession she won from him was that he would clean the employee rest room.
Ehrenreich ends her book on a positive note, but this is more wishful thinking stoked with hot anger than a promise (she dreams of a wave of strikes by an angry, newly unionised workforce). In the near future, she thinks, things will not change, for the simple reason that America’s poor are so disenfranchised. ‘I don’t think anybody is expecting the federal government to do anything. What is Bush going to do about poverty? Bomb it? It’s a vicious circle. The poor don’t vote, because they don’t see the parties addressing issues that matter to them; and the politicians don’t address those issues, because they don’t think those people vote.’
Her experiences, however, have had a lasting effect on her own conscience. ‘I used to have a boyfriend who thought we should have a cleaner. I couldn’t explain why I was opposed to the idea – it just seemed emotional on my part. Then I did the job and I knew why I felt so uncomfortable with it. Do I still eat out? Yes, but remember: even in an expensive restaurant, where the waiters do well in tips, there are still the dishwashers and the other people in the background.
‘My perception really has changed. Now, when I see a woman behind the counter in a convenience store, I have so many questions. How long has she been on her feet? What does she get paid? Who does she go home to?’
The problem for Ehrenreich now, of course, is how should she follow up the mother of all assignments. Has inspiration struck? She cackles. ‘I’m trying to convince my editor to give me a multi-million-dollar advance to experience the lives of the rich. But he just laughs… and I guess he’s right. I’d have a hard time infiltrating that world. I’d have to get manicured, have plastic surgery. I just wouldn’t fit in.’
More to the point, in conversation she’d probably get into all sorts of trouble; hard to imagine a sometime contrarian like her making polite small talk at cocktail parties. She raises her eyebrows, just a touch. ‘Yes, there is that.’