Posted: October 27th, 2022

Assignment 1 – Selling in Minnesota

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Part 1:

Answer the following questions, from readings, in “answer and question format”:

1. Many campus and advocacy groups are currently involved in struggles for a “living wage.” How do you think a living wage should be calculated?

2. Were you surprised by the casual reactions of Ehrenreich’s coworkers when she revealed herself as an undercover writer? Were you surprised that she wasn’t suspected of being “different” or out-of-place despite her graduate-level education and usually comfortable lifestyle?

3. Many of Ehrenreich’s colleagues relied heavily on family—for housing and help with child-care, by sharing appliances and dividing up the cooking, shopping, and cleaning. Do you think Americans make excessive demands on the family unit rather than calling for the government to help those in need?

4. Nickel and Dimed takes place in 1998-2000, a time of unprecedented prosperity in America. Do you think Ehrenreich’s experience would be different in today’s economy? How so?

5. After reading Nickel and Dimed, do you think that having a job—any job—is better than no job at all? Did this book make you feel angry? Better informed? Relieved that someone has finally described your experience? Galvanized to do something.

Part 2: Essay Format

In two pages (not including cover or reference pages), write an Essay that addresses your views on low wage workers need for a $15.00 minimum wage in the US, including making an argument for or against the $15.00 minimum wage. Students are expected to cite sources to support arguments and format citations and reference list using APA (American Psychological Association -sixth edition).

As you think about your argument for or against the $15.00 minimum wage, consider some of the following questions:

* What is a living wage? How much is it today? Is it really a living wage?

* Why do you think caused the pay gap between men and women and how can we close the gap?

* What are some of the challenges associated with organizing for increasing minimum wage to $15.00 an hour? Are some of the challenges specific to any low wage groups (i.e., women, young adults, elderly, or people disability, etc.) or industries (i.e., retail, restaurant, or domestic workers, etc.) 

Florida Workers Want To Raise Minimum Wage To $15.00

https://news.wjct.org/post/florida-workers-want-raise-minimum-wage-15

 

VIDEO: Florida Minimum Wage Challenge:

Florida Minimum Wage Challenge – Week 1

 

THREE
Selling in Minnesota

From the air Minnesota is the very perfection of early summer—the blue of the
lakes merging with the blue of the sky, neatly sculpted clouds pasted here and
there, strips of farmland in alternating chartreuse and emerald—a lush, gentle
landscape, seemingly penetrable from any angle. I had thought for months of
going to Sacramento or somewhere else in California’s Central Valley not far
from Berkeley, where I’d spent the spring. But warnings about the heat and the
allergies put me off, not to mention my worry that the Latinos might be hogging
all the crap jobs and substandard housing for themselves, as they so often do.
Don’t ask me why Minneapolis came to mind, maybe I just had a yearning for
deciduous trees. It’s a relatively liberal state, I knew that, and more merciful than
many to its welfare poor. A half an hour or so of Web research revealed an
agreeably tight labor market, with entry-level jobs advertised at $8 an hour or
more and studio apartments for $400 or less. If some enterprising journalist
wants to test the low-wage way of life in darkest Idaho or Louisiana, more
power to her. Call me gutless, but what I was looking for this time around was a
comfortable correspondence between income and rent, a few mild adventures, a
soft landing.

I pick up my Rent-A-Wreck from a nice fellow—this must be the famous
“Minnesota nice”—who volunteers the locations of NPR and classic rock on the
radio. We agree that swing sucks and maybe would have discovered a few more
points of convergence, only I’m on what a certain Key West rock jock likes to
call “a mission from God.” I’ve got my map of the Twin Cities area, purchased
for $10 at the airport, and an apartment belonging to friends of a friend that I can
use for a few days free of charge while they visit relatives back East. Well, not
entirely free of charge, since the deal is I have to take care of their cockatiel, a
caged bird that, for reasons of ornithological fitness and sanity, has to be let out
of the cage for a few hours a day. I had agreed to this on the phone without
thinking, only fully recalling, when I get to the apartment, that birds-at-close-
range are one of the phobias I have always allowed myself, along with oversized
moths and anything derived from oranges. I find the place with no trouble,
delighted that the city and my map are in such perfect agreement, and spend an

hour with one of my hosts absorbing cockatiel technology. At one point, my host
lets the bird out of its cage and it flies directly at my face. With enormous effort,
I bow my head and shut my eyes while it hops around on my hair, pecking and
grooming.

Don’t let the cockatiel throw you off; this is no yuppie ambience. It’s a tiny,
cluttered one-bedroom affair furnished by the Salvation Army and done up in
late seventies graduate student décor. When my hosts leave, I find no olive oil or
balsamic vinegar in the cupboards, no half-empty bottles of Chardonnay in the
fridge, no alcohol at all other than a solidly blue-collar half-pint of Seagram’s 7,
and the favored spread is margarine. It’s pleasant enough, even cozy, with a firm
bed and views of a tree-lined street—except for the bird. But as I’d learned from
my coworkers in Maine—several of whom had spent time in tightly shared space
—people who depend on the generosity of others for their lodging always have
something untoward to put up with, typically incompatible relatives and long
waits for the bathroom. So let the cockatiel-Budgie, as I came to call him,
instead of his more pretentious given name—be a standin in this story for the
intrusive in-laws and noisy housemates that a person of limited means crashing
with distant family in a strange city might normally expect to endure.

Never mind. I’m off first thing in the morning to look for a job. No
waitressing, nursing homes, or housecleaning this time; I’m psyched for a
change-retail, maybe, or factory work. I drive to the two nearest Wal-Marts, fill
out applications, then head for a third one a forty-five-minute drive away on the
opposite edge of the city. I drop off my application and am about to start hitting
the Targets and Kmarts when I get an idea: no one is going to hire me based on
an application showing no job experience—I have written, as usual, that I am a
divorced homemaker reentering the workforce. What I have to do is make a
personal appearance and exhibit my sunny, self-confident self. So I go to the pay
phone in the front of the store, call the store’s number, and ask for personnel. I’m
put through to Roberta, who is impressed by my initiative and tells me I can
come on in to her office in the back of the store. Roberta, a bustling platinum-
haired woman of sixty or so, tells me there’s nothing wrong with my “app”; she
herself raised six children before starting at Wal-Mart, where she rose to her
present position in just a few years, due mainly to the fact that she’s a “people
person.” She can offer me a job now, but first a little “survey,” on which there
are no right or wrong answers, she assures me, just whatever I think. As it

happens, I’ve already taken the Wal-Mart survey once, in Maine, and I rush
through it again with aplomb. Roberta takes it off to another room, where, she
says, a computer will “score” it. After about ten minutes, she’s back with
alarming news: I’ve gotten three answers wrong—well, not exactly wrong but in
need of further discussion.

Now, my approach to preemployment personality tests has been zero
tolerance vis-à-vis the obvious “crimes”—drug use and theft—but to leave a
little wriggle room elsewhere, just so it doesn’t look like I’m faking out the test.
My approach was wrong. When presenting yourself as a potential employee, you
can never be too much of a suck-up. Take the test proposition that “rules have to
be followed to the letter at all times”: I had agreed to this only “strongly” rather
than “very strongly” or “totally” and now Roberta wants to know why. Well,
rules have to be interpreted sometimes, I say, people have to use some
discretion. Otherwise, why, you might as well have machines do all the work
instead of actual human beings. She beams at this—“Discretion, very good!”—
and jots something down. With my other wrong answers similarly accounted for,
Roberta introduces me to “what Wal-Mart is all about.” She personally read Sam
Walton’s book (his autobiography, Made in America) before starting to work
here and found that the three pillars of Wal-Mart philosophy precisely fit her
own, and these are service, excellence (or something like that), and she can’t
remember the third. Service, that’s the key, helping people, solving their
problems, helping them shop—and how do I feel about that? I testify to a
powerful altruism in retail-related matters and even find myself getting a bit
misty-eyed over this bond that I share with Roberta. All I have to do now is pass
a drug test, which she schedules me to take at the beginning of next week.

If it weren’t for the drug test, I might have stopped looking right then and
there, but there has been a chemical indiscretion in recent weeks and I’m not at
all sure I can pass. A poster in the room where Roberta interviewed me warns
job applicants not to “waste your time or ours” if you’ve taken drugs within the
last six weeks. If I had used cocaine or heroin there would be no problem, since
these are water-soluble and wash out of the body in a couple of days. (LSD isn’t
even tested for.) But my indiscretion involved the only drug usually detected by
testing, marijuana, which is fat-soluble and, I have read, can finger in the body
for months. And what about the prescription drugs I’ve been taking for a chronic
nasal congestion problem? What if Claritin-D, which gives you a nice little

bounce, shows up as crystal meth?

So it’s back to the car and my red-inked help-wanted ads, both in the Star
Tribune and a throwaway called Employment News. I visit a couple of staffing
agencies aimed at industrial jobs and certify that I have no physical limitations
and can lift twenty pounds over my head, though I would feel better if I knew
how many reps they have in mind. Then there’s a long drive to the other side of
town, where I have an actual appointment for an interview for an assembly job.
It’s been a few years since I engaged in urban highway driving, and I give myself
high grades for fearless and agile navigation, but eventually the afternoon traffic
defeats me. I can’t find the factory, at least not before 5:00 P.M., and pull into a
shopping center parking lot to find a way to get turned around. I find myself in
front of a Menards housewares store—a midwestern Home Depot-like chain—
and since a sign says, “Now Hiring,” I might as well go on in and put my
confrontational strategy to the test again. Wandering into the lumberyard behind
the store, I flag down a fellow identified as Raymond by his ID badge, who
offers to walk me to the personnel office. Is this a good place to work, I want to
know. He says that it’s OK, it’s just his second job anyway, and that he doesn’t
get mad at the guests because it’s not his fault if the wood is crap. The guests?
These must be the customers, and I’m glad to have learned the term in advance
so I won’t wince or gag in front of management.

Raymond drops me off with Paul, a thick-armed blond guy who is, compared
with Roberta, painfully short of people skills. In response to my homemaking
history, he mutters only, “That doesn’t bother me,” and hands me the personality
test. This one is shorter than Wal-Mart’s and apparently aimed at a rougher
crowd: Am I more or less likely than other people to get into fistfights? Are
there situations in which dealing cocaine is not a crime? A long, repetitive
stretch on stealing, featuring variants on the question: “In the last year I have
stolen (check dollar amount below) worth of goods from my employers.” When
I’m done, Paul eyeballs the test and barks out, “What is your weakest point?”
Uh, lack of experience-obviously. “Do you take initiative?” I’m here, aren’t I? I
could have just dropped off the application. So it’s a go. Paul sees me in
plumbing, $8.50 to start, drug screen results, of course, pending. I shake his hand
to close the deal.[22]

Friday evening: I’ve been in Minneapolis for just over fifteen hours, driven
from the southern suburbs to the northern ones, dropped off a half dozen apps,

and undergone two face-to-face interviews. Job searches take their toll, even in
the case of totally honest applicants, and I am feeling particularly damaged. The
personality tests, for example: the truth is I don’t much care if my fellow workers
are getting high in the parking lot or even lifting the occasional retail item, and I
certainly wouldn’t snitch if I did. Nor do I believe that management rules by
divine right or the undiluted force of superior knowledge, as the “surveys”
demand you acknowledge. It whittles you down to he up to fifty times in the
space of the fifteen minutes or so it takes to do a “survey,” even when there’s a
higher moral purpose to serve. Equally draining is the effort to look both perky
and compliant at the same time, for half an hour or more at a stretch, because
while you need to evince “initiative,” you don’t want to come across as someone
who might initiate something like a union organizing drive. Then there is the
threat of the drug tests, hanging over me like a fast-approaching SAT It rankles
—at some deep personal, physical level—to know that the many engaging
qualities I believe I have to offer—friendliness, reliability, willingness to learn—
can all be trumped by my pee.[23]

In a spirit of contrition for multiple sins, I decide to devote the weekend to
detox. A Web search reveals that I am on a heavily traveled path; there are
dozens of sites offering help to the would-be drug-test passer, mostly in the form
of ingestible products, though one site promises to send a vial of pure, drugfree
urine, battery-heated to body temperature. Since I don’t have time to order and
receive any drug-test-evasion products, I linger over a site in which hundreds of
letters, typically with subject lines reading “Help!!! Test in Three Days!!! ” are
soberly answered by “Alec.” Here I learn that my leanness is an advantage—
there aren’t too many places for the cannabis derivatives to hide out in—and that
the only effective method is to flush the damn stuff out with massive quantities
of fluid, at least three gallons a day. To hurry the process, there is a product
called CleanP supposedly available at GNC, so I drive fifteen minutes to the
nearest one, swigging tap water from an Evian bottle all the way, and ask the kid
manning the place where his, uh, detox products are kept. Maybe he’s used to a
stream of momlike women demanding CleanP, because he leads me poker-faced
to an impressively large locked glass case—locked either because the average
price of GNC’s detox products is $49.95 or because the market is thought to
consist of desperate and not particularly law-abiding individuals. I read the
ingredients and buy two of them separately—creatinine and a diuretic called uva
ursis—for a total of $30. So here is the program: drink water at all times, along

with frequent doses of diuretic, and (this is my own scientific contribution) avoid
salt in any form at all since salt encourages water retention, meaning no
processed foods, fast foods, or condiments of any kind. If I want that job in
plumbing at Menards, I have to make myself into an unobstructed pipe: water in
and water just as pure and drinkable coming out.

My other task for Saturday is to find a place to live. I go through all the
apartment-finding agencies in the phone book—Apartment Mart, Apartment
Search, Apartments Available, and so on—and leave messages. I also try all the
apartment buildings listed, finding, at the two buildings where someone actually
answers, that they want twelve-month leases. I walk to the supermarket to pick
up the Sunday paper, pausing to apply for a job while I’m there. Yes, they could
use someone; things get pretty hectic around the first of the month, right after the
welfare checks go out; I can come back next week. The newspaper, though, is a
disappointment. There is exactly one furnished studio apartment listed for the
entire Twin Cities area, and they’re not answering the phone on the weekend.
Maybe, though, given the incipient incontinence induced by the flush-out
regimen, it’s just as well I have no apartments to see. Dinner is a quarter of a
BBQ chicken from the supermarket, unsalted and washed down with a familiar,
low-tech diuretic—beer.

This is not, all things considered, my finest hour. If I could just surrender to
my increasingly aqueous condition and wait out the weekend with a novel,
things would be looking up. But home in this instance is not a restful place; it’s
more like what is known in the military as a “situation.” When I am home,
Budgie wants to be out of his cage, a desire he makes known by squawking or,
what is far worse, by pacing dementedly. When he is out of his cage, he wants to
sit on my head and worry my hair and my glasses frames. To minimize the
damage, I don’t let him out unless I am wearing my hooded sweatshirt, tied up
tight enough to cover my hair and most of my face, and still I am constantly
having to move him from his favorite face-to-face perch on my shoulder to, say,
my forearm, from which he will work his way ineluctably back to my face. This
is what anyone coming to the door would encounter: a cringing figure, glasses
peering out the porthole of her sweatshirt, topped by a large, crested—and, I can
only imagine, quite pleased with its dominant position—exotic white bird. But I
cannot incarcerate him nearly as much as I would like to. It’s my job—isn’t it?—
my way of earning my shelter, to be this creature’s friend and surrogate flock.

Unfortunately, Budgie does not serve the same functions for me, and on
Sunday I decide to seek out my own kind. A New York friend, a young African
American feminist, had urged me to look up her aunt in Minneapolis, and I have
a reason beyond sociability for doing so: I have been worrying that the scenario I
have created for myself, both here and in Maine, is totally artificial. Who, in real
life, plops herself down in a totally strange environment—without housing,
family connections, or job—and attempts to become a viable resident? Well, it
turns out that my friend’s aunt did exactly that in the early nineties: got on a
Greyhound bus in New York, with two children in tow, disembarking in the
utterly strange state of Florida. This is a story I have to hear, so I call and get a
wary invitation, to come on over this afternoon. Caroline, as I’ll call her, is a
commanding presence, with high cheekbones and quick-moving, shamanistic
eyes. She gets me my drink du jour—water—introduces me to her children, and
explains that it’s her husband’s day off, which he is spending upstairs in bed. The
house—well, she apologizes for it, though three bedrooms in a freestanding
building for $825 a month doesn’t seem so bad to me at the moment. She
itemizes its deficiencies: the bedrooms are tiny; the block is infested with drug
dealers; the dining room ceiling leaks whenever the bathroom above it is used;
the toilet can be flushed only by pouring in a bucket of water. And why are they
here? Because on her $9 an hour as an assistant bookkeeper at a downtown
hotel, plus her husband’s $10 as a maintenance worker, minus utilities and $59 a
week for health insurance (she is diabetic, the five-year-old asthmatic), this is
what you get. Yet if you do the arithmetic, these people are earning nearly
$40,000 a year, which makes them officially “middle class.”

I explain my mission in Minneapolis, although it turns out her niece has
already briefed her, and ask her to tell me about her move to Florida ten years
ago. This is the story more or less as it emerged, since she didn’t mind my taking
notes, of someone doing in real life what I am doing only in the service of
journalism: She had been living in New Jersey, working at a bank, when she
decided to leave her husband because he “wasn’t involved” with the children.
She moved in with her mother in Queens but found it impossible to get to her job
in New Jersey from there, in addition to taking her youngest child to day care
every morning. Then her brother moved in, so you had three adults and two
children in a two-bedroom apartment, which was just not working out. So she
decided to take off for Florida, where she had heard the rents were lower. What
she had was their clothes, the Greyhound tickets, and $1,600 in cash. That was

all. They got off the bus in a town a little south of Orlando, and here a nice cab
driver—she still remembers his name—took them to a low-priced hotel. The
next step was to find a church: “Always find a church.” People from the church
drove her around to the WIC office (Women, Infants, and Children, a federal
program offering food help to pregnant women and mothers of young children)
and to find a school for her twelve-year-old girl and day care for the baby.
Sometimes they also helped with groceries. Soon Caroline got a job cleaning
hotel rooms-twenty-eight to thirty rooms a day for $2-$3 a room, for a total of
about $300 a week. It was “go to bed with a backache and wake up with a
backache.” The little girl had to pick up the baby at day care and watch him until
Caroline got home at about 8:00 P.M., which means she didn’t get much chance
to go outside and play.

What was it like to start all over in a completely new place? “Anxiety attack!
You know what I’m saying?” It was the stress, she thinks, that gave her diabetes.
There she was—thirsty all the time, blurry vision, a terrible itching of her
privates—and she had no idea what the symptoms meant. One doctor told her it
had to be an STD, but it had been a long, long time since any sex had occurred.
One morning the Lord told her, “Go to a hospital. Walk, don’t ride.” She walked
thirty blocks and passed out at the hospital. Maybe the Lord wanted her to walk
so she’d pass out and finally get some attention.

There were good things that happened, though. She used to help a man at the
hotel where she cleaned, a man who was sick with cancer, bringing him food and
even cleaning the bad-smelling sores, and he was so grateful that he once gave
her $325, which he knew was the exact amount of her rent. And there was one
major friend, Irene, whom Caroline met “at a Dumpster.” Irene had problems,
yes. She was both black and Indian, a migrant farmworker, and had been raped
by someone and also abused by her boyfriend, who left an ugly scar on her face.
The boyfriend found the rapist and hacked him to death and ended up
permanently in prison. So Caroline took Irene in and for a while it worked out
very well. Irene got a job at Taco Bell and helped with the kids, whom she
fussed over and loved as her own. Then Irene started drinking and “dancing on
chairs” in bars, finally leaving to live with a man. Caroline misses her and even
went back to Florida once to try to find her. She could have died. One time a
cancer the size of a quarter popped out of her right nipple. It’s hard not knowing.

It was in Florida that Caroline met the current husband, a white man, as it

turns out, and her tribulations did not end with marriage but went on to include
bouts of homelessness and a lot more interstate travel by Greyhound with
children. When, after two hours, I get up to go, Caroline asks if I’m a vegetarian.
I apologize for not being one, and she rushes into the kitchen, coming back with
a family-sized container of her homemade chicken stew, which I accept with
heartfelt gratitude: dinner. We hug. She walks me to my car and we hug again.
So I have a friend now in Minneapolis, and the odd thing is that she is the
original—the woman who uprooted herself and came out somehow on her feet
and who did all this in real life and with children—while I am the imitation, the
pallid, child-free pretender.

But on Tuesday, when the Post-Memorial Day week begins, my life seems
real enough again in a gray and baleful way. This is my day of drug tests, also of
traffic and a steady, appropriately sphincter-relaxing rain. The first test, for Wal-
Mart, is painless enough, conducted at a chiropractor’s office a few miles down
the highway from Wal-Mart itself. I’m given two plastic containers—one to pee
into and one to hold the decanted sample—and sent down the hall to an ordinary
public rest room. Easy enough to substitute someone else’s pee, if I’d had a vial
of it in my pocket or met a potential donor in the rest room. The next test, for
Menards, takes me to the southwestern suburbs, to a regular allopathic hospital,
complete with patients being whisked around corridors on gurneys. A dozen
people are already ahead of me in the waiting room of the SmithKline Beecham
suite I’ve been sent to, most of them, judging from the usual class cues, of the
low-wage variety. The waiting room TV is tuned to Robin Givens’s talk show
Forgive or Forget, where today’s theme is “You took me in and I cleaned you
out.” Seems eighteen-year-old Cory stole from the cousin who took him in, thus
ruining Christmas for the cousin’s girlfriend and her child. Cory is not repentant,
in fact makes excuses about having had to cheat and steal all the way up from
the projects, that’s how his life has been. Robin beats the air with her fists and
yells, “Cory, Cory, stop being a victim!” Thievery is nothing, apparently,
compared to the crime of victimhood. With each fresh denunciation of Cory, the
studio audience applauds more excitedly. He is bad, as are some of the
impassive viewers right in this room, who will soon be judged and exposed by
their urine. My mind slides back to one of the “approve/disapprove” statements
on the Wal-Mart survey: “There is room in every corporation for a
nonconformist.” But no, no, no! The correct answer, as we will all find out soon
enough, is “totally disagree.”

Finally, after forty minutes, I am called out of the waiting room by an
officious woman in blue scrubs. What are they planning—to cut out my bladder
if I fail to produce a testable volume of pee? I ask whether they do anything but
drug testing here. No, that’s pretty much it. She checks my photo ID, then squirts
what looks like soap onto my palms, although there is no sink in evidence. Now
I’m to go into a bathroom and wash with water while she waits, leaving my purse
with her. I pause for a beat or two, goo-filled hands held out, pondering the
issues of trust that have arisen between her and me. Why, for example, am I
supposed to leave her with my purse while she doesn’t even trust me not to
sprinkle some drug-dissolving substance into my urine? But for all I know, any
display of attitude might lead her to slant the results. So I go meekly into the rest
room, wash my hands, and then pee, which I am allowed to do with the door
shut, and our little parody of medical care is complete. The whole venture,
including drive time and wait, has taken an hour and forty minutes, about what it
took for the Wal-Mart test, and it occurs to me that one of the effects of drug
testing is to limit worker mobility—maybe even one of the functions. Each
potential new job requires (1) the application, (2) the interview, and (3) the drug
test—which is something to ponder with gasoline running at nearly two dollars a
gallon, not to mention what you may have to pay for a babysitter.

Until I know the drug test results, I feel obliged to keep looking for jobs. Most
of my encounters are predictable and unpromising—fill out the app, get told to
wait for a call, etc. but one stands out from the corporate, legalistic, euphemistic,
and thoroughly aboveboard feel of all the others. The ad is for “customer
service” work, a type of job I tend to avoid because it normally involves a
résumé, which in turn would involve levels of prevarication I am not prepared to
attempt. But this customer service job is described as “entry-level.” When I call I
am told to come in at three sharp and to be sure to “dress professional.” The
latter injunction presents a challenge, since my wardrobe consists of Tshirts and
only two pairs of pants other than blue jeans, but I have a jacket and decent
shoes brought along for a stop in New York on the way to Minneapolis, and this,
fortified with lipstick and knee-highs, makes for a pretty damn impressive getup,
I think. When I arrive at Mountain Air (as we’ll call it), in a characterless white
box building just off a service road, nine other applicants are already waiting. It
turns out this is a group interview, conducted by Todd in a large room, where we
applicants sit in folding chairs while Todd, a sharply dressed fellow of about
thirty, lectures and shows transparencies.

Todd speaks very rapidly in a singsong cadence, suggesting that he does this
several times a day. Mountain Air, he says, is an “environmental consulting
firm” offering help to people with asthma and allergies as a “free service.” We
will be sent out to the sufferers in our own cars, making $1,650 if we complete
fifty-four two-hour appointments in thirty days-though you’d have to be pretty
lazy to make only that much. Plus there are incredible perks like weekend
training sessions held all over the country where they “get stuff done, of course,
like hearing motivational speakers, but you can bring your spouse and have a
great time.” All we have to be is eighteen or older, bondable, possessing a car
and a home phone and having one year of Minnesota residency. Whoops! He
asks if any of us are not long-term Minnesota residents, and when I raise my
hand he says the requirement can sometimes be waived. What Mountain Air is
really looking for is—and here he reads from a transparency—“Self-disciplined/
Money-motivated/ Positive attitude.”

Nothing, I note, about providing a service or healing the sick. In fact,
compared with Wal-Mart’s unctuous service ethic, Todd’s emphasis on the
bottom line is positively refreshing. We will be independent contractors, he tells
us, not employees, which means, “if you lie to a customer the company is not
responsible.” Even, I wonder, if the lies are part of the sales pitch the company
has taught you? It’s very simple, Todd assures us, just a “matter of taking people
who have a very serious problem, though probably not anywhere near as serious
as they think it is, and leaving them happy.” Any questions? None of this has
made any sense to me at all, but I limit myself to asking what the product is,
assuming there is some kind of product involved. Todd opens a cardboard box
that I had not noticed sitting on the floor near his feet: a squat, slightly
menacing-looking appliance he introduces as the “Filter Queen.” “So this is a
selling job?” someone asks. “No,” Todd says with some vehemence. “We have a
product and if they want it we give it to them”—though he can’t mean give it to
them for free. Now we are to have our personal three-minute interviews. When
my turn comes, he asks why I want to do this and I say something, without
thinking, about wanting to help people with asthma. Where do I think I am, Wal-
Mart? Because when I call at the designated time two hours later, I’m told there’s
no job for me now, although I have made it to the waiting list. Maybe it was the
residency issue that did me in, though I suspect it was the misplaced hypocrisy.

Meanwhile, there is the increasingly desperate apartment search. Whatever

else I am doing at any point in this story, you need to picture me waiting for a
call or looking for a chance to call some rental agency for a second or third or
fourth time. Now that we’re into the weekdays I sometimes get live humans on
the other end of the line, but they are disdainful or discouraging. One directs me
to a throwaway apartment directory available, in boxes on the sidewalk, but its
offerings all include hot tubs and on-site gyms and go for over $1,000 a month.
Another tells me that I’ve picked a bad time to come to Minneapolis; the vacancy
rate is less than 1 percent, and if we’re talking about affordable—why, it might
be as low as a tenth of that. Listings in the Star Tribune are meager or
nonexistent. No one returns my calls. Besides, it is dawning on me belatedly that
Minneapolis is far vaster than Key West or Portland, Maine, and that my two
live job possibilities—Wal-Mart and Menards—are separated by about thirty
miles. My appetite for navigating the Twin Cities highways has been dwindling
rapidly. Everywhere I go, some fellow or other who has never heard of
Minnesota nice is stalking me in his pickup truck, making me covet the bumper
sticker I see more than once: “If you’re not a hemorrhoid, get off my ass.” Nor is
the leading classic rock station turning out to be sufficiently supportive. I can
handle seventy-five-mile-per-hour tailgaters on Creedence Clearwater Revival or
even ZZ Top, but the Eagles and the Doobie Brothers are just no help. So one
thing I do not want is to live at a hair-raising distance from my job, assuming, of
course, that I get a job.

There is one possibility—one place in the entire Twin Cities that rents
“affordable” furnished apartments on a weekly or monthly basis—and this place,
the Hopkins Park Plaza, becomes the focus of my residential yearnings for the
next three weeks, my personal Shangri-La. On my third call (the first two calls
were not returned), I reach Hildy, who doesn’t think there’s anything at the
moment, but I might as well come out and pay the application fee, which is $20
in cash. When I find the couple of two-story brick buildings that constitute the
Park Plaza, several other apartment seekers—a middle-aged white guy with
auburn dyed hair, a young Hispanic man (it’s Latino in California, Hispanic
here), an older white woman—are waiting for Hildy too, which explains why she
doesn’t return calls: the market is entirely on her side. The place, when I finally
get taken around by Hildy, seems OK, although the corridors tend to be dark,
noisy, and permeated with kitchen-waste smells. I can have a room without a
kitchenette right now if I want, but it’s in the basement and the price—$144 a
week—seems a little steep. So I decide to wait for one with a kitchenette to open

up—any day now, Hildy assures me, turnover is dependably high. This seems
like a prudent and thrifty decision at the moment, but it turns out to be a major
mistake.

I decide there must be something I am doing wrong, some cue I am missing.
Budgie’s owners had been confident that Apartment Search would find me a
place. When I call another friend of a friend, a professor at a college in St. Paul
who has briefed me on the Twin Cities’ industrial history, he concedes to being
aware of an affordable-housing “crisis” but has no idea what I should do. Those
rental agents who are kind enough to talk to me all recommend the same thing:
find a motel that rents by the week and stay there until something opens up.[24]
So, through multiple calls, I arrive at a list of eleven motels in the Twin Cities
area, all of them of the non-brand-name variety, offering weekly rates. The rates,
though, are not anybody’s definition of “affordable,” ranging from $200 a week
at the Hill View in Shakopee to $295 at the Twin Lakes in southern
Minneapolis, and many of these places are full. I head for the Hill View, which
wants a $60 cash deposit. I drive and I drive. I go off the map, I leave suburbs
and commercial strips far behind, I enter the open fields, which make for a nice
change, drivingwise—but to live in? The vicinity of the Hill View contains no
diners, no fast-food joints or grocery stores, no commercial establishments at all
except for a couple of agricultural-equipment warehouses. The distance is
unacceptable; as is the room, when I get to see it: no microwave, no fridge,
hardly any space not occupied by the bed. And what would I do if I didn’t feel
like being in bed—invite myself in for a tour of the Caterpillar parts warehouse?

Twin Lakes (not its real name) is at least in Minneapolis. There the East
Indian owner tells me that all his residents are long-term, working people and
that I can have a room on the second floor, where I won’t have to keep the drapes
shut during the day for privacy. Again, no fridge or microwave. Weakly, I tell
him I’ll take it and will move in in a couple of days. No problem. He even
waives the deposit. But I have a bad feeling about the place, partly because
everything looks gray and stained and partly because there’s a deranged-looking
guy hanging out by the coin-op washer-dryer who follows me with bloodshot
blue eyes.

On the job front, though, things are moving along briskly. I had been told at
Menards to show up for “orientation” at ten o’clock Wednesday morning, and
since I assume that my being hired is conditional on passing the drug test, I call

to confirm the appointment. Yes, they’re expecting me—I hope not just for the
purpose of denouncing me as a chemical misfit. But the orientation is friendly
and upbeat. Lee-Ann, a worn-looking blonde in her forties, and I sit across a
table from Walt, who lays out the main points in a jolly, offhand way: Be nice to
the guests, even when they get irate because they can’t return things, and they’re
always trying to return things. Don’t be absent without calling in. Watch out for a
certain top manager, who hits on women when he visits the store and generally
acts like “a shit.” We will need to wear belts, to which a knife (for opening
cardboard boxes, I suppose) and a tape measure will be attached, and the cost of
these items, which he pushes across the table to us, will be deducted from our
first paycheck. And oh yes, we will be getting “little presents” now and then—
ballpoint pens, coffee mugs, Tshirts promoting seasonal items. Then Walt hands
us our vests and our ID badges, and I am touched to see that he has made up two
for me, one with “Barbara” and another with “Barb.” I can take my choice.

When Walt leaves the room for a moment, I turn to Lee-Ann and say, “Does
this mean we’re hired?” Because it seems odd to me that no offer has been made
or accepted. “Looks like,” she says, and tells me that she hasn’t even taken her
drug test. She went to the testing place, but she didn’t have any photo ID because
her wallet was stolen, and of course they wouldn’t test her without photo ID.
Then Walt comes back and takes me out on the floor to meet Steve, a “really
great guy,” who will be my supervisor in plumbing. But here, on the sales floor,
doubt rushes in. The shelves of plumbing equipment, and there seem to be acres
of them, contain not a single item I can name, which gives me an idea of what it
feels like to be aphasic. Would I be able to get by with pointing and grunting?
Steve’s smile seems more like a smirk, as if he’s reading my mind and finding
not a speck of plumbing knowledge lodged within it. Start Friday, he says, shift
is noon to eleven. I think I haven’t heard him right, nor can I quite believe the
wage Walt tells me I’ll be getting—not $8.50 but an incredible $10 an hour.

Now I don’t need Wal-Mart anymore, I think, although it turns out they need
me. Roberta calls to tell me, in fulsome tones, that my “drug screen is fine” and
that I’m due in tomorrow at three for orientation. The test result does not have
the desired effect of making me feel absolved or even clean. In fact I feel
irritated and can’t help wondering whether I could have gotten the same result
without spending $30 and three days on detox and bloat. I ask her what the pay
is—it should be noted that she does not offer this information herself—and when

she says $7 an hour, I think: OK, case closed. But I decide, in the spirit of
caution and inquiry, to attend the Wal-Mart orientation anyway. This turns out,
for unforeseen physiological reasons, to be another major mistake.

For sheer grandeur, scale, and intimidation value, I doubt if any corporate
orientation exceeds that of Wal-Mart. I have been told that the process will take
eight hours, which will include two fifteen-minute breaks and one half-hour
break for a meal, and will be paid for like a regular shift. When I arrive, dressed
neatly in khakis and clean T-shirt, as befits a potential Wal-Mart “associate,” I
find there are ten new hires besides myself, mostly young and Caucasian, and a
team of three, headed by Roberta, to do the “orientating.” We sit around a long
table in the same windowless room where I was interviewed, each with a thick
folder of paperwork in front of us, and hear Roberta tell once again about raising
six children, being a “people person,” discovering that the three principles of
Wal-Mart philosophy were the same as her own, and so on. We begin with a
video, about fifteen minutes long, on the history and philosophy of Wal-Mart, or,
as an anthropological observer might call it, the Cult of Sam. First young Sam
Walton, in uniform, comes back from the war. He starts a store, a sort of five-
and-dime; he marries and fathers four attractive children; he receives a Medal of
Freedom from President Bush, after which he promptly dies, making way for the
eulogies. But the company goes on, yes indeed. Here the arc of the story soars
upward unstoppably, pausing only to mark some fresh milestone of corporate
expansion. 1992: Wal-Mart becomes the largest retailer in the world. 1997: Sales
top $100 billion. 1998: The number of Wal-Mart associates hits 825,000, making
Wal-Mart the largest private employer in the nation. Each landmark date is
accompanied by a clip showing throngs of shoppers, swarms of associates, or
scenes of handsome new stores and their adjoining parking lots. Over and over
we hear in voiceover or see in graphic display the “three principles,” which are
maddeningly, even defiantly, nonparallel: “respect for the individual, exceeding
customers’ expectations, strive for excellence.”

“Respect for the individual” is where we, the associates, come in, because
vast as Wal-Mart is, and tiny as we may be as individuals, everything depends
on us. Sam always said, and is shown saying, that “the best ideas come from the
associates for example, the idea of having a ”people greeter,“ an elderly
employee (excuse me, associate) who welcomes each customer as he or she
enters the store. Three times during the orientation, which began at three and

stretches to nearly eleven, we are reminded that this brainstorm originated in a
mere associate, and who knows what revolutions in retailing each one of us may
propose? Because our ideas are welcome, more than welcome, and we are to
think of our managers not as bosses but as ”servant leaders,“ serving us as well
as the customers. Of course, all is not total harmony, in every instance, between
associates and their servant-leaders. A video on ”associate honesty“ shows a
cashier being caught on videotape as he pockets some bills from the cash
register. Drums beat ominously as he is led away in handcuffs and sentenced to
four years.

The theme of covert tensions, overcome by right thinking and positive
attitude, continues in the twelve-minute video entitled You’ve Picked a Great
Place to Work. Here various associates testify to the “essential feeling of family
for which Wal-Mart is so well-known,” leading up to the conclusion that we
don’t need a union. Once, long ago, unions had a place in American society, but
they “no longer have much to offer workers,” which is why people are leaving
them “by the droves.” Wal-Mart is booming; unions are declining: judge for
yourself. But we are warned that “unions have been targeting Wal-Mart for
years.” Why? For the dues money of course. Think of what you would lose with
a union: first; your dues money, which could be $20 a month “and sometimes
much more.” Second, you would lose “your voice” because the union would
insist on doing your talking for you. Finally, you might lose even your wages
and benefits because they would all be “at risk on the bargaining table.” You
have to wonder—and I imagine some of my teenage fellow orientees may be
doing so—why such fiends as these union organizers, such outright extortionists,
are allowed to roam free in the land.

There is more, much more than I could ever absorb, even if it were spread out
over a semester-long course. On the reasonable assumption that none of us is
planning to go home and curl up with the “Wal-Mart Associate Handbook,” our
trainers start reading it out loud to us, pausing every few paragraphs to ask, “Any
questions?” There never are. Barry, the seventeen-year-old to my left, mutters
that his “butt hurts.” Sonya, the tiny African American woman across from me,
seems frozen in terror. I have given up on looking perky and am fighting to keep
my eyes open. No nose or other facial jewelry, we learn; earrings must be small
and discreet, not dangling; no blue jeans except on Friday, and then you have to
pay $1 for the privilege of wearing them. No “grazing,” that is, eating from food

packages that somehow become open; no “time theft.” This last sends me
drifting off in a sci-fi direction: And as the time thieves headed back to the year
3420, loaded with weekends and days off looted from the twenty-first century. . .
Finally, a question. The old guy who is being hired as a people greeter wants to
know, “What is time theft?” Answer: Doing anything other than working during
company time, anything at all. Theft of our time is not, however, an issue. There
are stretches amounting to many minutes when all three of our trainers wander
off, leaving us to sit there in silence or take the opportunity to squirm. Or our
junior trainers go through a section of the handbook, and then Roberta, returning
from some other business, goes over the same section again. My eyelids droop
and I consider walking out. I have seen time move more swiftly during seven-
hour airline delays. In fact, I am getting nostalgic about seven-hour airline
delays. At least you can read a book or get up and walk around, take a leak.

On breaks, I drink coffee purchased at the Radio Grill, as the in-house fast-
food place is called, the real stuff with caffeine, more because I’m concerned
about being alert for the late-night drive home than out of any need to absorb all
the Wal-Mart trivia coming my way. Now, here’s a drug the drug warriors ought
to take a little more interest in. Since I don’t normally drink it at all—iced tea can
usually be counted on for enough of a kick—the coffee has an effect like
reagent-grade Dexedrine: my pulse races, my brain overheats, and the result in
this instance is a kind of delirium. I find myself overly challenged by the little
kindergarten-level tasks we are now given to do, such as affixing my personal
bar code to my ID card, then sticking on the punch-out letters to spell my name.
The letters keep curling up and sticking to my fingers, so I stop at “Barb,” or
more precisely, “BARB,” drifting off to think of all the people I know who have
gentrified their names in recent years—Patsy to Patricia, Dick to Richard, and so
forth—while I am going in the other direction. Now we start taking turns going
to the computers to begin our CBL, or Computer-Based Learning, and I become
transfixed by the HIV-inspired module entitled “Bloodborne Pathogens,” on
what to do in the event that pools of human blood should show up on the sales
floor. All right, you put warning cones around the puddles, don protective
gloves, etc., but I can’t stop trying to envision the circumstances in which these
pools might arise: an associate uprising? a guest riot? I have gone through six
modules, three more than we are supposed to do tonight—the rest are to be done
in our spare moments over the next few weeks—when one of the trainers gently
pries me away from the computer. We are allowed now to leave.

There follows the worst of many sleepless nights to come. On the drive home
along the interstate, a guy doing over eighty passes me on the right at a few
angstroms’ distance, making the point that any highway has far more exits than
you can see, infinitely many-final exits, that is. At this hour, which is nearly
midnight, it takes me fifteen minutes to find a parking place, and another five to
walk to the apartment’, where I find that Budgie, distraught by my long absence,
has gone totally postal. Feathers litter the floor under his cage, and he refuses to
return to it even after a generous forty-five minutes of head time. I want to be
fresh for my first day in plumbing tomorrow—Menards is still my choice-but a
lot of small things have been going wrong, and at this level of finances, nothing
wrong is ever quite small enough. My watch battery ran out and I had to spend
$11 to get it replaced. My khakis developed a prominent ink stain that took three
wash cycles ($3.75) and a treatment with Shout Gel ($1.29) to remove. There
was the $20 application fee at the Park Plaza, plus $20 for the belt I need for
Menards, purchased only after comparison shopping at a consignment store. And
why hadn’t I asked what that knife and tape measure are going to cost? I discover
that the phone is no longer taking incoming calls or recording voice mail, so who
knows what housing opportunities I have missed. Around two in the morning, I
pop a Unisom to counteract the still-raging caffeine, but at five Budgie takes his
revenge, greeting the prospect of dawn, which is still comfortably remote, with a
series of scandalized squawks.

I am due at Menards at noon. At this point, although I have not formally
accepted either job, I realize I am officially employed at both places, Wal-Mart
and Menards. Maybe I’ll combine both jobs or just blow off Wal-Mart and go for
the better money at Menards. But Wal-Mart, with its endless orientation, has,
alas, already sunk its talons into me. People working more than one job—and in
effect I would be doing that for a day by going from my three-to-eleven stint at
Wal-Mart to a day at Menards—have to take sleep deprivation in stride. I do not.
I am shaky, my brain fried like that egg in the Partnership for a DrugFree
America commercial. How am I going to master the science of plumbing
products when I can barely summon the concentration required to assemble a
breakfast of peanut butter and toast? The world is coming at me in high-contrast
snapshots, deprived of narrative continuity. I call Menards and get Paul on the
line to clear up what exactly my shift is supposed to be. Steve—or was it Walt?
—said noon till eleven, but that would be eleven hours, right?

“Right,” he says. “You want to be full-time, don’t you?” And you’re going to
pay me ten dollars an hour?

“Ten dollars?” Paul asks, “Who told you ten?” He’ll have to check on that; it
can’t be right.

Now thoroughly unnerved, I tell him I’m not working an eleven-hour shift,
not without time and a half after eight. I don’t tell him about the generations of
workers who fought and sometimes died for the ten-hour day and then the eight,
although this is very much on my mind.[25] I just tell him I’m going to send my
knife, my vest, and my tape measure back. In the days that follow I will try to
rationalize this decision by telling myself that, given Wal-Mart’s position as the
nation’s largest private employer, whatever I experience there will at least be of
grand social significance. But this is just a way of prettifying yet another dumb
mistake, the one involving all that coffee. The embarrassing truth is that I am
just too exhausted to work, especially for eleven hours in a row.

Why hadn’t I asked all these questions about wages and hours before? For that
matter, why hadn’t I bargained with Roberta when she called to tell me I’d passed
the drug test—told her $7 an hour would be fine, as long as the benefits included
a free lakeside condo with hot tub? At least part of the answer, which I only
figured out weeks later, lies in the employers’ deft handling of the hiring process.
First you are an applicant, then suddenly you are an orientee. You’re handed the
application form and, a few days later, you’re being handed the uniform and
warned against nose rings and stealing. There’s no intermediate point in the
process in which you confront the potential employer as a free agent, entitled to
cut her own deal. The intercalation of the drug test between application and
hiring tilts the playing field even further, establishing that you, and not the
employer, are the one who has something to prove. Even in the tightest labor
market—and it doesn’t get any tighter than Minneapolis, where I would probably
have been welcome to apply at any commercial establishment I entered—the
person who has precious labor to sell can be made to feel one down, way down,
like a supplicant with her hand stretched out.

It’s Saturday and the time has come to leave my free lodgings and neurotic
avian roommate. A few hours before my hosts are scheduled to return, I pack up
and head down to Twin Lakes, where—no big surprise—I find out that all the
second-story rooms have been taken. The particular room I’d requested, which

looks out on a backyard instead of a parking lot, is now occupied by a woman
with a child, the owner tells me, and he is good enough to feel uncomfortable
about asking them to move to a smaller one. So I decide that this is my out and
call another weekly rental place on my fist, the Clearview Inn (not its real name),
which has two big advantages: it’s about a twenty-minute drive from my Wal-
Mart, as opposed to at least forty-five in the case of Twin Lakes, and the weekly
rate is $245, compared to $295. This is still scandalously high, higher in fact
than my aftertax weekly pay will amount to. But in our latest conversation Hildy
has promised me a room with kitchenette by the end of next week, and I am
confident I can get a weekend job at the supermarket I applied to, in bakery if I
am lucky.

To say that some place is the worst motel in the country is, of course, to set
oneself up for considerable challenge.[26] I have encountered plenty of
contenders in my own travels—the one in Cleveland that turned into a brothel at
night, the one in Butte where the window looked out into another room. Still, the
Clearview Inn leaves the competition in the dust. I slide $255 in cash (the extra
$10 is for telephone service) under the glass window that separates me from the
young East Indian owner—East Indians seem to have a lock on the midwestern
motel business—and am taken by his wife to a room memorable only for its
overwhelming stench of mold. I don’t have enough Claritin-D for this situation, a
point I have to make by holding my nose, since her English does not extend to
the concept of allergy. Air freshener? she suggests when she catches my
meaning. Incense? There is a better room, her husband says when we return to
the office, but—and here he fixes me with a narrow—eyed stare-I’d better not
“trash” it. I attempt a reassuring chuckle, but the warning rankles for days: have
I been fooling myself all these years, thinking I look like a mature and sober
person when in fact anyone can see I’m a vandal?

Room 133 contains a bed, a chair, a chest of drawers, and a TV fastened to
the wall. I plead for and get a lamp to supplement the single overhead bulb.
Instead of the mold smell, I now breathe a mixture of fresh paint and what I
eventually identify as mouse droppings. But the real problems are all window-
and door-related: the single small window has no screen, and the room has no
AC or fan. The curtain is transparently thin; the door has no bolt. Without a
screen, the window should be sensibly closed at night, meaning no air, unless I’m
willing to take my chances with the bugs and the neighbors. Who are the

neighbors? The motel forms a toilet-seat shape around the parking lot, and I can
see an inexplicable collection. A woman with a baby in her arms leans in the
doorway of one room. Two bunches of teenagers, one group black and the other
white, seem to share adjoining rooms. There are several unencumbered men of
various ages, including an older white man in work clothes whose bumper
sticker says, “Don’t steal, the government hates competition”—as if the income
tax were the only thing keeping him from living at the Embassy Suites right
now. When it gets dark I go outside and look through my curtain, and yes, you
can see pretty much everything, at least in silhouette. I eat the deli food I’ve
brought with me from a Minneapolis supermarket and go to bed with my clothes
on, but not to sleep.

I am not a congenitally fearful person, for which you can blame or credit my
mother, who never got around to alerting me to any special vulnerabilities that
went with being a girl. Only when I got to college did I begin to grasp what rape
involves and discover that my custom of exploring strange cities alone, on foot,
day or night, looked more reckless to others than eccentric. I had no misgivings
about the trailer park in Key West or the motel in Maine, but the trailer’s door
had a bolt, and both had effective shades and screens. Here, only the stuffiness
of the air with the window shut reminds me that I’m really indoors; otherwise I’m
pretty much open to anyone’s view or to anything that might drift in from the
highway, and I wouldn’t want to depend on my hosts for help. I think of wearing
earplugs to block out the TV sounds from the next room and my sleep mask to
cut the light from the Dr Pepper sign on the pop machine in the parking lot. Then
I decide it’s smarter to keep all senses on ready alert. I sleep and wake up, sleep
and wake up again, listen to the cars coming and going, watch the silhouettes
move past my window.

Sometime around four in the morning it dawns on me that it’s not just that I’m
a wimp. Poor women—perhaps especially single ones and even those who are
just temporarily living among the poor for whatever reason—really do have
more to fear than women who have houses with double locks and alarm systems
and husbands or dogs. I must have known this theoretically or at least heard it
stated, but now for the first time the lesson takes hold.

So this is the home from which I go forth on Monday to begin my life as a
Wal-Martian. After the rigors of orientation, I am expecting a highly structured
welcome, perhaps a ceremonial donning of my bright blue Wal-Mart vest and a

forty-five-minute training on the operation of the vending machines in the break
room. But when I arrive in the morning for the ten-to-six shift, no one seems to
be expecting me. I’m in “softlines,” which has a wonderful, sinuous sound to it,
but I have no idea what it means. Someone in personnel tells me I’m in ladies’
wear (a division of softlines, I learn) and sends me to the counter next to the
fitting rooms, where I am passed around from one person to the next—finally
ending up with Ellie, whose lack of a vest signals that she is management. She
sets me to work “zoning” the Bobbie Brooks knit summer dresses, a task that
could serve as an IQ test for the severely cognitively challenged. First the
dresses must be grouped by color—olive, peach, or lavender, in this case—then
by decorative pattern—the leafy design on the bodice, the single flower, or the
grouped flowers—and within each pattern by size. When I am finished, though
hardly exhausted by the effort, I meet Melissa, who is, with only a couple of
weeks on the job, pretty much my equivalent. She asks me to help her
consolidate the Kathie Lee knit dresses so the Kathie Lee silky ones can take
their place at the “image,” the high-traffic corner area. I learn, in a couple of
hours of scattered exchanges, that Melissa was a waitress before this job, that her
husband works in construction and her children are grown. There have been
some disorganized patches in her life—an out-of-wedlock child, a problem with
alcohol and drugs—but that’s all over now that she has given her life to Christ.

Our job, it emerges in fragments throughout the day, is to keep ladies’ wear
“shoppable.” Sure, we help customers (who are increasingly called “guests” here
as well), if they want any help. At first I go around practicing the “aggressive
hospitality” demanded by our training videos: as soon as anyone comes within
ten feet of a sales associate, that associate is supposed to smile warmly and offer
assistance. But I never see a more experienced associate do this—first, because
the customers are often annoyed to have their shopping dazes interrupted and,
second, because we have far more pressing things to do. In ladies’ wear, the big
task, which has no real equivalent in, say, housewares or lawn and garden, is, to
put away the “returns”—clothes that have been tried on and rejected or, more
rarely, purchased and then returned to the store. There are also the many items
that have been scattered by customers, dropped on the floor, removed from their
hangers and strewn over the racks, or secreted in locations far from their natural
homes. Each of these items, too, must be returned to its precise place, matched
by color, pattern, price, and size. Any leftover time is to be devoted to zoning.
When I relate this to Caroline on the phone, she commiserates, “Ugh, a no-

brainer.”

But no job is as easy as it looks to the uninitiated. I have to put clothes away
—the question is, Where? Much of my first few days is devoted to trying to
memorize the layout of ladies’ wear, one thousand (two thousand?) square feet of
space bordered by men’s wear, children’s wear, greeting cards, and underwear.
Standing at the fitting rooms and facing toward the main store entrance, we are
looking directly at the tentlike, utilitarian plus sizes, also known as “woman”
sizes. These are flanked on the left by our dressiest and costliest line (going up to
$29 and change), the all-polyester Kathie Lee collection, suitable for dates and
subprofessional levels of office work. Moving clockwise, we encounter the
determinedly sexless Russ and Bobbie Brooks lines, seemingly aimed at pudgy
fourth-grade teachers with important barbecues to attend. Then, after the sturdy
White Stag, come the breezy, revealing Faded Glory, No Boundaries, and
Jordache collections, designed for the younger and thinner crowd. Tucked
throughout are nests of the lesser brands, such as Athletic Works, Basic
Equipment, and the whimsical Looney Tunes, Pooh, and Mickey lines, generally
decorated with images of their eponymous characters. Within each brand-name
area, there are of course dozens of items, even dozens of each kind of item. This
summer, for example, pants may be capri, classic, carpenter, clam-digger, boot,
or flood, depending on their length and cut, and I’m probably leaving a few
categories out. So my characteristic stance is one of rotating slowly on one foot,
eyes wide, garment in hand, asking myself, “Where have I seen the $9.96
Athletic Works knit overalls?” or similar query. Inevitably there are mystery
items requiring extra time and inquiry: clothes that have wandered over from
girls’ or men’s, clearanced items whose tags haven’t been changed to reflect their
new prices, the occasional one-of-a-kind.

Then, when I have the layout memorized, it suddenly changes. On my third
morning I find, after a few futile searches, that the Russ shirt-and-short
combinations have edged Kathie Lee out of her image. When I groaningly
accuse Ellie of trying to trick me into thinking I’m getting Alzheimer’s, she’s
genuinely apologetic, explaining that the average customer shops the store three
times a week, so you need to have the element of surprise. Besides, the layout is
about the only thing she can control, since the clothes and at least the starting
prices are all determined by the home office in Arkansas. So as fast as I can
memorize, she furiously rearranges.

My first response to the work is disappointment and a kind of sexist
contempt. I could have been in plumbing, mastering the vocabulary of valves,
dangling tools from my belt, joshing around with Steve and Walt, and instead
the mission of the moment is to return a pink bikini top to its place on the
Bermuda swimwear rack. Nothing is heavy or, as far as I can see, very urgent.
No one will go hungry or die or be hurt if I screw up; in fact, how would anyone
ever know if I screwed up, given the customers’ constant depredations? I feel
oppressed, too, by the mandatory gentility of Wal-Mart culture. This is ladies’
and we are all “ladies” here, forbidden, by storewide rule, to raise our voices or
cuss. Give me a few weeks of this and I’ll femme out entirely, my stride will be
reduced to a mince, I’ll start tucking my head down to one side.

My job is not, however, as genteel as it at first appears, thanks to the sheer
volume of clothing in motion. At Wal-Mart, as opposed to say Lord & Taylor,
customers shop with supermarket-style shopping carts, which they can fill to the
brim before proceeding to the fitting room. There the rejected items, which are
about 90 percent of try-ons, are folded and put on hangers by whoever is staffing
the fitting room, then placed in fresh shopping carts for Melissa and me. So this
is how we measure our workload—in carts. When I get in, Melissa, whose shift
begins earlier than mine, will tell me how things have been going—“Can you
believe, eight carts this morning!”—and how many carts are awaiting me. At
first a cart takes me an average of forty-five minutes and there may still be three
or four mystery items left at the bottom. I get this down to half an hour, and still
the carts keep coming.

Most of the time, the work requires minimal human interaction, of either the
collegial or the supervisory sort, largely because it’s so self-defining. I arrive at
the start of a shift or the end of a break, assess the damage wrought by the guests
in my absence, count the full carts that await me, and plunge in. I could be a
deaf-mute as far as most of this goes, and despite all the orientation directives to
smile and exude personal warmth, autism might be a definite advantage.
Sometimes, if things are slow, Melissa and I will invent a task we can do
together—zoning swimsuits, for example, a nightmarish tangle of straps and
giggle, she in her Christian way, me from a more feminist perspective, about the
useless little see-through wraps meant to accompany the more revealing among
them. Or sometimes Ellie will give me something special to do, like putting all
the Basic Equipment Tshirts on hangers, because things on hangers sell faster,

and then arranging them neatly on racks. I like Ellie. Gray-faced and fiftyish, she
must be the apotheosis of “servant leadership” or, in more secular terms, the
vaunted “feminine” style of management. She says “please” and “thank you”;
she doesn’t order, she asks. Not so, though, with young Howard—assistant
manager Howard, as he is uniformly called—who rules over all of softlines,
including infants’, children’s, men’s, accessories, and underwear. On my first
day, I am called off the floor to an associates’ meeting, where he spends ten
minutes taking attendance, fixing each of us with his unnerving Tom Cruise-
style smile, in which the brows come together as the corners of the mouth turn
up, then reveals (where have I heard this before?) his “pet peeve”: associates
standing around talking to one another, which is, of course, a prime example of
time theft.

A few days into my career at Wal-Mart, I return home to the Clearview to
find the door to my room open and the motel owner waiting outside. There’s
been a “problem”—the sewage has backed up and is all over the floor, though
fortunately my suitcase is OK. I am to move into Room 127, which will be better
because it has a screen. But the screen turns out to be in tatters, not even fastened
at the bottom, just flapping uselessly in the breeze. I ask for a real screen, and he
tells me he doesn’t have any that fit. I ask for a fan and he doesn’t have any that
work. I ask why—I mean, this is supposedly a working motel—and he rolls his
eyes, apparently indicating my fellow residents: “I could tell you stories. . .”

So I lug my possessions down to 127 and start trying to reconstruct my little
domestic life. Since I don’t have a kitchen, I have what I call my food bag, a
supermarket bag containing my tea bags, a few pieces of fruit, various
condiment packets salvaged from fast-food places, and a half dozen string
cheeses, which their labels say are supposed to be refrigerated but I figure are
safe in their plastic wraps. I have my laptop computer, the essential link to my
normal profession, and it has become a matter of increasing concern. I figure it’s
probably the costliest portable item in the entire Clearview Inn, so I hesitate to
leave it in my room for the nine or so hours while I’m away at work. During the
first couple of days at Wal-Mart, the weather was cool and I kept it in the trunk
of my car. But now, with the temperature rising to the nineties at midday, I
worry that it’ll cook in the trunk. More to the point at the moment is the state of
my’ clothing, most of which is now residing in the other brown paper bag, the
one that serves as a hamper. My khakis have a day or two left in them and two

clean Tshirts remain until the next trip to a Laundromat, but a question has been
raised about the Tshirts. That afternoon Alyssa, one of my co-orientees, now in
sporting goods, had come by ladies’ to inquire about a polo shirt that had been
clearanced at $7. Was there any chance it might fall still further? Of course I had
no idea—Elbe decides about clearancing—but why was Alyssa so fixated on this
particular shirt? Because one of the rules is that our shirts have to have collars,
so they have to be polos, not tees. Somehow I’d missed this during orientation,
and now I’m wondering how long I have before my stark-naked neck catches
Howard’s attention. At $7 an hour, a $7 shirt is just not going to make it to my
shopping list.

Now it’s after seven and time to resume my daily routine at the evening food-
gathering phase. The town of Clearview presents only two low-priced options
(there are no high-priced options) to its kitchenless residents—a Chinese all-you-
can-eat buffet or Kentucky Fried Chicken—each with its own entertainment
possibilities. If I eat out at the buffet I can watch the large Mexican families or
the even larger, in total body mass terms, families of Minnesota Anglos. If I eat
KFC in my room, I can watch TV on one of the half dozen available channels.
The latter option seems somehow less lonely, especially if I can find one of my
favorite programs—Thus or Third Rock from the Sun. Eating is tricky without a
table. I put the food on the chest of drawers and place a plastic supermarket bag
over my lap, since spills are hard to avoid when you eat on a slant and spills
mean time and money at the Laundromat. Tonight I find the new sensation,
Survivor, on CBS, where “real people” are struggling to light a fire on their
desert island. 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.

Dinner over, I put the remains in the plastic bag that served as a tablecloth
and tie it up tightly to discourage the flies that have free access to my essentially
screenless abode. I do my evening things—writing in my journal and reading a
novel—then turn out the lights and sit for a while by the open door for some air.
The two African American men who live in the room next door have theirs open
too, and since it’s sometimes open in the daytime as well, I’ve noticed that their
room, like mine, has only one bed. This is no gay tryst, though, because they
seem to take turns in the bed, one sleeping in the room and the other one napping
in their van outside. I shut the door, put the window down, and undress in the

dark so I can’t be seen through the window. I still haven’t found out much about
my fellow Clearview dwellers—it’s bad enough being a woman alone, especially
a woman rich enough to have a bed of her own, without being nosy on top of
that. As far as I can tell, the place isn’t a nest of drug dealers and prostitutes;
these are just working people who don’t have the capital to rent a normal
apartment. Even the teenagers who worried me at first seem to have mother
figures attached to them, probably single mothers I hadn’t seen before because
they were at work.

Finally I lie down and breathe against the weight of unmoving air on my
chest. I wake up a few hours later to hear a sound not generated by anyone’s TV
a woman’s clear alto singing two lines of the world’s saddest song, lyrics
indecipherable, to the accompaniment of trucks on the highway.

Morning begins with a trip, by car, to the Holiday gas station’s convenience
store, where I buy a pop container full of ice and a packet of two hard-boiled
eggs. The ice, a commodity unavailable at the motel, is for iced tea, which I
brew by letting tea bags soak in a plastic cup of water overnight. After breakfast
I tidy up my room, making the bed, wiping the sink with a wad of toilet paper,
and taking the garbage out to the Dumpster. True, the owner’s wife (or maybe
she’s the co-owner) goes around from room to room every morning with a
cleaning cart, but her efforts show signs of deep depression or possibly attention
deficit disorder. Usually she remembers to replace the thin little towels, which,
even when clean, contain embedded hairs and smell like cooking grease, but
there’s nothing else, except maybe an abandoned rag or bottle of air freshener, to
suggest that she’s been through on her rounds. I picture an ad for a “traditional-
minded, hardworking wife,” a wedding in her natal village, then—plop—she’s in
Clearview, Minnesota, with an Indian American husband who may not even
speak her language, thousands of miles from family, a temple, a sari shop.[27]
So I clean up myself, then do my hair with enough bobby pins to last through the
shift, and head off for work. The idea is to make myself look like someone who’s
spent the night in a regular home with kitchen and washer and dryer, not like
someone who’s borderline homeless.

The other point of my domestic rituals and arrangements is to get through the
time when I can’t be at work, when it would look weird to be hanging around in
the Wal-Mart parking lot or break room. Because home life is more stressful
than I have consciously acknowledged, and I would be dreading my upcoming

day off if I weren’t confident of spending it on the move to better quarters at the
Hopkins Park Plaza. Little nervous symptoms have arisen. Sometimes I get a
tummy ache after breakfast, which makes lunch dicey, and there’s no way to get
through the shift without at least one major refueling. More disturbing is the new
habit of plucking away at my shirt or my khakis with whichever hand can be
freed up for the task. I have to stop this. My maternal grandmother, who still
lives on, in a fashion, at the age of a hundred and one, was a perfect model of
stoicism, but she used to pick at her face and her wrist, creating dark red circular
sores, and claimed not to know she was doing it. Maybe it’s an inheritable twitch
and I will soon be moving on from fabric to flesh.

I arrive at work full of bounce, pausing at the fitting room to jolly up the lady
on duty—usually the bossy, self-satisfied Rhoda—because the fitting room lady
bears the same kind of relation to me as a cook to a server: she can screw me up
if she wants, giving me carts contaminated with foreign, nonladies’ items and
items not properly folded or hangered. “Here I am,” I announce grandiosely,
spreading out my arms. “The day can begin!” For this I get a wrinkled nose from
Rhoda and a one-sided grin from Lynne, the gaunt blonde who’s working bras. I
search out Ellie, whom I find shooting out new labels from the pricing gun, and
ask if there’s anything special I need to be doing. No, just whatever needs to be
done. Next I find Melissa to get a report on the cartage so far. Today she seems
embarrassed when she sees me: “I probably shouldn’t have done this and you’re
going to think it’s really silly. . . ” but she’s brought me a sandwich for lunch.
This is because I’d told her I was living in a motel almost entirely on fast food,
and she felt sorry for me. Now I’m embarrassed, and beyond that overwhelmed
to discover a covert stream of generosity running counter to the dominant
corporate miserliness. Melissa probably wouldn’t think of herself as poor, but I
know she calculates in very small units of currency, twice reminding me, for
example, that you can get sixty-eight cents off the specials at the Radio Grill
every Tuesday, so a sandwich is something to consider. I set off with my cart,
muttering contentedly, “Bobbie Brooks turquoise elastic-waist shorts” and
“Faded Glory V-neck red tank top.”

Then, in my second week, two things change. My shift changes from 10:00-
6:00 to 2:00-11:00, the, so-called closing shift, although the store remains open
24/7. No one tells me this; I find it out by studying the schedules that are posted,
under glass, on the wall outside the break room. Now I have nine hours instead

of eight, and although one of them is an unpaid dinner hour, I have a net half an
hour a day more on my feet. My two fifteen-minute breaks, which seemed
almost superfluous on the 10:00-6:00 shift, now become a matter of urgent
calculation. Do I take both before dinner, which is usually about 7:30, leaving an
unbroken two-and-a-half-hour stretch when I’m weariest, between 8:30 and
11:00? Or do I try to go two and a half hours without a break in the afternoon,
followed by a nearly three-hour marathon before I can get away for dinner?
Then there’s the question of how to make the best use of a fifteen-minute break
when you have three or more urgent, simultaneous needs—to pee, to drink
something, to get outside the neon and into the natural light, and most of all, to
sit down. I save about a minute by engaging in a little time theft and stopping at
the rest room before I punch out for the break (and, yes, we have to punch out
even for breaks, so there’s no padding them with a few stolen minutes). From the
time clock it’s a seventy-five-second walk to the store exit; if I stop at the Radio
Grill, I could end up wasting a full four minutes waiting in line, not to mention
the fifty-nine cents for a small-sized iced tea. So if I treat myself to an outing in
the tiny fenced-off area beside the store, the only place where employees are
allowed to smoke, I get about nine minutes off my feet.

The other thing that happens is that the post-Memorial Day weekend lull
definitely comes to an end. Now there are always a dozen or more shoppers
rooting around in ladies’, reinforced in the evening by a wave of
multigenerational gangs—Grandma, Mom, a baby in the shopping cart, and a
gaggle of sullen children in tow. New tasks arise, such as bunching up the carts
left behind by customers and steering them to their place in the front of the store
every half hour or so. Now I am picking up not only dropped clothes but all the
odd items customers carry off from foreign departments and decide to leave with
us in ladies’—pillows, upholstery hooks, Pokémon cards, earrings, sunglasses,
stuffed animals, even a package of cinnamon buns. And always there are the
returns, augmented now by the huge volume of items that have been tossed on
the floor or carried fecklessly to inappropriate sites. Sometimes I am lucky to
achieve a steady state between replacing the returns and picking up items strewn
on the racks and the floor. If I pick up misplaced items as quickly as I replace the
returns, my cart never empties and things back up dangerously at the fitting
room, where Rhoda or her nighttime replacement is likely to hiss: “You’ve got
three carts waiting, Barb. What’s the problem?” Think Sisyphus here or the
sorcerer’s apprentice.

Still, for the first half of my shift, I am the very picture of good-natured
helpfulness, fascinated by the multiethnic array of our shoppers—Middle
Eastern, Asian, African American, Russian, former Yugoslavian, old-fashioned
Minnesota white—and calmly accepting of the second law of thermodynamics,
the one that says entropy always wins. Amazingly, I get praised by Isabelle, the
thin little seventyish lady who seems to be Ellie’s adjutant: I am doing
“wonderfully,” she tells me, and—even better—am “great to work with.” I
prance from rack to rack, I preen. But then, somewhere around 6:00 or 7:00,
when the desire to sit down becomes a serious craving, a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde
transformation sets in. I cannot ignore the fact that it’s the customers’ sloppiness
and idle whims that make me bend and crouch and run. They are the shoppers, I
am the antishopper, whose goal is to make it look as if they’d never been in the
store. At this point, “aggressive hospitality” gives way to aggressive hostility.
Their carts bang into mine, their children run amok. Once I stand and watch
helplessly while some rug rat pulls everything he can reach off the racks, and the
thought that abortion is wasted on the unborn must show on my face, because his
mother finally tells him to stop.

I even start hating the customers for extraneous reasons, such as, in the case
of the native Caucasians, their size. I don’t mean just bellies and butts, but huge
bulges in completely exotic locations, like the backs of the neck and the knees.
This summer, Wendy’s, where I often buy lunch, has introduced the verb
biggiesize, as in “Would you like to biggiesize that combo?” meaning double the
fries and pop, and something like biggiesizing seems to have happened to the
female guest population. All right, everyone knows that midwesterners, and
especially those in the lower middle class, are tragically burdened by the
residues of decades of potato chips and French toast sticks, and I probably
shouldn’t even bring this up. In my early-shift, Dr. Jekyll form, I feel sorry for
the obese, who must choose from among our hideous woman-size offerings, our
drawstring shorts, and huge horizontally striped tees, which are obviously
designed to mock them. But compassion fades as the shift wears on. Those of us
who work in ladies’ are for obvious reasons a pretty lean lot—probably, by
Minnesota standards, candidates for emergency IV nutritional supplementation
—and we live with the fear of being crushed by some wide-body as she hurtles
through the narrow passage from Faded Glory to woman size, lost in fantasies
involving svelte Kathie Lee sheaths.

It’s the clothes I relate to, though, not the customers. And now a funny thing
happens to me here on my new shift: I start thinking they’re mine, not mine to
take home and wear, because I have no such designs on them, just mine to
organize and rule over. Same with ladies’ wear as a whole. After 6:00, when
Melissa and Ellie go home, and especially after 9:00, when Isabelle leaves, I
start to own the place. Out of the way, Sam, this is Bar-Mart now. I patrol the
perimeter with my cart, darting in to pick up misplaced and fallen items, making
everything look spiffy from the outside. I don’t fondle the clothes, the way
customers do; I slap them into place, commanding them to hang straight, at
attention, or lie subdued on the shelves in perfect order. In this frame of mind,
the last thing I want to see is a customer riffling around, disturbing the place. In
fact, I hate the idea of things being sold—uprooted from their natural homes,
whisked off to some closet that’s in God-knows-what state of disorder. I want
ladies’ wear sealed off in a plastic bubble and trucked away to some place of
safety, some museum of retail history.

One night I come back bone-tired from my last break and am distressed to
find a new person, an Asian American or possibly Hispanic woman who can’t be
more than four and a half feet tall, folding Tshirts in the White Stag area, my
White Stag area. It’s already been a vexing evening. Earlier, when I’d returned
from dinner, the evening fitting room lady upbraided me for being late—which I
actually wasn’t—and said that if Howard knew, he probably wouldn’t yell at me
this time because I’m still pretty new, but if it happened again. . . And I’d
snapped back that I could care less if Howard yelled at me, which is a difficult
sentiment to fully convey without access to the forbidden four-letter words. So
I’m a little wary with this intruder in White Stag and, sure enough, after our
minimal introductions, she turns on me.

“Did you put anything away here today?” she demands.

“Well, yes, sure.” In fact I’ve put something away everywhere today, as I do
on every other day.

“Because this is not in the right place. See the fabric—it’s different,” and she
thrusts the errant item up toward my chest.

True, I can see that this olive-green shirt is slightly ribbed while the others are
smooth. “You’ve got to put them in their right places,” she continues. “Are you

checking the UPC numbers?”

Of course I am not checking the ten or more digit UPC numbers, which lie
just under the bar codes—nobody does. What does she think this is, the National
Academy of Sciences?

I’m not sure what kind of deference, if any, is due here: Is she my supervisor
now? Or are we involved in some kind of test to see who will dominate the 9:00-
11:00 time period? But I don’t care, she’s pissing me off, messing with my stuff.
So I say, only without the numerals or the forbidden curse word, that (1) plenty
of other people work here during the day, not to mention all the customers
coming through, so why is she blaming me? (2) it’s after 10:00 and I’ve got
another cart full of returns to go, and wouldn’t it make more sense if we both
worked on the carts, instead of zoning the goddamn Tshirts?

To which she responds huffily, “I don’t do returns. My job is to fold.”

A few minutes later I see why she doesn’t do returns—she can’t reach the
racks. In fact, she has to use a ladder even to get to the higher shelves. And you
know what I feel when I see the poor little mite pushing that ladder around? A
surge of evil mirth. I peer around from where I am working in Jordache, hoping
to see her go splat.

I leave that night shaken by my response to the intruder. If she’s a supervisor,
I could be written up for what I said, but even worse is what I thought. Am I
turning mean here, and is that a normal response to the end of a nine-hour shift?
There was another outbreak of mental wickedness that night. I’d gone back to the
counter by the fitting room to pick up the next cart full of returns and found the
guy who answers the phone at the counter at night, a pensive young fellow in a
wheelchair, staring into space, looking even sadder than usual. And my
uncensored thought was, At least you get to sit down.

This is not me, at least not any version of me I’d like to spend much time with,
just as my tiny coworker is probably not usually a bitch. She’s someone who
works all night and naps during the day when her baby does, I find out later,
along with the information that she’s not anyone’s supervisor and is in fact
subject to constant criticism by Isabelle when the two overlap. What I have to
face is that “Barb,” the name on my ID tag, is not exactly the same person as

Barbara. “Barb” is what I was called as a child, and still am 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.

On the day of my move to the Hopkins Park Plaza, I wake up savoring the
thought of the perishables I’m going to stock my refrigerator with: mayonnaise,
mustard, chicken breasts. But when I get there Hildy is gone and the woman in
the towering black beehive who has taken her place says I didn’t understand, the
room won’t be available until next week and I should call first to be sure. Had I
really been so befogged by wishful thinking that I’d “misunderstood” what had
seemed to be a fairly detailed arrangement (bring your money down at nine on
Saturday, you can move in at four, etc.)? Or had someone else just beat me to it?
Never mind, I’ve been clearheaded enough to know all along that the Park Plaza
apartment with kitchenette, at $179 a week, was not a long-term option on Wal-
Mart’s $7 an hour. My plan had been to add a weekend job, which I have been
tentatively offered at a Rainbow supermarket near the apartment where I
originally stayed, at close to $8 an hour. Between the two jobs, I would be
making about $320 a week after taxes, so that the $179 in rent would have
amounted to about 55 percent of my income, which is beginning to look
“affordable.”[28] But Rainbow also falls through; they decide they want me to
work part-time five days a week, not just on weekends. Furthermore, I have no
control at the moment over what my days off will be. Howard has scheduled me
to have Friday off one week, Tuesday and Wednesday the next, and I would
have to do some serious sucking up to arrive at a more stable and congenial
schedule.

Ergo, I either need to find a husband, like Melissa, or a second job, like some
of my other coworkers. In the long run everything will work out if I devote my
mornings to job hunting, while holding out for a Park Plaza opening or, better
yet, a legitimate apartment at $400 a month or $100 a week. But to paraphrase
Keynes: in the long run, we’ll all be broke, at least those of us who work for low
wages and live in exorbitantly overpriced motels. I call the YWCA to see
whether they have any rooms, and they refer me to a place called Budget

Lodging, which doesn’t have any rooms either, although they do have dorm beds
for $19 a night. I can have my own locker and there’s no “lockout” in the
morning—you can hang out in your dorm bed all day if you want. Even with
these enticements, I have to admit I’m relieved when the guy at Budget Lodging
tells me’ they’re located on the other side of Minneapolis, so I can rule out the
dorm on account of the drive and the gas costs, at least as long as I’m working at
Wal-Mart. Maybe I should have just dumped Wal-Mart, moved into the dorm,
and relaunched my job search from there. But the truth is I’m not ready to leave
Wal-Mart yet; it’s my connection to the world, my source of identity, my place.

The Budget Lodging clerk, who seems to have some familiarity with the
housing nightmares of low-wage workers, suggests I keep trying motels. He’s
sure there must be some that cost less than $240 a week. In the meantime, the
Clearview Inn wants an unconscionable $55 for any additional nights there,
which means that, for a couple of nights, almost any motel would be preferable.
I call Caroline to ask for her insights into the housing situation and—I should
have guessed this was coming—she calls back in a few minutes to invite me to
move in with her and her family. I say no, I’ve already had a stint of free lodging
and now I have to take my chances with the market like anyone else. But for a
moment I get this touched-by-an-angel feeling I’d gotten from Melissa’s
sandwich: I am not really entirely alone. I start calling around to motels again,
now ranging even farther out from the city, into the northern towns, the western
towns, St. Paul. But most have no rooms at all, at any price, either now or for the
coming weeks—because of the season, I’m told, although it’s hard to see why a
place like, say, Clearview, Minnesota, would be a destination at any time of the
year. Only the Comfort Inn has a room available, at $49.95 a night, so I make a
reservation there for a couple of days. The relief I should feel about leaving the
Worst Motel in the Country is canceled by an overwhelming sense of defeat.

Could I have done better? The St. Paul Pioneer Press of June 13, which I
eagerly snatch out of the box in front of Wal-Mart, provides an overdue reality
check. “Apartment rents skyrocket,” the front-page headline declares; they’ve
leaped 20.5 percent in Minneapolis in the first three months of 2000 alone, an
unprecedented increase, according to local real estate experts. Even more
pertinent to my condition, the Twin Cities region “is posting one of the lowest
vacancy rates in the nation—possibly the lowest.” Who knew? My cursory pre-
trip research had revealed nothing about a record absence of housing. In fact, I’d

come across articles bemoaning the absence of a Twin Cities dot-com industry,
and these had led me to believe that the region had been spared the wild real
estate inflation afflicting, for example, California’s Bay Area. But apparently you
don’t need dot-com wealth to ruin an area for its low-income residents. The
Pioneer Press quotes Secretary of HUD Andrew Cuomo ruing the “cruel irony”
that prosperity is shrinking the stock of affordable housing nationwide: “The
stronger the economy, the stronger the upward pressure on rents.” So I’m a
victim not of poverty but of prosperity. The rich and the poor, who are generally
thought to live in a state of harmonious interdependence—the one providing
cheap labor, the other providing low-wage jobs—can no longer coexist.

I check in at the Comfort Inn in the firm expectation that this will be only for
a night or two, before something, somewhere, opens up to me. What I cannot
know is that this is, in some sense, my moment of final defeat. Game over. End
of story—at least if it’s a story about attempting to match earnings to rent. In
almost three weeks, I’ve spent over $500 and earned only $42—from Wal-Mart,
for orientation night. There’s more coming eventually—Wal-Mart, like so many
other low-wage employers, holds back your first week’s pay—but eventually
will be too late.

I never do find an apartment or affordable motel, although I do make one last
attempt, seeking help one morning at a charitable agency. I found the place by
calling United Way of Minneapolis, which directed me to another agency, which
in turn directed me to something called the Community Emergency Assistance
Program, located a convenient fifteen-minute drive from Wal-Mart. Inside the
office suite housing CEAP, a disturbing scene is unfolding: two rail-thin black
men—Somalis, I guess, from their accents and since there are a lot of them in
the Twin Cities area—are saying, “Bread? Bread?” and being told, “No bread,
no bread.” They flutter out and a fiftyish white woman comes in and goes
through the same routine, leaving with the smile of supplication still frozen
awkwardly on her face. For some reason, though—perhaps because I have an
appointment and haven’t worn out my welcome yet—I get taken to an inner
office where a young woman interviews me absentmindedly. Do I have a car?
Yes, I have a car. And a couple of minutes later: “So you don’t have a car?” and
so forth.

When I tell her I’m working at Wal-Mart and what I earn, she suggests I move
into a shelter so I can save up enough money for a first month’s rent and deposit,

then she sends me to another office where she says I can apply for a housing
subsidy and get help finding an apartment. But this other office offers only a
photocopied list of affordable apartments, which is updated weekly and is
already out of date. Back at the first office, my interviewer asks if I can use some
emergency food aid and I explain, once again, that I don’t have a refrigerator.
She’ll find something, she says, and comes back with a box containing a bar of
soap, a deodorant, and a bunch of fairly useless food items, from my point of
view—lots of candy and cookies and a one-pound can of ham, which, without a
refrigerator, I would have to eat all in one sitting.[29] (The next day I take the
whole box, untouched, to another agency serving the poor, so I won’t appear
ungrateful and the food won’t be wasted.)

Only when I’m driving away with my sugary loot do I realize the importance
of what I’ve learned in this encounter. At one point toward the end of the
interview, the CEAP lady had apologized for forgetting almost everything I said
about myself—that I had a car, lived in a motel, etc. She was mixing me up with
someone else who worked at Wal-Mart, she explained, someone who had been
in just a few days ago. Now, of course I’ve noticed that many of my coworkers
are poor in all the hard-to-miss, stereotypical ways. Crooked yellow teeth are
one sign, inadequate footwear is another. My feet hurt after four hours of work,
and I wear my comfortable old Reeboks, but a lot of women run around all day
in thin-soled moccasins. Hair provides another class cue. Ponytails are common
or, for that characteristic Wal-Martian beat-up and hopeless look, straight
shoulder-length hair, parted in the middle and kept out of the face by two bobby
pins.

But now I know something else. In orientation, we learned that the store’s
success depends entirely on us, the associates; in fact, our bright blue vests bear
the statement “At Wal-Mart, our people make the difference.” Underneath those
vests, though, there are real-life charity cases, maybe even shelter dwellers.[30]

So, anyway, begins my surreal existence at the Comfort Inn. I live in luxury
with AC, a door that bolts, a large window protected by an intact screen—just
like a tourist or a business traveler. But from there I go out every day to a life
that most business travelers would find shabby and dispiriting—lunch at
Wendy’s, dinner at Sbarro (the Italian-flavored fast-food place), and work at
Wal-Mart, where I would be embarrassed to be discovered in my vest, should
some member of the Comfort staff happen to wander in. Of course, I expect to

leave any day, when the Hopkins Park Plaza opens up. For the time being,
though, I revel in the splendor of my accommodations, amazed that they cost
$5.05 less, on a daily basis, than what I was paying for that rat hole in
Clearview. I stop worrying about my computer being stolen or cooked, I sleep
through the night, the sick little plucking habit loses its grip. I feel like the man
in the commercials for the Holiday Inn Express who’s so refreshed by his
overnight stay that he can perform surgery the next day or instruct people in how
to use a parachute. At Wal-Mart, I get better at what I do, much better than I
could ever have imagined at the beginning.

The breakthrough comes on a Saturday, one of your heavier shopping days.
There are two carts waiting for me when I arrive at two, and tossed items inches
deep on major patches of the floor. The place hasn’t been shopped, it’s been
looted. In this situation, all I can do is everything at once—stoop, reach, bend,
lift, run from rack to rack with my cart. And then it happens—a magical flow
state in which the clothes start putting themselves away. Oh, I play a part in this,
but not in any conscious way. Instead of thinking, “White Stag navy twill skort,”
and doggedly searching out similar skorts, all I have to do is form an image of
the item in my mind, transpose this image onto the visual field, and move to
wherever the image finds its match in the outer world. I don’t know how this
works. Maybe my mind just gets so busy processing the incoming visual data
that it has to bypass the left brain’s verbal centers, with their cumbersome
instructions: “Proceed to White Stag area in the northwest corner of ladies’, try
bottom racks near khaki shorts. . . ” Or maybe the trick lies in understanding that
each item wants to be reunited with its sibs and its clan members and that, within
each clan, the item wants to occupy its proper place in the color/size hierarchy.
Once I let the clothes take charge, once I understand that I am only the means of
their reunification, they just fly out of the cart to their natural homes.

On the same day, perhaps because the new speediness frees me to think more
clearly, I make my peace with the customers and discover the purpose of life, or
at least of my life at Wal-Mart. Management may think that the purpose is to sell
things, but this is an overly reductionist, narrowly capitalist view. As a matter of
fact, I never see anything sold, since sales take place out of my sight, at the cash
registers at the front of the store. All I see is customers unfolding carefully
folded Tshirts, taking dresses and pants off their hangers, holding them up for a
moment’s idle inspection, then dropping them somewhere for us associates to

pick up. For me, the way out of resentment begins with a clue provided by a
poster near the break room, in the back of the store where only associates go:
“Your mother doesn’t work here,” it says. “Please pick up after yourself.” I’ve
passed it many times, thinking, “Ha, that’s all I do—pick up after people.” Then
it hits me: most of the people I pick up after are mothers themselves, meaning
that what I do at work is what they do at home—pick up the toys and the clothes
and the spills. So the great thing about shopping, for most of these women, is
that here they get to behave like brats, ignoring the bawling babies in their carts,
tossing things around for someone else to pick up. And it wouldn’t be any fun—
would it?—unless the clothes were all reasonably orderly to begin with, which is
where I come in, constantly re-creating orderliness for the customers to
maliciously destroy. It’s appalling, but it’s in their nature: only pristine and
virginal displays truly excite them.

I test this theory out on Isabelle: that our job is to constantly re-create the
stage setting in which women can act out. That without us, rates of child abuse
would suddenly soar. That we function, in a way, as therapists and should
probably be paid accordingly, at $50 to $100 an hour. “You just go on thinking
that,” she says, shaking her head. But she smiles her canny little smile in a way
that makes me think it’s not a bad notion.

With competence comes a new impatience: Why does anybody put up with
the wages we’re paid? True, most of my fellow workers are better cushioned than
I am; they live with spouses or grown children or they have other jobs in
addition to this one. I sit with Lynne in the break room one night and find out
this is only a part-time job for her-six hours a day—with the other eight hours
spent at a factory for $9 an hour. Doesn’t she get awfully tired? Nah, it’s what
she’s always done. The cook at the Radio Grill has two other jobs. You might
expect a bit of grumbling, some signs here and there of unrest—graffiti on the
hortatory posters in the break room, muffled guffaws during our associate
meetings—but I can detect none of that. Maybe this is what you get when you
weed out all the rebels with drug tests and personality “surveys”—a uniformly
servile and denatured workforce, content to dream of the distant day when they’ll
be vested in the company’s profit-sharing plan. They even join in the “Wal-Mart
cheer” when required to do so at meetings, I’m told by the evening fitting room
lady, though I am fortunate enough never to witness this final abasement.[31]

But if it’s hard to think “out of the box,” it may be almost impossible to think

out of the Big Box. Wal-Mart, when you’re in it, is total—a closed system, a
world unto itself. I get a chill when I’m watching TV in the break room one
afternoon and see. . . a commercial for Wal-Mart. When a Wal-Mart shows up
within a television within a Wal-Mart, you have to question the existence of an
outer world. Sure, you can drive for five minutes and get somewhere else—to
Kmart, that is, or Home Depot, or Target, or Burger King, or Wendy’s, or KFC.
Wherever you look, there is no alternative to the megascale corporate order,
from which every form of local creativity and initiative has been abolished by
distant home offices. Even the woods and the meadows have been stripped of
disorderly life forms and forced into a uniform made of concrete. What you see
—highways, parking lots, stores—is all there is, or all that’s left to us here in the
reign of globalized, totalized, paved-over, corporatized everything. I like to read
the labels to find out where the clothing we sell is made—Indonesia, Mexico,
Turkey, the Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Brazil—but the labels serve
only to remind me that none of these places is “exotic” anymore, that they’ve all
been eaten by the great blind profit-making global machine.

The only thing to do is ask: Why do you—why do we—work here? Why do
you stay? So when Isabelle praises my work a second time (!), I take the
opportunity to say I really appreciate her encouragement, but I can’t afford to
live on $7 an hour, and how does she do it? The answer is that she lives with her
grown daughter, who also works, plus the fact that she’s worked here two years,
during which her pay has shot up to $7.75 an hour. She counsels patience: it
could happen to me. Melissa, who has the advantage of a working husband, says,
“Well, it’s a job.” Yes, she made twice as much when she was a waitress but that
place closed down and at her age she’s never going to be hired at a high-tip
place. I recognize the inertia, the unwillingness to start up with the apps and the
interviews and the drug tests again. She thinks she should give it a year. A year?
I tell her I’m wondering whether I should give it another week.

A few days later something happens to make kindly, sweet-natured Melissa
mad. She gets banished to bras, which is terra incognita for us—huge banks of
shelves bearing barely distinguishable bi-coned objects-for a three-hour stretch. I
know how she feels, because I was once sent over to work for a couple of hours
in men’s wear, where I wandered uselessly through the strange thickets of racks,
numbed by the sameness of colors and styles.[32] It’s the difference between
working and pretending to work. You push your cart a few feet, pause

significantly with item in hand, frown at the ambient racks, then push on and
repeat the process. “I just don’t like wasting their money,” Melissa says when
she’s allowed back. “I mean they’re paying me and I just wasn’t accomplishing
anything over there.” To me, this anger seems badly mis-aimed. What does she
think, that the Walton family is living in some hidden room in the back of the
store, in the utmost frugality, and likely to be ruined by $21 worth of wasted
labor? I’m starting in on that theme when she suddenly dives behind the rack that
separates the place where we’re standing, in the Jordache/No Boundaries section,
from the Faded Glory region. Worried that I may have offended her somehow, I
follow right behind. “Howard,” she whispers. “Didn’t you see him come by?
We’re not allowed to talk to each other, you know.”

“The point is our time is so cheap they don’t care if we waste it,” I continue,
aware even as I speak that this isn’t true, otherwise why would they be constantly
monitoring us for “time theft”? But I sputter on: “That’s what’s so insulting.” Of
course, in this outburst of militance I am completely not noticing the context—
two women of mature years, two very hardworking women, as it happens,
dodging behind a clothing rack to avoid a twenty-six-year-old management
twerp. That’s not even worth commenting on. Alyssa is another target for my
crusade. When she returns to check yet again on that $7 polo, she finds a stain on
it. What could she get off for that? I think 10 percent, and if you add in the 10
percent employee discount, we’d be down to $5.60. I’m trying to negotiate a 20
percent price reduction with the fitting room lady when—rotten luck!–Howard
shows up and announces that there are no reductions and no employee discounts
on clearanced items. Those are the rules. Alyssa looks crushed, and I tell her,
when Howard’s out of sight, that there’s something wrong when you’re not paid
enough to buy a Wal-Mart shirt, a clearanced Wal-Mart shirt with a stain on it.
“I hear you,” she says, and admits Wal-Mart isn’t working for her either, if the
goal is to make a living.

Then I get a little reckless. When an associate meeting is announced over the
loudspeaker that afternoon, I decide to go, although most of my coworkers stay
put. I don’t understand the purpose of these meetings, which occur every three
days or so and consist largely of attendance taking, unless it’s Howard’s way of
showing us that there’s only one of him compared to so many of us. I’m just
happy to have a few minutes to sit down or, in this case, perch on some fertilizer
bags since we’re meeting in lawn and garden today, and chat with whoever

shows up, today a gal from the optical department. She’s better coifed and made
up than most of us female associates—forced to take the job because of a recent
divorce, she tells me, and sorry now that she’s found out how crummy the health
insurance is. There follows a long story about preexisting conditions and
deductibles and her COBRA running out. I listen vacantly because, like most of
the other people in my orientation group, I hadn’t opted for the health insurance
—the employee contribution seemed too high. “You know what we need here?”
I finally respond. “We need a union.” There it is, the word is out. Maybe if I
hadn’t been feeling so footsore I wouldn’t have said it, and I probably wouldn’t
have said it either if we were allowed to say “hell” and “damn” now and then or,
better yet, “shit.” But no one has outright banned the word union and right now
it’s the most potent couple of syllables at hand. “We need something,” she
responds.

After that, there’s nothing to stop me. I’m on a mission now: Raise the
questions! Plant the seeds! Breaks finally have a purpose beyond getting off my
feet. There are hundreds of workers here—I never do find out how many—and
sooner or later I’ll meet them all. I reject the break room for this purpose because
the TV inhibits conversation, and for all I know that’s what it’s supposed to do.
Better to go outdoors to the fenced-in smoking area in front of the store.
Smokers, in smoke-free America, are more likely to be rebels; at least that was
true at The Maids, where the nonsmokers waited silently in the office for work
to begin, while the smokers out on the sidewalk would be having a raucous old
time. Besides, you can always start the ball rolling by asking for a light, which I
have to do anyway when the wind is up. The next question is, “What department
are you in?” followed by, “How long have you worked here?” from which it’s an
obvious segue to the business at hand. Almost everyone is eager to talk, and I
soon become a walking repository of complaints. No one gets paid overtime at
Wal-Mart, I’m told, though there’s often pressure to work it.[33] Many feel the
health insurance isn’t worth paying for. There’s a lot of frustration over
schedules, especially in the case of the evangelical lady who can never get
Sunday morning off, no matter how much she pleads. And always there are the
gripes about managers: the one who is known for sending new hires home in
tears, the one who takes a ruler and knocks everything off what he regards as a
messy shelf, so you have to pick it up off the floor and start over.

Sometimes, I discover, my favorite subject, which is the abysmal rate of pay,

seems to be a painful one. Stan, for example, a twenty-something fellow with
wildly misaligned teeth, is so eager to talk that he fairly pounces on the seat next
to mine on a bench in the smoking area. But when the subject arrives at wages,
his face falls. The idea, see, was that he would go to school (he names a two-
year technical school) while he worked, but the work cut into studying too much,
so he had to drop out and now. . . He stares at the butt-strewed ground, perhaps
seeing an eternity in appliances unfold before him. I suggest that what we need
is a union, but from the look on his face I might as well have said gumballs or
Prozac. Yeah, maybe he’ll go over and apply at Media One, where a friend
works and the wages are higher. . . Try school again, umm. . .

At the other extreme, there are people like Marlene. I am sitting out there
talking to a doll-like blonde whom I had taken for a high school student but who,
it turns out, has been working full-time since November and is fretting over
whether she can afford to buy a car. Marlene comes out for her break, lights a
cigarette, and emphatically seconds my opinion of Wal-Mart wages. “They talk
about having spirit,” she says, referring to management, “but they don’t give us
any reason to have any spirit.” In her view, Wal-Mart would rather just keep
hiring new people than treating the ones it has decently. You can see for yourself
there’s a dozen new people coming in for orientation every day—which is true.
Wal-Mart’s appetite for human flesh is insatiable; we’ve even been urged to
recruit any Kmart employees we may happen to know. They don’t care that
they’ve trained you or anything, Marlene goes on, they can always get someone
else if you complain. Emboldened by her vehemence, I risk the red-hot word
again. “I know this goes against the whole Wal-Mart philosophy, but we could
use a union here.” She grins, so I push on: “It’s not just about money, it’s about
dignity.” She nods fiercely, lighting a second cigarette from her first. Put that
woman on the organizing committee at once, I direct my imaginary
coconspirators as I leave.

All right, I’m not a union organizer anymore than I’m Wal-Mart “management
material,” as Isabelle has hinted. In fact, I don’t share the belief, held by many
union staffers, that unionization would be a panacea. Sure, almost any old union
would boost wages and straighten out some backbones here, but I know that
even the most energetic and democratic unions bear careful watching by their
members. The truth, which I can’t avoid acknowledging when I’m in those vast,
desertlike stretches between afternoon breaks, is that I’m just amusing myself,

and in what seems like a pretty harmless way. Someone has to puncture the
prevailing fiction that we’re a “family” here, we “associates” and our “servant
leaders,” held together solely by our commitment to the “guests.” After all, you’d
need a lot stronger word than dysfunctional to describe a family where a few
people get to eat at the table while the rest—the “associates” and all the dark-
skinned seamstresses and factory workers worldwide who make the things we
sell lick up the drippings from the floor: psychotic would be closer to the mark.
[34] And someone has to flush out the mysterious “we” lurking in the “our” in
the “Our people make the difference” statement we wear on our backs. It might
as well be me because I have nothing to lose, less than nothing, in fact. For each
day that I fail to find cheaper quarters, which is every day now, I am spending
$49.95 for the privilege of putting clothes away at Wal-Mart. At this rate, I’ll
have burned through the rest of the $1,200 I’ve allotted for my life in
Minneapolis in less than a week.

I could use some amusement. I have been discovering a great truth about low-
wage work and probably a lot of medium-wage work, too—that nothing
happens, or rather the same thing always happens, which amounts, day after day,
to nothing. This law doesn’t apply so strictly to the service jobs I’ve held so far.
In waitressing, you always have new customers to study; even housecleaning
offers the day’s parade of houses to explore. But here—well, you know what I do
and how it gets undone and how I just start all over and do it again. How did I
think I was going to survive in a factory, where each minute is identical to the
next one, and not just each day? There will be no crises here, except perhaps in
the pre-Christmas rush. There will be no “Code M,” meaning “hostage
situation,” and probably no Code F or T (I’m guessing on these letters, which I
didn’t write down during my note taking at orientation and which may be a
company secret anyway), meaning fire or tornado—no opportunities for courage
or extraordinary achievement or sudden evacuations of the store. Those
breaking-news moments when a disgruntled former employee shoots up the
place or a bunch of people get crushed in an avalanche of piled-up stock are one-
in-a-million events. What my life holds is carts-full ones, then empty ones, then
full ones again.

You could get old pretty fast here. In fact, time does funny things when there
are no little surprises to mark it off into memorable chunks, and I sense that I’m
already several years older than I was when I started. In the one full-length

mirror in ladies’ wear, a medium-tall figure is hunched over a cart, her face
pinched in absurd concentration—surely not me. How long before I’m as gray as
Ellie, as cranky as Rhoda, as shriveled as Isabelle? When even a high-sodium
fast-food diet can’t keep me from needing to pee every hour, and my feet are
putting some podiatrist’s kid through college? Yes, I know that any day now I’m
going to return to the variety and drama of my real, Barbara Ehrenreich life. But
this fact sustains me only in the way that, say, the prospect of heaven cheers a
terminally ill person: it’s nice to know, but it isn’t much help from moment to
moment. What you don’t necessarily realize when you start selling your time by
the hour is that what you’re actually selling is your life.

Then something happens, not to me and not at Wal-Mart but with dazzling
implications nonetheless. It’s a banner headline in the Star Tribune. 1,450 hotel
workers, members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union,
strike nine local hotels. A business writer in the Pioneer Press, commenting on
this plus a Teamsters’ strike at the Pepsi-Cola bottling plant and a march by
workers demanding union recognition at a St. Paul meatpacking plant, rubs his
eyes and asks, “What’s going on here?” When I arrive for work that day I
salvage the newspaper from the trash can just outside the store entrance—which
isn’t difficult because the trash can is overflowing as usual and I don’t have to dig
down very far. Then I march that newspaper back to the break room, where I
leave it face up on a table, in case anyone’s missed the headline. This new role—
bearer of really big news!–makes me feel busy and important. At ladies’, I relate
the news to Melissa, adding that the hotel workers already earn over a dollar an
hour more than we do and that that hasn’t stopped them from striking for more.
She blinks a few times, considering, then Isabelle comes up and announces that
the regional manager will be visiting our store tomorrow, so everything has to be
“zoned to the nth degree.” The day is upon us.

I have a lot more on my mind than the challenge of organizing the Faded
Glory jeans shelves. At about six I’m supposed to call two motels charging only
$40 a day, where something may have opened up, but I realize I’ve left the phone
numbers in the car. I don’t want to use up any breaks fetching them—not today,
with the strike news to talk about. Do I dare engage in some major time theft?
And how can I get out without Isabelle noticing? She’s already caught me
folding the jeans the wrong way—you do them in thirds, with the ankles on the
inside, not on the outside—and has come by to check a second time. It is, of all

people, Howard who provides me with an out, suddenly appearing at my side to
inform me that I’m way behind in my CBLs. New employees are supposed to
make their way through the CBL training modules by leaving the floor with the
permission of their supervisors, and I had been doing so in a halfhearted way
getting through cardboard-box opening, pallet loading, and trash compacting—
until the program jammed. Now it’s been fixed, he says, and I’m to get back to
the computer immediately. This gets me out of ladies’ but puts me a lot farther
from the store exit. I apply myself to a module in which Sam Walton waxes
manic about the perpetual inventory system, then I cautiously get up from the
computer to see if Howard is anywhere around. Good, the way is clear. I am
walking purposefully toward the front of the store when I catch sight of him
walking in the same direction, about one hundred feet to my left. I dart into
shoes, emerging to see him still moving in a path parallel to mine. I dodge him
again by going into bras, then tacking right to the far side of ladies’. I’ve seen this
kind of thing in the movies, where the good guy eludes the bad one in some kind
of complicated public space, but I never imagined doing it myself.

Back in the store with the numbers in my vest pocket, I decide to steal a few
more minutes and make my calls on company time from the pay phone near
layaway. The first motel doesn’t answer, which is not uncommon in your low-
rate places. On a whim I call Caroline to see if she’s on strike: no, not her hotel.
But she laughs as she tells me that last night on the TV news she saw a manager
from the hotel where she used to work. He’s a white guy who’d enjoyed
reminding her that she was the first African American to be hired for anything
above a housekeeping job and here he was on TV, reduced to pushing a broom
while the regular broom pushers walked the picket line. I’m dialing the second
motel when Howard reappears. Why aren’t I at the computer? he wants to know,
giving me his signature hate smile. “Break,” I say, flashing him what is known
to primatologists as a “fear grin”—half teeth baring and half grimace. If you’re
going to steal, you better be prepared to lie. He can find out in a minute, of
course, by checking to see if I’m actually punched out. I could be written up,
banished to bras, called in for a talking-to by a deeply disappointed Roberta. But
the second motel has no room for another few days, which means that, for purely
financial reasons, my career at Wal-Mart is about to come to a sudden end
anyway.

When Melissa is getting ready to leave work at six, I tell her I’m quitting,

possibly the next day. Well then, she thinks she’ll be going too, because she
doesn’t want to work here without me. We both look at the floor. I understand
that this is not a confession of love, just a practical consideration. You don’t want
to work with people who can’t hold up their end or whom you don’t like being
with, and you don’t want to keep readjusting to new ones. We exchange
addresses, including my real and permanent one. I tell her about the book I’m
working on and she nods, not particularly surprised, and says she hopes she
hasn’t said “too many bad things about Wal-Mart.” I assure her that she hasn’t
and that she’ll be well disguised anyway. Then she tells me she’s been thinking
about it, and $7 an hour isn’t enough for how hard we work after all, and she’s
going to apply at a plastics factory where she hopes she can get $9.

At ten that night I go to the break room for my final break, too footsore to
walk out to the smoking area, and sit down with my feet up on the bench. My
earlier break, the one I’d committed so many crimes to preserve, had been a
complete bust, with no other human around but a management-level woman
from accounting. I have that late-shift shut-in feeling that there’s no world
beyond the doors, no problem greater than the mystery items remaining at the
bottom of my cart. There’s only one other person in the break room anyway, a
white woman of maybe thirty, watching TV, and I don’t have the energy to start
a conversation, even with the rich topic of the strike at hand.

And then, by the grace of the God who dictated the Sermon on the Mount to
Jesus, who watches over Melissa and sparrows everywhere, the TV picks up on
the local news and the news is about the strike. A picketer with a little boy tells
the camera, “This is for my son. I’m doing this for my son.” Senator Paul
Wellstone is standing there too. He shakes the boy’s hand, and says, “You should
be proud of your father.” At this my sole companion jumps up, grinning, and
waves a fist in the air at the TV set. I give her the rapid two-index-fingers-
pointing-down signal that means “Here! Us! We could do that too!” She bounds
over to where I’m sitting—if I were feeling peppier I would have gone over to
her—leans into my face, and says, “Damn right!” I don’t know whether it’s my
feet or the fact that she said “damn,” or what, but I find myself tearing up. She
talks well past my legal break time and possibly hers—about her daughter, how
she’s sick of working long hours and never getting enough time with her, and
what does this lead to anyway, when you can’t make enough to save?

I still think we could have done something, she and I, if I could have afforded

to work at Wal-Mart a little longer.

Part 1:

Answer the following questions, from readings, in “answer and question format”:

1. Many campus and advocacy groups are currently involved in struggles for a “living wage.” How do you think a living wage should be calculated?

2. Were you surprised by the casual reactions of Ehrenreich’s coworkers when she revealed herself as an undercover writer? Were you surprised that she wasn’t suspected of being “different” or out-of-place despite her graduate-level education and usually comfortable lifestyle?

3. Many of Ehrenreich’s colleagues relied heavily on family—for housing and help with child-care, by sharing appliances and dividing up the cooking, shopping, and cleaning. Do you think Americans make excessive demands on the family unit rather than calling for the government to help those in need?

4. Nickel and Dimed takes place in 1998-2000, a time of unprecedented prosperity in America. Do you think Ehrenreich’s experience would be different in today’s economy? How so?

5. After reading Nickel and Dimed, do you think that having a job—any job—is better than no job at all? Did this book make you feel angry? Better informed? Relieved that someone has finally described your experience? Galvanized to do something.

Part 2: Essay Format

In two pages (not including cover or reference pages), write an Essay that addresses your views on low wage workers need for a $15.00 minimum wage in the US, including making an argument for or against the $15.00 minimum wage. Students are expected to cite sources to support arguments and format citations and reference list using APA (American Psychological Association -sixth edition).

As you think about your argument for or against the $15.00 minimum wage, consider some of the following questions:

* What is a living wage? How much is it today? Is it really a living wage?

* Why do you think caused the pay gap between men and women and how can we close the gap?

* What are some of the challenges associated with organizing for increasing minimum wage to $15.00 an hour? Are some of the challenges specific to any low wage groups (i.e., women, young adults, elderly, or people disability, etc.) or industries (i.e., retail, restaurant, or domestic workers, etc.)

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