Jerry’s: White-Collar Scholar to Blue-Collar Waitress Creamy carrion, pizza barf, decomposing lemon wedges, and water-logged toast crusts; sounds like the typical garbage can. Would anyone believe that these phrases apply to a run-down restaurant in the middle of Florida? Barbara Ehrenreich goes undercover at a local fast food diner known as Jerry’s to investigate life as a blue-collar laborer, serving to customers arriving in “human waves” (Ehrenreich 180).
It is throughout her journey working for both Jerry’s and a factory known as Hearthside that she learns the difficulties faced with minimum wage and severe working conditions, and how the career you pursue and the environment that the career puts you in can change you. Through the usage of emotionally charged language, ethical and logical appeal, and varying sentence structure, Barbara Ehrenreich’s essay “Serving in Florida” reflects upon her hardships faced as a laborer receiving minimum wage in modern day America.
Made evident through the use of logic, Ehrenreich establishes her credibility and creates a trustworthy bond between herself and the readers, allowing them to feel the pain she has felt as a blue-collar employee. The logic is, specifically, sensed through the footnotes of the essay. The very fact that she has footnotes establishes a sense of knowledge; a sense that the author clearly knows what she is talking about and wants the readers to know both what she is talking about and that she is a credible source.
The footnotes provide other logical tools as well: allusions, historical contexts, even citations are mentioned. In her essay, Ehrenreich claims that Jerry’s insanitation forces the employees “to walk through the kitchen with tiny steps, like Susan McDougal in leg irons” (179). Also in the footnotes, she gives a historical context for the allusion to Susan McDougal, saying that she was “imprisoned for contempt of court, fraud, and conspiracy in connection with the failed Whitewater…” (179).
Her extensive background knowledge and logical connection between the suffering of Susan McDougal and the Jerry’s employees clearly depicts the hardships that she is trying to present to the readers as well as proof that her job at Jerry’s and everything that she had been writing about is accurate. Her logic is also proven through pure historical context. For example, when she mentions that all of the girls who “work [her] shift” would conceal each other “if one of [them was] off sneaking a cigarette or pee,” she gives background information on the necessity of this, saying that until 1998, there was no federally mandated right to bathroom breaks” (189). By giving the reader this context, she is sharing her knowledge of her current situation, and this information can effectively make an author come off as trustworthy and commendable. The basic information the author provides to a reader gives him or her a better grasp of the concepts in this essay that many people today may not understand. Logic effectively proves Ehrenreich’s credibility, but also makes it easier for the reader to understand her purpose for writing and publishing this essay.
The progression of crude and foul language shows one of the major hardships Ehrenreich faces: her transition from scholarly writer to poor waitress. She shows her desire to go back to her home, to her old, distant life. She becomes “so homesick for the printed word that [she] obsessively reread[s] the six-page menu” (182) at Jerry’s. Her dramatic measures show that even though she could have easily quit, she tolerates the pain of grueling through so many hours continuously and earning such low pay.
What at first felt like something heroic, handling two jobs really took a toll on her. When she first started, she claimed to feel “powerfully vindicated –a survivor…” and used words such as “beautiful” and “heroic” (180) to describe the beginning of her short lived job at the factory known as Hearthside. But, directly in the next paragraph, she talks about being yelled at for eating on the job. At this point, she becomes frustrated. Her language become more and more crude, especially when she mentions how her “flesh seems to bond to the seat” (181).
The reader can easily detect her ever-mounting anger with the situation she has put herself in and what at first seemed like a heroic act ends up being one leading to pure defeat. As an extension to this idea, Ehrenreich shows the reader how certain hardships can make it difficult to try new things. In multiple instances throughout the essay she uses crude language to display her disgusted thoughts and sense of hopelessness, but it can be seen specifically in the introduction. The introduction is based off of her entire experience; after her jobs at Hearthside and Jerry’s.
She compares the environment at Jerry’s to a human body, and not in a very pleasant way: “The kitchen is cavern, a stomach leading to the lower intestine that is the garbage and dishwashing area…” She also uses descriptive items of food to depict its scent, combining strange and appalling odors such as “decomposing lemon wedges [and] water-logged toast crusts” (179). These phrases themselves create a negative image of the restaurant, commanding the readers to question how she could have possibly been forced to work in such horrible conditions.
Ehrenreich’s rough language effectively shows certain emotions brought out by the transition from writer to waitress, a white collar to a blue collar job, and the hardships that it brought. Supplementing her crude tone, Ehrenreich’s ethical appeal brings out the idea of how the place one works can affect his or her view of right and wrong. She learns this especially from “George, the nineteen-year-old Czech dishwasher who [had] been in [America] exactly one week” (184) when she met him.
She makes it her mission to teach George English, something that the people who had shipped him there didn’t bother making sure he knew before he moved to America. The fact that she goes through all if this trouble for a complete stranger appeals to the readers sense of morality; by doing the right thing and helping out someone whom no one could be bothered to help, it seems as if the hardships she has gone through have motivated her to help others so that they don’t have to face the hardships of being a new employee alone.
In the final part of the essay, George is caught stealing from the dry-storage room after he had been fired (George was still working there until they could find a replacement for him). After she had been told this information, she wishes she had defended George, writing that “if he had taken anything at all–some Saltines or a can of cherry pie mix…that the motive for taking it was [probably] hunger” (186). She realizes that by not defending him, she wasn’t doing the right thing; she feels “something loathsome and servile” (186) that caused her to stay quiet.
She realizes that Jerry’s, or any minimum wage jobs, with terrible working conditions can wear a person out enough to make that person shed the courage that is required to take that job in the first place; it’s incredibly hard to remain brave in the “infinitely more congenial milieu of the low-wage American workplace” (186). She relates this experience to people shedding their courage in POW camps, or Prisoner of War camps. Ehrenreich is proving that through enough hardships, it’s very easy to lose one’s sense of morality and perspective on what is right versus what is wrong.
The sentence structure of the passage really helps Ehrenreich’s tonal shifts which guide the reader to understanding what her purpose is and the context in which she is trying to create it. The tone, at times, is formal and erudite, the structure complex and long, when she is just presenting the reader with basic information. At other times, her tone can be angry and colloquial, the structure broken apart and informal, where she is trying to show her frustration at the hardships that these jobs have caused her.
In the footnotes, Ehrenreich writes that “[Kim Moody, author of Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International Economy] argues that rising stress levels reflect a new system of “management and stress” (footnote 2, 182). This idea shows a completely different side of Ehrenreich; a scholarly side opposing a crass side. It shows her before the burden of the hardships of blue collar labor. There are also other times when Ehrenreich would be too overwhelmed by her frustration at the unfair labor of a low wage job, desiring to get back to her old life as a scholar.
When she talks about not defending George at the end of the essay, she says: “On the contrary, something new –something loathsome and servile –had infected me …” (186). The phrases are broken apart, separated, to show her own overwhelming emotions; frustration towards her job, guilt for not defending George, confusion on whether or not it is the low-wage American workplace is the cause of her lack of defense for George. The sentence structure can tell the reader the emotions the author is trying to convey as well as the message she is trying to get across.
Ehrenreich’s structure exemplifies how the hardships she’s faced at Jerry’s and Hearthside changed the person she was, from logical and formal to angry and colloquial. In “Serving in Florida”, Barbara Ehrenreich uses appeals to logic and ethics, as well as emotional language and changes in structure to allow the reader to gain some insight on life as a blue collar laborer. She shows the reader what it means to go through hours and hours of grim work, only to come home with aching feet and minimum wage. Though all of the readers may have not had this type of job, many have and can sympathize with Ehrenreich.
The question is, would any of them be brave enough to go undercover and have this experience? Would anyone be brave enough to conquer something so far from their own normalcy that they forget what normal is? Ehrenreich challenges the readers to do something that seems impossible, and might end up being torturous, but in the end makes them appreciate what they have, while forcing them to realize that actual people have to deal with this scenario on a daily basis and it is not something that can be ignored.