Starving but Sarcastic: Ehrenreich’s Humor in Nickel and Dimed
Barbara Ehrenreich uses vivid imagery and sarcasm to denote the somber existence of low-wage workers. Her sarcasm and humor seen in the book in times of reflection, help the reader to understand just how fully immersed she is in her role. As a woman of higher status, she must not appear to be overly happy as that would risk her “cover” being blown. She finds the common ground between herself and her fellow workers in a sense of camaraderie and comedy. There is little else that she has to relate to in the fact that she is not destined to live in this lower class caste, as most of the other women surely will be. For this reason and the fact that she harbors some guilt for her place in society, she tries to make others laugh (including her readers) at the irony of their life and their work.
Ehrenriech has to stretch to find compassion among her superiors, but not usually among her co-workers. She becomes amazed at how inhumanely some are treated when they need simple kindness and are treated like sub-human creatures, whose only role in life is to make their company money. These low-wage employees work when they are ill and forgo food and necessities to cater to those, who do not understand their plight. Barbara is most sarcastic and sometimes enraged at these defining moments. Many times the activist in her attempts to affect the thinking of the other workers (especially the maids) that they are worth more than they believe they are. Her fall into despair is brief when she realizes that she cannot change the economic system or the economic situations of these women, so her choice is either to laugh or to cry. She chooses (mostly) to laugh.
The treatment of the maids by Ted the owner/manager is the most striking part of Ehrenreich’s journalism. It is in this job setting that she gets the most angry as she is working in a nursing home on weekends as well as at the maid service. Her tiredness and disillusionment become apparent at this point and she is careful not to get so attached to her co-workers as she did in Key West. Although, she tries her hardest to “fit in” with the other maids, she cannot understand how they allow themselves to be treated so unfairly by Ted. They, also, do not understand her sarcasm, so her alienation is at its peak here, as well. Her only option is the inner dialogue of humor she has for herself. On page 107, she says that “anger is toxic, as the New Agers say, and there is no evidence anyway that my co-workers share my outrage on their behalf, at least not in any overt form.” For this reason she is able to control her anger and keep her sense of humor.
Part of what enrages Ehrenreich at the maid service is the way the other maids seem to worship Ted as some kind of God. Ted, also, disrupts the possibilities of the women, who work for him, to have true friendships as he encourages the women to “snitch” on one another. On page 115 she writes “this is how Ted operates, my co-workers claim-through snitches and by setting up one woman against another.” She goes on to sarcastically accuse Ted to be a “pimp” in her own mind. The descriptions of Ted are probably the most vivid imagery in the chapters and shows how tyranny and authoritarianism operate in smaller businesses. The blatant disregard for his workers and the sexist nature in which Ted refers to them as “gals” is hard for Ehrenreich’s readers to swallow and her irony and humor is used most effectively here. Her “one-woman” strike is appealing and funny to break the monotony of negativity in Portland.
The Portland “experiment” has different undertones of humor than does the previous chapter, where Ehrenreich focuses more on her co-workers and patrons attitudes than the cruelty of Ted and the maids oblivion to it. As a waitress, she notices the irony of church-goers and their low or non-existent tipping. She, also, humorously refers to German tourists with hilarity “Europeans, no doubt spoiled by their trade union-ridden, high-wage welfare states, generally do not know that they are supposed to tip” (pg 19). Since the patrons of the restaurant are of different social classes, it is easier for her to use humor than in the second chapter, where she is forced to clean the homes of the extremely wealthy. Ehrenreich waitresses at two separate restaurants and does some “housecleaning” at a hotel adjacent to the restaurant “Jerry’s”, where she is serving food. She only works at the hotel for one day, as she quits both jobs. Her sarcasm and wit is especially needed here as she worries about the fate of her co-workers Gail, Joan, and others.
Ehrenreich’s third job illuminates her personality and humor in the large department store, Wal-Mart. Here she is less attached to her previously small number of co-workers and not in much direct contact with management. This allows her here to be the most detached and journalistic, but also more humorous and reflective of her own life. In this chapter she equates Wal-Mart as some sort of brain-washing organization as she notices the different chants and symbols that make it seem like a cult of workers. She begins first to work at Menard’s as she is leery to take the drug-screen required at Wal-Mart. This is where her personality shines through as she admits to smoking marijuana, which is very interesting to readers. Her personality literally shines through in the battery of personality tests she must undergo at both Menard’s and Wal-Mart. She uses irony effectively while talking about these tests in her inner dialogue.
She tries to convey the difficulty she has in taking these tests, as again, she is afraid to “blow her cover”. So, she says on page 124 “my approach to pre-employment tests has been zero tolerance vis-à-vis the obvious “crimes”-drug use and theft-but to leave a little wiggle room elsewhere, just so it doesn’t look like I am faking the test”. She jokingly refers to Menard’s test questions as being “aimed at a rougher crowd: Am I more likely than other people to get in fistfights? Are there situations in which dealing cocaine is not a crime” (pg.126). This shows her true commitment into understanding what low-wage workers must endure to get hired and points to the seriousness that is placed on their low-paying jobs once they are acquired. She approached all of this very open-mindedly and humorously.
Ehrenreich gets accepted at both Wal-Mart and Menard’s and is shocked to learn that she will be making $10 an hour at Menard’s, which is above the minimum wage she had been used to. She believes, though, that her job at Wal-Mart will be more mentally enriching, as she refers to the workers there as the “cult of Sam”. She is amazed at how this company refers to its staff as “family”, but pays them so little money. In addition to her “cult of Sam” theory, she also makes amusing little blurbs on other aspects of Wal-Mart that seem ridiculous to most readers or those not a member of “the cult”. For example, employees are forbidden from “grazing” which is when an employee eats food from an already opened package. “Time theft” is also a serious “crime” there, meaning that one should not be getting paid for not working.
She begins her stint at Wal-Mart working in ladies’ wear, sorting clothes by color or pattern. This is very menial work and hardly physically demanding, but she sees this experience as more emotionally demanding, as she cannot (again) understand why people settle for such low-paying work and furthermore how they survive with so little income as she has struggled to do. She, also, realizes that the workers here have little time for meaningful interaction with others in her department and, obviously, throughout the store. She jokes at the hierarchy of the department, such as “Rhoda-because the fitting room lady bears the same kind of relation to me as a server: she can screw me up if she wants” (pg.162). In addition to using sarcasm to denote Rhoda’s overbearingness, she also comments about the wide array of multi-ethnic customers and the fact that she has little contact with them. Without the human contact that Ehrenreich enjoys, she proclaims to become more attached to the clothes!
Ehrenreich, though, finds another way to begin a “crusade” as she tries to discover why these workers allow such little pay and much degradation. She presents herself as an activist and crusader throughout the book, but her antics are most amusing when she comments that Wal-Mart needed a union. The reaction and the imagery are particularly funny here. She uses this type of humor to pass the endless stretching time of this menial work, as she did to stave off her anger with Ted, and her sadness with her co-workers in Florida.
Overall, Ehrenreich makes a difficult topic easier to read with her use of wit and sarcasm. It is a book that can be read, not only by academics and students, but anyone, who is interested in what life for low-wage workers looks like from the outside looking in and the inside looking out. Hopefully, low-wage workers have access to a library card to rent the book and evaluate their lives. Ehrenreich makes this reflection much easier to do.
Ehrenreich, B. (2001). Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.