Taking on the Role of a Waitress to Make a Scarce Nickel and Dime

Author: Barbara Ehrenreich
Book: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
Publisher: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2001

After reading Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Introduction “Getting Ready” and Chapter One: “Serving in Florida” of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (see Fig.1) , my classmates and I reached a general consensus that Barbara Ehrenreich’s journalistic style is much more reflective and comparative than the style Jack London employs in The People of the Abyss. Both of these literary pieces are comparable due to each journalists’ level of investigative journalism in poor conditions which were much different than their cultural and societal norms.


Fig. 1: “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” was written from Barbara Ehrenreich’s perspective as an undercover journalist to investigate the lifestyle of the working poor.

The aspect of Ehrenreich’s style that makes it so captivating is her setup of personal ethical boundaries, honesty, knowledge, and juxtaposition between her lifestyle versus that of the working poor. In an attempt to investigate the impact of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act on the working poor in the United States, Ehrenreich (see Fig. 2) began this investigative project in Key West in 1998.

The first aspect of Ehrenreich’s literary style that we pointed out in class was that she thoroughly sets limits for herself before she engages in her undercover journey. For example, she states that she would always have her car (5), had no intention of going hungry (6), and would not sleep in a car (6). If any of these were in question, she would cheat.


Fig. 2: Barbara Ehrenreich is an American feminist, democratic socialist and political activist.



In essence, Ehrenreich’s knowledge and honesty that she would truly be an outsider setting out on this journey allowed her to pre-screen her audience in understanding her objective before reading. She does this when she says in her introduction: “With all the real-life assets I’ve built up in middle age – bank account, IRA, health insurance, multi-room home – waiting indulgently in the background, there was no way I was going to ‘experience poverty’ or find out how it ‘really feels’ to be a long-term low-wage worker. My aim here was much more straightforward and objective – just to see whether I could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do every day” (6).

One of the most captivating aspects of Ehrenreich’s writing style is her ability to reflect on her preconceived notions going into this project versus what she learned afterwards. She believed that her better education, dress, marital status and vocabulary would differentiate her from the working poor, however, she concluded at the end of her project that she was deceiving herself.  For example, when she “came out” to a few coworkers the result was “stunningly anticlimactic” (9). She realized that she had become the role of the waitress and that is exactly how her coworkers viewed her: “People knew me as a waitress, a cleaning person. . . not because I acted like one but because that’s what I was, at least for the time I was with them” (9).

Another strong element of Ehrenreich’s style is her use of juxtaposition and comparison as a powerful tool. This is evident in the scene with Carlie, the cleaning lady. As they are cleaning on their hands and knees, removing the pubic hairs from the bathtubs and stripping and remaking beds, they are watching TV shows that display elements of the surreal world. For example Ehrenreich writes: “In 511, Helen offers Amanda $10,000 to stop seeing Eric, promoting Carlie to emerge from the bathroom to study Amanda’s troubled face, ‘You take it, girl,’ she advises. ‘I would for sure'” (43). Through this scene, Ehrenreich employs juxtaposition of the surreal, idolized world displayed in this TV show with the real situation in which Carlie is scrambling for pennies as a cleaning lady. This is a very powerful technique used in Ehrenreich’s critical-cultural approach to her project.

Throughout the semester we have looked at how journalists characterize individuals in various ways; most evidently through dialogue. However, in Ehrenreich’s style we learn little about her co-workers and customers due to the reason that she never knows when they will come or go during this experience. When she does describe her customers or coworkers, it is interesting to note that she refers to them on a first name basis where as when she discusses her managers, they remain unnamed, faceless characters who are more powerful than the working poor. For example, she writes: “There is Benny, for example, a short, tight-muscled sewer repairman who cannot even think of eating until he has absorbed a half hour of air-conditioning and ice water” (19). This short, detailed description can be contrasted with her description of the powerful management under which she works: “If I have kept this subject to the margins so far it is because I still flinch to think that I spent all those weeks under the surveillance of men whose job it was to monitor my behavior or signs of sloth, theft, drug abuse, or worse” (22).

From an ethical standpoint, Ehrenreich realizes that she has fully taken on the role as a member of the working poor despite what she may think. Her new level of “power” emerges from her ability to choose the number of croutons that can go on a salad (even though her managers demand that it be six) along with the number of butter pieces that customers receive. In this realization of her newfound level of power she employs a metaphor: “Sometimes I play with the fantasy that I am a princess who, in penance for some tiny transgression, has undertaken to feed each of her subjects by hand. But the non-princesses working with me are just as indulgent, even when this means flouting management rules” (19).

This book allows us to learn as much about Ehrenreich as we do about the working class people which makes it so interesting to read.  Ehrenreich comes out of this experience having realized that all low-wage workers are not simply living off of the generosity of others but instead, we live off of their generosity. For example, Gail pays $40 to $60 a day at the Days Inn instead of living by a month’s rent at an apartment (27). She is overpaying and providing hotel owners with business at the expense of her own lifestyle. She cannot put up the two months’ rent to secure an apartment, so instead she ends up paying for a hotel room by the week. Another example of this ethical and moral disadvantage upon which companies such as fast food restaurants thrive off of is evident when Ehrenreich writes: “If you have only a room, with a hot plate at best, you can’t save by cooking up huge lentil stews that can be frozen for the week ahead. You eat fast food. . .” (27).

About rldose12

My name is Rebecca Doser and I am a sophomore at St. Lawrence University. I am an English Creative Writing major and am involved in various extracurricular activities such as the Women's Volleyball Team, The Hill News, The St. Lawrence Review, the Thelmathesian Society, and the Student Athletic Advisory Committee. I also love Nicholas Sparks and reading in my free time!
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