Nickel and Dimed

Naked Eye Theatre Company

at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

In 1998, when the U.S. economy was booming, some 30 percent of American workers toiled for $7 an hour or less. One such laborer that year was celebrated social critic Barbara Ehrenreich. She decided to figure out how the poor get by–an especially pressing inquiry, she reasoned, since welfare checks to four million women would soon stop thanks to 1996 changes in the law. But rather than spending time with women returning to the workforce or even asking the working poor how they manage, she decided to pose as a member of the working class. She gave herself $1,000, rented the cheapest apartment she could find, then secured an unskilled, underpaid job. If at the end of a month she had enough to cover rent for the following month, she would know how the poor got by. If not–well, poor people’s survival skills would remain elusive as the Snark.

The result of her mini social experiment–or, more accurately, her condescending stunt–was the ferociously praised book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. In 200 breezy, self-absorbed pages, the best-selling author with a PhD (she mentions her degree three times) slogs through some particularly crappy jobs: waitress in Florida, maid and nursing home attendant in Maine, Wal-Mart “associate” in Minnesota. The hours are long, and the work is tedious and often degrading. The pay is pitiful, and sometimes the employer withholds the first check as a kind of insurance against employee defection. None of this is news to anyone who’s ever held a menial job. And many of the affronts Ehrenreich suffers–incompetent and overzealous management, random drug tests, insistence on slavish adherence to some corporate code of conduct–aren’t much different from those afflicting my friends with six-figure incomes.

More important, little of the book actually tells us how the poor “get by.” Getting by–as I know from my job at a legal-services agency over the last 12 years–happens mostly when the workday is over. If you’re coming off the welfare rolls, somehow before your next shift you’re likely to have to try to find out from the public aid office (though no one has answered the phone there all week) why your food stamps have been cut off again without notice, arrange child care for tomorrow since the subsidized day care program three blocks away suddenly closed its doors, scrape together 40 bucks to pay the overdue gas bill because the Circuit Breaker grants are used up for the year, and explain to the DCFS investigator threatening you with a charge of neglect that you didn’t bring your two-year-old to his doctor’s appointment last week because your boyfriend took the car without telling you and you won’t have bus fare until next Friday’s paycheck.

When the workday ends in Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich generally refuses to follow her coworkers any farther than the company parking lot, where she occasionally bums a smoke. She’s far too preoccupied with the self-imposed inconveniences of her own life–the radio stations in Minneapolis are dreadful, she has to house-sit a cockatiel and she hates birds–to give anything but a cursory glance at the real working people around her. Most of them get three or four sentences at most, whizzing by like exotic creatures seen while on safari. One waitress lives in the van her manager allows her to leave in the parking lot overnight. A fellow maid has to pay her boyfriend’s sister, whom she doesn’t trust, $50 a week to watch her 18-month-old. The other Wal-Mart associates–well, one of them found Jesus. The only person whose story she tells in any detail is a friend’s aunt in Minneapolis, who’s survived for years on subsistence wages while raising two kids. She gets two pages. Orientation at Wal-Mart gets five and a half.

The only time “the poor” really come to life is when Ehrenreich needs an object of pity or a suitable recipient for her beneficence. When Holly, a pregnant maid working through debilitating morning sickness because her boyfriend is out of work, falls and hurts her knee on the job, it’s just the opportunity for Ehrenreich to confront their unfeeling boss about the need for paid maternity leave. The crises or triumphs that matter are Ehrenreich’s, as she keeps “the poor” at arm’s length while struggling to convince readers she’s not an elitist.

Joan Holden’s stage adaptation doesn’t follow Ehrenreich’s book to the letter. Holden makes up some scenes, condenses others, adds monologues, and invents out of whole cloth “where are they now?” stories for many of the incidental characters. She gives herself great license, yet rarely comes up with details beyond the meager hints Ehrenreich supplies. But Holden does adhere to the book’s spirit, making Ehrenreich–here called only Barbara–the focus of nearly every scene. And the play does have one great advantage over the book: because Ehrenreich’s fellow workers are physically present before us, they can’t be overlooked as easily as on the page.

The result is a well-intentioned play that offers only a superficial glimpse into the lives of the working poor and suggests that the travails of a well-paid writer are worthy of boundless concern. In her biggest error, Holden turns a minor strain in Ehrenreich’s tale–it seems menial work makes her petty and uncharitable–into its major focus: Barbara’s biggest problem is her struggle to remain a nice person. Deborah Leydig handles the part well, although a bit stiffly at first, but she can’t escape the classist condescension that saturates the writing. Director Jeremy B. Cohen, who makes the evening last two and a half long hours, apparently has a difficult time distinguishing between honest portrayals of the working class and distasteful caricatures. The staging’s strangest and most incongruous element, however, is a musician dressed in a black suit perched high above the stage, where he plays the marimbas all evening.

Near the end of the play, Holden gives Barbara a chance to address the question Ehrenreich ignores through-out her book: why didn’t she interview people? Barbara jumps to the defense of her project by saying that interviewing people is “like telling them what to say.” Try telling that to Studs Terkel.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.