Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Nickel and Dimed

Yesterday Steve, the kids, and I went on a ski trip with the junior high youth group from our church. Twenty-nine kids, seven chaperones, and a bus driver who didn’t know his way managed to make it to the Appalachian Ski Mountain Resort in the western mountains of North Carolina. After basking in 70 degree days for nearly two weeks, we left the church at 6 am with a mix of skepticism and hope for cold weather and snow. Let me correct that: they all hoped for snow and cold weather. I hoped for cozy couches, roaring fire places, and creamy hot cocoa. I had no plans to ski; I told the youth leader that I would be the one who stayed indoors all day for the tired, the cold, and the hungry students to come sit with when they’d had enough. The wishes of the majority were granted; there was snow. Most of it was man-made, but there was plenty of snow. And it was cold: the wind chill dipped to 15 degrees below zero. As we slid and swerved our way up the mountain on narrow roads that had not yet been fitted with guard rails, I remembered: I don’t like cold weather. I don’t like driving on narrow, snowy, icy roads. I don’t know what possessed me to volunteer to come on this trip. No turning back, no turning back.

My wishes, however, were not granted. There were no cozy couches. There was only one roaring fireplace, and stationed in front of it all day were wet, cold teenagers who left wet pant prints on the dining hall chairs that served as the only seating option in the entire lodge. Actually, “lodge” is a very generous term for the building I sat in for the seven hours we were there. The only room I could sit in was the dining room. Two never-ending lines of dripping, frigid skiers snaked their way along the two cafeteria counters on one side of the room. I sat at a table at the opposite side of the room with a view of several snow making machines which ran all day. So what I saw mostly from my dining room with a view was flying snow, but when the wind changed direction I would see skiers slalom their way down three hills and make sharp turns to the left in order to avoid those waiting at the lift lines. This place was a far cry from the fantasy I had of a Swiss chalet-style building with a quiet and tasteful restaurant for its well-dressed clientele. I imagined various great room areas with thick carpeting underfoot, large and inviting couches for exhausted racers and a courteous wait-staff that would wander among the couches offering steaming mugs of hot cocoa and fresh baked cookies to those who had just come in from the cold. Honestly, Gail – all that for only $49 – including ski rental, lift ticket, and bus ride up there??? Not likely.

Disappointment notwithstanding, I set up shop at one of the vinyl-covered indoor picnic tables: I pulled out my journals, pens, books to read, the latest issue of “O” magazine, and promised myself I wouldn’t gorge myself on the cafeteria fries and unidentifiable meat burgers. But of course, that’s exactly what I did: eat. I must admit that the fries were quite tasty; they had a spicy, peppery seasoning that disguised the flavor of old oil and frozen potatoes very well. Because the temperature was so low, the attendance of shivering teens around the table remained high. I got no writing done; however, I did a lot of reading.

I started a book called Nickel and Dimed, written by Barbara Ehrenreich. She is a prolific author whose focus is often on social criticism. Several of her earlier works are clearly critical treatises on life in these United States; they include The Worst Years of our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, and The Hearts of Men: American Dream and the Flight from Commitment. In the book I am reading, Barbara tells the story of her own foray into the world of the millions of Americans who live at or just above minimum wage. It took her only a few weeks to realize that one such job was not going to be enough to pay for her to live even in a rented trailer in southern Florida where she took on two waitress jobs at one point and traded one of those in for a stint as a housekeeper at a hotel, but she was still unable to pay all her bills and withstand the harassment and abuse that was part of the “benefits package” of that income level. In Maine, she worked on weekends as an assistant food worker at a senior citizens’ center where she served food to Alzheimer’s patients and worked full-time at a nationally known maid service. The humiliation of her working conditions, the encounters she had with dozens of people who had very little hope of ever advancing in their careers, and the absolute disdain of her clients, whether they were restaurant patrons, owners of homes they themselves could no longer clean for themselves, or the manager of any of the many places she worked was enough to wound her deeply, and she only “did this experiment” for two months at a time. It was impossible for her – and for me - to imagine the physical, psychic, emotional, relational, and spiritual damage that is done to the countless millions who endure such misery every day. And who are criticized or ignored or insulted for the nature of the work they do. Plus there was this little gem that she discovered: “Until 1998, there was no federally mandated right to bathroom breaks... A factory worker not allowed a break for six-hour stretches, voided into pads worn inside her uniform; and a kindergarten teacher in a school without aides had to take all 20 children with her to the bathroom and line them up outside the stall door while she voided.”

One of Barbara Ehrenreich’s points in going through that exercise and then writing the book was to point out that the movement from welfare to the workplace is not as easy as just “getting a job.” Paying rent, buying food, purchasing uniforms for the various employment situations, and putting gas into her car proved impossible for Barbara, as a single woman, to maintain after only two months, and she attempted to do so in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota. To provide for children or elderly parents or an unemployed spouse on such low wages was beyond her ability to comprehend - and mine.

And there I sat, at a dining room table in a dining room chair at a less than spectacular ski lodge reading Nickel and Dimed. How dare I complain? The $49 we paid for Kristiana to participate in that outing (as chaperones the rest of us went for free), the $50 we spent on food both there and at Wendy’s on our way back, the snacks and drinks I’d bought at the supermarket and hauled up there in my bright yellow tote bag, and the doodling pens I carried in my designer pencil case all added up to more money than she took home from any of the jobs she had. I will never forget the hard truths of this book, nor will I ever look at a hotel housekeeper, a WalMart checkout person, or a waitress the same again.

Nor will I soon comprehend how our nation’s leadership can spend $40 million on the second inauguration of an extremely wealthy president whose five closest friends, including his vice-president, could probably write a personal check to pay for all the festivities. But that’s the topic of tomorrow’s blog: What could $40 million buy for the Target and Walmart and Marriott and Hilton workers who are barely making ends meet, for the victims of the mudslides and floods in California and Ohio, and even for our underpaid and under-protected soldiers and their families - some of which are on welfare? What could $40 million purchase?

Addendum at 9:25 pm - Earlier this evening, I was relieved to learn that only $3 million of the $40 million spent on the inaugural festivities were taxpayer dollars. The rest were private or corporate contributions. While I still plan to reflect on what $40 million could buy in tomorrow's blog, perhaps I will also ponder what $37 million will buy in the next four years...

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