Did you keep up with the people you worked with at your various jobs?
I tried, but it turned out that the addresses and phone numbers I had were usually obsolete within a few weeks, due to the turmoil in people’s living situations. Of the few I have seen since working with them: I caught up with “Gail” a few months after we worked together. She had gained some weight (a good thing in her case), found a new boyfriend, and seemed in good spirits. I’ve seen “Melissa” twice in Minneapolis, and on one of those occasions she took part in a post-play panel discussion after a performance of Joan Holden’s play “Nickel and Dimed,” which is based on the book. “Caroline,” when last heard of, had disappeared into a shelter in California, along with her two lovely children.
How did you choose the cities you went to?
I started in Key West, just because I lived near there. I choose Portland ME because I knew it would be mostly white, thus removing the element of white-skin privilege from my job options. I remembered the Twin Cities having nice, affordable, working class neighborhoods, although that impression was 20 years out of date. From the start, of course, I’d ruled out really high-rent spots like NYC, San Francisco, LA and Boston. Rural areas were excluded because of the scarcity of jobs.
As an undercover journalist, how could you know what it really feels like to be poor?
I couldn’t, at least not from this artificial experience. I tried to make this clear in the introduction to the book. My own past experiences with poverty or near-poverty occurred long ago, when I was a child and when my own children were small, and the overwhelming feeling was of anxiety. As a middle-aged person with a home to return to, some savings, etc., I knew I wouldn’t be feeling that again. Not in any serious way.
Why did you go out of your way to insult Jesus as a “wine-guzzling vagrant”?
I didn’t! In fact, Nickel and Dimed received a Christopher Award, which is given by a Catholic group in recognition of books “which affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” In the section at issue, I observed that the social teachings of Jesus went utterly unmentioned at the tent revival I attended. The revival preachers clearly preferred the dead and risen Christ to the living Jesus — who did indeed drink wine and could even make it out of water. As for the vagrancy charge: that’s what he was, a homeless, itinerant preacher.
Did you really live like a low-wage worker or did you ever cheat?
I cheated when I got an uncontrollably itchy rash on the housecleaning job, probably from the cleaning fluids. I thought I should go to an emergency room if I wanted to remain “in character,” but I was afraid I’d lose the job if I took a day off to do that. So I called my dermatologist friend in Key West and begged him for a prescription, sight unseen. (I did pay for the ointment out of my earnings.) What I didn’t know at the time is that an ER visit would have been out of the question anyway, since they cost about $1000 on average, or a month’s pay on this job.
What shocked you most?
Two things: One, the totalitarian nature of so many low-wage workplaces. On two jobs, for example, there was a rule against talking with your fellow employees. The other major surprise to me was that the jobs were all mentally as well as physically challenging — and I have a Ph.D. in biology. I struggled to learn the computer ordering systems in restaurants, to memorize the names and dietary restrictions of 30 Alzheimer’s patients, and, at Wal-Mart, to memorize the exact locations of all the items in ladies’ wear — which would then be rotated every few days, no doubt to convince me that I had Alzheimer’s.
What are the ethical problems with this kind of journalism?
I once asked the dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism about this, and he said “Dunno.” Before I undertook Nickel and Dimed, I hadn’t done much reporting of any kind, and certainly not undercover reporting. I was an essayist and columnist, so I hadn’t much thought about any ethical issues reporters face. On the one hand, there is clearly some deception involved in this kind of work — pretending, for example, that I needed a waitressing job for the money. On the other hand, I should point out that “immersion journalism,” as this is called, is a venerable investigative technique, represented, for example, by John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me and the German journalist Gunther Wallraff’s Lowest of the Low, in which he went undercover as a Turkish immigrant worker. To ease my guilt about the deception, I always “came out” to the co-workers I was closest to before leaving a job. They were remarkably blasé about it.
What was your audience for this book?
I don’t know about other writers, but I can’t think about a particular audience when I write. It would be too inhibiting. I just try to be as accurate and vivid as possible — and if some readers have to consult a dictionary, and others find themselves flinching at raw language — well, that’s too bad.
What was the first thing you did when you returned from your low-wage life?
I think the expectation here is something involving hot tubs and champagne. In fact, what I did was write. I would return from each city with up to 40 pages of raw journal entries, and the challenge was to turn them into a coherent chapter while every conversation, every smell and ache, was fresh in my mind.
What have you done with the money you’ve made from this book?
I was able to put a nephew in his 30s through college and to help several individuals not related to me. More importantly, I’ve been able to donate generously to groups working for a living wage, affordable housing, and other much-needed reforms. In my personal life, I’m a lot freer to do things that don’t pay (like this blog), and you’ll have to fight me for the check in a restaurant.
How did working on Nickel and Dimed change your life?
It made me angrier. I was angry about poverty before, but now I am in a permanent, low-level, rage — leavened, of course, by the knowledge that I am part of a large and growing movement for economic justice.