Seeing the Screenplay Reading of Nickel and Dimed

Every time I've attended, I find the Hornets' Nest series script-in-hand readings at Nextstage at Geva (75 Woodbury Blvd.) to be evocative and fascinating. Today's performance was of Nickel and Dimed by Joan Holden. It's based on Barbara Ehrenreich's book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America and continues the first-person memoir-style of the source material.

The gist is that Ehrenreich is an essayist who, in 1998 and 1999, left her comfortable upper middle-class lifestyle to try and make it as an unskilled worker in America. She did three experiments in different parts of the country; each time she attempted to find work under the best circumstances. What she found was that she was not able to hack it. The short of it is that minimum wage is not a living wage for a single person, so she was doomed to failure by attempting to both find shelter and food on those wages, succeeding only when she worked two jobs 7 days a week.

I was not particularly surprised by any anecdotal facts presented. Perhaps it was people like Ehrenreich who opened this world to me so I can say that now, or perhaps it was my own observations. Nonetheless, I wasn't "shocked" to hear that cleaning people don't know how safe the cleaning products were, or that some people innovate by living in their car at a hotel parking lot to save on housing costs, or that single mothers can'tt afford the luxury of competent child care. Through the narrative, I found myself empathizing with … er, no: pitying them.

Because I wasn't shocked, I did have a hard time understanding the perspective of Barbara (Ehrenreich's narrator character). It seemed she was constantly appalled that people didn't have luxuries that she did, or that some people had to do jobs that she found distasteful. I wondered, looking around at my fellow attendees whose demographics were dominated by 50 to 70-year-olds, if there really was others who believed like Barbara? But, as it was revealed later, only a few people among the several hundred in attendance had ever even hired cleaning staff. Apparently Barbara was not as similar to this theater's audience as expected.

Afterward, I was disappointed to realize that nothing has particularly changed in 10 years and I wondered, as always, how can I help fix this? As I mentioned in the discussion that followed, I think it's an absolute myth that people will seek the cheapest prices on everything. As it stands, I look for local goods made and sold by independently-owned small businesses using quality, responsible parts or ingredients. And, if I had a way of knowing, I'd add "with workers who all earn at least a living wage." I have weaned myself from the allure of dollar-store garbage, and now look for quality and reliability: and I'm willing to pay many times more than the cheapest version of whatever I seek. But maybe I'm as myopic as Ehrenreich — that I'm the only one out there.

And finally, despite my best efforts, I found I gravitated toward Barbara's point-of-view more than I thought. When I left, I stopped by Lux LoungeMySpace link (666 South Ave.) and I couldn't help but look at my friends in a different light. With such a diverse crowd, I know some earn enough, but others might just be scraping by on whatever work they can get. Eventually I realized what I think Ehrenreich missed: money isn't the most important thing for everyone else. Although they have their share of frustration and challenge without enough, they don't wallow in the misery Barbara expected in the play's other characters.

[P.S. Yes, this was posted on Friday after the main page was updated.  If you noticed, I can't speak to whether that makes you not crazy.]

I saw an interview with John Hope Franklin by Charlie Rose and it got me thinking about slavery

I had a hard time getting to sleep and I ended up watching TV for a bit. I stumbled on an episode of Charlie Rose on WXXI re-run from December 1, 2005: an interview with John Hope Franklin shortly after he published his book, Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin. I caught bits-and-pieces as I went in-and-out of feverish sleep.

I did catch a discussion on slavery, though. Franklin's view is that for America to really get over slavery, we need to acknowledge that it was a pivotal part of building America. He also made an argument for reparations in an intelligent manner. I don't remember it completely clearly, but he said that it wasn't as simple as white people writing checks to blacks. I gathered that his intention was that it was not the monetary compensation that was important — for that alone is meaningless — but that it was the whole process of accepting that it happened, understanding that it was an important part of America's development, realizing the effects that have carried to today, and preparing to heal those wounds and close the gaps.

Here he was a man born 50 years after slavery was abolished and who has grown through the slow process of stamping out the flames of racism. As I drifted off, I recall him talking about how slavery is alive today. All those ideas seem to have stuck with me.

So I got to thinking about slavery: what is it?

Well it's white slave masters with whips in the South beating blacks to pick cotton while they got rich. Something like that, right? I imagine that on average slaves were treated like work animals: they were given minimal-but-adequate food, shelter, water, clothing, and health care, they were forced to work, and they were not allowed to leave of their own volition.

So then I connected that with minimum wage. Consider a married person with 2 kids working 40 hours at New York's current minimum wage of $7.15/hour. Working a full 52 weeks nets you $14,872 a year and at the end of the year, you pretty much pay no income tax. Let's round that off to $1,250/month. You'll need a place to stay, so that's like $700/month, then gas and electric will cost another $250 or so. Groceries for a family with 2 kids you might be able to sneak for $200/month if you're frugal. So that's $1,150/month in basic expenses leaving $100 for "incidentals" like health care, clothing, and, oh yeah: transportation.

Let's say you manage to enroll in night classes for a better-paying job (which is the only "acceptable" way of bettering yourself — unlike a well-paid person who is free to take classes in scrapbooking, for instance, without nearly as much sneering and harumphing: a clear double-standard if you ask me). But then the car breaks down … *whip crack* … or your kid needs a tooth pulled … *whip crack* … or you fall ill … *whip crack*.

Just making it through one year without some "mishap" qua "financial disaster" happening is a lucky year indeed. Add to that that you need to be infallible — for human error is not an acceptable portion of the equation. (But remember also that by the luck of the draw, you're probably somewhere around average intelligence and average skill, not superhuman.)

Oh, you say, but there's a safety net of welfare. Yes, a safety net indeed — wherein you accept your minimal-but-adequate food, shelter, water, clothing, and health care, on the condition that you follow the rules and take any job you're accepted for. Given your skills, the best you can hope for is another minimum-wage job. By the way, good luck paying off that debt you now have too.

But there are people who have escaped the cycle, so it must be possible. Possible, yes, but likely no. It requires determination, skill, and luck to all come into confluence. Without all three, the cycle stays closed.

So in the end, I think that's maybe what we need to realize about America: that it took determination, skill, and luck to get to where we are today. Then perhaps we can admit that "minimum wage" approximates "slavery" well enough to call them equivalent. And then we can look at how America operates today and realize that our present view of "prosperity" is predicated upon owning slaves.

And then, maybe we can start to talk about ending slavery once and for all.