Summary of Nickel And Dimed: “Serving in Florida”

by The Quicklet Team

This chapter is a free excerpt from Quicklet on Nickel And Dimed.

Ms. Ehrenreich targeted Key West for her first job search; mainly because it was close to her home. At $7.00 an hour, her monthly earnings would range from $1,000 to $1,100. She budgeted $500 to $600 of that amount toward housing.

Barbara began her hunt at a trailer park near the area in which she hoped to work. The search for reasonably priced, well-located housing proved frustrating. It was a familiar problem in areas where “tourists and the wealthy compete for living space with the people who clean their toilets and fry their hash browns.”

Prices soon convinced her that being “trailer trash” was “a demographic category to aspire to.” Ultimately, she rented an efficiency apartment for $500 a month. It was 45 minutes from downtown Key West. Ms. Ehrenreich’s decision struck the “common trade-off between affordability and convenience.”


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Ms. Ehrenreich targeted Key West for her first job search; mainly because it was close to her home. At $7.00 an hour, her monthly earnings would range from $1,000 to $1,100. She budgeted $500 to $600 of that amount toward housing.

Barbara began her hunt at a trailer park near the area in which she hoped to work. The search for reasonably priced, well-located housing proved frustrating. It was a familiar problem in areas where “tourists and the wealthy compete for living space with the people who clean their toilets and fry their hash browns.”

Prices soon convinced her that being “trailer trash” was “a demographic category to aspire to.” Ultimately, she rented an efficiency apartment for $500 a month. It was 45 minutes from downtown Key West. Ms. Ehrenreich’s decision struck the “common trade-off between affordability and convenience.”

Having found a place to live, Barbara set out to find a job. Numerous businesses advertised for workers. She expected immediate employment. Three days passed with no job offers despite making multiple applications. Soon it became apparent that want ads were “employers’ insurance policy against the relentless turnover of the low-wage workforce.”

At last, Ms. Ehrenreich found a waitressing job at a restaurant attached to a discount hotel. The pay rate was $2.43 an hour, plus tips. She expected to be over-qualified for her new line of work. Instead, Barbara found “that of all the things I left behind...what I miss most is competence.”

Gail, an experienced Hearthside waitress, taught Ms. Ehrenreich the ropes. The restaurant had 27 tables. Barbara usually covered six tables. At times she might be responsible for all of them. In addition, “about a third of a server’s time is ‘side work” invisible to customers – sweeping, scrubbing, slicing, refilling and restocking.”

As the days passed, Barbara discovered “to my total surprise and despite the scientific detachment I am doing my best to maintain, I care.” She became attached to regular customers. On one occasion Gail “dipped into her own tip money to buy biscuits and gravy” for an unemployed mechanic. Ms. Ehrenreich paid for his dessert.

Two things intruded on what could have been a “Dreamy Proletarian idyll” at Hearthside. The first was management. According to Ms. Ehrenreich, “Cooks want to prepare tasty meals, servers want to serve them graciously, but managers are there for only one reason – to make money for...the corporation.” Her friend, Gail, agreed, “You give and you give and they take.”

At Hearthside, managers constantly sat. Idle underlings were immediately assigned odious, labor-intensive tasks. Management frequently called workers in for mandatory meetings. The meetings rarely addressed service issues. Instead, management browbeat them over trivial matters. At one meeting the staff learned all new hires would be subject to drug testing.

The second intrusion on the “idyll” required action on Barbara’s part. She realized her waitressing job wouldn’t cover her bills. Tips provided enough money to cover daily expenses. A few dollars a day were also put away toward rent. Still, Ms. Ehrenreich foresaw a $100 month-end shortfall looming.

Rather than move, Ms. Ehrenreich found a second waitressing job at Jerry’s. Serving three or four times as many customers, Jerry’s offered the chance for more tips. The working environment, however, fell below even Hearthside’s standards.

The kitchen verged on filthy. Employees dished out many menu items with their hands. The bathrooms lacked essential items such as soap and paper towels. There was no break room because there were no breaks. At the time, bathroom breaks weren’t legally mandated in many states. Workers covered for one another when a bathroom visit  became a necessity.

In short order, Barbara realized she wasn’t able to handle both jobs. She turned in her notice at Hearthside. Despite giving up one job, Ms. Ehrenreich still found herself under enormous physical strain. The only way she could cope with the continuing surge of diners was to “treat each shift as a one-time-only emergency.”

Barbara survived the days with a regimen of ibuprofen. On occasion she snuck back to her “real” life. On these trips home, Ms. Ehrenreich responded to email and delighted in conjugal visits. Meals were eaten in her kitchen, “though I am careful to ‘pay’ for everything I eat here, at $5.00 for a dinner, which I put into a jar.”  Her old life, however, felt increasingly foreign.

Back in the world of waitressing, the management at Jerry’s appeared generally “calmer and more ’professional’” than the management at Hearthside. One of the managers, Joy, taught her the “one-handed method” for carrying food trays. B.J., a manager widely hated by the wait staff, called Barbara aside. Ms. Ehrenreich feared the worst but was instead complimented.  B.J. also noted that Barbara should spend less time chatting with the diners.

At first dismayed by this advice, Barbara soon discovered her attitude toward customers had changed.  She now saw them as “the major obstacle to the smooth transformation of information into food and food into money – they are, in short, the enemy.”

Over time, Ms. Ehrenreich bonded with several co-workers. George, a young dishwasher from Czechoslovakia, became her favorite. Barbara took it upon herself to teach him English.

Gas for the trip to and from work cost $4 to $5 a day. That expense plus having to spend $30 on work pants put a strain on Barbara’s budget. She decided to move closer to work. Trailer #46 in the Overseas Trailer Park became her new abode.

The atmosphere at work went progressively downhill. A local after-work gathering place was put off limits. George stood accused of petty theft. Ms. Ehrenreich disappointed herself by failing to intervene on his behalf.

Unexpectedly, Barbara got a housekeeping job applied for earlier. It only paid $6.10 an hour. Still, she considered it a needed look at thar type of work. Combining a housekeeping job and a full-time waitressing job proved too much for Ms. Ehrenreich.

After her first day as a housekeeper, Barbara had no energy left for her shift as a waitress. Her tables filled with demanding customers. A new cook manned the kitchen all by himself. Dining chaos ensued. The manager confronted Barbara angrily and then threw a tray at the cook.

Ms. Ehrenreich walked out without looking back. Belatedly she remembered she had intended to give her tips that night to George. Feelings of failure overwhelmed her. Barbara checked out of the trailer leaving instructions for her deposit to be transferred to Gail.    

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