Barbara Ehrenreich “Nickel and Dimed" 2001 p.122-91
Barbara Ehrenreich “Nickel and Dimed" 2001 scribd
Barbara Ehrenreich “Nickel and Dimed" 2001 scribd
Three - Selling in Minnesota From the air Minnesota is the very perfection of early summer— the blue of the lakes merging with the blue of the sky, neatly sculpted clouds pasted here and there, strips of farmland in alternating chartreuse and emerald— a lush, gentle landscape, seemingly penetrable from any angle. I had thought for months of going to Sacramento or somewhere else in California's Central Valley not far from Berkeley, where I'd spent the spring. But warnings about the heat and the allergies put me off, not to mention my worry that the Latinos might be hogging all the crap jobs and substandard housing for themselves, as they so often do. Don't ask me why Minneapolis came to mind, maybe I just had a yearning for deciduous trees. It's a relatively liberal state, I knew that, and more merciful than many to its welfare poor. A half an hour or so of Web research revealed an 122 agreeably tight labor market, with entry-level jobs advertised at $8 an hour or more and studio apartments for $400 or less. If some enterprising journalist wants to test the low-wage way of life in darkest Idaho or Louisiana, more power to her. Call me gutless, but what I was looking for this time around was a comfortable correspondence between income and rent, a few mild adventures, a soft landing. I pick up my Rent-A-Wreck from a nice fellow— this must be the famous "Minnesota nice"— who volunteers the locations of NPR and classic rock on the radio. We agree that swing sucks and maybe would have discovered a few more points of convergence, only I'm on what a certain Key West rock jock likes to call "a mission from God." I've got my map of the Twin Cities area, purchased for $10 at the airport, and an apartment belonging to friends of a friend that I can use for a few days free of charge while they visit relatives back East. Well, not entirely free of charge, since the deal is I have to take care of their cockatiel, a caged bird that, for reasons of ornithological fitness and sanity, has to be let out of the cage for a few hours a day. I had agreed to this on the phone without thinking, only fully recalling, when I get to the apartment, that birds-at-close-range are one of the phobias I have always allowed myself, along with oversized moths and anything derived from oranges. I find the place with no trouble, delighted that the city and my map are in such perfect agreement, and spend an hour with one of my hosts absorbing cockatiel technology. At one point, my host lets the bird out of its cage and it flies directly at my face. With enormous effort, I bow my head and shut my eyes while it hops around on my hair, pecking and grooming. 123 Don't let the cockatiel throw you off; this is no yuppie ambience. It's a tiny, cluttered one-bedroom affair furnished by the Salvation Army and done up in late seventies graduate student decor. When my hosts leave, I find no olive oil or balsamic vinegar in the cupboards, no half-empty bottles of Chardonnay in the fridge, no alcohol at all other than a solidly blue-collar half-pint of Seagram's 7, and the favored spread is margarine. It's pleasant enough, even cozy, with a firm bed and views of a tree-lined street— except for the bird. But as I'd learned from my coworkers in Maine— several of whom had spent time in tightly shared space— people who depend on the generosity of others for their lodging always have something untoward to put up with, typically incompatible relatives and long waits for the bathroom. So let the cockatiel— Budgie, as I came to call him, instead of his more pretentious given name— be a stand-in in this story for the intrusive in-laws and noisy housemates that a person of limited means crashing with distant family in a strange city might normally expect to endure. Never mind. I'm off first thing in the morning to look for a job. No waitressing, nursing homes, or housecleaning this time; I'm psyched for a change— retail, maybe, or factory work. I drive to the two nearest Wal-Marts, fill out applications, then head for a third one a forty-five-minute drive away on the opposite edge of the city. I drop off my application and am about to start hitting the Targets and Kmarts when I get an idea: no one is going to hire me based on an application showing no job experience— I have written, as usual, that I am a divorced homemaker reentering the workforce. What I have to do is make a personal appearance and exhibit my sunny, self-confident 124 self. So I go to the pay phone in the front of the store, call the store's number, and ask for personnel. I'm put through to Roberta, who is impressed by my initiative and tells me I can come on in to her office in the back of the store. Roberta, a bustling platinum-haired woman of sixty or so, tells me there's nothing wrong with my "app"; she herself raised six children before starting at Wal-Mart, where she rose to her present position in just a few years, due mainly to the fact that she's a ((people person." She can offer me a job now, but first a little ((survey," on which there are no right or wrong answers, she assures me, just whatever I think. As it happens, I've already taken the Wal-Mart survey once, in Maine, and I rush through it again with aplomb. Roberta takes it off to another room, where, she says, a computer will "score" it. After about ten minutes, she's back with alarming news: I've gotten three answers wrong— well, not exactly wrong but in need of further discussion. Now, my approach to preemployment personality tests has been zero tolerance vis-a-vis the obvious "crimes"— drug use and theft— but to leave a little wriggle room elsewhere, just so it doesn't look like I'm faking out the test. My approach was wrong. When presenting yourself as a potential employee, you can never be too much of a suck-up. Take the test proposition that "rules have to be followed to the letter at all times": I had agreed to this only "strongly" rather than "very strongly" or "totally" and now Roberta wants to know why. Well, rules have to be interpreted sometimes, I say, people have to use some discretion. Otherwise, why, you might as well have machines do all the work instead of actual human beings. She beams at this— "Discretion, very good! "— and jots something down. With my other wrong answers similarly accounted for, Roberta 125 introduces me to "what Wal-Mart is all about." She personally read Sam Walton's book (his autobiography, Made in America) before starting to work here and found that the three pillars of Wal-Mart philosophy precisely fit her own, and these are service, excellence (or something like that), and she can't remember the third. Service, that's the key, helping people, solving their problems, helping them shop— and how do I feel about that? I testify to a powerful altruism in retail-related matters and even find myself getting a bit misty-eyed over this bond that I share with Roberta. All I have to do now is pass a drug test, which she schedules me to take at the beginning of next week. If it weren't for the drug test, I might have stopped looking right then and there, but there has been a chemical indiscretion in recent weeks and I'm not at all sure I can pass. A poster in the room where Roberta interviewed me warns job applicants not to "waste your time or ours" if you've taken drugs within the last six weeks. If I had used cocaine or heroin there would be no problem, since these are water-soluble and wash out of the body in a couple of days. (LSD isn't even tested for.) But my indiscretion involved the only drug usually detected by testing, marijuana, which is fat-soluble and, I have read, can linger in the body for months. And what about the prescription drugs I've been taking for a chronic nasal congestion problem? What if Claritin-D, which gives you a nice little bounce, shows up as crystal meth? So it's back to the car and my red-inked help-wanted ads, both in the Star Tribune and a throwaway called Employment News. I visit a couple of staffing agencies aimed at industrial jobs and certify that I have no physical limitations and can lift twenty pounds over my head, though I would feel better if I knew how many reps they have in mind. Then there's a long 126 drive to the other side of town, where I have an actual appointment for an interview for an assembly job. It's been a few years since I engaged in urban highway driving, and I give myself high grades for fearless and agile navigation, but eventually the afternoon traffic defeats me. I can't find the factory, at least not before 5:00 P.M., and pull into a shopping center parking lot to find a way to get turned around. I find myself in front of a Menards housewares store— a midwestern Home Depot–like chain— and since a sign says, "Now Hiring," I might as well go on in and put my confrontational strategy to the test again. Wandering into the lumberyard behind the store, I flag down a fellow identified as Raymond by his ID badge, who offers to walk me to the personnel office. Is this a good place to work, I want to know. He says that it's OK, it's just his second job anyway, and that he doesn't get mad at the guests because it's not his fault if the wood is crap. The guests? These must be the customers, and I'm glad to have learned the term in advance so I won't wince or gag in front of management. Raymond drops me off with Paul, a thick-armed blond guy who is, compared with Roberta, painfully short of people skills. In response to my homemaking history, he mutters only, "That doesn't bother me," and hands me the personality test. This one is shorter than Wal-Mart's and apparently aimed at a rougher crowd: Am I more or less likely than other people to get into fistfights? Are there situations in which dealing cocaine is not a crime? A long, repetitive stretch on stealing, featuring variants on the question: "In the last year I have stolen (check dollar amount below) worth of goods from my employers." When I'm done, Paul eyeballs the test and barks out, "What is your weakest point?" Uh, lack of experience— obviously. "Do you take initiative?" I'm here, aren't I? I could have just 127 dropped off the application. So it's a go. Paul sees me in plumbing, $8.50 to start, drug screen results, of course, pending. I shake his hand to close the deal. Friday evening: I've been in Minneapolis for just over fifteen hours, driven from the southern suburbs to the northern ones, dropped off a half dozen apps, and undergone two face-to-face interviews. Job searches take their toll, even in the case of totally honest applicants, and I am feeling particularly damaged. The personality tests, for example: the truth is I don't much care if my fellow workers are getting high in the parking lot or even lifting the occasional retail item, and I certainly wouldn't snitch if I did. Nor do I believe that management rules by divine right or the undiluted force of superior knowledge, as the "surveys" demand you acknowledge. It whittles you down to lie up to fifty times in the space of the fifteen minutes or so it takes to do a "survey," even when there's a higher moral purpose to serve. Equally draining is the effort to look both perky and compliant at the same time, for half an hour or more at a stretch, because while you need to evince "initiative," you don't want to come across as someone who might initiate something like a union organizing drive. Then there is the threat of the drug tests, hanging over me like a fast-approaching SAT. It rankles— at some deep personal, physical level— to know that the many engaging qualities I believe I 128 have to offer— friendliness, reliability, willingness to learn— can all be trumped by my pee. 2 The St. Paul— based Jobs Now Coalition estimated that, in 1997, a "living wage" for a single parent supporting a single child in the Twin Cities metro area was $11.77 an hour. This estimate was based on monthly expenses that included $266 for food (all meals cooked and eaten at home), $261 for child care, and $550 for rent ("The Cost of Living in Minnesota: A Report by the Jobs Now Coalition on the Minimum Cost of Basic Needs for Minnesota Families in 1997"). No one has updated this "living wage" to take into account the accelerating Twin Cities rent inflation of 2000 (see page 140). There are many claims for workplace drug testing: supposedly, it results in reduced rates of accidents and absenteeism, fewer claims on health insurance plans, and increased productivity. However, none of these claims has been substantiated, according to a 1999 report from the American Civil Liberties Union, "Drug Testing: A Bad Investment." Studies show that preemployment testing does not lower absenteeism, accidents, or turnover and (at least in the high-tech workplaces studied) actually lowered productivity— presumably due to its negative effect on employee morale. Furthermore, the practice is quite costly. In 1990, the federal government spent $11.7 million to test 29,000 federal employees. Since only 153 tested positive, the cost of detecting a single drug user was $77,000. Why do employers persist in the practice? Probably in part because of advertising by the roughly $2 billion drug-testing industry, but I suspect that the demeaning effect of testing may also hold some attraction for employers. In a spirit of contrition for multiple sins, I decide to devote the weekend to detox. A Web search reveals that I am on a heavily traveled path; there are dozens of sites offering help to the would-be drug-test passer, mostly in the form of ingestible products, though one site promises to send a vial of pure, drug-free urine, battery-heated to body temperature. Since I don't have time to order and receive any drug-test-evasion products, I linger over a site in which hundreds of letters, typically with subject lines reading "Help! ! ! Test in Three Days! ! !" are soberly answered by "Alec." Here I learn that my leanness is an advantage— there aren't too many places for the cannabis derivatives to hide out in— and that the only effective method is to flush the damn stuff out with massive quantities of fluid, at least three gallons a day. To hurry the process, there is a product called CleanP supposedly available at GNC, so I drive fifteen minutes to the nearest one, swigging tap water from an Evian bottle all the way, and ask the kid manning the place where his, 129 uh, detox products are kept. Maybe he's used to a stream of momlike women demanding CleanP, because he leads me poker-faced to an impressively large locked glass case— locked either because the average price of GNC's detox products is $49.95 or because the market is thought to consist of desperate and not particularly law-abiding individuals. I read the ingredients and buy two of them separately— creatinine and a diuretic called uva ursis— for a total of $30. So here is the program: drink water at all times, along with frequent doses of diuretic, and (this is my own scientific contribution) avoid salt in any form at all since salt encourages water retention, meaning no processed foods, fast foods, or condiments of any kind. If I want that job in plumbing at Menards, I have to make myself into an unobstructed pipe: water in and water just as pure and drinkable coming out. My other task for Saturday is to find a place to live. I go through all the apartment-finding agencies in the phone book— Apartment Mart, Apartment Search, Apartments Available, and so on— and leave messages. I also try all the apartment buildings listed, finding, at the two buildings where someone actually answers, that they want twelve-month leases. I walk to the supermarket to pick up the Sunday paper, pausing to apply for a job while I'm there. Yes, they could use someone; things get pretty hectic around the first of the month, right after the welfare checks go out; I can come back next week. The newspaper, though, is a disappointment. There is exactly one furnished studio apartment listed for the entire Twin Cities area, and they're not answering the phone on the weekend. Maybe, though, given the incipient incontinence induced by the flush-out regimen, it's just as well I have no apartments to see. Dinner is a quarter of a BBQ chicken from the 130 supermarket, unsalted and washed down with a familiar, low-tech diuretic— beer. This is not, all things considered, my finest hour. If I could just surrender to my increasingly aqueous condition and wait out the weekend with a novel, things would be looking up. But home in this instance is not a restful place; it's more like what is known in the military as a "situation." When I am home, Budgie wants to be out of his cage, a desire he makes known by squawking or, what is far worse, by pacing dementedly. When he is out of his cage, he wants to sit on my head and worry my hair and my glasses frames. To minimize the damage, I don't let him out unless I am wearing my hooded sweatshirt, tied up tight enough to cover my hair and most of my face, and still I am constantly having to move him from his favorite face-to-face perch on my shoulder to, say, my forearm, from which he will work his way ineluctably back to my face. This is what anyone coming to the door would encounter: a cringing figure, glasses peering out the porthole of her sweatshirt, topped by a large, crested— and, I can only imagine, quite pleased with its dominant position— exotic white bird. But I cannot incarcerate him nearly as much as I would like to. It's my job— isn't it?— my way of earning my shelter, to be this creature's friend and surrogate flock. Unfortunately, Budgie does not serve the same functions for me, and on Sunday I decide to seek out my own kind. A New York friend, a young African American feminist, had urged me to look up her aunt in Minneapolis, and I have a reason beyond sociability for doing so: I have been worrying that the scenario I have created for myself, both here and in Maine, is totally artificial. Who, in real life, plops herself down in a totally strange environment— without housing, family connections, 131 or job— and attempts to become a viable resident? Well, it turns out that my friend's aunt did exactly that in the early nineties: got on a Greyhound bus in New York, with two children in tow, disembarking in the utterly strange state of Florida. This is a story I have to hear, so I call and get a wary invitation to come on over this afternoon. Caroline, as I'll call her, is a commanding presence, with high cheekbones and quick-moving, shamanistic eyes. She gets me my drink du jour— water— introduces me to her children, and explains that it's her husband's day off, which he is spending upstairs in bed. The house— well, she apologizes for it, though three bedrooms in a freestanding building for $825 a month doesn't seem so bad to me at the moment. She itemizes its deficiencies: the bedrooms are tiny; the block is infested with drug dealers; the dining room ceiling leaks whenever the bathroom above it is used; the toilet can be flushed only by pouring in a bucket of water. And why are they here? Because on her $9 an hour as an assistant bookkeeper at a downtown hotel, plus her husband's $10 as a maintenance worker, minus utilities and $59 a week for health insurance (she is diabetic, the five-year-old asthmatic), this is what you get. Yet if you do the arithmetic, these people are earning nearly $40,000 a year, which makes them officially "middle class." I explain my mission in Minneapolis, although it turns out her niece has already briefed her, and ask her to tell me about her move to Florida ten years ago. This is the story more or less as it emerged, since she didn't mind my taking notes, of someone doing in real life what I am doing only in the service of journalism: She had been living in New Jersey, working at a bank, when she decided to leave her husband because he "wasn't involved" 132 with the children. She moved in with her mother in Queens but found it impossible to get to her job in New Jersey from there, in addition to taking her youngest child to day care every morning. Then her brother moved in, so you had three adults and two children in a two-bedroom apartment, which was just not working out. So she decided to take off for Florida, where she had heard the rents were lower. What she had was their clothes, the Greyhound tickets, and $1,600 in cash. That was all. They got off the bus in a town a little south of Orlando, and here a nice cab driver— she still remembers his name— took them to a low-priced hotel. The next step was to find a church: "Always find a church." People from the church drove her around to the WIC office (Women, Infants, and Children, a federal program offering food help to pregnant women and mothers of young children) and to find a school for her twelveyear-old girl and day care for the baby. Sometimes they also helped with groceries. Soon Caroline got a job cleaning hotel rooms— twenty-eight to thirty rooms a day for $2–$3 a room, for a total of about $300 a week. It was "go to bed with a backache and wake up with a backache." The little girl had to pick up the baby at day care and watch him until Caroline got home at about 8:00 P.M., which means she didn't get much chance to go outside and play. What was it like to start all over in a completely new place? "Anxiety attack! You know what I'm saying?" It was the stress, she thinks, that gave her diabetes. There she was— thirsty all the time, blurry vision, a terrible itching of her privates— and she had no idea what the symptoms meant. One doctor told her it had to be an STD, but it had been a long, long time since any sex had occurred. One morning the Lord told her, "Go to a hospital. Walk, don't ride." She walked thirty blocks and 133 passed out at the hospital. Maybe the Lord wanted her to walk so she'd pass out and finally get some attention. There were good things that happened, though. She used to help a man at the hotel where she cleaned, a man who was sick with cancer, bringing him food and even cleaning the bad-smelling sores, and he was so grateful that he once gave her $325, which he knew was the exact amount of her rent. And there was one major friend, Irene, whom Caroline met "at a Dumpster." Irene had problems, yes. She was both black and Indian, a migrant farmworker, and had been raped by someone and also abused by her boyfriend, who left an ugly scar on her face. The boyfriend found the rapist and hacked him to death and ended up permanently in prison. So Caroline took Irene in and for a while it worked out very well. Irene got a job at Taco Bell and helped with the kids, whom she fussed over and loved as her own. Then Irene started drinking and "dancing on chairs" in bars, finally leaving to live with a man. Caroline misses her and even went back to Florida once to try to find her. She could have died. One time a cancer the size of a quarter popped out of her right nipple. It's hard not knowing. It was in Florida that Caroline met the current husband, a white man, as it turns out, and her tribulations did not end with marriage but went on to include bouts of homelessness and a lot more interstate travel by Greyhound with children. When, after two hours, I get up to go, Caroline asks if I'm a vegetarian. I apologize for not being one, and she rushes into the kitchen, coming back with a family-sized container of her homemade chicken stew, which I accept with heartfelt gratitude: dinner. We hug. She walks me to my car and we hug again. So I have a friend now in Minneapolis, and the odd thing is that she is the original— the woman who uprooted 134 herself and came out somehow on her feet and who did all this in real life and with children— while I am the imitation, the pallid, child-free pretender. BUT ON TUESDAY, WHEN THE POST-MEMORIAL DAY WEEK BEGINS, my life seems real enough again in a gray and baleful way. This is my day of drug tests, also of traffic and a steady, appropriately sphincter-relaxing rain. The first test, for Wal-Mart, is painless enough, conducted at a chiropractor's office a few miles down the highway from Wal-Mart itself. I'm given two plastic containers— one to pee into and one to hold the decanted sample— and sent down the hall to an ordinary public rest room. Easy enough to substitute someone else's pee, if I'd had a vial of it in my pocket or met a potential donor in the rest room. The next test, for Menards, takes me to the southwestern suburbs, to a regular allopathic hospital, complete with patients being whisked around corridors on gurneys. A dozen people are already ahead of me in the waiting room of the SmithKline Beecham suite I've been sent to, most of them, judging from the usual class cues, of the low-wage variety. The waiting room TV is tuned to Robin Givens's talk show Forgive or Forget, where today's theme is "You took me in and I cleaned you out." Seems eighteen-year-old Cory stole from the cousin who took him in, thus ruining Christmas for the cousin's girlfriend and her child. Cory is not repentant, in fact makes excuses about having had to cheat and steal all the way up from the projects, that's how his life has been. Robin beats the air with her fists and yells, "Cory, Cory, stop being a victim!" Thievery is nothing, apparently, compared to the crime of victimhood. With each fresh denunciation of Cory, the studio audience applauds more excitedly. He is bad, as are some of 135 the impassive viewers right in this room, who will soon be judged and exposed by their urine. My mind slides back to one of the "approve/disapprove" statements on the Wal-Mart survey: "There is room in every corporation for a nonconformist." But no, no, no! The correct answer, as we will all find out soon enough, is "totally disagree." Finally, after forty minutes, I am called out of the waiting room by an officious woman in blue scrubs. What are they planning— to cut out my bladder if I fail to produce a testable volume of pee? I ask whether they do anything but drug testing here. No, that's pretty much it. She checks my photo ID, then squirts what looks like soap onto my palms, although there is no sink in evidence. Now I'm to go into a bathroom and wash with water while she waits, leaving my purse with her. I pause for a beat or two, goo-filled hands held out, pondering the issues of trust that have arisen between her and me. Why, for example, am I supposed to leave her with my purse while she doesn't even trust me not to sprinkle some drug-dissolving substance into my urine? But for all I know, any display of attitude might lead her to slant the results. So I go meekly into the rest room, wash my hands, and then pee, which I am allowed to do with the door shut, and our little parody of medical care is complete. The whole venture, including drive time and wait, has taken an hour and forty minutes, about what it took for the Wal-Mart test, and it occurs to me that one of the effects of drug testing is to limit worker mobility— maybe even one of the functions. Each potential new job requires (1) the application, (2) the interview, and (3) the drug test— which is something to ponder with gasoline running at nearly two dollars a gallon, not to mention what you may have to pay for a babysitter. 136 Until I know the drug test results, I feel obliged to keep looking for jobs. Most of my encounters are predictable and unpromising— fill out the app, get told to wait for a call, etc.— but one stands out from the corporate, legalistic, euphemistic, and thoroughly aboveboard feel of all the others. The ad is for ((customer service" work, a type of job I tend to avoid because it normally involves a resume, which in turn would involve levels of prevarication I am not prepared to attempt. But this customer service job is described as "entry-level." When I call I am told to come in at three sharp and to be sure to "dress professional." The latter injunction presents a challenge, since my wardrobe consists of T-shirts and only two pairs of pants other than blue jeans, but I have a jacket and decent shoes brought along for a stop in New York on the way to Minneapolis, and this, fortified with lipstick and knee-highs, makes for a pretty damn impressive getup, I think. When I arrive at Mountain Air (as we'll call it), in a characterless white box building just off a service road, nine other applicants are already waiting. It turns out this is a group interview, conducted by Todd in a large room, where we applicants sit in folding chairs while Todd, a sharply dressed fellow of about thirty, lectures and shows transparencies. Todd speaks very rapidly in a singsong cadence, suggesting that he does this several times a day. Mountain Air, he says, is an "environmental consulting firm" offering help to people with asthma and allergies as a "free service." We will be sent out to the sufferers in our own cars, making $1,650 if we complete fifty-four two-hour appointments in thirty days— though you'd have to be pretty lazy to make only that much. Plus there are incredible perks like weekend training sessions held all over the country where they "get stuff done, of course, like hearing 137 motivational speakers, but you can bring your spouse and have a great time." All we have to be is eighteen or older, bondable, possessing a car and a home phone and having one year of Minnesota residency. Whoops! He asks if any of us are not longterm Minnesota residents, and when I raise my hand he says the requirement can sometimes be waived. What Mountain Air is really looking for is— and here he reads from a transparency" Self-disciplined/Money-motivated/Positive attiude." Nothing, I note, about providing a service or healing the sick. In fact, compared with Wal-Mart's unctuous service ethic, Todd's emphasis on the bottom line is positively refreshing. We will be independent contractors, he tells us, not employees, which means, "if you lie to a customer the company is not responsible." Even, I wonder, if the lies are part of the sales pitch the company has taught you? It's very simple, Todd assures us, just a "matter of taking people who have a very serious problem, though probably not anywhere near as serious as they think it is, and leaving them happy." Any questions? None of this has made any sense to me at all, but I limit myself to asking what the product is, assuming there is some kind of product involved. Todd opens a cardboard box that I had not noticed sitting on the floor near his feet: a squat, slightly menacing-looking appliance he introduces as the "Filter Queen." "So this is a selling job?" someone asks. "No," Todd says with some vehemence. "We have a product and if they want it we give it to them"— though he can't mean give it to them for free. Now we are to have our personal three-minute interviews. When my turn comes, he asks why I want to do this and I say something, without thinking, about wanting to help people with asthma. Where do I think I am, Wal-Mart? Because when I call at the designated time two hours later, I'm told 138 there's no job for me now, although I have made it to the waiting list. Maybe it was the residency issue that did me in, though I suspect it was the misplaced hypocrisy. Meanwhile, there is the increasingly desperate apartment search. Whatever else I am doing at any point in this story, you need to picture me waiting for a call or looking for a chance to call some rental agency for a second or third or fourth time. Now that we're into the weekdays I sometimes get live humans on the other end of the line, but they are disdainful or discouraging. One directs me to a throwaway apartment directory available in boxes on the sidewalk, but its offerings all include hot tubs and on-site gyms and go for over $1,000 a month. Another tells me that I've picked a bad time to come to Minneapolis; the vacancy rate is less than 1 percent, and if we're talking about affordable— why, it might be as low as a tenth of that. Listings in the Star Tribune are meager or nonexistent. No one returns my calls. Besides, it is dawning on me belatedly that Minneapolis is far vaster than Key West or Portland, Maine, and that my two live job possibilities— Wal-Mart and Menards— are separated by about thirty miles. My appetite for navigating the Twin Cities highways has been dwindling rapidly. Everywhere I go, some fellow or other who has never heard of Minnesota nice is stalking me in his pickup truck, making me covet the bumper sticker I see more than once: "If you're not a hemorrhoid, get off my ass." Nor is the leading classic rock station turning out to be sufficiently supportive. I can handle seventy-five-mile-per-hour tailgaters on Creedence Clearwater Revival or even ZZ Top, but the Eagles and the Doobie Brothers are just no help. So one thing I do not want is to live at a hair-raising distance from my job, assuming, of course, that I get a job. 139 There is one possibility— one place in the entire Twin Cities that rents "affordable" furnished apartments on a weekly or monthly basis— and this place, the Hopkins Park Plaza, becomes the focus of my residential yearnings for the next three weeks, my personal Shangri-La. On my third call (the first two calls were not returned), I reach Hildy, who doesn't think there's anything at the moment, but I might as well come out and pay the application fee, which is $20 in cash. When I find the couple of two-story brick buildings that constitute the Park Plaza, several other apartment seekers— a middle-aged white guy with auburn dyed hair, a young Hispanic man (it's Latino in California, Hispanic here), an older white woman— are waiting for Hildy too, which explains why she doesn't return calls: the market is entirely on her side. The place, when I finally get taken around by Hildy, seems OK, although the corridors tend to be dark, noisy, and permeated with kitchen-waste smells. I can have a room without a kitchenette right now if I want, but it's in the basement and the price— $144 a week— seems a little steep. So I decide to wait for one with a kitchenette to open up— any day now, Hildy assures me, turnover is dependably high. This seems like a prudent and thrifty decision at the moment, but it turns out to be a major mistake. I decide there must be something I am doing wrong, some cue I am missing. Budgie's owners had been confident that Apartment Search would find me a place. When I call another friend of a friend, a professor at a college in St. Paul who has briefed me on the Twin Cities' industrial history, he concedes to being aware of an affordable-housing "crisis" but has no idea what I should do. Those rental agents who are kind 140 enough to talk to me all recommend the same thing: find a motel that rents by the week and stay there until something opens up. So, through multiple calls, I arrive at a list of eleven motels in the Twin Cities area, all of them of the non-brandname variety, offering weekly rates. The rates, though, are not anybody's definition of "affordable," ranging from $200 a week at the Hill View in Shakopee to $295 at the Twin Lakes in southern Minneapolis, and many of these places are full. I head for the Hill View, which wants a $60 cash deposit. I drive and I drive. I go off the map, I leave suburbs and commercial strips far behind, I enter the open fields, which make for a nice change, drivingwise— but to live in? The vicinity of the Hill View contains no diners, no fast-food joints or grocery stores, no commercial establishments at all except for a couple of agricultural-equipment warehouses. The distance is unacceptable; as is the room, when I get to see it: no microwave, no fridge, hardly any space not occupied by the bed. And what 141 would I do if I didn't feel like being in bed— invite myself in for a tour of the Caterpillar parts warehouse? Twin Lakes (not its real name) is at least in Minneapolis. There the East Indian owner tells me that all his residents are long-term, working people and that I can have a room on the second floor, where I won't have to keep the drapes shut during the day for privacy. Again, no fridge or microwave. Weakly, I tell him I'll take it and will move in in a couple of days. No problem. He even waives the deposit. But I have a bad feeling about the place, partly because everything looks gray and stained and partly because there's a deranged-looking guy hanging out by the coin-op washer-dryer who follows me with bloodshot blue eyes. footnote 3 The last few years have seen a steady decline in the number of affordable apartments nationwide. In 1991 there were forty-seven affordable rental units available to every one hundred low-income families, while by 1997 there were only thirty-six such units for every one hundred families ("Rental Housing Assistance— The Worsening Crisis: A Report to Congress on Worst-Case Housing Needs," Housing and Urban Development Department, March 2000). No national— or even reliable local— statistics are available, but apparently more and more of the poor have been reduced to living in motels. Census takers distinguish between standard motels, such as those that tourists stay in, and residential motels, which rent on a weekly basis, usually to long-term tenants. But many motels contain mixed populations or change from one type to the other depending on the season. Long-term motel residents are almost certainly undercounted, since motel owners often deny access to census takers and the residents themselves may be reluctant to admit they live in motels, crowded in with as many as four people or more in a room (Willoughby Mariano, "The Inns and Outs of the Census," Los Angeles Times, May 22,2000). On the job front, though, things are moving along briskly. I had been told at Menards to show up for "orientation" at ten o'clock Wednesday morning, and since I assume that my being hired is conditional on passing the drug test, I call to confirm the appointment. Yes, they're expecting me— I hope not just for the purpose of denouncing me as a chemical misfit. But the orientation is friendly and upbeat. Lee-Ann, a worn-looking blonde in her forties, and I sit across a table from Walt, who lays out the main points in a jolly, offhand way: Be nice to the guests, even when they get irate because they can't return things, and they're always trying to return things. Don't be absent without calling in. Watch out for a certain top manager, who hits on women when he visits the store and generally acts like "a shit." We will need to wear belts, to which a knife (for opening cardboard boxes, I suppose) and a tape measure will be attached, and the cost of these items, which he pushes across the table to us, will be deducted from our first paycheck. And oh yes, we will be getting "little presents" now and then- 142 ballpoint pens, coffee mugs, T-shirts promoting seasonal items. Then Walt hands us our vests and our ID badges, and I am touched to see that he has made up two for me, one with "Barbara" and another with "Barb." I can take my choice. When Walt leaves the room for a moment, I turn to Lee-Ann and say, "Does this mean we're hired?" Because it seems odd to me that no offer has been made or accepted. "Looks like," she says, and tells me that she hasn't even taken her drug test. She went to the testing place, but she didn't have any photo ID because her wallet was stolen, and of course they wouldn't test her without photo ID. Then Walt comes back and takes me out on the floor to meet Steve, a "really great guy," who will be my supervisor in plumbing. But here, on the sales floor, doubt rushes in. The shelves of plumbing equipment, and there seem to be acres of them, contain not a single item I can name, which gives me an idea of what it feels like to be aphasic. Would I be able to get by with pointing and grunting? Steve's smile seems more like a smirk, as if he's reading my mind and finding not a speck of plumbing knowledge lodged within it. Start Friday, he says, shift is noon to eleven. I think I haven't heard him right, nor can I quite believe the wage Walt tells me I'll be getting— not $8.50 but an incredible $10 an hour. Now I don't need Wal-Mart anymore, I think, although it turns out they need me. Roberta calls to tell me, in fulsome tones, that my "drug screen is fine" and that I'm due in tomorrow at three for orientation. The test result does not have the desired effect of making me feel absolved or even clean. In fact I feel irritated and can't help wondering whether I could have gotten the same result without spending $30 and three days on detox and bloat. I ask her what the pay is— it should be noted that she does not offer this information herself— and when she 143 says $7 an hour, I think: OK, case closed. But I decide, in the spirit of caution and inquiry, to attend the Wal-Mart orientation anyway. This turns out, for unforeseen physiological reasons, to be another major mistake. For sheer grandeur, scale, and intimidation value, I doubt if any corporate orientation exceeds that of Wal-Mart. I have been told that the process will take eight hours, which will include two fifteen-minute breaks and one half-hour break for a meal, and will be paid for like a regular shift. When I arrive, dressed neatly in khakis and clean T-shirt, as befits a potential Wal-Mart "associate," I find there are ten new hires besides myself, mostly young and Caucasian, and a team of three, headed by Roberta, to do the "orientating." We sit around a long table in the same windowless room where I was interviewed, each with a thick folder of paperwork in front of us, and hear Roberta tell once again about raising six children, being a "people person," discovering that the three principles of Wal-Mart philosophy were the same as her own, and so on. We begin with a video, about fifteen minutes long, on the history and philosophy of Wal-Mart, or, as an anthropological observer might call it, the Cult of Sam. First young Sam Walton, in uniform, comes back from the war. He starts a store, a sort of five-and-dime; he marries and fathers four attractive children; he receives a Medal of Freedom from President Bush, after which he promptly dies, making way for the eulogies. But the company goes on, yes indeed. Here the arc of the story soars upward unstoppably, pausing only to mark some fresh milestone of corporate expansion. 1992: Wal-Mart becomes the largest retailer in the world. 1997: Sales top $100 billion. 1998: The number of Wal-Mart associates hits 825,000, making Wal-Mart the largest private employer in the nation. 144 Each landmark date is accompanied by a clip showing throngs of shoppers, swarms of associates, or scenes of handsome new stores and their adjoining parking lots. Over and over we hear in voiceover or see in graphic display the "three principles," which are maddeningly, even defiantly, nonparallel: "respect for the individual, exceeding customers' expectations, strive for excellence." "Respect for the individual" is where we, the associates, come in, because vast as Wal-Mart is, and tiny as we may be as individuals, everything depends on us. Sam always said, and is shown saying, that "the best ideas come from the associates "— for example, the idea of having a "people greeter," an elderly employee (excuse me, associate) who welcomes each customer as he or she enters the store. Three times during the orientation, which began at three and stretches to nearly eleven, we are reminded that this brainstorm originated in a mere associate, and who knows what revolutions in retailing each one of us may propose? Because our ideas are welcome, more than welcome, and we are to think of our managers not as bosses but as "servant leaders," serving us as well as the customers. Of course, all is not total harmony, in every instance, between associates and their servant-leaders. A video on "associate honesty" shows a cashier being caught on videotape as he pockets some bills from the cash register. Drums beat ominously as he is led away in handcuffs and sentenced to four years. The theme of covert tensions, overcome by right thinking and positive attitude, continues in the twelve-minute video entitled You've Picked a Great Place to Work. Here various associates testify to the "essential feeling of family for which Wal-Mart is so well-known," leading up to the conclusion that we don't need a union. Once, long ago, unions had a place in 145 American society, but they "no longer have much to offer workers," which is why people are leaving them "by the droves." Wal-Mart is booming; unions are declining: judge for yourself. But we are warned that "unions have been targeting Wal-Mart for years." Why? For the dues money of course. Think of what you would lose with a union: first, your dues money, which could be $20 a month "and sometimes much more." Second, you would lose "your voice" because the union would insist on doing your talking for you. Finally, you might lose even your wages and benefits because they would all be "at risk on the bargaining table." You have to wonder— and I imagine some of my teenage fellow orientees may be doing so— why such fiends as these union organizers, such outright extortionists, are allowed to roam free in the land. There is more, much more than I could ever absorb, even if it were spread out over a semester-long course. On the reasonable assumption that none of us is planning to go home and curl up with the "Wal-Mart Associate Handbook," our trainers start reading it out loud to us, pausing every few paragraphs to ask, "Any questions?" There never are. Barry, the seventeenyear-old to my left, mutters that his "butt hurts." Sonya, the tiny African American woman across from me, seems frozen in terror. I have given up on looking perky and am fighting to keep my eyes open. No nose or other facial jewelry, we learn; earrings must be small and discreet, not dangling; no blue jeans except on Friday, and then you have to pay $1 for the privilege of wearing them. No "grazing," that is, eating from food packages that somehow become open; no "time theft." This last sends me drifting off in a sci-fi direction: And as the time thieves headed back to the year 3420, loaded with weekends and days off looted from the twenty-first century . . . Finally, a question. The 146 old guy who is being hired as a people greeter wants to know, "What is time theft?" Answer: Doing anything other than working during company time, anything at all. Theft of our time is not, however, an issue. There are stretches amounting to many minutes when all three of our trainers wander off, leaving us to sit there in silence or take the opportunity to squirm. Or our junior trainers go through a section of the handbook, and then Roberta, returning from some other business, goes over the same section again. My eyelids droop and I consider walking out. I have seen time move more swiftly during seven-hour airline delays. In fact, I am getting nostalgic about seven-hour airline delays. At least you can read a book or get up and walk around, take a leak. On breaks, I drink coffee purchased at the Radio Grill, as the in-house fast-food place is called, the real stuff with caffeine, more because I'm concerned about being alert for the late-night drive home than out of any need to absorb all the Wal-Mart trivia coming my way. Now, here's a drug the drug warriors ought to take a little more interest in. Since I don't normally drink it at all— iced tea can usually be counted on for enough of a kick— the coffee has an effect like reagent-grade Dexedrine: my pulse races, my brain overheats, and the result in this instance is a kind of delirium. I find myself overly challenged by the little kindergarten-level tasks we are now given to do, such as affixing my personal bar code to my ID card, then sticking on the punch-out letters to spell my name. The letters keep curling up and sticking to my fingers, so I stop at "Barb," or more precisely, "BARB," drifting off to think of all the people I know who have gentrified their names in recent years— Patsy to Patricia, Dick to Richard, and so forth— while I am going in the other direction. Now we start taking turns 147 going to the computers to begin our CBL, or Computer-Based Learning, and I become transfixed by the HIV-inspired module entitled "Bloodborne Pathogens," on what to do in the event that pools of human blood should show up on the sales floor. All right, you put warning cones around the puddles, don protective gloves, etc., but I can't stop trying to envision the circumstances in which these pools might arise: an associate uprising? a guest riot? I have gone through six modules, three more than we are supposed to do tonight— the rest are to be done in our spare moments over the next few weeks— when one of the trainers gently pries me away from the computer. We are allowed now to leave. There follows the worst of many sleepless nights to come. On the drive home along the interstate, a guy doing over eighty passes me on the right at a few angstroms' distance, making the point that any highway has far more exits than you can see, infinitely many— final exits, that is. At this hour, which is nearly midnight, it takes me fifteen minutes to find a parking place, and another five to walk to the apartment, where I find that Budgie, distraught by my long absence, has gone totally postal. Feathers litter the floor under his cage, and he refuses to return to it even after a generous forty-five minutes of head time. I want to be fresh for my first day in plumbing tomorrowMenards is still my choice— but a lot of small things have been going wrong, and at this level of finances, nothing wrong is ever quite small enough. My watch battery ran out and I had to spend $11 to get it replaced. My khakis developed a prominent ink stain that took three wash cycles ($3.75) and a treatment with Shout Gel ($1.29) to remove. There was the $20 application fee at the Park Plaza, plus $20 for the belt I need for Menards, purchased only after comparison shopping at a 148 consignment store. And why hadn't I asked what that knife and tape measure are going to cost? I discover that the phone is no longer taking incoming calls or recording voice mail, so who knows what housing opportunities I have missed. Around two in the morning, I pop a Unisom to counteract the still-raging caffeine, but at five Budgie takes his revenge, greeting the prospect of dawn, which is still comfortably remote, with a series of scandalized squawks. I am due at Menards at noon. At this point, although I have not formally accepted either job, I realize I am officially employed at both places, Wal-Mart and Menards. Maybe I'll combine both jobs or just blow off Wal-Mart and go for the better money at Menards. But Wal-Mart, with its endless orientation, has, alas, already sunk its talons into me. People working more than one job— and in effect I would be doing that for a day by going from my three-to-eleven stint at Wal-Mart to a day at Menards— have to take sleep deprivation in stride. I do not. I am shaky, my brain fried like that egg in the Partnership for a Drug-Free America commercial. How am I going to master the science of plumbing products when I can barely summon the concentration required to assemble a breakfast of peanut butter and toast? The world is coming at me in high-contrast snapshots, deprived of narrative continuity. I call Menards and get Paul on the line to clear up what exactly my shift is supposed to be. Steve— or was it Walt?— said noon till eleven, but that would be eleven hours, right? "Right," he says. "You want to be full-time, don't you?" And you're going to pay me ten dollars an hour? "Ten dollars?" Paul asks, "Who told you ten?" He'll have to check on that; it can't be right. Now thoroughly unnerved, I tell him I'm not working an 149 eleven-hour shift, not without time and a half after eight. I don't tell him about the generations of workers who fought and sometimes died for the ten-hour day and then the eight, although this is very much on my mind. I just tell him I'm going to send my knife, my vest, and my tape measure back. In the days that follow I will try to rationalize this decision by telling myself that, given Wal-Mart's position as the nation's largest private employer, whatever I experience there will at least be of grand social significance. But this is just a way of prettifying yet another dumb mistake, the one involving all that coffee. The embarrassing truth is that I am just too exhausted to work, especially for eleven hours in a row. Why hadn't I asked all these questions about wages and hours before? For that matter, why hadn't I bargained with Roberta when she called to tell me I'd passed the drug test— told her $7 an hour would be fine, as long as the benefits included a free lakeside condo with hot tub? At least part of the answer, which I only figured out weeks later, lies in the employers' deft handling of the hiring process. First you are an applicant, then suddenly you are an orientee. You're handed the application form and, a few days later, you're being handed the uniform and warned against nose rings and stealing. There's no intermediate point in the process in which you confront the potential employer as a free agent, entitled to cut her own deal. The intercalation of the drug test between application and hiring tilts the playing field even further, establishing that you, and not the employer, are the one who has something to 150 prove. Even in the tightest labor market— and it doesn't get any tighter than Minneapolis, where I would probably have been welcome to apply at any commercial establishment I entered— the person who has precious labor to sell can be made to feel one down, way down, like a supplicant with her hand stretched out. IT'S SATURDAY AND THE TIME HAS COME TO LEAVE MY FREE LODGINGS and neurotic avian roommate. A few hours before my hosts are scheduled to return, I pack up and head down to Twin Lakes, where— no big surprise— I find out that all the second-story rooms have been taken. The particular room I'd requested, which looks out on a backyard instead of a parking lot, is now occupied by a woman with a child, the owner tells me, and he is good enough to feel uncomfortable about asking them to move to a smaller one. So I decide that this is my out and call another weekly rental place on my list, the Clearview Inn (not its real name), which has two big advantages: it's about a twenty-minute drive from my Wal-Mart, as opposed to at least forty-five in the case of Twin Lakes, and the weekly rate is $245, compared to $295. footnote 4 Under the Fair Labor Standards Act it is in fact illegal not to pay time and a half for hours worked above forty hours a week. Certain categories of workers— professionals, managers, and farmworkers— are not covered by the FLSA, but retail workers are not among them. This is still scandalously high, higher in fact than my aftertax weekly pay will amount to. But in our latest conversation Hildy has promised me a room with kitchenette by the end of next week, and I am confident I can get a weekend job at the supermarket I applied to, in bakery if I am lucky. To say that some place is the worst motel in the country is, of course, to set oneself up for considerable challenge. I have 151 encountered plenty of contenders in my own travels— the one in Cleveland that turned into a brothel at night, the one in Butte where the window looked out into another room. Still, the Clearview Inn leaves the competition in the dust. I slide $255 in cash (the extra $10 is for telephone service) under the glass window that separates me from the young East Indian owner— East Indians seem to have a lock on the midwestern motel business— and am taken by his wife to a room memorable only for its overwhelming stench of mold. I don't have enough Claritin-D for this situation, a point I have to make by holding my nose, since her English does not extend to the concept of allergy. Air freshener? she suggests when she catches my meaning. Incense? There is a better room, her husband says when we return to the office, but— and here he fixes me with a narrow-eyed stare— I'd better not "trash" it. I attempt a reassuring chuckle, but the warning rankles for days: have I been fooling myself all these years, thinking I look like a mature and sober person when in fact anyone can see I'm a vandal? footnote 5 I may have to withdraw my claim. Until it was closed for fire code violations in 1997, the Parkway Motel in southern Maryland boasted exposed electrical wires, holes in room doors, and raw sewage on bathroom floors. But if price is entered into the competition, the Clearview Inn may still win, since the Park- way was charging only $20 a day at the time (Todd Shields, "Charles Cracks Down on Dilapidated Motels," Washington Post, April 20, 1997). Room 133 contains a bed, a chair, a chest of drawers, and a TV fastened to the wall. I plead for and get a lamp to supplement the single overhead bulb. Instead of the mold smell, I now breathe a mixture of fresh paint and what I eventually identify as mouse droppings. But the real problems are all window- and door-related: the single small window has no screen, and the room has no AC or fan. The curtain is transparently thin; the door has no bolt. Without a screen, the window should be sensibly closed at night, meaning no air, unless I'm 152 willing to take my chances with the bugs and the neighbors. Who are the neighbors? The motel forms a toilet-seat shape around the parking lot, and I can see an inexplicable collection. A woman with a baby in her arms leans in the doorway of one room. Two bunches of teenagers, one group black and the other white, seem to share adjoining rooms. There are several unencumbered men of various ages, including an older white man in work clothes whose bumper sticker says, "Don't steal, the government hates competition"— as if the income tax were the only thing keeping him from living at the Embassy Suites right now. When it gets dark I go outside and look through my curtain, and yes, you can see pretty much everything, at least in silhouette. I eat the deli food I've brought with me from a Minneapolis supermarket and go to bed with my clothes on, but not to sleep. I am not a congenitally fearful person, for which you can blame or credit my mother, who never got around to alerting me to any special vulnerabilities that went with being a girl. Only when I got to college did I begin to grasp what rape involves and discover that my custom of exploring strange cities alone, on foot, day or night, looked more reckless to others than eccentric. I had no misgivings about the trailer park in Key West or the motel in Maine, but the trailer's door had a bolt, and both had effective shades and screens. Here, only the stuffiness of the air with the window shut reminds me that I'm really indoors; otherwise I'm pretty much open to anyone's view or to anything that might drift in from the highway, and I wouldn't want to depend on my hosts for help. I think of wearing earplugs to block out the TV sounds from the next room and my sleep mask to cut the light from the Dr Pepper sign on the pop machine in the parking lot. Then I decide it's smarter 153 to keep all senses on ready alert. I sleep and wake up, sleep and wake up again, listen to the cars coming and going, watch the silhouettes move past my window. Sometime around four in the morning it dawns on me that it's not just that I'm a wimp. Poor women— perhaps especially single ones and even those who are just temporarily living among the poor for whatever reason— really do have more to fear than women who have houses with double locks and alarm systems and husbands or dogs. I must have known this theoretically or at least heard it stated, but now for the first time the lesson takes hold. So this is the home from which I go forth on Monday to begin my life as a Wal-Martian. After the rigors of orientation, I am expecting a highly structured welcome, perhaps a ceremonial donning of my bright blue Wal-Mart vest and a forty-five-minute training on the operation of the vending machines in the break room. But when I arrive in the morning for the ten-to-six shift, no one seems to be expecting me. I'm in "soft-lines," which has a wonderful, sinuous sound to it, but I have no idea what it means. Someone in personnel tells me I'm in ladies' wear (a division of softlines, I learn) and sends me to the counter next to the fitting rooms, where I am passed around from one person to the next— finally ending up with Ellie, whose lack of a vest signals that she is management. She sets me to work "zoning" the Bobbie Brooks knit summer dresses, a task that could serve as an IQ test for the severely cognitively challenged. First the dresses must be grouped by color— olive, peach, or lavender, in this case— then by decorative pattern— the leafy design on the bodice, the single flower, or the grouped flowers— and within each pattern by size. When I am finished, though hardly exhausted by the effort, I 154 meet Melissa, who is, with only a couple of weeks on the job, pretty much my equivalent. She asks me to help her consolidate the Kathie Lee knit dresses so the Kathie Lee silky ones can take their place at the "image," the high-traffic corner area. I learn, in a couple of hours of scattered exchanges, that Melissa was a waitress before this job, that her husband works in construction and her children are grown. There have been some disorganized patches in her life— an out-of-wedlock child, a problem with alcohol and drugs— but that's all over now that she has given her life to Christ. Our job, it emerges in fragments throughout the day, is to keep ladies' wear "shoppable." Sure, we help customers (who are increasingly called "guests" here as well), if they want any help. At first I go around practicing the "aggressive hospitality" demanded by our training videos: as soon as anyone comes within ten feet of a sales associate, that associate is supposed to smile warmly and offer assistance. But I never see a more experienced associate do this— first, because the customers are often annoyed to have their shopping dazes interrupted and, second, because we have far more pressing things to do. In ladies' wear, the big task, which has no real equivalent in, say, housewares or lawn and garden, is to put away the "returns"— clothes that have been tried on and rejected or, more rarely, purchased and then returned to the store. There are also the many items that have been scattered by customers, dropped on the floor, removed from their hangers and strewn over the racks, or secreted in locations far from their natural homes. Each of these items, too, must be returned to its precise place, matched by color, pattern, price, and size. Any leftover time is to be devoted to zoning. When I relate this to Caroline on the phone, she commiserates, "Ugh, a no-brainer." 155 But no job is as easy as it looks to the uninitiated. I have to put clothes away— the question is, Where? Much of my first few days is devoted to trying to memorize the layout of ladies' wear, one thousand (two thousand?) square feet of space bordered by men's wear, children's wear, greeting cards, and underwear. Standing at the fitting rooms and facing toward the main store entrance, we are looking directly at the tentlike, utilitarian plus sizes, also known as "woman" sizes. These are flanked on the left by our dressiest and costliest line (going up to $29 and change), the all-polyester Kathie Lee collection, suitable for dates and subprofessional levels of office work. Moving clockwise, we encounter the determinedly sexless Russ and Bobbie Brooks lines, seemingly aimed at pudgy fourth-grade teachers with important barbecues to attend. Then, after the sturdy White Stag, come the breezy, revealing Faded Glory, No Boundaries, and Jordache collections, designed for the younger and thinner crowd. Tucked throughout are nests of the lesser brands, such as Athletic Works, Basic Equipment, and the whimsical Looney Tunes, Pooh, and Mickey lines, generally decorated with images of their eponymous characters. Within each brand-name area, there are of course dozens of items, even dozens of each kind of item. This summer, for example, pants may be capri, classic, carpenter, clam-digger, boot, or flood, depending on their length and cut, and I'm probably leaving a few categories out. So my characteristic stance is one of rotating slowly on one foot, eyes wide, garment in hand, asking myself, "Where have I seen the $9.96 Athletic Works knit overalls?" or similar query. Inevitably there are mystery items requiring extra time and inquiry: clothes that have wandered over from girls' or men's, clearanced items whose tags haven't been changed to reflect their new prices, the occasional one-of-a-kind. 156 Then, when I have the layout memorized, it suddenly changes. On my third morning I find, after a few futile searches, that the Russ shirt-and-short combinations have edged Kathie Lee out of her image. When I groaningly accuse Ellie of trying to trick me into thinking I'm getting Alzheimer's, she's genuinely apologetic, explaining that the average customer shops the store three times a week, so you need to have the element of surprise. Besides, the layout is about the only thing she can control, since the clothes and at least the starting prices are all determined by the home office in Arkansas. So as fast as I can memorize, she furiously rearranges. My first response to the work is disappointment and a kind of sexist contempt. I could have been in plumbing, mastering the vocabulary of valves, dangling tools from my belt, joshing around with Steve and Walt, and instead the mission of the moment is to return a pink bikini top to its place on the Bermuda swimwear rack. Nothing is heavy or, as far as I can see, very urgent. No one will go hungry or die or be hurt if I screw up; in fact, how would anyone ever know if I screwed up, given the customers' constant depredations? I feel oppressed, too, by the mandatory gentility of Wal-Mart culture. This is ladies' and we are all "ladies" here, forbidden, by storewide rule, to raise our voices or cuss. Give me a few weeks of this and I'll femme out entirely, my stride will be reduced to a mince, I'll start tucking my head down to one side. My job is not, however, as genteel as it at first appears, thanks to the sheer volume of clothing in motion. At Wal-Mart, as opposed to say Lord & Taylor, customers shop with supermarket-style shopping carts, which they can fill to the brim before proceeding to the fitting room. There the rejected items, which are about 90 percent of try-ons, are folded and 157 put on hangers by whoever is staffing the fitting room, then placed in fresh shopping carts for Melissa and me. So this is how we measure our workload— in carts. When I get in, Melissa, whose shift begins earlier than mine, will tell me how things have been going— "Can you believe, eight carts this morning! "— and how many carts are awaiting me. At first a cart takes me an average of forty-five minutes and there may still be three or four mystery items left at the bottom. I get this down to half an hour, and still the carts keep coming. Most of the time, the work requires minimal human interaction, of either the collegial or the supervisory sort, largely because it's so self-defining. I arrive at the start of a shift or the end of a break, assess the damage wrought by the guests in my absence, count the full carts that await me, and plunge in. I could be a deaf-mute as far as most of this goes, and despite all the orientation directives to smile and exude personal warmth, autism might be a definite advantage. Sometimes, if things are slow, Melissa and I will invent a task we can do together— zoning swimsuits, for example, a nightmarish tangle of straps— and giggle, she in her Christian way, me from a more feminist perspective, about the useless little see-through wraps meant to accompany the more revealing among them. Or sometimes Ellie will give me something special to do, like putting all the Basic Equipment T-shirts on hangers, because things on hangers sell faster, and then arranging them neatly on racks. I like Ellie. Gray-faced and fiftyish, she must be the apotheosis of "servant leadership" or, in more secular terms, the vaunted "feminine" style of management. She says "please" and "thank you"; she doesn't order, she asks. Not so, though, with young Howard— assistant manager Howard, as he is uniformly called— who rules over all of softlines, including infants', children's, 158 men's, accessories, and underwear. On my first day, I am called off the floor to an associates' meeting, where he spends ten minutes taking attendance, fixing each of us with his unnerving Tom Cruise–style smile, in which the brows come together as the corners of the mouth turn up, then reveals (where have I heard this before?) his "pet peeve": associates standing around talking to one another, which is, of course, a prime example of time theft. A few days into my career at Wal-Mart, I return home to the Clearview to find the door to my room open and the motel owner waiting outside. There's been a "problem"— the sewage has backed up and is all over the floor, though fortunately my suitcase is OK. I am to move into Room 127, which will be better because it has a screen. But the screen turns out to be in tatters, not even fastened at the bottom, just flapping uselessly in the breeze. I ask for a real screen, and he tells me he doesn't have any that fit. I ask for a fan and he doesn't have any that work. I ask why— I mean, this is supposedly a working motel— and he rolls his eyes, apparently indicating my fellow residents:, "I could tell you stories . . ." So I lug my possessions down to 127 and start trying to reconstruct my little domestic life. Since I don't have a kitchen, I have what I call my food bag, a supermarket bag containing my tea bags, a few pieces of fruit, various condiment packets salvaged from fast-food places, and a half dozen string cheeses, which their labels say are supposed to be refrigerated but I figure are safe in their plastic wraps. I have my laptop computer, the essential link to my normal profession, and it has become a matter of increasing concern. I figure it's probably the costliest portable item in the entire Clearview Inn, so I hesitate to leave it in my room for the nine or so hours while I'm away at work. 159 During the first couple of days at Wal-Mart, the weather was cool and I kept it in the trunk of my car. But now, with the temperature rising to the nineties at midday, I worry that it'll cook in the trunk. More to the point at the moment is the state of my clothing, most of which is now residing in the other brown paper bag, the one that serves as a hamper. My khakis have a day or two left in them and two clean T-shirts remain until the next trip to a Laundromat, but a question has been raised about the T-shirts. That afternoon Alyssa, one of my co-orientees, now in sporting goods, had come by ladies' to inquire about a polo shirt that had been clearanced at $7. Was there any chance it might fall still further? Of course I had no idea— Ellie decides about clearancing— but why was Alyssa so fixated on this particular shirt? Because one of the rules is that our shirts have to have collars, so they have to be polos, not tees. Somehow I'd missed this during orientation, and now I'm wondering how long I have before my stark-naked neck catches Howard's attention. At $7 an hour, a $7 shirt is just not going to make it to my shopping list. Now it's after seven and time to resume my daily routine at the evening food-gathering phase. The town of Clearview presents only two low-priced options (there are no high-priced options) to its kitchenless residents— a Chinese all-you-can-eat buffet or Kentucky Fried Chicken— each with its own entertainment possibilities. If I eat out at the buffet I can watch the large Mexican families or the even larger, in total body mass terms, families of Minnesota Anglos. If I eat KFC in my room, I can watch TV on one of the half dozen available channels. The latter option seems somehow less lonely, especially if I can find one of my favorite programs— Titus or Third Rock from the Sun. Eating is tricky without a table. I put the food on the 160 chest of drawers and place a plastic supermarket bag over my lap, since spills are hard to avoid when you eat on a slant and spills mean time and money at the Laundromat. Tonight I find the new sensation, Survivor, on CBS, where "real people" are struggling to light a fire on their desert island. Who are these nutcases who would volunteer for an artificially daunting situation in order to entertain millions of strangers with their halfassed efforts to survive? Then I remember where I am and why I am here. Dinner over, I put the remains in the plastic bag that served as a tablecloth and tie it up tightly to discourage the flies that have free access to my essentially screenless abode. I do my evening things— writing in my journal and reading a novel— then turn out the lights and sit for a while by the open door for some air. The two African American men who live in the room next door have theirs open too, and since it's sometimes open in the daytime as well, I've noticed that their room, like mine, has only one bed. This is no gay tryst, though, because they seem to take turns in the bed, one sleeping in the room and the other one napping in their van outside. I shut the door, put the window down, and undress in the dark so I can't be seen through the window. I still haven't found out much about my fellow Clearview dwellers— it's bad enough being a woman alone, especially a woman rich enough to have a bed of her own, without being nosy on top of that. As far as I can tell, the place isn't a nest of drug dealers and prostitutes; these are just working people who don't have the capital to rent a normal apartment. Even the teenagers who worried me at first seem to have mother figures attached to them, probably single mothers I hadn't seen before because they were at work. 161 Finally I lie down and breathe against the weight of unmoving air on my chest. I wake up a few hours later to hear a sound not generated by anyone's TV: a woman's clear alto singing two lines of the world's saddest song, lyrics indecipherable, to the accompaniment of trucks on the highway. Morning begins with a trip, by car, to the Holiday gas station's convenience store, where I buy a pop container full of ice and a packet of two hard-boiled eggs. The ice, a commodity unavailable at the motel, is for iced tea, which I brew by letting tea bags soak in a plastic cup of water overnight. After breakfast I tidy up my room, making the bed, wiping the sink with a wad of toilet paper, and taking the garbage out to the Dump-stet True, the owner's wife (or maybe she's the co-owner) goes around from room to room every morning with a cleaning cart, but her efforts show signs of deep depression or possibly attention deficit disorder. Usually she remembers to replace the thin little towels, which, even when clean, contain embedded hairs and smell like cooking grease, but there's nothing else, except maybe an abandoned rag or bottle of air freshener, to suggest that she's been through on her rounds. I picture an ad for a "traditional-minded, hardworking wife," a wedding in her natal village, then— plop— she's in Clearview, Minnesota, with an Indian American husband who may not even speak her language, thousands of miles from family, a temple, a sari shop. So I clean up myself, then do my hair with enough bobby pins to last through the shift, and head off for work. The idea is to make myself look like someone who's spent the night in a 162 regular home with kitchen and washer and dryer, not like someone who's borderline homeless. footnote 6 I thank Sona Pai, an Indian American graduate student in literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon, for giving me a glimpse into the Indian American motel-operating community and the lives of immigrant brides. The other point of my domestic rituals and arrangements is to get through the time when I can't be at work, when it would look weird to be hanging around in the Wal-Mart parking lot or break room. Because home life is more stressful than I have consciously acknowledged, and I would be dreading my upcoming day off if I weren't confident of spending it on the move to better quarters at the Hopkins Park Plaza. Little nervous symptoms have arisen. Sometimes I get a tummy ache after breakfast, which makes lunch dicey, and there's no way to get through the shift without at least one major refueling. More disturbing is the new habit of plucking away at my shirt or my khakis with whichever hand can be freed up for the task. I have to stop this. My maternal grandmother, who still lives on, in a fashion, at the age of a hundred and one, was a perfect model of stoicism, but she used to pick at her face and her wrist, creating dark red circular sores, and claimed not to know she was doing it. Maybe it's an inheritable twitch and I will soon be moving on from fabric to flesh. I arrive at work full of bounce, pausing at the fitting room to jolly up the lady on duty— usually the bossy, self-satisfied Rhoda— because the fitting room lady bears the same kind of relation to me as a cook to a server: she can screw me up if she wants, giving me carts contaminated with foreign, nonladies' items and items not properly folded or hangered. "Here I am," I announce grandiosely, spreading out my arms. "The day can begin!" For this I get a wrinkled nose from Rhoda and a one-sided grin from Lynne, the gaunt blonde who's working bras. I search out Ellie, whom I find shooting out new labels from the pricing gun, and ask if there's anything special I need to be 163 doing. No, just whatever needs to be done. Next I find Melissa to get a report on the cartage so far. Today she seems embarrassed when she sees me: "I probably shouldn't have done this and you're going to think it's really silly . . ." but she's brought me a sandwich for lunch. This is because I'd told her I was living in a motel almost entirely on fast food, and she felt sorry for me. Now I'm embarrassed, and beyond that overwhelmed to discover a covert stream of generosity running counter to the dominant corporate miserliness. Melissa probably wouldn't think of herself as poor, but I know she calculates in very small units of currency, twice reminding me, for example, that you can get sixty-eight cents off the specials at the Radio Grill every Tuesday, so a sandwich is something to consider. I set off with my cart, muttering contentedly, "Bobbie Brooks turquoise elastic-waist shorts" and "Faded Glory V-neck red tank top." Then, in my second week, two things change. My shift changes from 10:00-6:00 to 2:00-11:00, the so-called closing shift, although the store remains open 24/7. No one tells me this; I find it out by studying the schedules that are posted, under glass, on the wall outside the break room. Now I have nine hours instead of eight, and although one of them is an unpaid dinner hour, I have a net half an hour a day more on my feet. My two fifteen-minute breaks, which seemed almost superfluous on the 10:00-6:00 shift, now become a matter of urgent calculation. Do I take both before dinner, which is usually about 7:30, leaving an unbroken two-and-a-half-hour stretch when I'm weariest, between 8:30 and 11:00? Or do I try to go two and a half hours without a break in the afternoon, followed by a nearly three-hour marathon before I can get away for dinner? Then there's the question of how to make the best use of a fifteen-minute break when you have three or more 164 urgent, simultaneous needs— to pee, to drink something, to get outside the neon and into the natural light, and most of all, to sit down. I save about a minute by engaging in a little time theft and stopping at the rest room before I punch out for the break (and, yes, we have to punch out even for breaks, so there's no padding them with a few stolen minutes). From the time clock it's a seventy-five-second walk to the store exit; if I stop at the Radio Grill, I could end up wasting a full four minutes waiting in line, not to mention the fifty-nine cents for a small-sized iced tea. So if I treat myself to an outing in the tiny fenced-off area beside the store, the only place where employees are allowed to smoke, I get about nine minutes off my feet. The other thing that happens is that the post–Memorial Day weekend lull definitely comes to an end. Now there are always a dozen or more shoppers rooting around in ladies', reinforced in the evening by a wave of multigenerational gangs— Grandma, Mom, a baby in the shopping cart, and a gaggle of sullen children in tow. New tasks arise, such as bunching up the carts left behind by customers and steering them to their place in the front of the store every half hour or so. Now I am picking up not only dropped clothes but all the odd items customers carry off from foreign departments and decide to leave with us in ladies'— pillows, upholstery hooks, Pokemon cards, earrings, sunglasses, stuffed animals, even a package of cinnamon buns. And always there are the returns, augmented now by the huge volume of items that have been tossed on the floor or carried fecklessly to inappropriate sites. Sometimes I am lucky to achieve a steady state between replacing the returns and picking up items strewn on the racks and the floor. If I pick up misplaced items as quickly as I replace the returns, my cart never empties and things back up dangerously at the fitting room, 165 where Rhoda or her nighttime replacement is likely to hiss: "You've got three carts waiting, Barb. What's the problem?" Think Sisyphus here or the sorcerer's apprentice. Still, for the first half of my shift, I am the very picture of good-natured helpfulness, fascinated by the multiethnic array of our shoppers— Middle Eastern, Asian, African American, Russian, former Yugoslavian, old-fashioned Minnesota white— and calmly accepting of the second law of thermodynamics, the one that says entropy always wins. Amazingly, I get praised by Isabelle, the thin little seventyish lady who seems to be Ellie's adjutant: I am doing "wonderfully," she tells me, and— even better— am "great to work with." I prance from rack to rack, I preen. But then, somewhere around 6:00 or 7:00, when the desire to sit down becomes a serious craving, a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde transformation sets in. I cannot ignore the fact that it's the customers' sloppiness and idle whims that make me bend and crouch and run. They are the shoppers, I am the antishopper, whose goal is to make it look as if they'd never been in the store. At this point, "aggressive hospitality" gives way to aggressive hostility. Their carts bang into mine, their children run amok. Once I stand and watch helplessly while some rug rat pulls everything he can reach off the racks, and the thought that abortion is wasted on the unborn must show on my face, because his mother finally tells him to stop. I even start hating the customers for extraneous reasons, such as, in the case of the native Caucasians, their size. I don't mean just bellies and butts, but huge bulges in completely exotic locations, like the backs of the neck and the knees. This summer, Wendy's, where I often buy lunch, has introduced the verb biggiesize, as in "Would you like to biggiesize that 166 combo?" meaning double the fries and pop, and something like biggiesizing seems to have happened to the female guest population. All right, everyone knows that midwesterners, and especially those in the lower middle class, are tragically burdened by the residues of decades of potato chips and French toast sticks, and I probably shouldn't even bring this up. In my early-shift, Dr. Jekyll form, I feel sorry for the obese, who must choose from among our hideous woman-size offerings, our drawstring shorts, and huge horizontally striped tees, which are obviously designed to mock them. But compassion fades as the shift wears on. Those of us who work in ladies' are for obvious reasons a pretty lean lot— probably, by Minnesota standards, candidates for emergency IV nutritional supplementation— and we live with the fear of being crushed by some wide-body as she hurtles through the narrow passage from Faded Glory to woman size, lost in fantasies involving svelte Kathie Lee sheaths. It's the clothes I relate to, though, not the customers. And now a funny thing happens to me here on my new shift: I start thinking they're mine, not mine to take home and wear, because I have no such designs on them, just mine to organize and rule over. Same with ladies' wear as a whole. After 6:00, when Melissa and Ellie go home, and especially after 9:00, when Isabelle leaves, I start to own the place. Out of the way, Sam, this is Bar-Mart now. I patrol the perimeter with my cart, darting in to pick up misplaced and fallen items, making everything look spiffy from the outside. I don't fondle the clothes, the way customers do; I slap them into place, commanding them to hang straight, at attention, or lie subdued on the shelves in perfect order. In this frame of mind, the last thing I want to see is a customer riffling around, disturbing the place. 167 In fact, I hate the idea of things being sold— uprooted from their natural homes, whisked off to some closet that's in God-knows-what state of disorder. I want ladies' wear sealed off in a plastic bubble and trucked away to some place of safety, some museum of retail history. One night I come back bone-tired from my last break and am distressed to find a new person, an Asian American or possibly Hispanic woman who can't be more than four and a half feet tall, folding T-shirts in the White Stag area, my White Stag area. It's already been a vexing evening. Earlier, when I'd returned from dinner, the evening fitting room lady upbraided me for being late— which I actually wasn't— and said that if Howard knew, he probably wouldn't yell at me this time because I'm still pretty new, but if it happened again . . . And I'd snapped back that I could care less if Howard yelled at me, which is a difficult sentiment to fully convey without access to the forbidden four-letter words. So I'm a little wary with this intruder in White Stag and, sure enough, after our minimal introductions, she turns on me. "Did you put anything away here today?" she demands. "Well, yes, sure." In fact I've put something away everywhere today, as I do on every other day. "Because this is not in the right place. See the fabric— it's different," and she thrusts the errant item up toward my chest. True, I can see that this olive-green shirt is slightly ribbed while the others are smooth. "You've got to put them in their right places," she continues. "Are you checking the UPC numbers?" Of course I am not checking the ten or more digit UPC numbers, which lie just under the bar codes— nobody does. What does she think this is, the National Academy of Sciences? 168 I'm not sure what kind of deference, if any, is due here: Is she my supervisor now? Or are we involved in some kind of test to see who will dominate the 9:00-11:00 time period? But I don't care, she's pissing me off, messing with my stuff. So I say, only without the numerals or the forbidden curse word, that (1) plenty of other people work here during the day, not to mention all the customers coming through, so why is she blaming me? (2) it's after 10:00 and I've got another cart full of returns to go, and wouldn't it make more sense if we both worked on the carts, instead of zoning the goddamn T-shirts? To which she responds huffily, "I don't do returns. My job is to fold." A few minutes later I see why she doesn't do returns— she can't reach the racks. In fact, she has to use a ladder even to get to the higher shelves. And you know what I feel when I see the poor little mite pushing that ladder around? A surge of evil mirth. I peer around from where I am working in Jordache, hoping to see her go splat. I leave that night shaken by my response to the intruder. If she's a supervisor, I could be written up for what I said, but even worse is what I thought. Am I turning mean here, and is that a normal response to the end of a nine-hour shift? There was another outbreak of mental wickedness that night. I'd gone back to the counter by the fitting room to pick up the next cart full of returns and found the guy who answers the phone at the counter at night, a pensive young fellow in a wheelchair, staring into space, looking even sadder than usual. And my uncensored thought was, At least you get to sit down. This is not me, at least not any version of me I'd like to spend much time with, just as my tiny coworker is probably not usually a bitch. She's someone who works all night and 169 naps during the day when her baby does, I find out later, along with the information that she's not anyone's supervisor and is in fact subject to constant criticism by Isabelle when the two overlap. What I have to face is that "Barb," the name on my ID tag, is not exactly the same person as Barbara. "Barb" is what I was called as a child, and still am by my siblings, and I sense that at some level I'm regressing. Take away the career and the higher education, and maybe what you're left with is this original Barb, the one who might have ended up working at Wal-Mart for real if her father hadn't managed to climb out of the mines. So it's interesting, and more than a little disturbing, to see how Barb turned out— that she's meaner and slyer than I am, more cherishing of grudges, and not quite as smart as I'd hoped. ON THE DAY OF MY MOVE TO THE HOPKINS PARK PLAZA, I WAKE UP savoring the thought of the perishables I'm going to stock my refrigerator with: mayonnaise, mustard, chicken breasts. But when I get there Hildy is gone and the woman in the towering black beehive who has taken her place says I didn't understand, the room won't be available until next week and I should call first to be sure. Had I really been so befogged by wishful thinking that I'd "misunderstood" what had seemed to be a fairly detailed arrangement (bring your money down at nine on Saturday, you can move in at four, etc.)? Or had someone else just beat me to it? Never mind, I've been clearheaded enough to know all along that the Park Plaza apartment with kitchenette, at $179 a week, was not a long-term option on Wal-Mart's $7 an hour. My plan had been to add a weekend job, which I have been tentatively offered at a Rainbow supermarket near the apartment where I originally stayed, at close to $8 an hour. 170 Between the two jobs, I would be making about $320 a week after taxes, so that the $179 in rent would have amounted to about 55 percent of my income, which is beginning to look "affordable." But Rainbow also falls through; they decide they want me to work part-time five days a week, not just on weekends. Furthermore, I have no control at the moment over what my days off will be. Howard has scheduled me to have Friday off one week, Tuesday and Wednesday the next, and I would have to do some serious sucking up to arrive at a more stable and congenial schedule. footnote 7 Actually, rents usually have to be less than 30 percent of one's income to be considered "affordable." Housing analyst Peter Dreier reports that 59 percent of poor renters, amounting to a total of 4.4 million households, spend more than 50 percent of their income on shelter ("Why America's Workers Can't Pay the Rent," Dissent, Summer 2000, pp. 38-44). A 1996-97 survey of 44,461 households found that 28 percent of parents with incomes less than 200 percent of the poverty level— i.e., less than about $30,000 a year— reported problems paying their rent, mortgage, or utility bills (Welfare Reform Network News 1:2 [March 1999], Institute for Women's Policy Research, Washington, D.C.). In the Twin Cities, at the time of my stay, about 46,000 working families were paying more than 50 percent of their income for housing, and, surprisingly, 73 percent of these families were home owners hard-pressed by rising property taxes ("Affordable Housing Problem Hits Moderate-Income Earners," Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 12, 2000). 171 which doesn't have any rooms either, although they do have dorm beds for $19 a night. I can have my own locker and there's no "lockout" in the morning— you can hang out in your dorm bed all day if you want. Even with these enticements, I have to admit I'm relieved when the guy at Budget Lodging tells me they're located on the other side of Minneapolis, so I can rule out the dorm on account of the drive and the gas costs, at least as long as I'm working at Wal-Mart. Maybe I should have just dumped Wal-Mart, moved into the dorm, and relaunched my job search from there. But the truth is I'm not ready to leave Wal-Mart yet; it's my connection to the world, my source of identity, my place. The Budget Lodging clerk, who seems to have some familiarity with the housing nightmares of low-wage workers, suggests I keep trying motels. He's sure there must be some that cost less than $240 a week. In the meantime, the Clearview Inn wants an unconscionable $55 for any additional nights there, which means that, for a couple of nights, almost any motel would be preferable. I call Caroline to ask for her insights into the housing situation and— I should have guessed this was coming— she calls back in a few minutes to invite me to move in with her and her family. I say no, I've already had a stint of free lodging and now I have to take my chances with the market like anyone else. But for a moment I get this touched-byan-angel feeling I'd gotten from Melissa's sandwich: I am not really entirely alone. I start calling around to motels again, now ranging even farther out from the city, into the northern towns, the western towns, St. Paul. But most have no rooms at all, at any price, either now or for the coming weeks— because of the season, I'm told, although it's hard to see why a place like, say, Clearview, Minnesota, would be a destination at any time of 172 the year. Only the Comfort Inn has a room available, at $49.95 a night, so I make a reservation there for a couple of days. The relief I should feel about leaving the Worst Motel in the Country is canceled by an overwhelming sense of defeat. Could I have done better? The St. Paul Pioneer Press of Tune 13, which I eagerly snatch out of the box in front of Wal-Mart, provides an overdue reality check. "Apartment rents skyrocket," the front-page headline declares; they've leaped 205 percent in Minneapolis in the first three months of 2000 alone, an unprecedented increase, according to local real estate experts. Even more pertinent to my condition, the Twin Cities region "is posting one of the lowest vacancy rates in the nation— possibly the lowest." Who knew? My cursory pre-trip research had revealed nothing about a record absence of housing. In fact, I'd come across articles bemoaning the absence of a Twin Cities dot-com industry, and these had led me to believe that the region had been spared the wild real estate inflation afflicting, for example, California's Bay Area. But apparently you don't need dot-com wealth to ruin an area for its low-income residents. The Pioneer Press quotes Secretary of HUD Andrew Cuomo ruing the "cruel irony" that prosperity is shrinking the stock of affordable housing nationwide: "The stronger the economy, the stronger the upward pressure on rents." So I'm a victim not of poverty but of prosperity. The rich and the poor, who are generally thought to live in a state of harmonious interdependence— the one providing cheap labor, the other providing low-wage jobs— can no longer coexist. I check in at the Comfort Inn in the firm expectation that this will be only for a night or two, before something, somewhere, opens up to me. What I cannot know is that this is, in some sense, my moment of final defeat. Game over. End of 173 story— at least if it's a story about attempting to match earnings to rent. In almost three weeks, I've spent over $500 and earned only $42— from Wal-Mart, for orientation night. There's more coming eventually— Wal-Mart, like so many other low-wage employers, holds back your first week's pay---but eventually will be too late. I never do find an apartment or affordable motel, although I do make one last attempt, seeking help one morning at a charitable agency. I found the place by calling United Way of Minneapolis, which directed me to another agency, which in turn directed me to something called the Community Emergency Assistance Program, located a convenient fifteen-minute drive from Wal-Mart. Inside the office suite housing LEAP, a disturbing scene is unfolding: two rail-thin black men— Somalis, I guess, from their accents and since there are a lot of them in the Twin Cities area— are saying, "Bread? Bread?" and being told, "No bread, no bread." They flutter out and a fiftyish white woman comes in and goes through the same routine, leaving with the smile of supplication still frozen awkwardly on her face. For some reason, though— perhaps because I have an appointment and haven't worn out my welcome yet— I get taken to an inner office where a young woman interviews me absentmindedly. Do I have a car? Yes, I have a car. And a couple of minutes later: "So you don't have a car?" and so forth. When I tell her I'm working at Wal-Mart and what I earn, she suggests I move into a shelter so I can save up enough money for a first month's rent and deposit, then she sends me to another office where she says I can apply for a housing subsidy and get help finding an apartment. But this other office offers only a photocopied list of affordable apartments, which is updated weekly and is already out of date. Back at the first 174 office, my interviewer asks if I can use some emergency food aid and I explain, once again, that I don't have a refrigerator. She'll find something, she says, and comes back with a box containing a bar of soap, a deodorant, and a bunch of fairly useless food items, from my point of view— lots of candy and cookies and a one-pound can of ham, which, without a refrigerator, I would have to eat all in one sitting. (The next day I take the whole box, untouched, to another agency serving the poor, so I won't appear ungrateful and the food won't be wasted.) footnote 8 Middle-class people often criticize the poor for their eating habits, but this charitable agency seemed to be promoting a reliance on "empty calories," The complete inventory of the box of free food I received is as follows: 21 ounces of General Mills Honey Nut Chex cereal; 24 ounces of Post Grape-Nuts cereal; 20 ounces of Mississippi Barbecue Sauce; several small plastic bags of candy, including Tootsie Rolls, Smarties fruit snacks, Sweet Tarts, and two bars of Ghirardelli chocolate; one bubble gum; a 13-ounce package of iced sugar cookies; hamburger buns; six 6-ounce Minute Maid juice coolers; one loaf of Vienna bread; Star Wars fruit snacks; one loaf of cinnamon bread; 18 ounces of peanut butter; 18 ounces of jojoba shampoo; 16 ounces of canned ham; one bar of Dial soap; four Kellogg Rice Krispies Treats bars; two Ritz cracker packages; one 5-ounce Swanson canned chicken breast; 2 ounces of a Kool-Aid-like drink mix; two Lady Speed Stick deodorants. Only when I'm driving away with my sugary loot do I realize the importance of what I've learned in this encounter. At one point toward the end of the interview, the LEAP lady had apologized for forgetting almost everything I said about myself— that I had a car, lived in a motel, etc. She was mixing me up with someone else who worked at Wal-Mart, she explained, someone who had been in just a few days ago. Now, of course I've noticed that many of my coworkers are poor in all the hard-to-miss, stereotypical ways. Crooked yellow teeth are one sign, inadequate footwear is another. My feet hurt after 175 four hours of work, and I wear my comfortable old Reeboks, but a lot of women run around all day in thin-soled moccasins. Hair provides another class cue. Ponytails are common or, for that characteristic Wal-Martian beat-up and hopeless look, straight shoulder-length hair, parted in the middle and kept out of the face by two bobby pins. But now I know something else. In orientation, we learned that the store's success depends entirely on us, the associates; in fact, our bright blue vests bear the statement "At Wal-Mart, our people make the difference." Underneath those vests, though, there are real-life charity cases, maybe even shelter dwellers. footnote 9 In 1988, Arkansas state senator Jay Bradford attacked Wal-Mart for paying its employees so little that they had to turn to the state for welfare. He was, however, unable to prove his point by getting the company to open its payroll records (Bob Ortega, In Sam We Trust: The Untold Story of Sam Walton and Wal-Mart, the World's Most Powerful Retailer [Times Books, 2000], p. 193). SO, ANYWAY, BEGINS MY SURREAL EXISTENCE AT THE COMFORT INN. I live in luxury with AC, a door that bolts, a large window protected by an intact screen— just like a tourist or a business traveler. But from there I go out every day to a life that most business travelers would find shabby and dispiriting— lunch at Wendy's, dinner at Sbarro (the Italian-flavored fast-food place), and work at Wal-Mart, where I would be embarrassed to be discovered in my vest, should some member of the Comfort staff happen to wander in. Of course, I expect to leave any day, when the Hopkins Park Plaza opens up. For the time being, though, I revel in the splendor of my accommodations, amazed that they cost $5.05 less, on a daily basis, than what I was paying for that rat hole in Clearview. I stop worrying about my 176 computer being stolen or cooked, I sleep through the night, the sick little plucking habit loses its grip. I feel like the man in the commercials for the Holiday Inn Express who's so refreshed by his overnight stay that he can perform surgery the next day or instruct people in how to use a parachute. At Wal-Mart, I get better at what I do, much better than I could ever have imagined at the beginning. The breakthrough comes on a Saturday, one of your heavier shopping days. There are two carts waiting for me when I arrive at two, and tossed items inches deep on major patches of the floor. The place hasn't been shopped, it's been looted. In this situation, all I can do is everything at once— stoop, reach, bend, lift, run from rack to rack with my cart. And then it happens— a Ergo, I either need to find a husband, like Melissa, or a second job, like some of my other coworkers. In the long run everything will work out if I devote my mornings to job hunting, while holding out for a Park Plaza opening or, better yet, a legitimate apartment at $400 a month or $100 a week. But to paraphrase Keynes: in the long run, we'll all be broke, at least those of us who work for low wages and live in exorbitantly overpriced motels. I call the YWCA to see whether they have any rooms, and they refer me to a place called Budget Lodging, magical flow state in which the clothes start putting themselves away. Oh, I play a part in this, but not in any conscious way. Instead of thinking, "White Stag navy twill skort," and doggedly searching out similar skorts, all I have to do is form an image of the item in my mind, transpose this image onto the visual field, and move to wherever the image finds its match in the outer world. I don't know how this works. Maybe my mind just gets so busy processing the incoming visual data that it has to bypass the left brain's verbal centers, with their cumbersome instructions: "Proceed to White Stag area in the northwest corner of ladies', try bottom racks near khaki shorts . . ." Or maybe the trick lies in understanding that each item wants to be reunited with its sibs and its clan members and that, within each clan, the item wants to occupy its proper place in the color/size hierarchy. Once I let the clothes take charge, once I understand that I am only the means of their reunification, they just fly out of the cart to their natural homes. 177 On the same day, perhaps because the new speediness frees me to think more clearly, I make my peace with the customers and discover the purpose of life, or at least of my life at Wal-Mart. Management may think that the purpose is to sell things, but this is an overly reductionist, narrowly capitalist view. As a matter of fact, I never see anything sold, since sales take place out of my sight, at the cash registers at the front of the store. All I see is customers unfolding carefully folded T-shirts, taking dresses and pants off their hangers, holding them up for a moment's idle inspection, then dropping them somewhere for us associates to pick up. For me, the way out of resentment begins with a clue provided by a poster near the break room, in the back of the store where only associates go: "Your mother doesn't work here," it says. "Please pick up after yourself." I've passed it many times, thinking, "Ha, that's all I do— pick up after people." Then it hits me: most of the people I pick up after are mothers themselves, meaning that what I do at work is what they do at home— pick up the toys and the clothes and the spills. So the great thing about shopping, for most of these women, is that here they get to behave like brats, ignoring the bawling babies in their carts, tossing things around for someone else to pick up. And it wouldn't be any fun— would it?— unless the clothes were all reasonably orderly to begin with, which is where I come in, constantly re-creating orderliness for the customers to maliciously destroy. It's appalling, but it's in their nature: only pristine and virginal displays truly excite them. I test this theory out on Isabelle: that our job is to constantly re-create the stage setting in which women can act out. That without us, rates of child abuse would suddenly soar. That we function, in a way, as therapists and should probably be paid 178 accordingly, at $50 to $100 an hour. "You just go on thinking that," she says, shaking her head. But she smiles her canny little smile in a way that makes me think it's not a bad notion. With competence comes a new impatience: Why does anybody put up with the wages we're paid? True, most of my fellow workers are better cushioned than I am; they live with spouses or grown children or they have other jobs in addition to this one. I sit with Lynne in the break room one night and find out this is only a part-time job for her— six hours a day— with the other eight hours spent at a factory for $9 an hour. Doesn't she get awfully tired? Nah, it's what she's always done. The cook at the Radio Grill has two other jobs. You might expect a bit of grumbling, some signs here and there of unrest— graffiti on the hortatory posters in the break room, muffled guffaws during our associate meetings— but I can detect none of that. Maybe this is what you get when you weed out all the rebels with drug tests and personality "surveys"— a uniformly servile and denatured workforce, content to dream of the distant day when they'll be vested in the company's profit-sharing plan. They even join in the "Wal-Mart cheer" when required to do so at meetings, I'm told by the evening fitting room lady, though I am fortunate enough never to witness this final abasement. But if it's hard to think "out of the box," it may be almost impossible to think out of the Big Box. Wal-Mart, when you're 179 in it, is total— a closed system, a world unto itself. I get a chill when I'm watching TV in the break room one afternoon and see . . . a commercial for Wal-Mart. When a Wal-Mart shows up within a television within a Wal-Mart, you have to question the existence of an outer world. Sure, you can drive for five minutes and get somewhere else— to Kmart, that is, or Home Depot, or Target, or Burger King, or Wendy's, or KFC. Wherever you look, there is no alternative to the megascale corporate order, from which every form of local creativity and initiative has been abolished by distant home offices. Even the woods and the meadows have been stripped of disorderly life forms and forced into a uniform made of concrete. What you see— highways, parking lots, stores— is all there is, or all that's left to us here in the reign of globalized, totalized, paved-over, corporatized everything. I like to read the labels to find out where the clothing we sell is made— Indonesia, Mexico, Turkey, the Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Brazil— but the labels serve only to remind me that none of these places is "exotic" anymore, that they've all been eaten by the great blind profit-making global machine. The only thing to do is ask: Why do you— why do we— work here? Why do you stay? So when Isabelle praises my work a second time (!), I take the opportunity to say I really appreciate her encouragement, but I can't afford to live on $7 an hour, and how does she do it? The answer is that she lives with her grown daughter, who also works, plus the fact that she's worked here two years, during which her pay has shot up to $7.75 an hour. She counsels patience: it could happen to me. Melissa, who has the advantage of a working husband, says, "Well, it's a job." Yes, she made twice as much when she was a waitress but that place closed down and at her age she's never 180 going to be hired at a high-tip place. I recognize the inertia, the unwillingness to start up with the apps and the interviews and the drug tests again. She thinks she should give it a year. A year? I tell her I'm wondering whether I should give it another week. footnote 10 According to Wal-Mart expert Bob Ortega, Sam Walton got the idea for the cheer on a 1975 trip to Japan, "where he was deeply impressed by factory workers doing group calisthenics and company cheers." Ortega describes Walton conducting a cheer: "'Gimme a W!' he'd shout. 'W!' the workers would shout back, and on through the Wal-Mart name. At the hyphen, Walton would shout 'Gimme a squiggly!' and squat and twist his hips at the same time; the workers would squiggle right back" (In Sam We Trust, p. 91). A few days later something happens to make kindly, sweet-natured Melissa mad. She gets banished to bras, which is terra incognita for us— huge banks of shelves bearing barely distinguishable bi-coned objects— for a three-hour stretch. I know how she feels, because I was once sent over to work for a couple of hours in men's wear, where I wandered uselessly through the strange thickets of racks, numbed by the sameness of colors and styles. It's the difference between working and pretending to work. You push your cart a few feet, pause significantly with item in hand, frown at the ambient racks, then push on and repeat the process. "I just don't like wasting their money," Melissa says when she's allowed back. "I mean they're paying me and I just wasn't accomplishing anything over there." To me, this anger seems badly mis-aimed. What does she think, that the Walton family is living in some hidden room in the back of the store, in the utmost frugality, and likely to be ruined by $21 worth of wasted labor? I'm starting in on that theme when she suddenly dives behind the rack that separates the place where we're standing, in the Jordache/No Boundaries section, from the Faded Glory region. Worried that I may have offended her somehow, I follow right behind. "Howard," she whispers. "Didn't you see him come by? We're not allowed to talk to each other, you know." footnote 11 "During your career with Wal-Mart, you may be cross-trained in other departments in your facility. This will challenge you in new areas, and help you be a well-rounded Associate" ("Wal-Mart Associate Handbook," p. 18). 181 "The point is our time is so cheap they don't care if we waste it," I continue, aware even as I speak that this isn't true, otherwise why would they be constantly monitoring us for "time theft"? But I sputter on: "That's what's so insulting." Of course, in this outburst of militance I am completely not noticing the context— two women of mature years, two very hardworking women, as it happens, dodging behind a clothing rack to avoid a twenty-six-year-old management twerp. That's not even worth commenting on. Alyssa is another target for my crusade. When she returns to check yet again on that $7 polo, she finds a stain on it. What could she get off for that? I think 10 percent, and if you add in the 10 percent employee discount, we'd be down to $5.60. I'm trying to negotiate a 20 percent price reduction with the fitting room lady when— rotten luck!— Howard shows up and announces that there are no reductions and no employee discounts on clearanced items. Those are the rules. Alyssa looks crushed, and I tell her, when Howard's out of sight, that there's something wrong when you're not paid enough to buy a Wal-Mart shirt, a clearanced Wal-Mart shirt with a stain on it. "I hear you," she says, and admits Wal-Mart isn't working for her either, if the goal is to make a living. Then I get a little reckless. When an associate meeting is announced over the loudspeaker that afternoon, I decide to go, although most of my coworkers stay put. I don't understand the purpose of these meetings, which occur every three days or so and consist largely of attendance taking, unless it's Howard's way of showing us that there's only one of him compared to so many of us. I'm just happy to have a few minutes to sit down or, in this case, perch on some fertilizer bags since we're meeting in lawn and garden today, and chat with whoever shows up, 182 today a gal from the optical department. She's better coifed and made up than most of us female associates— forced to take the job because of a recent divorce, she tells me, and sorry now that she's found out how crummy the health insurance is. There follows a long story about preexisting conditions and deductibles and her COBRA running out. I listen vacantly because, like most of the other people in my orientation group, I hadn't opted for the health insurance— the employee contribution seemed too high. "You know what we need here?" I finally respond. "We need a union." There it is, the word is out. Maybe if I hadn't been feeling so footsore I wouldn't have said it, and I probably wouldn't have said it either if we were allowed to say "hell" and "damn" now and then or, better yet, "shit." But no one has outright banned the word union and right now it's the most potent couple of syllables at hand. "We need something," she responds. After that, there's nothing to stop me. I'm on a mission now: Raise the questions! Plant the seeds! Breaks finally have a purpose beyond getting off my feet. There are hundreds of workers here— I never do find out how many— and sooner or later I'll meet them all. I reject the break room for this purpose because the TV inhibits conversation, and for all I know that's what it's supposed to do. Better to go outdoors to the fenced-in smoking area in front of the store. Smokers, in smoke-free America, are more likely to be rebels; at least that was true at The Maids, where the nonsmokers waited silently in the office for work to begin, while the smokers out on the sidewalk would be having a raucous old time. Besides, you can always start the ball rolling by asking for a light, which I have to do anyway when the wind is up. The next question is, "What department are you in?" followed by, "How long have you worked here?"— 183 from which it's an obvious segue to the business at hand. Almost everyone is eager to talk, and I soon become a walking repository of complaints. No one gets paid overtime at Wal-Mart, I'm told, though there's often pressure to work it. Many feel the health insurance isn't worth paying for. There's a lot of frustration over schedules, especially in the case of the evangelical lady who can never get Sunday morning off, no matter how much she pleads. And always there are the gripes about managers: the one who is known for sending new hires home in tears, the one who takes a ruler and knocks everything off what he regards as a messy shelf, so you have to pick it up off the floor and start over. footnote 12 Wal-Mart employees have sued the retail chain for unpaid overtime in four states— West Virginia, New Mexico, Oregon, and Colorado. The plaintiffs allege that they were pressured to work overtime and that the company then erased the overtime hours from their time records. Two of the West Virginia plaintiffs, who had been promoted to management positions before leaving Wal-Mart, said they had participated in altering time records to conceal overtime work. Instead of paying time and a half for overtime work, the company would reward workers with "desired schedule changes, promotions and other benefits," while workers who refused the unpaid overtime were "threatened with write-ups, demotions, reduced work schedules or docked pay" (Lawrence Messina, "Former Wal-Mart Workers File Overtime Suit in Harrison County," Charleston Gazette, January 24, 1999). In New Mexico, a suit by 110 Wal-Mart employees was settled in 1998 when the company agreed to pay for the overtime ("Wal-Mart Agrees to Resolve Pay Dispute," Albuquerque Journal, July 16, 1998). In an e-mail to me, Wal-Mart spokesman William Wertz stated that "it is Wal-Mart's policy to compensate its employees fairly for their work and to comply fully with all federal and state wage and hour requirements." Sometimes, I discover, my favorite subject, which is the abysmal rate of pay, seems to be a painful one. Stan, for example, a twenty-something fellow with wildly misaligned teeth, is so eager to talk that he fairly pounces on the seat next to mine on a bench in the smoking area. But when the subject 184 arrives at wages, his face falls. The idea, see, was that he would go to school (he names a two-year technical school) while he worked, but the work cut into studying too much, so he had to drop out and now . . . He stares at the butt-strewed ground, perhaps seeing an eternity in appliances unfold before him. I suggest that what we need is a union, but from the look on his face I might as well have said gumballs or Prozac. Yeah, maybe he'll go over and apply at Media One, where a friend works and the wages are higher . . . Try school again, umm .. . At the other extreme, there are people like Marlene. I am sitting out there talking to a doll-like blonde whom I had taken for a high school student but who, it turns out, has been working full-time since November and is fretting over whether she can afford to buy a car. Marlene comes out for her break, lights a cigarette, and emphatically seconds my opinion of Wal-Mart wages. "They talk about having spirit," she says, referring to management, "but they don't give us any reason to have any spirit." In her view, Wal-Mart would rather just keep hiring new people than treating the ones it has decently. You can see for yourself there's a dozen new people coming in for orientation every day— which is true. Wal-Mart's appetite for human flesh is insatiable; we've even been urged to recruit any Kmart employees we may happen to know. They don't care that they've trained you or anything, Marlene goes on, they can always get someone else if you complain. Emboldened by her vehemence, I risk the red-hot word again. "I know this goes against the whole Wal-Mart philosophy, but we could use a union here." She grins, so I push on: "It's not just about money, it's about dignity." She nods fiercely, lighting a second cigarette from her first. Put that woman on the organizing committee at once, 1 direct my imaginary coconspirators as I leave. 185 All right, I'm not a union organizer anymore than I'm Wal-Mart "management material," as Isabelle has hinted. In fact, I don't share the belief, held by many union staffers, that unionization would be a panacea. Sure, almost any old union would boost wages and straighten out some backbones here, but I know that even the most energetic and democratic unions bear careful watching by their members. The truth, which I can't avoid acknowledging when I'm in those vast, desertlike stretches between afternoon breaks, is that I'm just amusing myself, and in what seems like a pretty harmless way. Someone has to puncture the prevailing fiction that we're a "family" here, we "associates" and our "servant leaders," held together solely by our commitment to the "guests." After all, you'd need a lot stronger word than dysfunctional to describe a family where a few people get to eat at the table while the rest— the "associates" and all the dark-skinned seamstresses and factory workers worldwide who make the things we sell— lick up the drippings from the floor: psychotic would be closer to the mark. And someone has to flush out the mysterious "we" lurking in the "our" in the "Our people make the difference" statement we wear on our backs. It might as well be me because I have nothing to lose, less than nothing, in fact. For each day that I fail to find cheaper quarters, which is every day now, I am spending $49.95 for the privilege of putting clothes away at Wal-Mart. footnote 13 In 1996, the National Labor Committee Education Fund in Support of Worker and Human Rights in Central America revealed that some Kathie Lee clothes were being sewn by children as young as twelve in a sweatshop in Honduras. TV personality Kathie Lee Gifford, the owner of the Kathie Lee line, tearfully denied the charges on the air but later promised to give up her dependence on sweatshops. 186 At this rate, I'll have burned through the rest of the $1,200 I've allotted for my life in Minneapolis in less than a week. I could use some amusement. I have been discovering a great truth about low-wage work and probably a lot of medium-wage work, too— that nothing happens, or rather the same thing always happens, which amounts, day after day, to nothing. This law doesn't apply so strictly to the service jobs I've held so far. In waitressing, you always have new customers to study; even housecleaning offers the day's parade of houses to explore. But here— well, you know what I do and how it gets undone and how I just start all over and do it again. How did I think I was going to survive in a factory, where each minute is identical to the next one, and not just each day? There will be no crises here, except perhaps in the pre-Christmas rush. There will be no "Code M," meaning "hostage situation," and probably no Code F or T (I'm guessing on these letters, which I didn't write down during my note taking at orientation and which may be a company secret anyway), meaning fire or tornado— no opportunities for courage or extraordinary achievement or sudden evacuations of the store. Those breaking-news moments when a disgruntled former employee shoots up the place or a bunch of people get crushed in an avalanche of piled-up stock are one-in-a-million events. What my life holds is carts— full ones, then empty ones, then full ones again. You could get old pretty fast here. In fact, time does funny things when there are no little surprises to mark it off into memorable chunks, and I sense that I'm already several years older than I was when I started. In the one full-length mirror in ladies' wear, a medium-tall figure is hunched over a cart, her face pinched in absurd concentration— surely not me. How long before I'm as gray as Ellie, as cranky as Rhoda, as shriveled as Isabelle? 187 When even a high-sodium fast-food diet can't keep me from needing to pee every hour, and my feet are putting some podiatrist's kid through college? Yes, I know that any day now I'm going to return to the variety and drama of my real, Barbara Ehrenreich life. But this fact sustains me only in the way that, say, the prospect of heaven cheers a terminally ill person: it's nice to know, but it isn't much help from moment to moment. What you don't necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you're actually selling is your life. Then something happens, not to me and not at Wal-Mart but with dazzling implications nonetheless. It's a banner headline in the Star Tribune: 1,450 hotel workers, members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, strike nine local hotels. A business writer in the Pioneer Press, commenting on this plus a Teamsters' strike at the Pepsi-Cola bottling plant and a march by workers demanding union recognition at a St. Paul meatpacking plant, rubs his eyes and asks, "What's going on here?" When I arrive for work that day I salvage the newspaper from the trash can just outside the store entrance— which isn't difficult because the trash can is overflowing as usual and I don't have to dig down very far. Then I march that newspaper back to the break room, where I leave it face up on a table, in case anyone's missed the headline. This new role— bearer of really big news !— makes me feel busy and important. At ladies', I relate the news to Melissa, adding that the hotel workers already earn over a dollar an hour more than we do and that that hasn't stopped them from striking for more. She blinks a few times, considering, then Isabelle comes up and announces that the regional manager will be visiting our store tomorrow, so everything has to be "zoned to the nth degree." The day is upon us. 188 I have a lot more on my mind than the challenge of organizing the Faded Glory jeans shelves. At about six I'm supposed to call two motels charging only $40 a day, where something may have opened up, but I realize I've left the phone numbers in the car. I don't want to use up any breaks fetching them— not today, with the strike news to talk about. Do I dare engage in some major time theft? And how can I get out without Isabelle noticing? She's already caught me folding the jeans the wrong way— you do them in thirds, with the ankles on the inside, not on the outside— and has come by to check a second time. It is, of all people, Howard who provides me with an out, suddenly appearing at my side to inform me that I'm way behind in my CBLs. New employees are supposed to make their way through the CBL training modules by leaving the floor with the permission of their supervisors, and I had been doing so in a halfhearted way— getting through cardboard-box opening, pallet loading, and trash compacting— until the program jammed. Now it's been fixed, he says, and I'm to get back to the computer immediately. This gets me out of ladies' but puts me a lot farther from the store exit. I apply myself to a module in which Sam Walton waxes manic about the perpetual inventory system, then I cautiously get up from the computer to see if Howard is anywhere around. Good, the way is clear. I am walking purposefully toward the front of the store when I catch sight of him walking in the same direction, about one hundred feet to my left. I dart into shoes, emerging to see him still moving in a path parallel to mine. I dodge him again by going into bras, then tacking right to the far side of ladies'. I've seen this kind of thing in the movies, where the good guy eludes the bad one in some kind of complicated public space, but I never imagined doing it myself. 189 Back in the store with the numbers in my vest pocket, I decide to steal a few more minutes and make my calls on company time from the pay phone near layaway. The first motel doesn't answer, which is not uncommon in your low-rate places. On a whim I call Caroline to see if she's on strike: no, not her hotel. But she laughs as she tells me that last night on the TV news she saw a manager from the hotel where she used to work. He's a white guy who'd enjoyed reminding her that she was the first African American to be hired for anything above a housekeeping job and here he was on TV, reduced to pushing a broom while the regular broom pushers walked the picket line. I'm dialing the second motel when Howard reappears. Why aren't I at the computer? he wants to know, giving me his signature hate smile. "Break," I say, flashing him what is known to primatologists as a "fear grin"— half teeth baring and half grimace. If you're going to steal, you better be prepared to lie. He can find out in a minute, of course, by checking to see if I'm actually punched out. I could be written up, banished to bras, called in for a talking-to by a deeply disappointed Roberta. But the second motel has no room for another few days, which means that, for purely financial reasons, my career at Wal-Mart is about to come to a sudden end anyway. When Melissa is getting ready to leave work at six, I tell her I'm quitting, possibly the next day. Well then, she thinks she'll be going too, because she doesn't want to work here without me. We both look at the floor. I understand that this is not a confession of love, just a practical consideration. You don't want to work with people who can't hold up their end or whom you don't like being with, and you don't want to keep readjusting to new ones. We exchange addresses, including my real and permanent one. I tell her about the book I'm working 190 on and she nods, not particularly surprised, and says she hopes she hasn't said "too many bad things about Wal-Mart." I assure her that she hasn't and that she'll be well disguised anyway. Then she tells me she's been thinking about it, and $7 an hour isn't enough for how hard we work after all, and she's going to apply at a plastics factory where she hopes she can get $9. At ten that night I go to the break room for my final break, too footsore to walk out to the smoking area, and sit down with my feet up on the bench. My earlier break, the one I'd committed so many crimes to preserve, had been a complete bust, with no other human around but a management-level woman from accounting. I have that late-shift shut-in feeling that there's no world beyond the doors, no problem greater than the mystery items remaining at the bottom of my cart. There's only one other person in the break room anyway, a white woman of maybe thirty, watching TV, and I don't have the energy to start a conversation, even with the rich topic of the strike at hand. And then, by the grace of the God who dictated the Sermon on the Mount to Jesus, who watches over Melissa and sparrows everywhere, the TV picks up on the local news and the news is about the strike. A picketer with a little boy tells the camera, "This is for my son. I'm doing this for my son." Senator Paul Wellstone is standing there too. He shakes the boy's hand, and says, "You should be proud of your father." At this my sole companion jumps up, grinning, and waves a fist in the air at the TV set. I give her the rapid two-index-fingers-pointing-down signal that means "Here! Us! We could do that too!" She bounds over to where I'm sitting— if I were feeling peppier I would have gone over to her— leans into my face, and says, "Damn right!" I don't know whether it's my feet or the fact 191 that she said "damn," or what, but I find myself tearing up. She talks well past my legal break time and possibly hers— about her daughter, how she's sick of working long hours and never getting enough time with her, and what does this lead to anyway, when you can't make enough to save? I still think we could have done something, she and I, if I could have afforded to work at Wal-Mart a little longer.