The Third Rail Of American Discourse

My new book about working for 27 months as a retail sales associate has been out for two months, and the 40+ amazon reviews are insane — love it, hate it, love it, loathe it.

I’ve been called a princess, racist, slummer, bitter, pretentious, “lazy, lazy, lazy”, elitist and accused, falsely, of despising the very people — my retail co-workers — I say clearly how much I admired.

It’s been an exhausting rollercoaster, with a pendulum of opinion swinging so widely, and wildly, it’s hard to believe.

It took a fellow writer to calm me down, pointing out that “Nickeled and Dimed“, a best-seller from 2001 by Barbara Ehrenreich (to which my book has been compared) is equally provocative and divisive.

Both books are similar in one key respect: middle-class, educated white women — with economic freedom to leave the jobs we described — worked for minimum wage in thankless, difficult, demanding low-status jobs.

Our crime in so doing? Poverty tourism. Slumming it for a book deal, as one WNYC listener commented. We weren’t destitute.

Why did we need to be?

Would this have altered our observations or the accuracy of what we saw and heard?

We’re writers and our goals were the same: find and tell powerful stories that had not been told. The people living these lives, working these jobs, do not have the time, skill or freedom from the shackles of their jobs to tell it as it really is.

I’ve also received extraordinarily personal and heartfelt emails almost every single day since” Malled” appeared:

“Have you been sitting on my shoulder for 23 years?”

“I feel bolstered by your book!”

“I got a raise last year….of 10 cents an hour.”

The filthy secret of American life is economic disparity, the great myth that we are all equal and racing one another along a smooth and level playing field to the equally-accessible goodies of income/home/education/raises/promotions/career success.

Go to college! Work hard! Suck up to your boss! That’ll do it.


The reality is that there is no level playing field. It looks more like a greasy pole, the rich at the top, the poor at the bottom and many of us now, four years into a recession filled with record corporate profits and sluggish hiring, scrambling desperately in between.

Here’s a sobering piece in Mother Jones on how much dough corporations are raking in, and how workers aren’t getting the benefit of their labor.

I think speaking truth to power, despite its putative appeal, makes Americans deeply queasy. What if I somehow wrecked your chances, or your kids’, by being rude to the Guys With The Money?

Bowing and scraping to anyone with a payroll is the new black.

I worked for The North Face, owned by the VF Corporation; in January 2009, our hours were cut because the company could not afford them…then sitting on $382 million in cash. (They just spent it to buy Timberland.)

Look at the WalMart class action lawsuit, thrown out this week, screwing thousands of hardworking women employees out of the hope of justice. Of working a full-time job and not needing food stamps to supplement their wages.

Which is worse — ignoring these behaviors and letting business reporters keep fawning over eight-figure-earning CEOs?

Or have people like me or Ehrenreich try our best to open the door to the creepy, greedy, nasty behaviors that drive so much of this economy?

Either way, millions of workers are being screwed.

Stop Smiling! Pessimists Live Longer (Or Maybe It Just Feels Like It)

Barbara Ehrenreich by David Shankbone, New Yor...
Author Barbara Ehrenreich, looking a little glum.Image via Wikipedia

In her latest book, which got fairly well savaged by The New York Times yesterday, prolific author Barbara Ehrenreich argues against the prevailing American culture of smiley-faced optimism, urging readers instead toward “vigilant realism.”

Her larger point — Americans have been hornswoggled into really believing they stand a good shot at their pursuit of happiness, even with six people now competing for every available job.

As someone who moved to the U.S. from Canada, from a smaller, more dour crowd into a sea of the perpetually, somewhat exhaustingly upbeat,  I’ve always found this relentless optimism a little puzzling. Up north, we don’t expect everything to be OK and much of Canadian culture supports this somewhat fatalistic point of view: it’s a lot harder to sue someone, awards are smaller and if you lose your case, you’ll probably pay court costs. So you might be bitterly disappointed that your prom date ditched you at the last minute — to name one American lawsuit that struck me as extremely bizarre — but you can’t haul their ass into court to make yourself feel better.

“Suck it up” might be our real motto instead of the Latin, literal “Ad Mare Usque Ad Mare” (From Sea to Sea, which is geographically accurate, if a little dull) Long, dark, bitterly cold winters, lower salaries and higher taxes remind Canadians that life isn’t all skittles and beer, nor are we raised to expect it to be. So, if a business person is sent to prison, say for malfeasance, they don’t really think they’ll come roaring back to the wide-open embrace of Wall Street.

Call us sourpusses, but sometimes I prefer that more measured outlook — Ehrenreich’s book cites a study suggesting a darker worldview is healthier long-term than optimism because pessimists take fewer risks and are less likely to fall into depression when things don’t work out.

Maybe it’s time to make Eeyore your mascot instead.

Breast Cancer: Too Many Doctors, Too Little Communication — But Smile, Honey!

Washington, UNITED STATES: A breast cancer sur...
Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

Any woman hoping to avoid breast cancer knows mammograms are an essential part of that effort. Yes, they’re uncomfortable  — (OK, squishing your breast flat between two plates of glass is not a laugh riot) — and, if you don’t have health insurance, you’ll have to pay for them. As someone whose mother had a mastectomy, (and is fine more than a decade later), I had my baseline mammo at 35 and am careful to have one every year. Once you’ve had it, though, your results can be wrong, delayed or mis-read, a potentially fatal error.

In the U.S., a medical world filled with the most arcane of specialties, there is none devoted exclusively to breast health and care. Today’s New York Times has a powerful and fascinating op-ed about why this is so.

“Given the haphazard growth in medical specialties and varied training programs for obstetrician-gynecologists. it is no surprise that there is a mismatch between patient needs and caregiver skills. Campaigns to raise awareness of breast cancer must do more than push for a cure. They must also seek to improve the way we organize care for those who suffer from this illness.”

Today’s Times also has a profile of author Barbara Ehrenreich who, when she got breast cancer, was really pissed off to discover how much peer and social pressure women face, once diagnosed, to “be positive.” She wrote and sold a book about it, but most women don’t have that outlet for their outrage. Whatever a woman is feeling, it’s her body, heart and mind. Let her feel it. It’s cancer, already!