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Nickel and Dimed – Excerpt from Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

by Barbara Ehrenreich

This fall in Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theater, Naked Eye Theatre Company will be presenting Joan Holden's adaptation of essayist and cultural critic Barbara Ehrenreich's look at the working poor, called Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. With some 12 million women being pushed into the labor market by welfare reform, Ehrenrieich did what millions of Americans do – she looked for a job and a place to live, trying to make ends meet. The following is an excerpt from that compelling work. Sunday I at last move into the Blue Haven, so pleased to be out of the (Motel) 6 that the shortcomings of my new home seem minor, even, at first, endearing. It's smaller than I had recalled, for one thing, since a tool shed used by the motel owners takes up part of my cottage space, and this leads to a certain unfortunate blending of the biological functions. With the toilet less than four feet from the tiny kitchen table, I have to close the bathroom door or I feel like I'm eating in a latrine, and the fact that the head of the bed is about seven feet from the stove means that the flounder I fry up for my housewarming dinner lingers all night. Frying is pretty much all I can do, since the kitchen equipment is limited to a frying pan, a plate, a small bowl, a coffeemaker, and one large drinking glass—without even a proverbial pot to pee in. The idea is improvisation: the foil containers that come from salad bars can be reused as dishes; the lone plate becomes a cutting board. The concavity in the center of the bed is rectified by sleeping on a folded–up towel, and so forth. Not to worry—I have an address, two jobs, and a Rent–A–Wreck. The anxiety that gripped me those first few days at the 6 is finally beginning to ebb. As it turns out, the mere fact of having a unit to myself makes me an aristocrat within the Blue Haven community. The other long–term residents, whom I encounter at the communal laundry shed, are blue–collar people with uniforms and overalls to wash, and generally quiet at night. Mostly they are couples with children, much like the white working–class people occasionally glimpsed on sitcoms, only, unlike their TV counterparts, my neighbors are crowded three or four into an efficiency, or at most a one–bedroom, apartment. One young guy asks which unit I'm in and then tells me he used to live in that very same one himself—along with two friends…. I am rested and ready for anything when I arrive at The Maid's office suite Monday at 7:30AM. I know nothing about cleaning services like this one, which, according to the brochure I am given, has over three hundred franchises nationwide, and most of what I know about domestics in general comes from nineteenth–century British novels and Upstairs, Downstairs… But I have no idea, of course, just how far down these stairs will take me. Excerpted from Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, pp. 69–71. Reprinted by permission from Henry Holt and Company. Committed to the principle of ensemble performance through the collaboration of a company of actors, directors and designers, Steppenwolf Theater Company's mission is to advance the vitality and diversity of American theater by nurturing artists, encouraging repeatable creative relationships, and contributing new works to the national canon. The company, formed in 1976 by a collective of actors, is dedicated to perpetuating an ethic of mutual respect and the development of artists through on–going group work. Steppenwolf has grown into an internationally renowned company of thirty–four artists whose talents include acting, directing, playwriting, filmmaking, and textual adaptation. Steppenwolf Theatre Company 1650 N. Halsted Street Chicago, IL 60614 Box office: 312–335–1650 *