Struggling to Survive in Hardscrabble America

If you were gobsmacked by Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, you’re going to be triple gobsmacked by Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America. Both books deal with living poor in America, trying to get by on the minimum wage—relying on food stamps, eating poor food, often walking to work to save money—but rarely working enough hours to get any benefits and, thus, usually trying to juggle the conflicting work schedules of two part-time jobs. The difference between the two books is that Ehrenreich, a celebrated writer and journalist, lived that way as an experiment, wrote about what she experienced, and then returned to her comfortable life. Don’t get me wrong. Nickle and Dimed is a brave book, an eye-opening account of what it’s like to try to survive at the bottom of America’s economic pyramid. (I use that term intentionally, since the bottom is huge—and growing—but the top is, well, the one-percent.)

Hand to Mouth is different because being poor is all that Linda Tirado has known as an adult, unless this book helps her escape the straightjacket she’s had wrapped around her for so many years. First, I do not believe that Tirado would agree with that metaphor, because, above all, Hand to Mouth is an account of survival. Second, Ehrenreich wrote the Foreword for Tirado’s book and it’s worth quoting one passage about her own brief period below the poverty line: “What I had not expected was the daily humiliation, the insults and what seemed like mean-spirited tricks. To be poor is to be treated like a criminal, under constant suspicion of drug use and theft. It means having no privacy, since the boss has the legal right to search your belongings for stolen items. It involves being jerked around unaccountably, like the time Wal-Mart suddenly changed my schedule, obliterating the second job I had lined up. It means being ordered to ‘work through’ injuries and illness, like the debilitating rash I once acquired from industrial-strength fluids.”

Repeatedly, Tirado demonstrates a remarkable resilience. Nor is she specifically angry at American capitalism (as I am). But she confesses that if not anger, it’s tiredness that zaps her more than anything else and the sense that she will “never not feel tired.” She starts each day with a sleep deficit. Nor does the awareness that she can be fired at any time (or for any reason) help, or the knowledge that there is no paid time off for illness, which also means no vacation time. So to keep going, what does she do? She smokes, which is a marker of the poor (along with they’re shiftless and lazy), that they waste their money on booze and cigarettes. As she says, “I smoke because it keeps me calm, because it keeps me awake, because it keeps me from feeling hungry, because it gives me five minutes to myself, because it just feels good and I like it.” Smoking is one of the few handtomouthpleasures she has; and it provides her with the necessary jolt to keep on working.

Besides smoking, there are plenty of other accommodations one has to make for living at the bottom. When she’s a service worker (say as a waitress confronting customers), she has to keep smiling, though there may be nothing to smile about. Years of working in kitchens has left her arms and hands covered with scars. “See, we work in insane conditions. Dangerous, even. Most kitchens in the middle of the summer are intolerable, with temperatures well into the triple digits. I’ve seen people sent to the hospital with heatstroke.” Yet she understands that “Money doesn’t buy happiness. It buys ease.”

Mostly, she asks—in a variety of ways—why people have to be so nasty, treat the poor so badly, and that means not simply their employers but people in general. “Downward mobility is like quicksand,” she says, but then throws out a frightening statistic: the “Urban Institute found that half of Americans will experience poverty at some point before they’re sixty-five.” As far as retirement goes, it might just as well be a foreign concept. And about families, the most derogatory assumption is that the poor are assumed to be unfit parents. “Society doesn’t seem to believe that if you are poor you are entitled to be a parent.” Yet her wit keeps her going (certainly throughout this book), “If we don’t keep having kids, who do you think is going to work in tomorrow’s restaurants? Yourkids?” Moreover, she has nothing but pride in her family, especially her children. I’d call her a saint.

It’s sex, however, that Tirado defends so positively, tossing it back into the faces of Puritan (today we use the word Conservative) America. “Being poor is isolating. [There’s] never…time to hang out. Never have the money to do anything, not even to reciprocate a birthday present. You don’t ever have anything new happening….” So there’s only sex. “Sex is fun…. The chemical rush of sex is a great way to forget about your problems for a little while, and…sex is completely free.”

Hand to Mouth is an accidental book. Linda Tirado responded to an on-line forum that asked, “Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?” What she wrote was read by six million people and although her response was called “Why I Make Terrible Decisions,” that title’s not exactly what she demonstrates in her book. Rather, she shows that the poor do not have babies to collect welfare money but procreate for the same reasons that the rich do: for human contact, joy and tenderness, establishing a link with the future. She does ask, however, why men seem to care about women’s bodies only once they are pregnant.

There’s a kind of generosity, then, that permeates Tirado’s observations in Hand to Mouth. In her own words, “I haven’t had it worse than anyone else, that’s kind of the point. This is just what life is for roughly a third of the country. We all handle it in our own ways but we all work in the same jobs, living in the same places, feel the same sense of never quite catching up. We’re not any happier about the exploding welfare rolls than anyone else is, believe me. It’s not like everyone grows up and dreams of working two essentially meaningless jobs while collecting food stamps. It’s just that there aren’t many other options for a lot of people.”

That’s a rather magnificent observation, a bit like Walt Whitman in Song of Myself, reflecting about the country as a whole through one individual’s sensitive analysis. So I ask myself once again, why are people with money so mean, so lacking in empathy?

Linda Tirado: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America

Putnam, 191 pp., $25.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: clarson@american.edu.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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