LIVING IN BOOTSTRAP AMERICA

hand-to-mouth

This is a book just out that I just finished reading and needed to blog about. I’ve read many books about people living at or below the poverty line, subsisting on tips or minimum wage when they had a job. I’ve never read one written by such a person and its author, Linda Tirado, is such a person and she is a very good writer who describes life on the economic margins with biting wit and a lot of insight. I am not a celebrity who lives a cloistered life. I’ve marched in picket lines and spoken at rallies alongside poor people. I’ve slept on the floors of many a working class family I was organizing with or when I was researching films like “The Dollmaker” and “Nine to Five” (of course that was back when my joints and bones were more forgiving.) But I learned a lot from Tirado’s book, stuff rich people need to know; stuff that conservative, anti-food-stamps and TANF types need to know. Really. I’m writing this blog in the hopes that it will motivate you to read it — especially people of the latter ilk.

I’ve been interested in the whole issue of restaurant workers who live on tips and how incredibly hard their lives are. I’ve heard women speak who work with the Restaurant Opportunity Center which addresses issues of wages and sexual harassment (from customers as well as employers) which waitresses endure–women who live so hand-to-mouth they dare not complain for fear of losing their jobs. I follow the amazing successes of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE). As “Modern Family” actor Ed O’Neill recently said at a LAANE dinner, “Any group that can raise wages for tens of thousands of hotel workers and truck drivers and airport workers is doing something right.” I pay attention to these things. But I realized reading “Hand to Mouth” how much I didn’t know, hadn’t even thought of.

Below are a few among the many passages worth repeating from the book:

“If you feel that something must be done before the villagers find their pitchforks, here is what you can do: Stop being a dick to service workers whenever possible. Start filling out those stupid surveys when someone’s done their job well, because they really do make us get a quota of them. Stop pretending you’re doing us a favor or performing some high moral duty by refusing to tip. And start admitting that you need us as much as we need you.”

“Next time you see someone [she’s talking here about waitresses] being “sullen” or “rude”, try being nice to them. It’s likely you’ll be the first person to do so in hours. Alternatively, ask them an intelligent question. I used to come alive when someone legitimately wanted to know what I’d recommend”

“During World War II, we had government-sponsored day care facilities. It was generally acknowledged that single-parent households, which the families left behind by the soldiers were, needed extra support. Maybe, and this is just a thought, we could do that again. Child-care crisis solved. Plus it’s another jobs program.”

“I do not see a difference, the way some people do, in the federal money. Whether you are getting your benefits in the form of SNAP cards or deductions, it’s the same thing….The one difference? Rich people get way more from the government than poor people do—see above-mentioned mortgage interest, capital gains, light inheritance tax, retirement savings breaks, subsidies—but the poor are the only ones getting shamed for it.”

Plus, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote the Foreword.

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16 Comments
  1. The difference between rich and poor is a tenuous one. I’ve worked hard all my life but it has been a rich one…mostly one rich in laughter, loving what I do despite having to worry about where the next paycheck will be best used. I have friends on both sides of the spectrum…who is happier? I think when one respects him or herself and tries to make others equals, there is a leveling of economic difference. I was fortunate enough to have been able to trek the Himalayas and one thing that hit me hard was that through extreme poverty and living hand to mouth, the Sherpas I stayed with didn’t distinguish between yours and mine…everything was “ours”. Perhaps if we Americans uses “our” more often…
    Kudos to you, Jane, for all your accomplishments, your finding peace with who you were and are and for the paying it forward. I had the great fortune to be called, “my good friend, Erica” by your dad many years ago after I was given the “job” as his guide around a small Midwestern town when he was performing with Andre Previn. He loved you so very much and was such a gentleman!

  2. Hello Jane. Thanks for this review – sounds like an important book. Anything endorsed by both Barbara Ehrenreich and yourself has gotta be worth picking up!

    While I am here, just want to say that I have been a great fan of your films since I saw Cat Ballou at age 7. You have also been an inspiration in terms of my politics and feminism. I just recently read your autobiography – a great read! So thoughtful, analytical, funny, and psychologically astute.

    Finally – how awesome to see you back on the big and small screens – you are one of the greats!

    With respect!
    Lisa

  3. I downloaded a copy onto my iPad. I will read it. Thank you.

  4. lady jane..
    you and lily are so wierdly powerful!
    love the skit …love the red dress …love the lessons….you rock!

  5. I just ordered it. Thank you for the recommendation.

  6. My Mother was a waitress her entire life. She retired when she was 78 and couldn’t carry the heavy trays anymore. After she quit, she missed it every day until she died. I remember rubbing her sore feet as she told me stories about her customers; good and bad. When I was old enough, (not really, I was 12) I went to work with her and washed dishes in the back. I remember staff and customers would tell me how much they loved her and what a great woman she was. I was proud she was my Mom.

    One night she rushed in the back with a tear in her eye. Everyone asked her what was wrong. They had to pry it out of her — a wealthy customer had drank a little too much and had pinched her. I remember the entire staff including the manger rushing out to that man and calling him out and demanding he apologize…which he did. He later became one of her best customers and highest tippers. He realized what a good woman she was, how hard she worked and what a jerk he had been.

    My Mom used to say everybody needed to do at least a short stint in the food service industry so they would really understand what it meant to deal with the public when some of them are on their worst behavior. I took her advice and I learned more about life and people in that job then I ever thought imaginable. I am always very respectful to anyone working in a restaurant. They have one tough job!

    • Andrew, your mother’s story reminded me of what I’ve heard a lot from waitresses: when they called a customer out for inappropriate things like pinching or trying to grab or fondle, that customer ofter became the best tipper later on.

  7. I’ve often told a friend and/or an acquaintance that is unsure about someone new in their life to watch how they treat waiters and waitresses because sooner or later that’s how they are going to treat you.
    In with this, I’m so stunned about the cutting of so many much-needed programs to help our fellow citizens. And, we’ve all needed a helping hand, now and again, in life.

    • Yes, Daniel, I once broke up with a guy because of the way he treated waiters.

  8. Hi Jane
    I just watched ‘This is where I leave you’ on my break on my flight to Seoul. Hilarious. Absolutely loved it. You had some shocking lines and you did it superbly. I forfeited my two hour sleep break in order to watch it and it was worth every minute. I could go on and on about it, but I won’t.
    take care
    Jason

  9. In my opinion this life is pure misery. Either way you got things or you got nothing we are pathetic and poor sad puppets.

  10. I’ve been meaning to read this; I appreciate this post because it’s reminded me to get the book. Many, many people—far too many—are living paycheck to paycheck and are one medical emergency or major car repair (if they have a car) from disaster. A very few are doing well, the rest get by are or drowning. This ultimately serves no one.

    Forty years of income inequality in America in graphs:
    http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2014/10/02/349863761/40-years-of-income-inequality-in-america-in-graphs

  11. Ms. Fonda,

    Wonderful post! I should know, as I’ve survived now for 20-plus years as a server, while also — in the wee hours of night and morning — being a writer. In a way, one feeds the other. No pun intended. Or maybe, now that I think about it, pun intended (ha ha). I’m able to serve others and offer them a pleasant experience; I have a means by which I can make money so that my family and I can survive (it’s challenging and can be tenuous and filled with anxiety, but you go on as best you can); and I have this wonderful opportunity to observe the human condition (the good and the bad) in action, which is essential for one who creates characters and the stories in which they exist. One can learn much from serving others. It’s akin to watching human nature unfold before your eyes in a sense that is both literal and subtextual.

    The one thing I don’t like is the sexual objectification that occurs far too often. In fact, the only time I refused to serve a table was when I encountered a party of male customers were speaking inappropriately about some of the female servers, many of whom were my friends. I was lucky to be raised by a woman who taught me how important it is to respect my fellow human beings. And when I see others treated rudely, my spine turns to iron and my sense of calling others out on their willful ignorance jolts to the fore. Therefore, on this particular occasion, I told my manager, “You know I’m not one to neglect my duty, but I cannot be around those guys. If I am, I’m going to have to say something about their repulsive behavior, and I don’t think you want that to happen.”

    Despite that, serving can be satisfying. Which isn’t to say it’s the easiest way for one to make a living. I’m not complaining, understand. But it is challenging when you have a pittance for a wage and must therefore rely on tips in order to pay the bills. There are sacrifices you have to make if you want to keep a roof over your own and your loved ones’ heads, as well as food on the table. As for health insurance… Well, it isn’t easy. Even if you have it, you can hardly use it. For example, I have insurance (though not through work; what is offered there is not what one could call in any way a good plan), but even for that, resulting medical bills can be the difference between eating or not eating, having a place to call home and not having a place to call home. So what you do is, you manage the best way you can to survive. You hope you don’t fall ill. For if you do, you’re out of work for however many days you’re infectious, which means you’re not making tips, which means you’re bank account is going to suffer. Paid sick leave? It’s not an option.

    I will offer another example, one with which I am currently living. Back in the early ’90s, I had to have two of my wisdom teeth removed. They had to be excised surgically. One tooth was lying close to a nerve; said tooth had to be broken into pieces and plucked from my jaw bone. As I’m not one who reacts well to anesthesia, I was awake during the procedure. I was numb, of course, and though I’m not squeamish, I can say it was rather an intense experience. My surgeon wore spectacles in addition to goggles, and the light reflected in such a way that what was happening inside my mouth was reflected in the goggles’ lenses. Quite an experience.

    After the surgery, my surgeon told me that I might well in the future encounter more trouble. The reason? The nerve in question sustained some damage, and in time, a domino effect could occur in which the nerves of my other teeth would be affected.

    Long story short, that time has arrived. I now have more teeth in my mouth shattering or in the process thereof than I do healthy, whole teeth. Now, I’m not going to lie about it: It pisses me off. Especially since I am diligent when it comes to hygiene. But apparently such diligence does not buy one time, nor does it allow one to live without pain.

    For the past four months, I have had to enforce a diet which includes only soft foods. The shattering has now begun to occur to teeth near the front of my mouth. If I’m not extremely cautious, those teeth will shatter to the degree that it could affect my job, for the shattering will become visible. And one has to look presentable in order to be a server.

    As a result, the act of eating has become painful and one to which I must apply stamina and effort. It’s a gauntlet I have to run three times a day (and sometimes I’m unable even to manage that). I’ve lost and continue to lose a lot of weight as a result of this (not a good thing for an adult male who’s never tipped the scales above 140). I also have to contend with moments during which I become lightheaded (I just breathe and focus, and I wait for the episodes to pass).

    It’s not something I discuss with others much, and as for those with whom I do discuss it (mainly my family), I smooth over the degree and severity of the pain with which I’m living. To get a night’s sleep is something I would dream about were I able to get a night’s sleep!

    I’m not crying or complaining about it; I know there are others who have greater pain and obstacles to face than I do. But it is challenging and (yes) scary. It is also annoying that while I have insurance, I can’t utilize it, for even with payment plans, the price of getting my teeth fixed is far, far more than I am able to afford. The choice I’m facing is a simple one: Get the work done, and try to pay for it with what money I have, which won’t even begin to cover the resulting bills; or use what money I do have so that my family may continue to have shelter, food, and clothing. That’s it in a nutshell, and bluntly put, my family comes before me. It’s just the way I’m hard-wired. Also, it’s expected of me, I think. (I’ve always been the “strong one” in my family, or so others think. I haven’t the heart to tell them otherwise, as they depend on me.)

    And forgoing conceit, I’m a damned good server. My managers reiterate to me how happy they are that I am part of the team. According to them, I have the most return guests and complimentary cards and letters mailed to corporate. Which is satisfying. I do it not only to pay the bills, but because I genuinely enjoy guiding others through a pleasant dining experience. It’s wonderful to have an opportunity to brighten others’ days and evenings, to let them know I care about them. And I do care about them. I am sincere, and they recognize that. It’s the reason I believe we exist on this planet: to serve and to help others. And I’ve made some wonderful friends with the people whom I’ve served over the years. As E.M. Forster wrote: “Only connect.” And I believe in that. Without question.

    But I do wonder if some day soon I will no longer have the pleasure of doing a job that has value and provides me with an opportunity to do my small part in making the world a brighter, happier place — which, in turn, makes my world a brighter, happier place. For when you treat people well and you see them smile, sometimes even shaking your hand and asking if they can give you a hug (I always respond, “Yes. I’d like that very much”), you know you are doing something of worth.

    Of course, that doesn’t stop me from feeling as though I’m treading water. I have a screenplay that is currently making the rounds in Los Angeles, and the hope to which I’m holding steadfastly is that it gets optioned so that I may 1) Get my teeth fixed (and say good-bye to the pain and hello to food and health and nights of uninterrupted sleep!), and 2) Buy my mother a small, nice house in which she may live and finally be able to call her own. Well, and 3) Buy my mother the pet she’s always wanted: an English Bulldog whose name will be B.B.

    As for serving, I’d like to continue to do it as long as it is feasible. I’m not speaking boastfully, but I’m good at what I do, and I enjoy it. As I’ve said, I’ve made some wonderful friends. It’s a great job to have if you like people and care about them, you know?

    As always, all my best and…

    Warm regards,

    John

  12. I survive off of $733 per month ( I used to raise 2 disabled girls), I have lost my car; because I couldn’t afford the payments, my rent is $682, one of the girls passed away in February hence only $733 per month. Through my life I have always worked doing hair or secretarial work. Raising the 2 girls both of which are too old for daycare, leaves a BIG hole. In 2009 I spoke to congress on the need for safe and affordable daycare for the State of Montana. There are so many things wrong with our government, thinking about it really scares me. I have never understood the govt. taking away benefits if you make money. Or why food that is good for you is more expensive than crappy processed foods. Or why the subsidized apartments don’t have food gardens available to residents to work at and use. I just really don’t see a way out of it.

    • I totally hear you, Karyn. We have to TOTALLY change our whole economic system and governing philosophy: unregulated, global capitalism and unchecked growth. Enough is enough and if we don’t get it and make the changes soon it will be at the planets and humanity’s peril.

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