Ehrenreich begins her experiment in Key West, Florida, where she finds an efficiency apartment for $500 a month. As Ehrenreich applies for numerous jobs, she learns about the low-wage-job application process. These applications involve many multiple-choice questions and a urine test. When she does not hear back from any of the jobs after three days, she begrudgingly applies for a waitressing position. Ehrenreich is hired by the “Hearthside,” which, like the names of those she meets along the way, has been changed. Ehrenreich will work at the Hearthside for two weeks from 2:00 in the evening until 10:00 at night for $2.43 an hour, plus tips. Gail trains Ehrenreich on the ins and outs of waitressing; Ehrenreich feels supremely incapable and incompetent. Ehrenreich gets to know some of the regular customers and feels compelled to do the best job possible. Ehrenreich bonds with her coworkers and comes to like many of them.
During her time in the restaurant business, Ehrenreich comes to despise management. She finds that while she must constantly be working, doing anything at all but sitting still, her supervisors are able to sit for hours on end. Managers and assistant managers are to make sure the restaurant makes money; they frequently lack compassion for their employees and for customers. Ehrenreich’s other complaint about the restaurant business is that the pay is not financially viable. She offers a survey of each of the non-management employees and shows how they are barely able to survive on their incomes and how most of them will not be able to continue financially for very long.
Ehrenreich uncovers the special costs that the poor encounter. She notes that if you cannot afford the security deposit for an apartment, you are forced to live in a hotel--which is ultimately more costly. If you have only a room, you cannot save money by cooking nutritious, cheap food. If you have no health insurance, you end up with significant and costly health problems. After two weeks, Ehrenreich realizes she will have to get a second job.
Ehrenreich picks up a second waitressing job at Jerry’s. Jerry’s is a disaster: the kitchen is a mess, the bathroom in inadequately equipped, and there is no break room because there are no breaks. Ehrenreich is unable to work at both the Hearthside and Jerry’s, so she quits the Hearthside because she will be able to make more money at Jerry’s.
Ehrenreich decides to move closer to Key West to save gas money. She moves into a small and uncomfortable trailer in a trailer park. At Jerry’s, Ehrenreich experiences the numerous problems that arise between employees and the workplace. The bar becomes off-limits because a waitress becomes impaired. Another time, a Dishwasher is accused of stealing.
After a month of waitressing, Ehrenreich gets a housekeeping job in a hotel. At the job she makes $6.10 an hour, but only lasts for one day. Ehrenreich spends her day with Carlie, who is responsible for training her. As they move from room to room, they watch soap operas on television. That afternoon at Jerry’s, Ehrenreich has a particularly awful day. She has four tables with some demanding customers; she is tired and sleep deprived. When Joy yells at her, Ehrenreich decides to leave. She does not quit or ask permission; she just leaves. Ehrenreich turns her trailer over to Gail and says goodbye to Key West.
Notes - In this chapter, Ehrenreich begins to experience first-hand what it is like to live on low wages. Although she is not “really” a low-wage worker, she realizes there is not much difference between someone who is pretending to live as a waitress and someone who is waitressing. She experiences exhaustion and the aches and pains that come with being on her feet all day long. She becomes a first-hand witness to those whose lives truly are desperate because of their financially situations.
Ehrenreich is engaging in ethnographic research for this book, which, in loose terms, means she is undertaking fieldwork in order to make observations about human cultures, or human activities. Anthropology, the discipline perhaps most familiar with ethnography, raises questions about the “participant-observer.” The participant-observer is someone who is part of a community while simultaneously attempting to observe the community. There are various problems that might arise from this situation, including losing scientific (or academic) objectivity. The reader should consider that Ehrenreich seems to become personally invested in some of people she is observing. One might consider how her role as participant-observer affects her evaluation of those she meets, particularly the management versus non-management.