Ehrenreich chooses Minnesota at whim. After some internet-based research, she is convinced that there will be a comfortable correspondence between rent and wages. Upon arriving in the Twin Cities area, Ehrenreich goes to a friend’s apartment, where she will stay for a few days until she is settled. Her friend is out of town; Ehrenreich is in charge of caring for the friend’s bird.
Ehrenreich wants a new profession while in Minnesota. She thinks she would like retail or factory work. After applying to various Wal-Marts as a divorced housewife re-entering the work force, Ehrenreich realizes that she is unlikely to get hired based on her application alone. From a pay phone in the front of a Wal-Mart, she phones personnel and speaks with Roberta, who tells her that she can offer her a job right as soon as she takes a “survey.” Roberta tells Ehrenreich that she has gotten three answers wrong and they must discuss them further. Ehrenreich is able to account for her answers but is worried about the drug test she must take because of a recent “chemical indiscretion.”
Next, Ehrenreich applies for employment at Menard’s housewares store. Here, she must take another personality test. After a brief interview, she is told that if she passes the drug test, she can work in plumbing at $8.50 an hour. That weekend, Ehrenreich buys some detox products from GNC in preparation for her impending drug test. That weekend Ehrenreich meets her friend’s aunt, Caroline, a woman who really is living a low-wage life. Caroline, who is barely scraping by, is officially middle-class because she and her husband make close to $40,000 a year. Caroline tells Ehrenreich her story, which involves numerous moves with children in tow. Caroline says she always found a church first because people there will help you find the services you need as well as a job. Many times, Caroline was homeless; other times she became very ill. When Ehrenreich has to leave, Caroline gives her homemade chicken stew to take with her.
When Ehrenreich goes for her drug test, she thinks about all the time that applying for a job requires. One must complete an application, an interview, and a drug test. The drug test alone takes almost two hours. With high gas prices and the cost of a babysitter for someone with children, finding a job is expensive. Ehrenreich continues the job hunt. She goes for a group interview at an environmental consulting firm, where she is relieved to hear nothing about making people’s lives better (unlike at Wal-Mart, where managers urge employees to think of themselves as humanitarians). However, there is no job for her at Mountain Air after all. Ehrenreich finally finds an apartment at the Clear view Inn; the housing market was much more expensive that she anticipated.
Ehrenreich is called back to Menard’s for orientation. She feels a little overwhelmed in the plumbing department; however, she is shocked to learn that her salary will be $10 an hour. She also goes to Wal-Mart’s orientation, which is scheduled to take 8 hours. Ehrenreich can hardly absorb all the information they give her, and her mind wanders during orientation. Ehrenreich is feeling sleep-deprived and trying to decide if she will work at both stores, or just at Menard’s because of the higher wages. She calls Menard’s to confirm the time she must go in and is told that she will not be making $10 an hour as she was promised. She is angry that they want her to work eleven hours without time and a half. At Wal-Mart, she will only be making $7 an hour, but she decides not to take the job at Menard’s.
Ehrenreich’s room at the Clearview is on the first floor, to her dismay. She thinks the $245 per week rent is too high, and notes that it is more than she will make after taxes at Wal-Mart. However, she hopes to find a weekend job, which should cover the difference. Once she is settled in her room, Ehrenreich becomes nervous about her safety in this new place. She is right off the highway with a curtain that you can see through from the outside. One day she comes home from work to learn she is required to switch rooms because of a sewage problem.
Ehrenreich is placed in ladies’ wear at Wal-Mart and works with Melissa, who is also new. Much of the job involves memorizing the outline of the store so she knows where to return clothes. However, Ehrenreich soon learns that the layout is subject to change. She develops an odd habit of picking at her clothing; although she consciously tries to stop. When Ehrenreich’s shift changes from 10:00 until 6:00 to 2:00 until 11:00, she wonders how she can strategically place her fifteen minute breaks, which will feel much more urgent. Meanwhile, Ehrenreich gets better at her job, but begins to hate the customers.