In 2001, writer and activist Barbara Ehrenreich went undercover as a low-wage worker for her book Nickel and Dimed, which became famous for its portrayal of the incredible difficulties faced by Americans working minimum wage jobs. Ehrenreich’s newest book, Living with a Wild God (it came out on April 8), chronicles Ehrenreich’s search for the meaning of mystical experiences she had as a child (despite the fact that she identifies as an atheist today). Earlier today, she took to Reddit’s Ask Me Anything subreddit to talk about her new book, minimum wage, and her love of libraries.
In the AMA, Ehrenreich discussed her conviction that minimum wage is nowhere near a living wage, adding that the situation has only deteriorated further since the publication of Nickel and Dimed more than a decade ago. She also spoke fervently about her love of libraries, and the challenge of comparing her own mystical experiences with others’ in writing Living with a Wild God.
On writing about mystical experiences, including her own: “You know, it’s really, really hard to compare so-called mystical experiences. That’s a vague term. But I immersed myself in reading about anything I could find, and I read, for example, some of the Christian mystics. I’m not a Christian myself (I’m not a mystic, either), but if you peeled away the theological layers they put over things, sometimes I would have a sense of recognition. There are also other sorts of people who have written experiences, one of them being the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. He wrote an entire book—more than an entire book—after this experience he had; he wrote about it again, and again.
And I could feel a similarity there. How can I really know somebody else’s subjective experience is similar to mine? I came to understand that this was not an experience unique to me; it’s fairly widespread—one estimate and god only knows what this means, a Pew study found 34% of the American public reporting they had mystical or religious experiences. The content of those experiences, who knows, but we don’t talk about these things. Nobody talks about them.
Just as I’ve written this book, I’ve had people I’ve known for decades come up and say, ‘Me too, but I never spoke about it.’ It’s like a big taboo, and a lot of people go around thinking they might be a little bit nuts, not knowing what to do with this. And this made me think well, I’ve got to come out.”
On her best and worst jobs while writing Nickel and Dimed: “Hm. Well, my best job (if I put it that way): There were things I really liked about waitressing, which I’d done in real life, and even about the nursing home job, because they involve direct service for other people. The jobs that were the most hateful were Wal-Mart and the job as a housecleaner, as a maid with a housekeeping service, because physically it was the most demanding. Really, it was the kind of job that created injuries in very young women, which I found appalling (like, early-20s women already had knee, back, etc. problems).
The other thing that was painful to me was, we were cleaning usually quite rich people’s homes, and the women I was working with on my team for the day often weren’t getting enough to eat. It made me really, really angry. Of course, the people whose houses we were cleaning wouldn’t offer us anything. We weren’t allowed to eat or even drink water while we were in a house. I once broke that rule when a homeowner did offer me a glass of water, seeing how drenched in sweat I was. Mostly the homeowners were either not home, or completely indifferent to us, as if we were invisible.”
On how trying to replicate the Nickel and Dimedexperiment would play out today: “Oh, I couldn’t have done it. I couldn’t have done it for one big reason: that it’s harder to get even the kind of jobs I worked in forNickel and Dimed. At the time that I was doing the work, around 2000, there was a so-called labor shortage. All sorts of big companies, like big box stores, etc. had signs saying NOW HIRING or HELP WANTED so I could walk in off the street, ask for an application form, and sometimes get a job (not every time, and I had to be a little aggressive sometimes). But it’s just not the same.”
On how many tacos she can eat in one sitting: “I’m afraid I’ll never be a professional taco-eating contestant. Probably, depending on the size of the tacos and how good they are? I’ve had tacos from trucks in Los Angeles that I could destroy quite a few of. But the tacos at Chipotle don’t work for me. Maybe two.”
On the importance of libraries: “Libraries are desperately important. One or two little exceptions of time in my life, I have not had a job that’s allowed me to use a library (I’ve not been an academic). I’ve been very dependent on public libraries. And I am desperately concerned about the conditions of our libraries. I was in the Cambridge Library last night, in Cambridge, MA, where I gave a talk and signed books, and the librarian was telling me how funds had been cut so much for the library that they were way understaffed and she has ended up doing manual labor in the library because they don’t have enough staff.
She said, ‘Whatever it takes,’ because it is very important. And they are even more important for poorer people because it may be their only way to have access to computers. I’ve known homeless people who spend enormous amounts of time using public library computers. If you want to apply for anything, from the Affordable Care Act to a job, you have to use a computer, and you hope the library is open.”