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Book Review: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado

December 1, 2014

Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap AmericaHand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are people in the United States who can aptly described as whiners. Such people attack the poor for receiving government assistance toward which the average taxpayer puts about $41 a year while ignoring the government assistance given to major corporations, for which the average taxpayer pays over $4,000 a year. Linda Tirado is not a whiner.

Nor am I a whiner. I get cyberbullied regularly for refusing to take a burger flipper job when I have a master’s degree, scoliosis, L4-L5-S1 herniated discs, neurogenic bladder, sciatica in both legs, and plantar fasciitis in both feet. It is very painful for me to stand, and the longer I stand the worse it gets. I use a cane any time I expect to stand more than an hour. If I stand 3-4 hours, I have uncontrollable back spasms and have to grab whatever is nearest me to keep form falling down. I also have to go to the bathroom at least once an hour, and that’s with medication to keep it under control. Social Security says I can do a desk job, and Binder and Binder won’t help me unless I bring in (false) documentation that I can’t.

[W]e work in insane conditions. Dangerous even. Most kitchens in the middle of summer are intolerable, with temperatures well into the triple digits. I’ve seen people sent to the hospital with heatstroke. A lot of us will run into the freezer for a few minutes until we cool down. I’m not a doctor and can’t say for sure, but I’m fairly certain that going from an overheated to a minus-5 environment can’t be healthy.

My arms and hands are covered in scars from the fryers. Oil at nearly 400 degrees doesn’t tickle when it hits your skin, and you can’t avoid the splatter entirely. I’ve burned my hands because the oven gloves had worn through and the owners were too cheap to spring for another pair. I’ve sliced my fingers nearly to the bone when knives have slipped. I’ve dropped equipment on my feet because it was so busy I didn’t have time to wash the grease from my hands. I’ve hurt myself in more ways than I can count because that was how I got my seven or eight bucks an hour.

Stuff like that is unavoidable; it’s the nature of the work. We know and understand that when we take the jobs. Any dangerous job is like that; we’re not stupid. The point is more that the risk is devalued–that our injuries, rather than being seen as the sign of our willingness to literally bleed for our employers, are seen as a liability. (15-16)

People who think such a strenuous job should not receive a living wage are mildly perverse. Unlike many of my colleagues in the People’s Power Assembly, I won’t be upset when McDonald’s rolls out its automated burger flippers, so that it can’t be lorded over me as a job possibility anymore. (See my review of Paul Lafargue‘s
The Right to Be Lazy
for the part about Antiparos and the Greek millers.) People who think someone in my condition and with my education should do such a job are depraved filth. Such people deserve to be forced to do this kind of work with nails in their shoes and being randomly smacked at the base of their spine with a golf club while over the French fryer. Barring that, they should be beaten and mugged on a daily basis. This is not bloodlust on my part. This is the Golden Rule taken to its logical extreme since there is no way to give others my exact medical condition, nor would it be ethical. As a non-violent person, my preference for such people is that they be locked in padded cells for the rest of their lives. The point of this book is that even if you do such a job at minimum wage, you’re always too poor, and regularly punished for your employer’s lack of accountability.

For example, on pp. 19-20, because these low wage employers don’t want to finalize your schedule until the last possible moment, it is common to be fired for taking a second job. Thus, those who tell people to work two or more low wage jobs have no real argument.

Unlike Tirado, I am not a college dropout, do not smoke, drink, have casual sex, or get tattooed. Tirado ended the college route when she realized that the good jobs were going to those who could take the unpaid internships that she couldn’t afford. I question this based on an article in The Atlantic showing that it’s really only the paid internships that do this. I was not allowed to have a paid internship because I was attending on student loans.

[P]eople still wonder why we, working at the bottom, aren’t putting our souls into our jobs. In turn, I wonder about people who think that those who are poor shouldn’t demand reciprocity from their employers. We should devote ourselves to something that doesn’t benefit us more than it absolutely has to? We’re meant to care about their best interests, but they don’t have to care about ours? If you’re going to put as little as possible into my training and wages, you’re going to make sure that I can’t get enough hours to survive in order to avoid giving me health care, and generally make sure that I’m as uncomfortable as possible at any given time just to make sure I know my place, then how can you expect me to care about your profit margin? Remember, you get what you pay for (29-30).

On page 36, she talks about how her dentist attacked her for being a meth addict based solely on the condition of her teeth, which were severely damaged in a car accident. I am regularly cyberbullied about my teeth, and women I know have used it as an excuse not to date me. doctors and dentists all tell me it was discolored by prescription medication. Richard Kang, a pain management specialist at Staten Island University Hospital, thought it was tetracycline, which my mother insists I never took, and Hyun Choi, a dentist at St. Barnabas Hospital, thought it was something my mother took while I was nursing. All agree that veneers are the only option for me, since over the counter whitneners address only surface stains, which is not what I have, yet I am often treated as less than a human being because I cannot afford them, and my teeth may well be keeping me out of the only sort of work I can physically do. Tirado reflects on similar situations–“People treat me like a fucking idiot, as though I am incapable of noticing this rather large problem, rather than incapable of addressing it before it becomes a large problem” (48). This is life under low wage capitalism. Not having the means to do what you know needs to be done is evidence of being paid an insufficient wage, not being stupid. I’m lucky to not have a job in the sense that I qualify for full Medicaid, whcih is important when you have a physical disability (unlike Tirado, I cannot repeatedly lift 50 pounds without throwing out my back in short order). Tirado was not so lucky. “The system can’t support everyone who needs help, and it’s led to a pastiche of half-finished treatments an conflicting diagnoses” (50). Once an insurance shift made getting two stitches removed after an injury an enormous problem that could have led to a serious infection if I hadn’t burdened an emergency room with the problem.

Tirado presents a wonderful vignette on page 50-51. When short on sleep, already, she got home at 10 PM and was asleep by 11. At 5 AM the boss calls and asks her to come in.

He’d been under the impression that when I said, “I’ll be there,” I meant that I’d be using my teleportation device instead of the beater car I had at the time. I blew it off, figuring that he was just in a bad mood. But he simply couldn’t let it go–every time someone complained about this or that setup not being done properly, he said that if only I’d been there on time we’d have made it.

I lost it. Completely. This is the version of what I said I can best remember through my blistering rage: “If you think I’m so goddamned terrible, why did you call me in? Did you not realize I’d been on a fourteen-hour shift on a few miserable hours of sleep? WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, YOU INCOMPETENT FUCKING ASSHOLE?” And I said this all in my outdoor voice. In front of customers. I spent the afternoon looking for work, as I was newly unemployed.

The correct, if unconventional, interpretation of this situation is that Tirado’s job loss was entirely the fault of her employer and his unrealistic expectations. The employer knew she lived half an hour from work and apparently didn’t expect her to shower or put on clean clothes after working fourteen hours and getting only five hours of sleep. Tirado’s response was completely reasonable; her employer’s, completely unreasonable. Her boss fired her for his own incompetence. I’ve been there. It led directly to me becoming homeless.

At this point Tirado gets on the employer demand for a positive attitude. “It doesn’t make sense to hire people at wages that guarantee they’ll be desperate and then be disappointed when they’re not always pretending otherwise” (60). The employers are playing a “blame the victim” game for a problem of their own creation and greed.

I am attacked online on a regular basis for taking SNAP and public assistance, in spite of my disability. As Tirado says, “I have trouble understanding why taking a few grand a year in food stamps is somehow magically different than taking trillions as a bailout. Food stamps cost $76.4 billion for 2013, compared with trillions, possibly hundreds of those, for the banks. And that’s just one instance of handouts to the upper parts of society; it’s not like the feds handed cash to the banks and the rich are otherwise left to muddle alone in the wilderness (84).” “Rich people get way more from the government than poor people do…but the poor are the only ones getting shamed for it. You want to know how I could justify relaxing sometimes while on benefits? The same way you justify blowing a reckless amount of money on a really nice dinner while taking a business deduction because you talked about work for ten minutes” (85). She then discusses the idiocy of the rich complaining about double taxation on dividends because taxes had already been paid on those dollars. Tirado’s argument is irrefutable: “By the same logic, I shouldn’t be asked to pay payroll taxes because my bosses already paid taxes on it, too.” Capital gain is money made for having money. It cannot be reasonably argued that it is unfair to pay taxes on them. They argue that it’s “nothing like unemployment, where an employer pays a tax for every employee, and then if I pull unemployment, I have to pay tax on that as well. But sure, keep thinking that we’ve got all the cushy non-taxation going on down here in the lower classes” (86). It’s fun when you look like a Fox-miseducated idiot in front of those who know better.

Chapter 6 is about how sex among the poor is treated as a horrible sin. Tirado admits to living arrangements with “friends” who required sex as part of the deal. Tirado was supposedly brought up middle class, as I was, but I can’t imagine making such a demand and retaining the friendship. I met a girl on OKCupid whose boyfriend was offered a job in another state before she was ready to go all the way with him. Her only options, financially, were moving in with him, a long-distance relationship, or ending the relationship. She chose to move in with him, and he agreed to not move faster than she was willing, knowing she would dump him and move back in with her parents if he tried anything without her consent. The problem is that many poor people can’t afford that option. My mother certainly doesn’t help. She won’t have me back except as a guest because I try to prevent her from throwing my belongings when she gets enraged, she struggles and gets hurt, and then claims that I’m being abusive, as though she has a right to be violent toward others’ belongings. My introversion probably fuels my idealism in regard to sex (after all, I got matched to the above girl, and we were online friends until the boyfriend she met in real life demanded that she block me), but I can’t help agreeing with Tirado when she discusses slut-shaming people into celibacy. “These are the bodies that hold the brains we’re supposed to shut off all day at work, the same bodies that aren’t important enough to heal. These are the bodies that come with the genitalia that we should be so protective of? I really don’t understand the logic (101). I don’t think a Vulcan could, either. Earlier, she mentions that poor people can’t afford for their bodies to be temples, when she discusses selling her own plasma, something else I’ve never done (91).

One important point is her denunciation of the myth than a significant number of welfare recipients have children to get more benefits. the benefits are so small that it gives you barely enough to support the extra kid, so they’re hardly rolling in money if one or two of them are stupid enough to do this. If anyone does this, it’s not a statistically significant number (120-1). “If you are desperate enough to be breeding for cash benefits, you are for all practical purposes having kids in order to be poor enough for the government to give you a job” (120). It’s like “breaking their legs just to get some lunch,” which is so absurd that Terry Gilliam made a similar joke in Jabberwocky. As someone who is on cash benefits ($20.70 biweekly–Wow! What luxury!), they are pretty impotent to help someone with a physical challenge. They said that the only work they had that fit with the restrictions their own doctor recorded were low-wage customer service jobs that required people bilingue en espagnol, pas de français, ce qui j’ai étudié comme un bon petit americain doux à classe moyenne. (And the only thing I looked up was to see if there might be a different idiom for “middle class,” which there isn’t–I didn’t read Piketty in French; I pretty much restrict that to literary rather than informational works.)

She discusses the controversial concept of payday loans (which I’ve never used): “the reason there are so many payday loan places is that there are so many people whose checks simply will not last a whole pay period unless everything goes perfectly,” (137) which rarely happens. And whose fault is that? The employer. We need to hold employers accountable for paying people so little that they need payday loans.

Then we attack people for working too much and not being able to afford a nanny–“she was talking to the authorities only because she didn’t get paid enough” (124). And whose fault is that? (Say it with me,) THE EMPLOYER, THE EMPLOYER, THE EMPLOYER. Yet we don’t see that sort of thing happen. This is a job for the pre-1943 Superman! (In 1943, Jerry Siegel was ordered by DC Comics to have Superman fight only criminals, not corrupt businessmen who weren’t technically breaking any laws, as he often had before then.)

Then she talks about how hard it is to get a job with bad credit (138). “The real reason poor people have bad credit is that life is more expensive than we can tolerate.” I honestly can’t understand how Tirado can make statements like this and also write “I am not, for all my frustration, opposed to capitalism” (xxii). It makes her look blind to the root of the problem, like all the right-wingers who believe in treating the symptoms while ignoring the cause because it’s more profitable that way. My credit is probably screwed because I had two months left on my lease when I left my apartment, and my former landlord is insisting that I pay it when I’m over $600 below the threshold of what they are legally not allowed to garnish from my account. This will most likely make getting out of homelessness once I have a decent job all that much harder. It’s simply presumptuous and unethical to use a credit check to not give someone a job.

In Chapter 9, she discusses political apathy among the poor, which really irks me, since I vote (even though my candidates never win because I despise both major parties), and have ramped up my political activity since becoming homeless, but she defends it in ways I never could. Still, she has good points, “[W]ealthier people get all exercised about a poor person dropping a cigarette butt on the sidewalk, as if this is proof that poor people just don’t care…When powerful people stick a waste treatment plant in the same poor person’s backyard, does that mean that rich people just don’t care?” She then notes that it’s a self-answering question (157).

Although, perhaps from having been raised middle class and having been homeless only 31 months (all consecutive), I think I’m way too poor to consider having children. Tirado has an excellent chapter in which she discusses that poor people have children for the same reason anyone else does–they want a family that feels complete to them. Tirado didn’t prepare for her apartment to be destroyed by flooding and end up living in a hotel, which happened while she was pregnant with her first child. As she says, planning for disaster is paranoid (112). She also describes how her poverty prevented her from getting proper gynecological care and birth control without horrible side effects (107). She also didn’t want her daughter to be an only child because she didn’t like her experience of being one. These are relatively rational (unwise, but not crazy, as she puts it (118)) reasons to have children, and she details how she accommodates for them in ways many middle class people could not imagine, but now make sense to me, even if I wouldn’t go that route. Laws can be stupid. I once has a homeless co-worker who couldn’t afford housing because her kids were the opposite sex, and Indiana law required them to have separate bedrooms, something normal for me growing up that is hardly universally normal.

Another example of stupidity in the law is when Tirado describes (113-114) how she was punished for not receiving benefits promised by the VA that never arrived, which defies all reasoning, with benefits workers impotent but understanding.

I can’t say that Tirado is a great writer (although she is a good one), so I knocked off one star for that, but she still has gems, such as some of the quotes above. I just wish Barbara Ehrenreich would read my blog (I did contact her about it, starting with the final version of my review of Bait and Switch: The Futile Pursuit of the American Dream, which proved too big for Goodreads.) Perhaps she just hasn’t had time, or perhaps it’s because I’ve chosen the hell of the shelter system to the hell of of low wage, physically draining labor when I have nothing to spare. I conked out of Tuesday night’s march against the Darren Wilson decision after an hour and 43 minutes of hobbling on my cane, during which I fell from the front of the demonstration to the very back. Does anyone really think, if a fast food job didn’t literally kill me, that I would be retained by the employer? Cyberbullies just don’t understand that being denied Social Security disability does not mean that you are not disabled. Because my background as an English major gives my writing a heavier and more proper feel than Tirado’s, or because I refuse to defend capitalism, which hasn’t done anything for me to deserve it, or because I lack Tirado’s vices, I may be seen as less marketable than she is.  I just don’t know.  I do know that my fiction and drama is turned down from only the query letter, so the bulk of my writing has never been read by someone who could boost my career beyond letters of recommendation, which I do have.

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