Jun 11, 2018
They work for Amazon, sell refreshments at spring training games, guard oil fields, and clean toilets in campgrounds. They pick raspberries, apples, and blueberries and work the sugar beet harvest. Yet they have no permanent homes. These are the “houseless” – mostly elderly people living in their R.V.s, vans, and fifth wheels – who populate Jessica Bruder’s 2017 Nomadland.
This beautifully written book shows the resourcefulness of the uncounted thousands who can no longer afford permanent homes. Sixty-five-year-old Linda May lives in a 10-foot-long fiberglass trailer she calls the Squeeze Inn. It’s better than living on the couch at her daughter’s overcrowded place. Linda May figures out how to survive from the network of nomads who maintain an internet presence full of crucial advice – where you can safely park without getting hassled by the cops, where to use the bathroom or even take a shower, what jobs might be out there and what they’re like, when and where nomads might meet up for some companionship.
At the same time, this book shows the desperate situation that a growing share of the working class finds itself in. Like most of the nomads we meet, Linda May worked her whole life in many different jobs, as a building inspector, a long-haul trucker, a Home Depot cashier, and a waitress in a casino. But she never got a pension from any of these jobs. And her Social Security check isn’t nearly enough for rent and food. So she is forced to keep working.
And in more and more places across the country, the kinds of jobs that actually exist do not pay enough to afford rent. At the time of her writing, Bruder points out that there was only one metro area in the country where a person working full time could afford a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent.
Some companies like Amazon take advantage of this workforce very consciously. Thousands of workers drive to campgrounds near gigantic warehouses in isolated places around the country to help with Amazon’s Christmas rush for a little more than minimum wage. Workers in their 60s and older do most of this hard physical labor. “Some walk 15 miles on concrete floors, stooping, squatting, reaching and climbing stairs as they scan, sort and box merchandise.” These workers are not beaten down – they laugh about everything from working with incompetent and sometimes dangerous robots, to the incredible variety of sex toys and rubber poop that Amazon sells. Some workers take pride in being like Santa’s elves, but others see their work as being one cog in the world’s biggest, most useless vending machine.
In explaining this situation, Bruder invokes stories of the past, of Okies trekking across the country. But it is also a warning for the future. This is what faces a whole generation of aging workers, as pensions disappear, wages go down, and the cost of housing continues to increase beyond the reach of ordinary people.