Barbara begins her project near her real home, in Key West, Florida. She first attempts to find a place to live, assuming that if she can earn $7 per hour, she can afford to spend $500-600 in rent and still have $400-500 for food and gas. In Key West, this means she is looking at trailer homes like the one fifteen minutes from town without air-conditioning or a television—but at $675 a month, it’s too much.
By beginning her project near her real home, Barbara learns first-hand how one city can hold multiple worlds and realities depending on one’s economic situation. Key West for the poor is a place where even trailer parks are too extravagant for minimum-wage work.
Barbara admits Key West is expensive, but notes that like New York City, the Bay Area, or Boston, tourists and the wealthy are competing with the people who serve them. So she makes a choice many low-wage workers must make between affordability and convenience, and chooses a $500-per-month trailer thirty miles up the highway—a forty-five minute drive. It’s a depressing drive, but the place is a quaint kind of cabin in the backyard of her landlord’s convertible mobile home.
One of Barbara’s advantages is having a car, but she makes clear that low-wage workers must cling to any advantage they have, as that advantage often serves as compensation for other disadvantages. One of these is living in a tourist area, where the power and resources of the wealthy mean that the poor are relegated by the cost and availability of housing to ever farther and unpleasant living quarters.
Barbara looks through want ads, hoping to avoid certain jobs, like waitressing, because she remembers how tired it made her as an eighteen-year-old. She’s left with supermarket jobs and housekeeping. She fills out application forms at various supermarkets and hotels. At Winn-Dixie, she has a twenty-minute computer “interview” (ensuring that the corporate point of view is represented) and is left to wait in a room with posters warning about the ways union organizers will try to trick you. The interview asks if she has any problems that might make it difficult to get to work on time, how many dollars’ worth of stolen goods she’s purchased in the last year, and if she would turn in a fellow employee caught stealing.
Tests and “interviews” like the one Barbara fills out at Winn-Dixie will turn out to be a key element of applying for any low-wage work. Questions like those Barbara mentions show how these tests are looking for employees who are obedient, dutiful, and honest to the point of putting the company before fellow employees; the question about stolen goods additionally reveals how companies inherently distrust their potential employees, which Barbara will show is part of a broader atmosphere of corporate suspicion of low-wage workers.
Barbara is told to go to a doctor’s office the next day for a urine test: drug testing is a general rule for low-wage work, she discovers. She thinks the $6-an-hour wage is not enough to compensate for such an indignity. She has lunch at Wendy’s, an unlimited Mexican meal for $4.99, and fills out an application form to work there, also for around $6 an hour.
At this point, Barbara still feels like she has enough options to be able to turn down work in order to conserve her dignity (an idea she will be forced to give up later). Neither of these jobs even reach the low $7 threshold she had calculated.
At one hotel, Barbara notices that the housekeepers look like her, “faded ex-hippie types” with long hair in braids. No one talks to her except to offer an application form. At another Bed & Breakfast a man tells her there are no jobs but to check back soon, since no one lasts more than a few weeks.
The atmosphere Barbara paints here is a generally downtrodden one. High turnover is one major symptom of low-wage work, since such workers are constantly in an economically precarious situation. The turnover is not because of laziness, but because continuing in a job is impossible.
No one calls Barbara back for three days, and she realizes that the want ads do not necessarily mean jobs are available: they are how employers account for the constant turnover in the low-wage workforce. She has to simply be flexible enough to take whatever is being offered, which finally happens at a discount chain hotel. She goes there for a housekeeping job and instead is sent to apply for a waitress job at the dingy attached “family restaurant.”
Barbara is faced directly with the link between low-wage work and high turnover, and begins to understand that this environment means that she cannot be picky with her job—“choosing” a career is a privilege for the wealthier. Though she has negative memories of waitressing as a teenager, she ends up having to accept such a job.
The manager, a young West Indian named Phillip, interviews Barbara without much interest, mainly wanting to know what shifts she can work. He tells her to show up the next day in black pants and black shoes—he’ll provide the polo shirt embroidered with “Hearthside” (the name she’s made up for this place).
Unlike the corporate computer interview, this one seeks not to weed out individuality but merely to fill in an empty labor slot on the calendar. With her uniform provided, Barbara is officially a part of the low-wage workforce.
Barbara works there for two weeks from 2pm until 10pm for $2.43 an hour plus tips (a footnote explains that employers are legally allowed to pay less than minimum wage as long as the wage plus tips equals minimum wage per hour—but Barbara never heard this law mentioned or explained to her).
Barbara’s footnote suggests that some people may be making even less than minimum wage due to the sneaky evasion of employers. Waitressing wages are particularly vulnerable to shifts based on the economy, the tourist season, and even things as simple as customers’ moods.
When Barbara arrives, a red-faced, long-haired man is throwing frozen steaks against the wall and cursing: the middle-aged waitress named Gail assigned to train her says that that’s just Billy, the cook. Gail mixes pieces of instruction with personal confidences, like the fact that she misses her boyfriend who was killed in a prison fight a few months ago—he was only in prison for a few DUIs, she explains.
Immediately, Barbara is thrust into an environment that’s rough around the edges, from Gail’s boyfriend’s legal troubles to Billy’s wild behavior. Ehrenreich has a talent for making these coworkers come to life, especially when she befriends some of them to make it through the days.
As she learns about the job, Barbara no longer fears being overqualified—instead, she misses being simply competent. While she understands the procedural aspects of writing, as a waitress she simply has to deal with requests from all sides. She has to master the touch-screen computer-ordering system, and must take up her non-serving time in invisible “side work,” from sweeping and scrubbing to restocking in order to be ready for the 6pm dinner rush.
Transitioning from a desk job to waitressing, Barbara is humbled to find that “unskilled” work is far more difficult that she’d thought, and hardly devoid of skill. By detailing the variety of skills that, in fact, she needs to employ, Barbara punctures another stereotype of low-wage labor.
Barbara is surprised to realize how much she cares about doing good work—a philosophy given to her from her father, who pulled himself up from the copper mines of Butte to the Northeastern suburbs. When she wakes up in the middle of the night, she thinks not of her missed writing deadlines but of the table where she screwed up a kid’s order. She’s had the “service ethic” kick in, making her want to serve the customers, who are working locals like truck drivers, as if they’re in a fine dining establishment. There’s a sewer repairman who relaxes in the air-conditioning for a half hour before eating. There are German tourists who actually tip when Barbara uses her basic German—Europeans, coming from high-wage “welfare states,” often do not know they are supposed to tip.
As she mentioned in the introduction, Barbara is not entirely a stranger to low-wage labor, given her father’s mining history and her own childhood spent climbing the rungs of the economic ladder. By humanizing her customers (even the Europeans who don’t know they’re supposed to tip), Barbara adds a more relationship-oriented dimension to her job. This is helped by the fact that many of the customers are far from middle- or upper-class themselves, so Barbara can feel a certain solidarity as she helps them enjoy their time off.
Barbara and other servers are indulgent to customers, often sneaking on a higher amount of croutons than the amount mandated by management (six). Gail uses her own tip money to buy biscuits and gravy for an out-of-work mechanic. They use their small pieces of autonomy in assembling the salads and desserts and giving dollops of sour cream and butter. Barbara suggests that American obesity is due at least in part to the fact that waitresses show their humanity, and earn their tips, through these kinds of covert extras.
Barbara is not the only one to lend the job a more human dimension by flouting the rigid corporate rules that dictate everything up to the last detail (number of croutons). Barbara shows that this tendency is a natural one, probably among many service workers, and adds a hint of her characteristic humor to make her point.
Ten days in, it seems like a livable lifestyle. Barbara likes Gail and Lionel, the teenaged busboy from Haiti, as well as the older Haitian dishwashers. She especially likes Joan, the hostess, who is a feminist and tells Barbara that they women have to stick together. Joan stands up to Billy after he curses the female servers. Barbara finishes up by 10pm or 10:30, gets to bed by 1:30 or 2am, is up by 9 or 10am, reads while she waits for her uniform to be washed, and heads back out.
After a week or two on the job, what Barbara most enjoys and remembers is her relationship with her coworkers—another example of solidarity in a sometimes hostile environment. Nevertheless, her hour-by-hour description of her days shows how monotonous such labor can be, especially given her long commute.
What makes this lifestyle far less sustainable is the management: the constant surveillance for signs of laziness, theft, or drug abuse. In the restaurant business, managers are often former cooks, and don’t make that much more money, but are now firmly on the side of making money for the corporation—a theoretical entity which is based far away. Managers try to prevent any downtime, meaning that Barbara drags out little chores so as not to be exhausted during slow periods. On one slow day, Stu catches her glancing at a USA Today and assigns her to vacuum the entire floor with the broken vacuum cleaner, which can only be done on her hands and knees.
Barbara learns for the first time what will become a common theme: the contrast between the experience of individual workers and the priorities of the corporation. Corporations, as we’ll see, have certain priorities in common, including efficiency, suspicion of their employees, and an emphasis on the bottom line. These priorities trickle down even to managers who used to be on the other side, leading to unpleasantness for the workers who bear the brunt of such obsessions.
At her first mandatory employee meeting, Phillip complains about the messiness of the break room, reminds them that their lockers can be searched at any time, and says that gossip among the employees must stop. Four days later, they are all brought into the kitchen at 3:30 p.m., and Phillip announces that there’s been some “drug activity” on the night shift. Now, all new hires will be tested, and current employees could be subject to random drug tests. Barbara finds herself blushing: she hasn’t been treated with such suspicion and felt so ashamed since junior high.
Again, these are several concrete examples of the ways in which corporate rhetoric can demean and embarrass employees, as well as treat them like potential enemies or even drones. They lack basic rights like privacy or free speech, and are subjected to humiliating random drug tests. That Barbara hasn’t received such treatment for years reminds us how different middle- and upper-class workers are treated.
Some start to gossip that Stu, who has been in a worse mood than usual, is to blame. Barbara is ready not to trust him, since he doesn’t seem to have a clear role and he has tried to get into Barbara’s good graces by complaining about Haitians taking over the country.
There are various levels in the hierarchy of Hearthside, and while Stu exerts control over the waitresses, he can also be subjected to the needs and suspicion of the corporation.
Housing is the top source of difficulty in most of her coworkers’ lives. Barbara learns that Gail is sharing a room in a flophouse (a cheap boarding house) for $250 a week, and though her male roommate has started hitting on her, she can’t afford the rent alone. A Haitian cook shares a two-room apartment with his girlfriend and two other people. A breakfast server pays $170 a week for a one-person trailer with her boyfriend. The wealthiest of them is Billy, who makes $10 an hour and pays the $400 per month lot fee on the trailer that he owns. Joan lives in a van parked behind a shopping center and showers at a friend’s.
As part of her experiment, Barbara will seek to supplement her own experiences with those of the people she works with and sees around her. Here, she concentrates on housing, which is generally precarious (trailers, boarding rooms) and usually far from ideal—though this often depends, again, on comparative advantages like owning a trailer or being a native English speaker (the Haitian servers seem to have the most crowded situation).
For Barbara, some of these living arrangements don’t seem to make sense. Gail tells her she is thinking of escaping from her roommate by moving into the Days Inn. Barbara is shocked that she’d be paying $40-60 per day, but Gail is similarly shocked that Barbara would think Gail could afford a month’s rent and a month’s deposit for an apartment, even if the apartment might cost less long-term. Barbara had allotted herself $1,300 for start-up costs, so she could afford to pay for a deposit.
In the introduction, Barbara had made clear that not every aspect of her project would be authentic—the fact that she began with over $1,000 was one of them. Gail, for instance, is forced into a wildly inefficient economic situation just because she doesn’t have enough existing money to put down a deposit on an apartment and therefore save more over time.
There are no secret economies or tricks for the poor, Barbara realizes: if you can’t afford a deposit, you end up spending far more for a room by the week. If you only have a room, you can’t cook big portions of food to freeze for the rest of the week—instead, you eat fast food or convenience store food, which is more expensive and unhealthier. Without health insurance (which, at the Hearthside, kicks in only after three months) you pay the price for the lack of routine care. Gail ran out of money for estrogen pills, and the Hearthside health insurance company said they lost her application form, so now she has to spend $9 per pill until they complete her paperwork.
Barbara’s conversation with Gail leads to an important realization about the economics of poverty, in which inefficiency reigns. She gives various examples—housing, food, and health insurance—all of which add up mainly because the working poor simply can’t afford to be smart about money. Some of these examples, like Gail’s pills, initially seem like trifles, comparatively unimportant, but as Barbara shows, even something small can balloon into a crisis when there isn’t a large margin for error. The fact that the housing market and other aspects of the economy seem to be set up in such a way that the poor are blocked from acting in the most cost-efficient ways is one of Barbara’s realizations in her experiment. It’s not that the poor are dumb or lazy; it’s that the system is stacked against them.
Barbara’s tips usually cover her meals and gas, with a little bit left over. But as the tourist business slows, her tips go down and her wage amounts to about minimum wage or $5.15 per hour. She will be $100 short by the end of the month. She makes her lunch every day, and eats dinner at the Hearthside for $2. She’ll have to find a second or alternative job.
After the first few weeks, what had seemed like a sustainable situation suddenly turns unsustainable, though due to circumstances beyond Barbara’s control. Yet, again, this is another of Barbara’s realizations: that being poor is like living on a knife’s edge, and that even minor shifts or things totally out of your control can completely transform your situation. The poor, in other words, have no buffer to protect them.
Barbara starts making the rounds again at hotels. Almost all the working housekeepers she sees are African Americans, Spanish-speaking, or Central European refugees, while servers are almost all white and native English speakers. Her search leads her to Jerry’s (not the real name, and part of a national hotel/restaurant chain) which, like the Hearthside, offers her a job as a server rather than housekeeper. Jerry’s has about four times as many customers as Hearthside does—she accepts.
Barbara is realizing that the color of her skin will impact the kinds of jobs she’s offered—though she had applied for housekeeping jobs, she’s shunted towards waitressing, and given her precarious finances she has to accept whatever she’s offered. Jerry’s higher volume means that she’ll probably make more money, but also that this job will be far more demanding.
Jerry’s only seems to offer artery-clogging meals, which come from a massive kitchen above the grimy, foul-smelling garbage and dishwashing area. Sinks are clogged with food, and counters are sticky with spills. Servers use their hands for everything, even though there’s often no soap in the bathroom. There is no break room since there are no breaks for the six- to eight-hour shifts. Almost everyone smokes constantly, from the servers and cooks to dishwashers. Often customers come fifty at a time from their tour buses. Rarely does Barbara have time for conversation with fellow servers or customers.
Barbara paints a vivid and extremely distasteful portrait of Jerry’s, or at least the side of it that remains unknown to customers. By doing so, Barbara gives readers a glimpse into what goes into the meals that they may casually enjoy at a restaurant like Jerry’s. The lack of breaks, the sudden flooding of the restaurant by tour buses, and the inability to develop relationships with servers or customers further make the place a far from ideal work environment.
For two days, Barbara manages to work both the breakfast/lunch shift at Jerry’s and the later shift at the Hearthside. But when she finally has a chance to sit down and eat something, Stu yells at her. She tells Gail she’s just going to quit. Gail, in turn, tells her excitedly that Phillip is letting her park overnight in the hotel parking lot and sleep in her truck.
Though Barbara had needed to supplement her income, now that it turns out working both these jobs is unsustainable, she sticks with the higher earnings (though greater unpleasantness) of Jerry’s. Barbara is unimpressed with Phillip’s “generousness,” which seems to keep Gail in a still-precarious housing situation. That Gail is pleased by it details just how much the expectations of the poor can be lowered by their experiences.
Barbara finds she can only survive at Jerry’s by treating each shift as a one-time-only emergency. She starts to be in constant pain, and takes four ibuprofens before each shift to deal with spasms in her upper back. In her regular life, she’d take a day off with ice packs and resting, but can’t afford to do that now.
This is the first of many examples of self-medication and emergency, unofficial treatment, which Barbara will show is a common element of low-wage work, since such labor is often physically grueling, and because the workers often can’t afford and aren’t provided with real health insurance.
Barbara does take breaks sometimes, but increasingly her old life seems strange and distant, her emails and messages from people with odd worries and too much time on their hands.
Just as low-wage workers are often invisible to the upper classes, their jobs seeming strange and different, the reverse is also true, showing how foreign the two worlds are.
Management is generally calmer at Jerry’s, except for the manager, Joy, whose moods vary wildly within a shift. On Barbara’s third night, Joy pulls Barbara aside abruptly only to tell her she’s doing fine, except she’s spending too much time chatting with customers and is letting them “run her” or ask for too many minor changes in their orders. Barbara feels chastened. She realizes that she doesn’t get to express a positive service ethic like the college servers at the fancy downtown restaurants. Her job is just to move orders between the tables and kitchen, and customer requests are just interruptions to this transformation of food into money. Barbara actually starts to see the customers this way, against her will. The worst, she says, are the “Visible Christians,” who are needy and difficult and then leave a $1 tip on a $92 bill.
Like Phillip, Joy is able to exert an inordinate influence over her subordinates, not only regulating how they act but also how they feel. Just as she did at Phillip’s break room meeting, Barbara feels psychologically put down. With the efficiency needs of management always winning out, there’s no place or time for her to develop individual relationships with other people, rather than being simply a drone whose role is to serve management as efficiently as possible. Barbara shows how this mentality can become an entire world view, which she describes through the humorous example of certain, especially bad-tipping customers.
Barbara makes friends with the other “girls” on her shift, including the fiftyish Lucy, who limps towards the end of the shift because something has gone wrong with her leg, which she can’t figure out without health insurance. They talk about all the usual girl things, though not potentially expensive topics like shopping or movies. No one is homeless, usually thanks to a working husband or boyfriend, and they tend to support each other if someone’s feeling sick or overwhelmed.
Eventually, Barbara is able to develop relationships with her coworkers, which she again uses as an opportunity to learn more about the various difficulties faced by the low-wage workforce. Her examples show that her coworkers are entirely normal people, whose problems lie, once again, in areas like health insurance and housing. As they do within the job, they find ways of supporting each other outside work as well.
Barbara’s favorite is George, the 19-year-old Czech dishwasher who has been in the States for one week. When she suggests he grab a cigarette from someone’s pack lying on a table, he is appalled. Barbara tries to teach him a little English, and learns that he is paid $5 an hour not by Jerry’s but by the “agent” who brought him over, with the other dollar of his salary going to the agent. He shares an apartment with other Czech dishwashers and can only sleep when one of them leaves for a shift and a vacant bed is left.
Barbara writes fondly about George, who is not only a pleasant person to work with but also an example of how low-wage workers can easily be exploited, especially if they’re further disadvantaged by their ethnicity, lack of English language skills, or immigration status. Other elements of survival like housing become even more precarious and miserable when compounded by these disadvantages.
Barbara decides to move closer to Key West, because gas is costing $4-5 per day, and tips at Jerry’s average only 10 percent, meaning that she’s averaging about $7.50 an hour. She also had to spend $30 on tan slacks, the uniform, far out of her budget.
In order to make her budget work, Barbara constantly has to recalculate her wages, expenses, and extras like the uniform she had to buy, all of which means that she might have to change housing situations on a dime.
Everyone who doesn’t have a working husband or boyfriend seems to have a second job, from telemarketing to welding. Barbara thinks she can get a second job if she doesn’t have a forty-five minute commute, so she takes her $500 deposit, the $400 she’s earned, and her $200 for emergencies, and pays the $1,100 rent and deposit on a trailer in Key West. It is eight feet in width and a few yards from a liquor store, bar, and Burger King. The park has a reputation for crime and crack, but it is mostly quiet and desolate, filled with other working people.
Though working two jobs at Jerry’s and the Hearthside didn’t work, Barbara thinks she can join the majority of her coworkers working two jobs even if she has to pay more for a trailer closer to home. This trailer park is far from idyllic, but it seems to be occupied mainly by those in a similar situation to Barbara, which shows how broadly her own circumstances and ability to pay can be applied.
At Jerry’s, an announcement on the computers used for inputting orders states that the hotel bar is now off-limits to restaurant employees, due to a twenty-three-year-old who had snuck out one morning and returned to the floor tipsy. Everyone feels the chill and suspicion. The next day, the dry-storage room is locked for the first time: Vic, the assistant manager, says that one of the dishwashers was trying to steal something, and he has to keep him around until Vic finds a replacement. He’s talking about George.
This incident only serves to exacerbate the atmosphere of suspicion and distrust between management and employees. With regard to George, this atmosphere touches Barbara personally for the first time. She’s seen first-hand how honest George is (from his horror at the idea of taking a coworker’s cigarette). The locked room becomes another emblem of suspicion.
Barbara wishes she could say she stood up to Vic and insisted George be given a translator, or that he’s honest. But she admits that she’s been infected with a new caution and cowardice, and worries that in a month or two she might have turned George in.
This example shows how the constant pressures of a job like Barbara’s can affect even someone’s personality, making him or her more frightened and pliable and, in the eyes of management, a more ideal employee.
Barbara isn’t to find out, since near the end of the month she finally lands a housekeeping job. She walks into the personnel office at the hotel attached to Jerry’s and insists that she couldn’t pay the rent without a second job. The frazzled personnel lady marches her back to meet the housekeeping manager. The job pays $6.10 an hour, from 9 a.m. till “whenever,” so hopefully, she thinks, before two. Carlotta, a middle-aged African-American woman missing all her top front teeth, will be training her.
Only by embarking on extreme, proactive tactics does Barbara manage to get the specific kind of job she’s been looking for all along. The detail about Carlotta’s missing front teeth provides a vivid reminder of what can happen after a lifetime working at a job that doesn’t offer health insurance nor pay enough for employees to have their own.
On this first day, Carlotta or “Carlie” and Barbara move through nineteen “checkouts” (rather than “stay-overs”), which require more work. They work four hours without a break, with Barbara covering the beds and Carlie the bathrooms. They keep the TV on, especially the soaps, which keep them going. Barbara feels like an intruder into the tourist’s world of comfort and leisure, though with backaches and constant thirst.
At this new job, Barbara has to master a new set of skills and new vocabulary (another reminder that no job is really “unskilled”). In housekeeping, the contrast between tourists’ leisurely, privileged experiences and the physically grueling nature of the housekeepers’ labor is particularly evident.
All Barbara learns about Carlie is how much she is in pain, making her move slowly—while the younger immigrant housekeepers finish by 2 p.m., she isn’t done until six. Though they pay by the hour now, there’s talk about moving to pay by the room. Carlie also becomes upset and hurt at slights, like the rudeness from a white maintenance guy.
Carlie can only deal with the comparative disadvantage of her chronic pain by relying on being paid by the hour—the potential shift is, of course, meant to benefit management. Carlie’s sensitivity, like Barbara’s sense of being chastened at Jerry’s, may be exacerbated by the job’s indignities.
Barbara asks to leave at about 3:30, and another housekeeper warns her that no one has yet managed to combine housekeeping with working at Jerry’s. She rushes back to the trailer and swallows four Advils before spending the rest of her hour-long break trying to clean ketchup and dressing stains off her tan slacks.
Barbara had mentioned that every shift at Jerry’s was like a state of emergency, and now her attempt to juggle two jobs only ramps up the volume. Again, self-medication is the only fix, no matter how short-term, that she can find. The poor can only ever treat their symptoms—both physical and regarding their finances—and never address the root causes of their problems.
At Jerry’s, George is distraught. Barbara resolves to give him all her tips that night. She takes a short break for dinner before the rush—only one, new cook is on duty. Four of her tables fill up at once, all clustered around each other, and each has her running constantly. Table 24 consists of ten British tourists who each order at least two drinks and an array of food. One of them sends hers back and insists that the others’ go back as well while she waits. The other tables grow restless, and table 24 rejects their reheated main courses. When Barbara returns to the kitchen with the trays, Joy confronts her, asking if it’s a “traditional, a super-scramble an eye-opener?” Barbara has no idea what she’s talking about, but at that moment a customer barges into the kitchen to yell that his food is late, and Joy screams at him to get out of the kitchen.
This scene is one of slowly increasing tensions, a crescendo of conflict that seems will inevitably end in disaster. As readers of the book, who are probably more often customers rather than servers at restaurants, we see the other side of service, in which a single customer’s complaint or difficulty can lead to a crisis for the waitress handling the table. Barbara knows that the ten British tourists were most likely not purposely making her life hell, but by portraying this dramatic scene she seeks to show how thoughtless people can be, failing to understand that there are real, individual people that will have to suffer the consequences of their thoughtlessness.
Barbara simply walks out, without finishing her work or picking up her tips. She is almost surprised to find that she can simply walk out the door. Though she went into this project with a scientific mindset, it has become a personal test, and she feels that she has failed. Plus, she’s forgotten to give George her tips, which makes her feel even worse. For the first time in many years, she is on the verge of crying.
After the rising crescendo of tensions, the climax is abruptly cut off when Barbara barges out. Her “scientific” mindset has been invaded by her emotions. A job like this, we realize, is often inevitably tied to the person as a whole—it can’t simply be parceled out as one aspect of his or her life, and a failure in it can feel like a life failure.
Barbara moves out of the trailer park and gives her keys to Gail. Gail tells her that Stu had been fired, apparently for ordering crack while still in the restaurant and trying to pay from the register. Barbara never finds out what happens to George.
As the chapter ends, Barbara ties up the loose threads, attempting to track down what happened to the people she’s formed relationships with. Her inability to find George suggests the invisibility of the poor within the broader world.