January 18, 2000. Eight years earlier. In the news, the income gap between the richest and poorest American families is widening, likely due to the booming stock market. At an old, cozy bar, Santana’s “Smooth” is playing on a jukebox as a rowdy celebration winds down. Longtime friends Cynthia and Tracey, both middle-aged women, are drunkenly dancing with each other. The bartender, Stan, smiles as he watches on. Meanwhile, a woman named Jessie has passed out, face down, on a table.
Though the stock market is performing markedly better in 2000 than it does in 2008, poor and working-class Americans are likely to lose out in either scenario, as the rich and powerful are typically those who stand to gain from drastic changes in the global economy (hence the widening wealth gap). Meanwhile, the characters introduced here seem to be close friends who value their time together, much like Jason and Chris still clearly value each other, foreshadowing the importance of such relationships as the play progresses.
Cynthia and Tracey tease Stan as they dance seductively, prodding him to join them. Stan resists, and the song ends, after which Stan asks who’s taking Jessie home. Tracey replies that Howard usually just closes up and leaves Jessie in the bar, yet somehow Jessie always makes it to work on time the next morning. They manage to startle her awake for a moment, which makes everyone laugh, but then she slumps back onto the table. Stan tells them that she can’t stay at the bar, and he confiscates Jessie’s keys out of her pocket.
Again, the camaraderie and ease among Stan and the bargoers emphasizes that they’re close and comfortable with one another, and that this bar is a familiar safe haven for them. However, the fact that Jessie often attends work hungover introduces the idea that these characters come to the bar as means of (potentially self-destructive) escapism, likely because they’re overworked or dissatisfied with their lives.
Stan offers Tracey another drink and smiles at her seductively, but she lightheartedly rejects his advances and tells him what happened between them was a one-time thing—it’s not going to happen again. Stan counters that it happened twice, but Tracey laughingly retorts that the second time didn’t technically count. Just then, Oscar, the busboy, comes in and starts wiping down the bar. Cynthia gets up to leave, saying that she has an early shift at work, to which Tracey replies that Cynthia has worked enough overtime. Cynthia, however, is determined to take a cruise on the Panama Canal this summer. Tracey urges Cynthia to have one more drink since it’s Tracey’s birthday, and Cynthia relents—but if she loses a finger in the mill, she says, it’s Tracey’s fault.
Stan and Tracey’s flirtatious interaction further emphasizes the history that these characters share—it’s clear that they’ve known one another for quite some time and that they likely rely on one another as a means of support. Especially given Cynthia’s overtime hours at the mill and her desire for a vacation, it seems that the bar and the interactions that take place within it are sources of comfort and stress relief for its working-class clientele.
Stan comments on the successful night—lots of people turned out for Tracey’s birthday party. Stan was hoping to see Brucie, but Cynthia reveals that she kicked Brucie out (again) after he stole all of her Christmas presents and her expensive fish tank. Then, on New Year’s Eve, he showed up unannounced and clearly high. Brucie has been unrecognizable since he started doing drugs, and although Cynthia says she sympathizes because things have been tough since Brucie got locked out of his plant, she can’t have him around in his current state. She and Brucie ended up getting into a fight that got Cynthia arrested for disorderly conduct. Tracey had to bail her out.
In a lockout, a company prevents employees from working as a means of demanding concessions like pay cuts or reduced benefits. The fact that Brucie’s lockout has made him into someone unrecognizable to his own wife suggests that unemployment and the ensuing financial hardship can wreak havoc on an individual’s wellbeing as well as their relationships with their loved ones. Brucie has seemingly lost his sense of self and purpose along with his job.
Changing the subject, Stan asks if the women heard about Freddy Brunner—this morning’s paper reported that he burned his own house down. Freddy seemingly broke due to stress: his wife had left him, he was deep in debt, and he’d heard a rumor about cutbacks at the plant. Cynthia brushes off this rumor, but Stan warns that people’s jobs could be outsourced to Mexico at any moment because of NAFTA. Tracey tries to make a joke out of this, but Stan cautions that it’s unwise to keep oneself ignorant.
Freddy is another example of the ways in which the stresses of working-class life can effectively destroy a person: with no wife, no financial stability, and no home, Freddy is completely destitute. Stan’s concern about NAFTA (a government policy which enabled U.S. businesses to more easily outsource labor to Mexico) underscores the fact that blue-collar laborers often don’t have the luxury of job security—all of their hard work can be taken from them in an instant. Given this, Freddy’s stress (if not his reaction to it) is understandable.
Tracey diverts, wondering aloud if it’s illegal to burn your own house down. Stan thinks it’s legal with a permit, and Cynthia sarcastically says that she should set fire to her own run-down house. Tracey says she’d hire someone else to burn hers. She asks Oscar who she should ask about this, since Puerto Ricans are burning things down all over Reading. Oscar replies that he’s actually Colombian, and Stan and Cynthia squabble with Tracey until she drops the subject.
Tracey and Cynthia’s casual banter about burning their own houses down implies that they, like Freddy, are under financial and interpersonal strain—in this way, the play implies that such stress is common among working-class people. Tracey’s offhand comment to Oscar suggests that there is tension between Reading’s white working class and its Latinx community that’s perhaps exacerbated by economic strain.
Stan redirects the conversation, recalling that Freddy was the one who shut down the mill when Stan got injured. If it weren’t for Freddy, Stan says, he would have lost his entire leg. Suddenly, Jessie wakes up and demands that Stan give her another drink, threatening to call her ex-husband if he doesn’t. Stan reminds Jessie that she’ll wake up her ex’s new wife if she calls, which provokes Jessie to fling insults like “cripple” and “gimp” at him. Cynthia orders her to calm down, and Oscar escorts Jessie to the bathroom.
Stan’s work injury, which cost him part of his leg, shows another potential cost of manual labor jobs: people’s physical wellbeing is in jeopardy along with their mental health and financial stability. Additionally, it seems that Jessie’s cruel, ableist slurs toward Stan are yet another example of a struggling person misdirecting their personal problems and anger onto someone else.
With Jessie gone, Cynthia tells Tracey she needs to talk to Jessie about her drinking problem—Jessie keeps showing up to work reeking of vodka. Tracey points out that she herself never abused alcohol even though her husband died. She asks Cynthia if she’s going to report Jessie at work, but Cynthia replies that they’re already looking for reasons to fire people since their supervisor is being promoted and transferred. To Stan and Tracey’s surprise, Cynthia reveals that she’s thinking of applying for the open position since they’re going to hire someone from the floor. She has 24 years of experience, and now she wants the perks of a managerial job.
Here, the extent of Jessie’s drinking problem is revealed: she seemingly uses alcohol abuse as a way to cope with the stresses of work (where significant changes are underway) as well to help her forget her romantic woes. Meanwhile, the fact that Cynthia has worked at the mill for so long but has yet to be promoted to a supervisor position is indicative of how blue-collar workers tend to be undervalued by management and prevented from advancing in status and pay.
Incredulous, Tracey points out that she’s been working the floor for 26 years, since she graduated high school. “Management is for them,” she says. “Not us.” No one was ever promoted straight off the floor during Stan’s 28 years at the mill, either. Still, Cynthia thinks she may as well apply, and Stan agrees that the worst that could happen is being told no. This gives Tracey pause; she thinks she may try for the job too. However, Stan cynically interjects that not much has changed since he left the mill in 1969 or even since his grandfather started there in 1922. Although Stan didn’t like Olstead, he respected him because he was hands-on and involved. He points out that the younger men with MBAs are reluctant to get their hands dirty—they don’t understand the real labor that goes into making their product.
Tracey’s conviction that “management is for them” and Stan’s opinions about the underappreciative higher-ups at Olstead’s make the case that, at least in the world of the novel, managers and lower-level workers are viewed as entirely different stock with opposing ideologies. Therefore, Tracey likely has conflicted feelings about Cynthia applying for the promotion because she’s concerned about her friend crossing the line and allying herself with management rather than maintaining her solidarity with Tracey and the other floor workers.
Suddenly, they hear a drunken commotion from the bathroom, and Cynthia and Tracey agree that Jessie is dragging them down even though they love her. They make snide comments about Jessie’s outdated dress just as she comes stumbling in. Jessie again demands a drink, and Tracey warns her to get herself together—but Cynthia cuts them off and tells them to relax and have fun. Music begins to play, and they start laughing and celebrating again.
Cynthia and Tracey’s simultaneous concern and scorn for Jessie again illustrates how important close, longtime friendships are to Reading’s working class—but also how looking out for oneself is at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Cynthia’s desire to relax and forget about more serious matters drives home the role of the bar as a source of escape and much-needed leisure for laborers.