A Tomdispatch Interview with Barbara Ehrenreich
You turn into a middle-class, suburban housing project on the periphery of Charlottesville, Virginia, and at a row of attached homes, you pull up in front of the one with the yellow "for sale" sign on the tiny patch of grass. Ushered inside, you take in an interior of paint cans, a mop and pail, and cleaning liquids. On the small porch that overlooks a communal backyard, workmen are painting the weathered wood railings a nice, clean white. Later, when they're gone, we step out for a minute, on a balmy late spring afternoon, and she says, "You know what I need out here? Flowers!" And it's true, the nearest neighbor's small porch is a riot of red, orange, and purple blooms, while hanging from her railing are three plant holders with only dirt and the scraps of dead vegetation in them. [Let them eat flowers!]
Not surprising really. Barbara Ehrenreich, our foremost journalist of, and dissector of class is regularly not here. Practically a household name since she entered the low-wage working class disguised as herself and, in her already classic account, Nickel and Dimed, reported back on just how difficult it is for so many hard-working Americans to get by. Then, a few years later, she repeated the process with the middle class, only to find herself not in the workforce but among the desperately unemployed who had fallen out of an ever meaner corporate world. Her most recent book, Bait and Switch, The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, was the result. Now, she spends much time traveling the country talking to audiences about her -- and their -- experiences. She has become a blogger, is involved in launching a new group to help organize the middle-class unemployed, and in her spare time she's even finished a new book.
Now, after four years in Virginia (at least some of the time), she's about to head north. She gestures at the bookshelves. "There are a lot fewer books this week than last. I'm giving them to the Virginia Organizing Project." And it's true, the place is clearly being stripped down for sale. But you have the feeling, looking around, that it was a no-frills life to begin with, as Ehrenreich herself, in her short hair, jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers, presents a distinctly no-frills look. (Suddenly, imagining her with an image make-over advisor in Bait and Switch trying to give herself that perfect corporate look of employability seems amusing.)
Her mind is wide-ranging and daring indeed. Some years back, in a book entitled Blood Rites, she even managed to turn traditional ideas about the origins of war on their head. She is a thoroughly no-nonsense national resource.
Looking forward to a trip to the local gym followed by a visit with her two grandchildren (the daughters of her daughter Rosa Brooks, a law professor and columnist for the Los Angeles Times), we sit down at a paper-and-book cluttered dining-room table, which shows no evidence of having held a meal in some time, and -- eye on the clock, no fooling around -- begin.»