In Other Words

Pasatiempo - - CONTENT - by Jes­sica Bruder, W.W. Nor­ton & Com­pany, 273 pages

No­mad­land: Sur­viv­ing Amer­ica in the Twenty-First Cen­tury by Jes­sica Bruder

Nearly nine mil­lion Amer­i­cans in the sixty-five and older de­mo­graphic were still work­ing in 2016 — up 60 per­cent from a decade prior. In No­mad­land:

Sur­viv­ing Amer­ica in the Twenty- First Cen­tury, Jes­sica Bruder pre­cedes that statis­tic with a quote from Monique Mor­ris­sey of the Eco­nomic Pol­icy In­sti­tute: “Start­ing with the younger baby boomers, each suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tion is now do­ing worse than pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions in terms of their abil­ity to re­tire with­out see­ing a drop in liv­ing stan­dards.” Whereas post-New Deal re­tire­ment was the­o­ret­i­cally a “three-legged stool” — So­cial Se­cu­rity, sav­ings and in­vest­ments, and pri­vate pen­sions — to­day it is more of a “pogo stick,” ac­cord­ing to econ­o­mist Peter Brady. So­cial Se­cu­rity is the lone support. But, Bruder writes, it is “woe­fully in­ad­e­quate.”

The sub­ti­tle of Bruder’s first- rate jour­nal­is­tic work sug­gests that sur­vival is the goal of the men and women she pro­files. Of re­tire­ment age, they are “workam­pers,” trav­el­ing la­bor­ers who get sea­sonal jobs at places like Ama­zon’s ful­fill­ment cen­ters or the Amer­i­can Crys­tal Su­gar Com­pany’s an­nual su­gar beet har­vest. To reach their next gig, the workam­pers travel in vans and other ve­hi­cles, in which they also live.

They are t he new no­mads, who have “wheel es­tate” rather than “stick-and-brick” homes. (Their slang is end­lessly cre­ative: “road­schooled,” “vanily,” “drive­way surf­ing,” and “ear bang­ing” — get­ting ser­mo­nized to be­fore a meal.) They have made ve­hi­cles their homes through in­no­va­tive cus­tomiza­tions, en­gi­neer­ing the in­te­ri­ors to max­i­mize liv­ing space. The vandwellers de­velop tech­niques for keep­ing a low pro­file and maps of places to stay overnight. They share sto­ries and tips on­line and con­gre­gate at “GTGs” ( get-to­geth­ers) such as the Rub­ber Tramp Ren­dezvous in Quartzsite, Ari­zona.

What the vandwellers are do­ing is, in­deed, more than just trav­el­ing from job to job, and more than just sur­viv­ing. “For them — as for any­one — sur­vival isn’t enough,” Bruder writes. “So what be­gan as a last- ditch ef­fort has be­come a bat­tle cry for some­thing greater. ... As much as food or shel­ter, we re­quire hope.” The Amer­i­can Dream may be a myth, but it s ethos of self- de­ter­mi­na­tion per­vades the vandwelling com­mu­nity. Bruder writes t hat Bob Wells, who started t he Rub­ber Tramp Ren­dezvous, “sug­gests vandwellers are con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tors from a bro­ken, cor­rupt­ing so­cial or­der.” They may not have planned to live on the road, but now that they are, they are tak­ing the wheel. They are the ones mak­ing the choices about where to go next.

The workam­per with whom Bruder spends the most time is Linda May, a grand­mother in her six­ties whose trailer she af­fec­tion­ately calls the Squeeze Inn. (Fur­ther vandweller orig­i­nal­ity emerges in t heir ve­hi­cle names, among them Porta Party and Van Go.) While Linda works sea­sonal j obs at Ama­zon and c amp­grounds and at­tends GTGs, she has an ul­ti­mate goal: to build a self-sus­tain­ing Earthship home, like those in the Greater World Earthship Com­mu­nity out­side Taos. Bruder chron­i­cles Linda’s jour­ney to­ward that des­ti­na­tion, with its hard­ships, friend­ships, and wind­ing yet pur­pose­ful path.

As Bruder be­comes im­mersed in the no­mad com­mu­nity, she re­al­izes that the only way she will truly un­der­stand who th­ese men and women are — “nei­ther pow­er­less vic­tims nor care­free ad­ven­tur­ers” — is to get be­hind the wheel her­self. She buys a van from Craigslist and dubs it “Halen.” She gets jobs at Ama­zon’s ware­house in Haslet, Texas, and work­ing the su­gar beet har­vest in the Red River Val­ley of the Up­per Mid­west, where the sto­ries she has heard of te­dious, tax­ing phys­i­cal la­bor are made vis­ceral. Bruder en­vi­sions break­ing the rules at the Ama­zon ware­house and run­ning free around the robot-in­hab­ited re­stricted area, in some “pro­le­tar­ian park­our rou­tine.” In­stead, she ex­its through the metal de­tec­tor and then quits.

No­mad­land is a pow­er­ful de­pic­tion of Amer­ica in the wake of the Great Re­ces­sion, frankly pre­sent­ing peo­ple’s strug­gles to get by along with the hope and ca­ma­raderie t hat make those chal­lenges en­durable. The men and women Bruder meets are funny, in­ven­tive, and gen­er­ous. Bruder does an ex­cel­lent job of con­vey­ing not just their out­ward per­son­al­i­ties and rou­tines but also their in­ner worlds, where they must con­tend with Amer­i­can at­ti­tudes to­ward the ag­ing and the poor.

Like mil­lions of non-vandwellers, they must also con­tend with the choices that arise in a coun­try with great in­come in­equal­ity. “What parts of this life are you will­ing to give up, so you can keep on liv­ing?” Zoom­ing out, Bruder adds an­other fright­en­ing ques­tion: “When do im­pos­si­ble choices start to tear peo­ple — a so­ci­ety — apart?”

Hope may be an Amer­i­can and even a ba­sic hu­man value, but it’s also pretty capri­cious. Some­times it’s easy to lose sight of. — Grace Paraz­zoli

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