In Other Words
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