[Marxism] In ‘Nomadland,’ the Golden Years Are the Wander Years

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Nov 20 09:22:47 MST 2017

NY Times Sunday Book Review, Nov. 19 2017
In ‘Nomadland,’ the Golden Years Are the Wander Years

Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century
By Jessica Bruder
Illustrated. 273 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $26.95.

At the steering wheel of her Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo is a 
silver-haired grandma named Linda May, towing her home: a secondhand, 
pale-yellow 10-foot-long fiberglass trailer she calls the Squeeze Inn — 
“there’s room, squeeze in!” — to a new job in a new place. At 65, Linda 
is houseless but not, she feels, homeless. She has raised two daughters, 
mostly on her own, and before heading off, she slept — feeling “stuck” — 
on the living-room couch of the rented house of her daughter and three 
teenage grandchildren. Formerly a long-haul trucker, a Home Depot 
cashier, a building inspector, an I.R.S. phone rep and a co-owner of a 
flooring store, Linda is heading out to a $9.35-an-hour summer job as a 
campground “host.” “Get paid to go camping!” the concessionaire brochure 
reads brightly. In the San Bernardino National Forest, she will help 
campers with check-in, shovel broken glass from campfire pits and mostly 
clean 18 toilets three times a day.

Moving “like blood cells through the veins of the country,” Jessica 
Bruder writes, a growing number of older people, post-recession refugees 
from the middle and working class, are, like Linda, crossing the land in 
their Jeeps, campers and repurposed buses in search of work. We meet a 
67-year-old former San Francisco taxi driver who, squeezed out by Uber, 
unloads truckloads of sugar beets in North Dakota. We meet Chuck, a 
former McDonald’s vice president who lost his home on a golf course in a 
gated community in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and now sells beer and hamburgers 
at spring training for the Oakland A’s. We meet Don, a former software 
executive of 69 with a white goatee, who lost his savings in the 2008 
crash and lost his house in a divorce. He now lives with his dog in a 
1990 Airstream and works 12-hour shifts during the pre-Christmas season 
at an Amazon warehouse. Other nomads “pick raspberries in Vermont, 
apples in Washington and blueberries in Kentucky. They give tours at 
fish hatcheries, take tickets at Nascar races and guard the gates of 
Texas oil fields.” Still, it has not been easy; workers mentioned hip 
replacements, bad knees, a minor stroke. While many live in recreational 
vehicles with names like Lazy Daze, these nomads do hard work for low 
wages, and know how to find a free shower, cut-price dentistry and 
discount Viagra.

In this stunning and beautifully written book, Bruder, the author of 
“Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man,” describes her journey 
with Linda and her other interviews conducted in five states over three 
years, with more than 50 nomads in the first year alone. Bruder also 
worked at a beet processing plant — “Be Part of an ‘Unbeetable’ 
Experience!” in the parlance of the recruitment brochure — and describes 
trying to catch large beets that flew off a processing machine as akin 
to “catching bowling balls in a pillowcase.” After a while, she gets her 
own van and names it Halen.

Bruder also worked at an Amazon fulfillment center, among workers in 
their 50s and up. “We’ve had folks in their 80s who do a phenomenal job 
for us,” one official for CamperForce, “a program created by the online 
retailer to hire itinerant workers,” said. “Some walk 15 miles on 
concrete floors, stooping, squatting, reaching and climbing stairs as 
they scan, sort and box merchandise,” Bruder notes. “Buns of steel, here 
we come,” an instructor tells gray-haired listeners. Amazon receives 
federal tax credit for hiring the “disadvantaged,” which includes those 
on Supplemental Security Income or food stamps. The CamperForce 
newsletter was upbeat: “Make new friends and reacquaint with old ones, 
share good food, good stories, and good times around the campfire, or 
around the table. In some ways, that’s worth more than money.” But 
nomads took the jobs for the money, toiling in warehouses where the 
summer heat could rise above 90 degrees and you could be asked to lift 
50-pound loads. Amazon offered its workers free, over-the-counter 
pain-relief pills.

How are we to understand the Lindas of our nation? Is she a latter-day 
Okie, like one of the Joads in “The Grapes of Wrath”? Perhaps, but the 
Joads traveled together as a family, not alone. Or does Linda resemble 
migrant workers from Mexico or the Philippines? Like her, many travel 
alone, but they often do so with an eye to settlement or return. Unlike 
the black migrants from the South who, over decades, moved North and 
West during the Great Migration, Linda — like most of those profiled in 
Bruder’s book — is white; she may fear poverty, but her migration isn’t 
propelled by racial intimidation. Linda presumably joined black and 
Hispanic workers in quite a few places she worked; nearly a quarter of 
workers in Amazon’s more than 50 warehouses across the country are 
black, and 12 percent Hispanic. Other of Bruder’s nomads join guest 
workers from abroad picking fruit. Bruder wonders why the van-dwelling 
community itself, though, is “so white.” She cannot pinpoint a 
definitive reason among the various possibilities she raises, though she 
does note that “living in a vehicle seems like an especially dangerous 
gambit for anyone who might be a victim of racial profiling.”

 From time to time, Linda meets other nomads at R.V. desert rallies. 
Among the largest ones is the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous near Quartzsite, 
Ariz., an annual winter “pop-up metropolis,” as Bruder calls it. There 
tens of thousands gather, some workers, some leisured, in small vans and 
large, parked snugly, not set apart by green lawns as they might be in a 
suburban tract. As in the community that blossoms around Burning Man 
festivals, a barber gives donation-optional haircuts. A woman offers 
banana-nut bread baked in her solar oven. Groups sit around bonfires to 
burn old bankruptcy papers and share hobo stew.

It’s hard to know how many elderly van-dwellers roam the nation. Many of 
Bruder’s nomads had lost their homes, jobs or both in the 2008 crash. In 
2010, 1,050,500 properties were repossessed. Social Security benefits 
are modest, Bruder reminds us, especially for women. She also tells us 
that, at the time of her writing, there were only a dozen American 
counties and one metro area where a person working full time at minimum 
wage could afford a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent.

What forces set these nomads in motion? Here I wish Bruder had given us 
a view from beyond the driver’s seat. For years, stockholders have taken 
the lion’s share of rising corporate profits, leaving a shrinking share 
to the middle- and working-class worker. The current administration and 
Congress aim to cut the nation’s safety net and to loosen regulations on 
banks, stirring fears of another devastating crash. The stage seems set 
to leave Americans on their own to travel a potentially bumpy economic 
road, a scene that would seem to fly in the face of the picket-fence 
stability and localism bandied about in conservative rhetoric. 
Republicans like to talk about “freedom,” but the tax reform they’re 
currently proposing would most likely widen the gap between rich and 
poor even further, reducing Linda’s freedom to stay put if she wanted to.

To Linda, the American dream has been whittled down to self-sufficiency 
and the open road. The tires on her Jeep are worn thin, the “check 
engine” gauge doesn’t work, and she suffers occasional dizzy spells. Her 
gumption and work ethic seem so admirable, but her van and her health 
seem so precarious, her hopes so vulnerable to fate.

The Lindas of America are largely invisible. When Bruder drove her own 
van home to Brooklyn, she began to notice vans she hadn’t noticed before 
— parked on a residential street, in a gas station, a store lot. As I 
reluctantly put down this brilliant and haunting book, I thought back to 
the vagabond songwriter and musician Woody Guthrie, who fled the great 
Oklahoma Dust Bowl of the 1930s, later riding the rails and singing, 
“From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters / This land was made 
for you and me.” Those huge, billowing clouds of topsoil that drove 
millions from their homes now seem safely tucked away in sepia-tinted 
photos of a bygone past. But without ominous clouds above to warn us of 
what lies ahead, the powerful force of automation and the destruction of 
any safety net may silently push more and more of us onto the open road.

Arlie Russell Hochschild’s most recent book, “Strangers in Their Own 
Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right,” was a finalist for the 
National Book Award.

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