book reviews, housekeeping tips, lessons learned, movies

“Well-fed butts!” Barbara Ehrenreich and C. Thomas Howell have something in common.

Like today’s title? I wish I could claim it as my own quote, but I actually read it first in a book by Barbara Ehrenreich. Back in 2001, I was a second year graduate student in a state where I had few friends. I went to the local Barnes & Noble, looking for something interesting to read. I found Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. At that time of my life, I still considered myself fairly conservative in my politics, although looking at today’s right-wingers, I see that I’ve always been more of a moderate. But back then, I voted Republican.

I picked up Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, not knowing anything at all about her. I read about how, at different times from 1998 until 2000, she tried being a member of the “working poor”. She worked at Walmart, Menard’s, a hotel maid, waitress, cleaning woman, and at a nursing home. She moved from Florida to Minnesota, taking the cheapest lodging she could find and whatever jobs she could find. And she tried to live on the wages she was paid. In the course of her research, she lived in trailer parks and at residential hotels. And, at one point, while scrubbing a toilet while working as a cleaning lady, Barbara came up with that beaut of a phrase… “well-fed butt”. She was referring to the comparatively wealthy white people who employed people like she was pretending to be, thinking nothing about what it was like to be a member of the “working poor”, surviving on minimum wage and “not getting by”.

This was the original book cover and the one that is on my hardcover copy. The cover on some editions now look different, because in 2007, the woman in the picture, Kimmie Jo Christensen, sued Ehrenreich’s publisher for using the image without her permission. The photo was originally taken for an unrelated 1986 cover of Fortune magazine. The suit was eventually settled out of court.

At the time that I read Barbara’s book, I was a social work and public health student. In 2001, my focus was exclusively on social work. Oddly enough, I really hadn’t known anything about social work when I applied to the program. I was mostly looking for a way to be employed, making more than the low hourly wages offered at big box stores and waiting tables. I’d had my fill of dealing with the public and wanted to do something less taxing… because, as Barbara Ehrenreich had discovered, there’s no such thing as “unskilled labor”. Even working in food service at Busch Gardens was physically and mentally taxing, on hot days when the park was full of people, lines were long, and tempers were short. For that, I made $4.75 an hour during my last year, back in 1992.

Eight years later, as a graduate student editing and writing about the CDC’s Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance Survey, I made $10 an hour. But I only worked ten hours a week, so I had to supplement that money waiting tables at a country club, where I earned $8 an hour, the odd (and rare) tip, and occasional free meals. The rest was paid for by student loans. If only I had discovered Epinions.com back then. I could have made a nice side income writing product reviews. I didn’t discover Epinions, though, until 2003. Sadly, Epinions is now defunct, as are a lot of the other online writing gigs where I used to make my own money.

For some reason, I thought of the phrase “well-fed butts” as I was vacuuming today.. I always vacuum on Thursdays. I hate doing it. This morning, I joked to Bill that I wish I had a riding vacuum cleaner. It just seems like such a pointless activity, since as soon as I’m done sucking up the household dirt and dog hair, one of the dogs or another human invariably tracks more dirt, dog hair, or grass clippings into the house. On the other hand, I am always kind of gratified when I see the canister fill up with debris, which I can later dump into our “black bin” (trash that goes straight to an incinerator, rather than being recycled).

When Barbara wrote of “well-fed butts”, she was leaned over a toilet bowl, scrubbing shit stains and urine splashes. She wrote a snarky comment about how she was making low wages, cleaning up the residue left from “well-fed butts” belonging to rich people who had no appreciation whatsoever for her low paid labors. She had been vacuuming the carpets in a company patented fan style, leaving marks in the pile so that the customer knew that the cleaning woman had properly cleaned. Barbara confessed that the techniques were actually just cosmetic, since the cleaners weren’t using a lot of water or soap as they mopped floors and scrubbed grout. They were under pressure to be fast, so a lot of things got missed. She wrote:

“The first time I encountered a shit-stained toilet as a maid, I was shocked by the sense of unwanted intimacy. A few hours ago, some well-fed butt was straining away on this toilet seat, and now here I am wiping up after it”(54).

It’s interesting to look at Amazon reviews of Nickel and Dimed. The book gets an overall score of 4.3 stars. Many people liked it and learned from it. Others considered Ehrenreich preachy, judgmental, and occasionally racist. More than a few mentioned that as a well-educated woman who was merely acting as a low wage worker, she had no idea of how difficult it really is to be a member of the working poor, especially since she could scrap her experiment at any time. For whatever it’s worth, The Guardian ranked Nickel and Dimed 13th in its list of the 100 best books of the 21st century. Since we’re only 21 years into the 21st century, it seems kind of premature to be ranking books for this century. But writers are always looking for ways to make content, aren’t they?

A trailer for Soul Man… wow… things were cheap in 1986!

Barbara Ehrenreich’s book reminds me of Soul Man, a 1986 movie that was kind of popular, but today would likely be taboo. C. Thomas Howell, who was prior best known as one of the “Wolverines” in the anti-Soviet propaganda film, Red Dawn, played a rich White guy whose family cuts him off from the family fortunes. Howell’s character, Mark Watson, wants to go to law school at Harvard University, but as a rich White person, he doesn’t qualify for financial aid. So, his solution was to take tanning pills and pose as a Black student so he can qualify for a scholarship that is only available to Black people. Naturally, this role required that C. Thomas Howell wear blackface, which led to protests against the film’s release.

Worth watching for this scene. I like James Earl Jones a lot.

Today, Soul Man probably would not have been made, although I remember many television shows and movies where blackface was used in the 80s. In fact, I was watching The Kids in the Hall, a hilarious 90s era CBC/HBO comedy show last week, and noticed that at least two characters were in blackface. James Earl Jones and Rae Dawn Chong were both in this movie. And while many people think Soul Man is “racist”, the last scene kind of sums up things nicely. In that scene, Mark Watson is talking to his law school professor, Professor Banks (James Earl Jones), who tells Watson that now he’s learned what it’s like to be Black. But Watson reminds the professor that he doesn’t actually know what being Black is like, because he could always “escape” it. Real Black people can’t do that. Likewise, Barbara Ehrenreich could have bailed on being a member of the “working poor”. She was a successful writer with education and notoriety who had money. But she didn’t bail, and managed to write a book that was compelling to a lot of people, despite the “woke” naysayers’ complaints.

I think it’s too bad that so many people are so “woke” that they miss the main point sometimes. Our society has gotten to the point at which if you’re not spouting off politically correct rhetoric, you will get shouted down by the masses, many consisting of people who don’t stop to think about anything for more than a minute or two. They read or hear something, have a knee-jerk reaction to it, and just drive on without another thought. They don’t always stop to see the other sides of an issue and think critically. And if you dare to bring up the other sides, they get all ragey about it, which is why comment sections are often useless and reading them does nothing more than raise my blood pressure and occasionally provide fodder for my blog.

Soul Man is kind of cringeworthy on its surface, because it shows a clueless White person pretending to be Black– and frankly, not very convincingly, as I don’t think C. Thomas Howell really pulls off racial appropriation. To me, he doesn’t really pass. But that final scene, in which he talks to his Black Harvard law professor about the trick he pulled, the main idea of the movie is spelled out. And I think a lot of people miss that, and just want to crap on the film because they think it’s “racist”. If it was meant to be a racist film, that last scene would not have been included. That being said… Soul Man is not a great film, in my opinion, although I do think the people who made it had good intentions. But thinking about Barbara Ehrenreich’s book this morning made me remember it.

Rae Dawn Chong, who is mixed race– Black, White, and Asian– reportedly was very offended that Spike Lee took exception to Soul Man. She said:

“It was only controversial because Spike Lee made a thing of it… He’d never seen the movie and he just jumped all over it,” she added, recalling that it was a time when Lee was coming up in his career and making headlines for being outspoken.

“He was just starting and pulling everything down in his wake,” Chong asserted. “If you watch the movie, it’s really making white people look stupid.”

That was my take, too… although my favorite part of Soul Man was the music. The soundtrack was pretty excellent, if I recall correctly.

In any case… I hope my days of being a member of the working poor are over, for I know that is not an easy status. But one never knows what the future holds. I have been very lucky, but as Don Henley pointed out in his song, “New York Minute”, everything can change in an instant. One minute you’re here, the next minute you’re gone… So I try to keep that in mind as I clean up after the two well-fed human butts and two well fed canine butts in my household and feel great relief when my vacuuming chore is over for the week.

Bill managed to get his second Moderna shot yesterday. He was feeling okay until about 3:00am, when the shot kicked in. He woke up this morning feeling achy and flu-like. I’m glad we washed all the bedding yesterday, so he can enjoy clean sheets while he recovers. He worked so many hours in Bavaria that he’s taking most of this week off. I wish we could have used the time off to see some of Europe, but the weather has been positively horrible lately. It’s currently 54 degrees outside and cloudy. Yesterday and Tuesday, it rained for most of the day. I did catch a rainbow, though…

I hope this is a good omen.

Well, it’s time I got on with the rest of the day. I don’t know if I recommend Nickel and Dimed. I liked it a lot when I read it, but at 20 years old, it’s now a bit dated. But I do like that turn of a phrase, “well fed white butts”… and I hope Barbara Ehrenreich meant it when she expressed empathy for the working poor… just like I hope C. Thomas Howell learned something from his turn as “Mark Watson, Soul Man”. I guess Barbara Ehrenreich and C. Thomas Howell really do have something in common besides having well-fed butts of their own.

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