According to Jessica Bruder, the author of Nomadland, it was most likely done by seasonal workers who are part of a nomadic tribe of Americans living precariously in the new economy. For little more than $10 an hour these 60-year old+ workers put in more than 10 hours a day and walk 10 miles or more on concrete floors through warehouse which may be as large as 19 football field. For this meager salary they put up with stressful jobs in which their moves are chartered for efficiency, their muscles strained by heavy lifting, and their wrists weakened by manipulating bar code scanners.
The CamperForce, as Amazon likes to call these “associates,” are recruited with advertisements that emphasize the fun times to be had in the company of likeminded people and the benefits of temporary employment during the retirement years. To keep the legion of workers coming to places like Fernley, Nevada and Coffeeville, Kansas and Haslet, Texas, the company may also arrange for inexpensive rentals of camping space at campgrounds within 10 miles of the warehouse. Though appreciative of the minor perks and the fraternization, the nomadic workforce is more than happy when the pre-Christmas season ends and they can head to the warmer south and places like the Rubber Track Rendezvous (RTR) in Quartzsite, Arizona where they will be joined by the owners of 40,000 mobile homes: RVs, converted school buses, pop-up campers, travel trailers, and re-engineered sedans.
Journalist Bruder is as much anthropologist as reporter. Her book is participatory journalism at its best; she becomes one of the tribe, purchasing a reconditioned van (christened Halen, get it?) and working in the beet fields of North Dakota and in an Amazon facility in Texas. She brings to our attention a social phenomenon that most of us have little knowledge of much less have had a chance to observe, even at some distance. She focuses on the growing sub-culture, a population segment of older, white Americans, some close to retirement age and some considerably beyond it, who are victims of an economy of stagnant wages, the shift from manufacturing to service and retail jobs, and the increasing cost of home rental. A number of those she encounters thought they were doing quite well until the financial debacle of 2008 eroded their pensions and left them underwater as homeowners.
Her subjects are those who deal with shame by claiming that they are “homeless but not houseless.” They try to reframe their condition as the freedom of the open road and rejection of a stultifying consumer culture that has cluttered our lives with useless things, the kind of things that fill the bins at the Amazon warehouse. Sidenote from Bruder: On Cyber Monday in 2013 Amazon processed 426 orders per second and moved 36 million products into American homes.
Folks like Linda May, a vibrant and tenacious woman who becomes Bruder’s principal case student in nomadism, follow seasonal employment in a variety of places. Preceding a three or four-month stint at Amazon or employment in sugar beet factory, they may work for agencies like the California Land Management Corporation which, in exchange for a campsite and a modest salary, employs them as campground hosts, responsible for cleaning toilets, keeping order, and collecting fees. If they are lucky they may work alongside another campworker who can provide needed commiseration.
Bruder thoroughly documents the precarious work lives of the tribe, but she is at her best describing the RTR scene. Like the hippies who flocked to Max Yasgur’s upstate New York farm for Woodstock or the off-the-grid counter-culturalists who yearly rally for two weeks at the Black Rock Desert in northwest Nevada desert for Burning Man, a “decommodified, sponsorship-free space, the nomads gravitate toward Quartzsite for two weeks of renewal and community building. Arriving after a strenuous three months in an Amazon Warehouse, it’s a chance to lick one’s wounds…and to attend workshops on a host of challenges related to living on the road: installing solar panels on the van roof, setting up a mail forwarding account, and learning how to “stealth park” in shopping mall parking lots and in industrial zones. Bruder documents the sub-sub cultures: the nudists, the fishermen, the owners of Bluebird Wanderers, the carburetor cookers, and the popular blog site contributors and web-site managers. The users of vandweller Facebook and Reddit sites get an opportunity to convert their virtual community into a real community.
Bruder meets Linda May when she’s in the latest chapter of her self-invention story. She’s studied construction management, been a cocktail waitress and long-distance truck-driver, and remains an attentive mother and grandmother, though she’s challenged to keep close geographically to her family. By the end of the book Linda May is off on yet another adventure, an attempt to build an Earthship dwelling in New Mexico. Unmistakable is Bruder’s admiration for Linda May’s grit and good cheer. There’s a clear connection between her character and that of Ma Joad, the matriarch of Steinbeck’s Depression Era wandering Oakie Tribe. [Bruder claims that this new generation of nomads, unlike those in the 30s, have few illusions about returning home once the economic crisis abets.]
The book is enriched by a host of cameo appearances from friends in Linda’s orbit: Charlene Swankie (aka Swankie Wheels) who despite her asthma and bad knees fulfills a lifetime dream to kayak in all 50 states, Silvia Delmars, tarot card reader and “cosmic change agent,” and Ash and Jen, two of the younger campers who try to make a go of it inside a Ford Taurus. Bruder vigorously works against the notion that these nomads are a collection of oddballs and eccentrics, easily dismissed or scorned as we pass them in the cleaning products section of Walmart or near the vending machines at the highway rest stop. In their essential decency, self-sufficiency, and resilience they are very much true to the American character.
Bruder’s work is part of a larger set of important works that try to capture the zeitgeist. George Packer’s The Unwinding (2013) won the National Book Award for its account of economic decline and individual hardship as embodied in a host of representative Americans. Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize Winning Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016) documents the fortunes of poor Milwaukeeans who face the constant challenge of securing a low-cost and safe residence in the public housing market (See my Forum review).Desmond, a trained sociologist and Bruder, a journalist by training, both follow in the footsteps of Barbara Ehrenreich’s much-praised Nickeled and Dimed, her account of trying to live as a single woman in the world of low wage jobs such as waitress and hotel maid. Works like these offer dramatic counterpoints to the accounts of the lifestyles of the rich and famous in Trump Era America.
Bruder is as concerned about the plight of those left behind in the age of increasing inequality, a state of affairs likely to become worse rather than better. And yet the life of Linda May suggests that for those with minimal resources and a modicum of optimism and dignity, the road , though narrowing, still remains open. Even in 21st century America you can still “light out for the territories” like Huck Finn did at the end of the Twain novel.