If you’d ever seen Linda May whiz past in her vintage
Jeep Cherokee hauling a trailer, her adorable spaniel, Coco, beside her, you might have thought, Ahhh, that’s the life. But as revealed in Jessica Bruder’s riveting and important book, this particular route exacts a heavy toll.
May, 65, is one of tens of thousands, many in their fifties, sixties and even seventies, who hit the road after their fingernail hold on the middle class slipped—savings wiped out in the financial crash, jobs or businesses lost, divorce. To be clear, those described here consider themselves houseless rather than homeless. Relieved of the enormous expense of homeownership, the self-described “rubber tramps” embrace living in their RVs, trailers and vans, some equipped with solar panels or affectionately named. They survive as “workampers” (work + campers), traveling around the country to low-paying seasonal jobs and enjoying the camaraderie of their fellow vehicle dwellers. Sometimes, though, fear intrudes. As a 67-year-old taxi driver ruined by Uber says, “This isn’t a vacation or a trip. This is it.”
May calls her 10-foot-long 1974 fiberglass trailer “the Squeeze Inn.” Bruder shadows the former cocktail waitress/trucker/IRS phone rep/ general contractor as she works as a campground host for $9.35 an hour. May checks in and supervises visitors, tidies up campsites, cleans 18
outhouses thrice daily; coating the toilet chute walls with Pam cooking spray is one of her tricks. And later on labors in the pre-holiday season at an Amazon warehouse the size of thirteen football fields. One of the CamperForce, as Amazon dubbed its workamper program, May might walk up to 15 miles a day on concrete floors as she pushes a cart full of merchandise, scans an item and then bends or squats or reaches to load it into packed bins, at an increasing pace. (Wall dispensers are stocked with free over-the-counter pain meds.) Kivas, which look like larger, square Roomba vacuums, transport the goods in open shelving to the workampers. These robots sound almost endearing in tales of occasional collisions, running over merchandise or escaping from the building. But if Kivas can do the job, will the day come when machines replace all the humans?
Living in a van christened “Halen,” Bruder herself signs up for a 12-hour shift at a fall sugar-beet harvest. The promised “ ‘Unbeetable’ Experience!” turns out to be “thunderously loud, rushed, and messy as hell.” In a processing facility where the air is thick with diesel fuel and dust, the Columbia University journalism instructor wields a pitchfork and scoop to lift spilled beets, some the size of basketballs, back into a hopper; is pelted with beet pieces and dirt clods from overhead conveyor belts; uses her full body weight to shovel dense, slippery mud from the floor. Still, she's not outside in bone-chilling weather helping trucks unload mountains of beets. Like the ex-taxi driver.
The author’s deep affection for the people she writes about is obvious, especially the resourceful May, who just might achieve a wheel-free residence. For a long time after you finish this superbly written book you will think about the workampers out there, and the increasing number of exiles from the American Dream who will be joining them.
Former broadcast journalist LaVonne in "LaVanne"