Books

How the Gig Economy Has Created Permanent Low-Wage Nomads

Journalist Jessica Bruder documents the lives of workers who are houseless, but not homeless.

Photo Credit: Palabra / Shutterstock

The following is an excerpt from the new book Nomadland by Jessica Bruder (W.W. Norton, September 2017), available for purchase from Amazon and IndieBound

On Thanksgiving Day of 2010—before her life as a nomad began—Linda May sat alone in the trailer where she was living in New River, Arizona. At sixty, the silver-haired grandmother lacked electricity and running water because she couldn’t afford the utility bill. She couldn’t find work. Her unemployment benefits had run out. Her older daughter’s family, with whom she had lived for many years while holding a series of low-wage jobs, had recently downsized to a smaller apartment. With three bedrooms for six people, there wasn’t enough space to move back in with them. She was trapped in a dark trailer with nowhere to go.

“I’m going to drink all the booze. I’m going to turn on the propane. I’m going to pass out and that’ll be it,” she told herself. “And if I wake up, I’m going to light a cigarette and blow us all to hell.”

Her two small dogs, Coco and Doodle, were staring at her. (Doodle, a toy poodle, would later die before Linda moved into the Squeeze Inn.) She hesitated—could she really envision blowing them up as well? That wasn’t an option. So instead she accepted an invitation to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving dinner.

But that moment—the instant when she saw her resolve flicker—wasn’t something she could easily forget. Linda considers herself “a happy, joyous person.” She had never seriously entertained the idea of giving up on it all. “I was just so down that I couldn’t see a way out,” she later recalled. Something had to change.

A couple of years later, Linda found herself close to the edge again. She was working as a Home Depot cashier for $10.50 an hour in Lake Elsinore, California. Some weeks she only got scheduled for twenty to twenty-five hours, barely enough to cover the $600-a-month trailer she was renting across town at the Shore Acres Mobile Home Park. Landing that job had taken months, never mind that her resume included two degrees in construction, plus a year and a half at a Home Depot in Las Vegas, where she’d made around $15 an hour as an expeditor, a position she’d enjoyed because it meant solving problems one-on-one for customers. Running the register felt like a comedown after all that. Still, she tried to make the most of it. “They made me a cashier, when I have all that experience,” she recalled. “So I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to be the best cashier here!’” Linda chatted up her customers, asking about their projects and helping where she could. When one homeowner arrived at the counter with the wrong lumber for a roof, she prescribed a different material called “oriented strand board,” advising him that it would do the job better (and for $500 less). Why would Home Depot waste that kind of knowledge behind a register? “They are, in my opinion, a little age-prejudiced,” she suggested.

Linda wondered, not for the first time, how anybody could afford to grow old. Of the many jobs she’d held in her life, none had brought even a modicum of lasting financial stability. “Never managed to get myself a pension,” she said.

Linda knew she would soon be eligible for Social Security. She’d never paid much attention to her annual statements, though, so she was surprised when she read one and learned that her monthly benefit would be around $500, not even enough to cover the rent.

Linda had raised two girls as a single parent. She knew what it meant to scrape by. Her own mother had taught her as much, making one pound of hamburger last across a week’s worth of meals to feed Linda and her brothers. When dinner was spaghetti bolognese—but no pieces of meat were visible in their bowls—the kids would tease their mother, saying she’d put the ground beef in a sock and waved it over the saucepan to impart some essence of flavor. From time to time, when the family took in an extra kid whose parents had run into trouble, Linda joked that her mother would just “wave the hamburger in a sock over the pan one more time” to accommodate the newcomer.

Perhaps because of this history, Linda was empathetic to folks who were down on their luck. In the early 1990s, she ran a carpet and tile shop called Cherokee Interiors in Bullhead City, Arizona, where, after business hours, homeless men congregated at an open spigot behind the building to wash up and fill their water jugs. “That’s perfectly fine,” she told them. “Just make sure you turn it off when you’re done. Don’t forget!” The log-cabin-style structure had a porch with hitching posts tucked below an overhang. When the men began overnighting there, she deputized them. “Okay, if you’re going to sleep here, your job is night watchman,” she said, suggesting they tell that to any police officer who might try to roust them.

One of the men, a former tree trimmer, told Linda he wanted to get off the street. He thought he could make some money working for the city, which dispatched contractors to clear weed-choked properties. She helped him collect donations to get started: rakes, a mower, a little gas money. Together they drove around looking at overgrown parcels the city had put up for bid. Using her business license, Linda was able to win him some contracts.

Then two bad things happened. The flooring store went under because her business partner had kept two sets of books, hanging on to some of the profits for his own use. And the former tree trimmer blew off the jobs Linda had lined up for him. When he got offered another gig painting a house in Las Vegas, he skipped town without clearing any of the lots.

Still Linda felt lucky. “Thank god, you know, I was provided for,” she recalled. “I had no way to make money but I had all these contracts.” Before long, she was pushing a mower on arid summer days, when temperatures sometimes climbed to 120 degrees. She familiarized herself with the symptoms of heatstroke: “If you’re ever out in the sun and you start getting the chills, get the hell out of there!” The contracts earned her about $150 apiece. Often she started work at dawn and knocked off by noon, returning later in the day to finish raking and bagging the debris.

“The first time, before I got paid, I didn’t have money to take it to the dump, so we took it out to the lake and we had a bonfire and it was very windy,” she said, recalling a trip to Lake Mead. “The wind grabbed the dried weeds and started blowing them across the shore. The ranger came down and said, ‘You cannot do that.’ I’m like, ‘I already got that. I’m already throwing dirt on it. I’m putting it out.’

“From there I thought, ‘I cannot stay out in 120 degrees raking weeds. This is not why I went to college!’” recalled Linda, who had studied construction technology. Meanwhile, her older daughter and her son-in-law had both found employment in the bustling casino industry: She worked in a restaurant and he was a valet parking runner. Linda soon landed a job as a cigarette girl at the Riverside Casino in the gambling boomtown of Laughlin, Nevada. (The town’s namesake—Riverside owner Don Laughlin—originally wanted to call it “Casino” but was rebuffed by the U.S. Postal Service.) Linda was so grateful for the opportunity that she sent Don Laughlin two dozen roses. She got called to his office. “What is this?” he asked, perplexed.

“It’s a heartfelt thank you, Don,” she said. “It’s no other reason. Just to thank you for the job. I’m not looking for anything else.” At the casino, Linda sold candy, flowers, and tobacco from a tray on a shoulder strap. The tray was so heavy that, in the beginning, she had to wear a back brace to help support it. Even with the brace, she got a serious workout. “I went from a size fourteen to a size ten running cigarettes,” she recalled.

Linda bought roses wholesale for 96 cents apiece and then sold them for $4, which usually came with a dollar tip. She purchased cigarettes by the carton, selling them at a profit of 50 cents a pack. Gradually she came to know the gamblers, like the guy who always got a headache and could be counted on to drop $5 on a 25-cent packet of aspirin. On a good night, she could clear $200 to $300. She’d also picked up a second source of income, hiring and supervising people to clean the casino’s artificial silk plants.

But the heyday of cigarette girls at the Riverside ended abruptly with the arrival of tobacco vending machines. Don called Linda back to his office to break the news that her job was obsolete. But he didn’t want to fire her. He suggested she speak with Dale, the general manager, to find another position. Linda went to track him down and got right to the point.

“Who makes the most money in this place?” she asked.

“Well, it’s between being a dealer and being a cocktail waitress,” Dale replied.

“I think I’d much prefer to be a cocktail waitress,” Linda said.

The new job came with a uniform: a petite tailcoat over a silky red cummerbund with high-leg dance briefs, nylons, and heels. It didn’t leave much to the imagination, and this made Linda nervous. “I don’t know if I could ever wear that!” she thought, but she decided to give it a shot. When she put it on for the first time, her supervisor told her she looked beautiful. To Linda’s surprise, she agreed. Out on the casino floor, she felt protected by the bouncers, who didn’t tolerate gamblers disrespecting the cocktail waitresses. “I’ve seen security grab people by the back of the neck and just open the front doors with their face,” she said.

Linda looks back on her Riverside years fondly. She still has a snapshot of herself in full uniform, smiling, her dark hair cropped short and the Colorado River at her back. But she was in her forties then. Her options for work would dwindle with age, rather than broadening to reflect her years of experience. There seemed to be no way off the treadmill of low-wage jobs.

By her sixties the question loomed: How would she ever afford to stop working? She had spent most of her life living paycheck to paycheck, with no savings to speak of. Her only safety net, Social Security, was perilously thin. What would retirement look like on around $500 a month?Linda in uniform at the Riverside Casino.

At the same time, Linda had a long-term dream for her future. It didn’t include any of the old clichés—a gated community in Florida or even a few rounds of golf. Her hopes were, quite literally, down to earth, made out of dirt and other people’s trash.

She wanted to construct an Earthship: a passive-solar home built using discarded materials such as cans and bottles, with dirt-filled tires for its load-bearing walls. Invented by radical New Mexico architect Michael Reynolds, who has been tinkering with them since the 1970s, Earthships are designed to sustain their inhabitants entirely off the grid. The tire walls act like batteries, absorbing the sun’s heat through a bank of south-facing windows during the daytime and then releasing it at night to regulate indoor temperature. Rain and snowmelt drain from the roof into a cistern, providing water that gets filtered and reused for drinking and washing, feeding indoor fruit and vegetable gardens and flushing toilets. Electricity is supplied by solar panels and, in some cases, windmills.

For all their pragmatism, many Earthships have fanciful touches—spires and turrets, columns and arches, adobe-clad walls in vivid hues, or rows of bottles inlaid to resemble stained glass. Their construction does not require any sophisticated techniques, which makes them accessible to amateur builders and leaves room for creativity. Dozens of them dot the desert outside Taos, New Mexico, in a subdivision known as the Greater World Earthship Community. Together they look like a moon colony co-produced by Dr. Seuss, Antoni Gaudí, and the set designers from Star Wars.

The idea of creating a unique, self-sufficient, and ecologically sound dwelling appealed deeply to Linda. “It’s not mass-produced,” she said. “It’s like living in a piece of art, and it’s something I could build with my own two hands.” Her fascination with Earthships began after Gunsmoke actor Dennis Weaver moved to Colorado in 1989 to build one. He made a documentary about the process that aired for years on public television, introducing the concept to main-stream America. When the film opens, the gray-haired actor stands atop a low wall, pounding dirt into a tire with a sledgehammer. He looks up and strides purposefully toward the camera. “How would you like to live in a house with no electric bills, no air conditioning, no heating ducts, and still be perfectly comfortable in the coldest winter or the hottest summer?” he asks. “Sounds crazy?” Joyfully he joins the construction crew. He shaves bark from a log to make a roof beam and then slathers a mix of mud, sand, and straw over the tires and cans that will become his bedroom wall.

Not everyone understood the actor’s passion for living in a glorified tire pile. Locals nicknamed it “the Michelin Mansion.” On The Tonight Show, Jay Leno asked him if his neighbors thought he was building an addition whenever he took out the trash. “When the garbage man comes, how does he know where the garbage begins and the house ends?” the comedian cracked.

Humble materials aside, Dennis Weaver’s 10,000-square-foot dwelling cost $1 million to build and is an extreme case of what one might call “Earthships of the rich and famous.” Most Earthship dwellings end up costing about as much as a conventional house, though one New Zealand family managed on a budget of less than $20,000. “I believe in child labor,” Brian Gubb, proud father of five, wrote online, adding that his wife initially thought he was a “nutter” for wanting to construct an Earthship. In Seattle, a group of Earthship enthusiasts decided to make a small, simplified version for free using scavenged materials, volunteer labor, and the generous donation of a friend’s driveway. Their diminutive structure—the local-alt weekly called it an “earthdinghy”—is a work-in-progress.

Earthships exist on every continent except Antarctica. Globetrotting disaster-relief volunteers have built them in the aftermath of such catastrophes as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013. Probably the most infamous Earthship builders so far were Heaven’s Gate cult members, who erected a tire house on their New Mexico compound. In the media frenzy following their 1997 mass suicide, architect Michael Reynolds assured America that Earthships had nothing to do with it. “Crazy occult people need housing” just like everyone else, he told the Associated Press. “We’re teaching people here to connect with the planet, not leave it.”

Linda is one of Reynolds’s most ardent admirers. She respects how hard he’s fought to realize his vision by pitting himself against bureaucrats who upheld arcane housing regulations, a struggle that was chronicled in the film Garbage Warrior.

“Michael Reynolds, wouldn’t you like to take a walk through his mind? He’s been fighting the fight since the 70s,” she enthused. “They took his architecture license away once because his first houses were failures.”

In recent years, Reynolds has argued that his Earthships could play a role in providing for basic human necessities in a way that’s not at the mercy of the market. “We have to find secure sustenance for people that is not subject to the monster called the economy,” reads a statement on his website. “The economy is a game. This game should be about nonessential things (motorcycles, computers, televisions). A person feeding their family, staying alive, having shelter... that should not be subject to an economy.”

Around a decade ago, Linda began scouring the internet for Earthship floor plans, system diagrams, and interior photographs. The ones she likes best are printed out and neatly compiled in a three-ring binder with a wood-grain pattern on its vinyl cover. Her Facebook profile picture shows an Earthship rising from desert chaparral under a pink New Mexico sunset. “This is my dream house,” she wrote beside the image. By way of explanation, she added: “Earthships are made of recycled tires, bottles and cans. They are self-contained, require no utility hookups, sun and/or wind for power, water from the sky. Water is used four times. Indoor gardens grow food. It means you can live free, no bills. How many times do I say I have to do this so I can pay the mortgage?”

Linda’s hope was to find a cheap piece of land somewhere with lax building codes. Reynolds calls such places “pockets of freedom.” She had rough ideas for sourcing free materials and recruiting volunteers to help with the work. But how would she embark on such an ambitious vision while she was stuck in low-wage work and funneling her paychecks into rent, knowing how little relief Social Security would bring? She needed a new way to live, a strategy that would enable her to keep earning income while whittling down her already slim living costs. In other words, she needed a bridge to the Earthship.

Linda knew she couldn’t wait. She wasn’t getting any younger, and creating her new home would require a reasonable level of physical fitness. Accumulating the resources would take time, too. But if she could pull it off, the project would be more than just a funky place to retire. The Earthship was her shot at posterity, a monument that might stand for a century or more. “It would take all my education and know-how and heart, and I’d leave something behind that would last,” she said. “I would like to leave that to my children and my grandchildren.”

Linda craved self-sufficiency. She reasoned that an Earthship, with its stand-alone systems for providing food, electricity, climate control, and water, would act almost like a symbiotic organism. If she could create and maintain such a dwelling, it would take care of her, too. That kind of stability felt reassuring. Linda, after all, was aging into a precarious demographic. According to 2015 census figures, among older women living alone, more than one in six are below the poverty line. Nearly twice as many elderly women in America are poor (2.71 million) than their male counterparts (1.49 million). And when it comes to Social Security benefits, female recipients get on average $341 a month less than men because of lower total payroll tax contributions, an under-recognized consequence of the gender wage gap. In 2015, women were still making just about 80 cents on the male dollar and more likely to work as unpaid caregivers to young children and aging parents. (Apart from raising her two children, Linda later became a live-in helper for her mother, who developed an aggressive brain cancer in the mid-1990s.) Women have lower lifetime earnings and accrue less in savings. And since they have greater longevity—outliving men by five years on average—those dollars must stretch further into the future.

On June 1, 2012, Linda May turned sixty-two. The next month, her first Social Security check arrived in the mail. “I shouldn’t have started collecting until I was sixty-five,” she later reflected, “but my benefit was so little, I thought, ‘I don’t care what percentage they put on it, it wouldn’t increase it that much.’”

Either way, she had a problem. “How am I going to live and not have to work for the rest of my life and not be a burden to my children?” she wondered. Linda knew she wanted her long-term solution to be an Earthship. But how would she ever get there?

Excerpted from the new book Nomadland by Jessica Bruder (W.W. Norton, September 2017), available for purchase from Amazon and IndieBound.

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Jessica Bruder is an award-winning journalist whose work focuses on subcultures and the dark corners of the economy. She has written for Harper’s, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. Bruder teaches at the Columbia School of Journalism.