Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America

3.6 124
by Barbara Ehrenreich
     
 

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Millions of Americans work full-time, year-round, for poverty-level wages. In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that a job -- any job -- could be the ticket to a better life. But how does anyone survive, let alone prosper, on six to seven dollars an hour? To find out,

Overview

Millions of Americans work full-time, year-round, for poverty-level wages. In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that a job -- any job -- could be the ticket to a better life. But how does anyone survive, let alone prosper, on six to seven dollars an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich left her home, took the cheapest lodgings she could find, and accepted whatever jobs she was offered as a woefully inexperienced homemaker returning to the workforce. So began a grueling, hair-raising, and darkly funny odyssey through the underside of working America.

Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, Ehrenreich worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. Very quickly, she discovered that no job is truly "unskilled," that even the lowliest occupations require exhausting mental and muscular effort. She also learned that one job is not enough; you need at least two if you intend to live indoors.

Nickel and Dimed reveals low-wage America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity -- a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate stratagems for survival. Read it for the smoldering clarity of Ehrenreich's perspective and for a rare view of how "prosperity" looks from the bottom. You will never see anything -- from a motel bathroom to a restaurant meal -- quite the same way again.

Editorial Reviews

To understand life beyond boom-time America, Barbara Ehrenreich spent months laboring as a cleaning woman; as a waitress; and as a Wal-Mart sales clerk. Her revelations about these hard, supposedly "unskilled" jobs and the difficulty of making ends meet in the U.S. gives this book a powerful, personal edge.
Vivien Labaton
Nickel and Dimed is an important book that should be read by anyone who has been lulled into middle-class complacency.
Ms. Magazine
Publishers Weekly
In contrast to recent books by Michael Lewis and Dinesh D'Souza that explore the lives and psyches of the New Economy's millionares, Ehrenreich (Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class) turns her gimlet eye on the view from the workforce's bottom rung. Determined to find out how anyone could make ends meet on $7 an hour, she left behind her middle class life as a journalist—except for $1000 in start-up funds, a car and her laptop computer—to try to sustain herself as a low-skilled worker for a month at a time. In 1999 and 2000, Ehrenreich worked as a waitress in Key West, Fla., as a cleaning woman and a nursing home aide in Portland, Maine, and in a Wal-Mart in Minneapolis, Minn.

During the application process, she faced routine drug tests and spurious "personality tests"; once on the job, she endured constant surveillance and numbing harangues over infractions like serving a second roll and butter. Beset by transportation costs and high rents, she learned the tricks of the trade from her co-workers, some of whom sleep in their cars, and many of whom work when they're vexed by arthritis, back pain or worse, yet still manage small gestures of kindness. Despite the advantages of her race, education, good health and lack of children, Ehrenreich's income barely covered her month's expenses in only one instance, when she worked seven days a week at two jobs (one of which provided free meals) during the off-season in a vacation town. Delivering a fast read that's both sobering and sassy, she gives readers pause about those caught in the economy's undertow, even in good times.

Dorothy Gallagher
We have Barbara Ehrenreich to thank for bringing us the news of America's working poor so clearly and directly, and conveying with it a deep moral outrage and a finely textured sense of lives as lived. As Michael Harrington was, she is now our premier reporter of the underside of capitalism.
New York Times Book Review
Chicago Tribune
Ehrenreich is passionate, public, hotly lucid, and politically engaged.
Boston Globe
Ehrenreich's scorn withers, her humor stings, and her radical light shines on.
New York Times
One of today's most original writers.
Diana Henriques
". . . you will read this explosive little book cover to cover and pass it on to all your friends and relatives."
—Diana Henriques, The New York Times
Susannah Meadows
"Jarring, full of riveting grit . . . This book is already unforgettable."
—Susannah Meadows, Newsweek
Anne Colamosca
"Angry, amusing . . . An in-your-face expose."
—Anne Colamosca, Business Week
Eileen Boris
"With grace and wit, Ehrenreich discovers . . . the irony of being nickel and dimed during unprecedented prosperity."
—Eileen Boris, The Boston Globe
Stephen Metcalf
"Ehrenreich is a superb and relaxed stylist {with} a tremendous sense of rueful humor."
—Stephen Metcalf, Los Angeles Times Book Review
Library Journal
A close observer and astute analyzer of American life (The Worst Years of Our Life and The Fear of Falling), Ehrenreich turns her attention to what it is like trying to subsist while working in low-paying jobs. Inspired to see what boom times looked like from the bottom, she hides her real identity and attempts to make a life on a salary of just over $300 per week after taxes. She is often forced to work at two jobs, leaving her time and energy for little else than sleeping and working. Ehrenreich vividly describes her experiences living in isolated trailers and dilapidated motels while working as a nursing-home aide, a Wal-Mart "sales associate," a cleaning woman, a waitress, and a hotel maid in three states: Florida, Maine, and Minnesota. Her narrative is candid, often moving, and very revealing. Looking back on her experiences, Ehrenreich claims that the hardest thing for her to accept is the "invisibility of the poor"; one sees them daily in restaurants, hotels, discount stores, and fast-food chains but one doesn't recognize them as "poor" because, after all, they have jobs. No real answers to the problem but a compelling sketch of its reality and pervasiveness. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/01.] Jack Forman, San Diego Mesa Coll. Lib. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Between 1998 and 2000, Ehrenreich spent about three months in three cities throughout the nation, attempting to "get by" on the salary available to low-paid and unskilled workers. Beginning with advantages not enjoyed by many such individuals-she is white, English-speaking, educated, healthy, and unburdened with transportation or child-care worries-she tried to support herself by working as a waitress, a cleaning woman, a nursing-home aide, and a Wal-Mart employee. She discovered that her average salary of $7 per hour couldn't even provide the necessities of life (rent, transportation, and food), let alone the luxury of health coverage. Her account is at once enraging and sobering. In straightforward language, she describes how labor-intensive, demeaning, and controlling such jobs can be: she scrubbed floors on her hands and knees, and found out that talking to coworkers while on the job was considered "time theft." She describes full-time workers who sleep in their cars because they cannot afford housing and employees who yearn for the ability to "take a day off now and then-and still be able to buy groceries the next day." In a concluding chapter, Ehrenreich takes on issues and questions posed before and during the experiment, including why these wages are so low, why workers are so accepting of them, and what Washington's refusal to increase the minimum wage to a realistic "living wage" says about both our economy and our culture. Mandatory reading for any workforce entrant.-Dori DeSpain, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher

“Captivating . . . promise that you will read this explosive little book cover to cover and pass it on to all your friends and relatives.” —The New York Times

“Impassioned, fascinating, profoundly significant, and wildly entertaining . . . Nickel and Dimed is not only important but transformative in its insistence that we take a long hard look at the society we live in.” —Francise Prose, O, The Oprah Magazine

“Valuable and illuminating . . . Barbara Ehrenreich is our premier reporter of the underside of capitalism.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Jarring . . . fully of riveting grit . . . this book is already unforgettable.” —The New York Times

“Reading Ehrenreich is good for the soul.” —Molly Ivins

“Ehrenreich is passionate, public, hotly lucid, and politically engaged.” —Chicago Tribune

“Ehrenreich's scorn withers, her humor stings, and her radical light shines on.” —The Boston Globe

“One of today's most original writers.” —The New York Times

“Barbara Ehrenreich is smart, provocative, funny, and sane in a world that needs more of all four.” —Diane Sawyer

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780805063899
Publisher:
Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
05/01/2002
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
240
Product dimensions:
5.92(w) x 7.78(h) x 0.69(d)
Lexile:
1340L (what's this?)

Read an Excerpt

It is hotter inside than out, but I do all right until I encounter the banks of glass doors. Each one has to be Windexed, wiped, and buffed-inside and out, top to bottom, left to right, until it's as streakless and invisible as a material substance can be. Outside, I can see construction guys knocking back Gatorade, but the rule is that no fluid or food item can touch a maid's lips when she's inside a house. I sweat without replacement or pause, not in individual drops but in continuous sheets of fluid, soaking through my polo shirt, pouring down the backs of my legs. Working my way through the living room(s), I wonder if Mrs. W. will ever have occasion to realize that every single doodad and object through which she expresses her unique, individual self is, from the vantage point of a maid, only an obstacle on the road to a glass of water.

—Diana Henriques, The New York Times [Business Section]

"Jarring, full of riveting grit . . . This book is already unforgettable."

—Susannah Meadows, Newsweek

"Angry, amusing . . . An in-your-face expose."

—Anne Colamosca, Business Week

"With grace and wit, Ehrenreich discovers . . . the irony of being nickel and dimed during unprecedented prosperity."

—Eileen Boris, The Boston Globe

"Ehrenreich is a superb and relaxed stylist [with] a tremendous sense of rueful humor."

—Stephen Metcalf, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Barbara Ehrenreich . . . is our premier reporter of the underside of capitalism."

—Dorothy Gallagher, The New York Times Book

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What People are saying about this

Molly Ivins
Reading Ehrenreich is good for the soul.
Diane Sawyer
Barbara Ehrenreich is smart, provocative, funny, and sane in a world that needs more of all four.

Meet the Author

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of Blood Rites; The Worst Years of Our Lives (a New York Times bestseller); Fear of Falling, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award; and eight other books. A frequent contributer to Time, Harper's, Esquire, The New Republic, Mirabella, The Nation, and The New York Times Magazine, she lives near Key West, Florida.

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Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America (Turtleback School & Library Binding Edition) 3.6 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 124 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was horrible. I can't believe that I gave this person money! The author doesn't bother to really understand what she is writing about. She is consistently surprised that the poor folks around her aren't impressed with her PhD.... and what's sick is that she doesn't get that a PhD shouldn't impress the working poor. Why does she feel that she is so much better than everyone else... why doesn't she bother to find out how the people around her are actually making it work? How in Gods green can she have problems getting by for ONE month when she has a paid for rental car, $1000 going into the experiment and an income, however meager? Why does she feel that eating off you lap is a major plight of the working poor that she has to write about it? Has she never been to a picnic? The idea was fabulous... it's too bad she ruined it. Lastly, no real suggestions to solve the problem? Raise minimum wage? Doesn't she realize that the cost for product will rise too... and still a worker at Wal-Mart won't be able to afford to shop there? All I got from this book was that a spoiled child couldn't figure out how to live on less. Bummer for her. Fortunately most people on the planet are a little more crafty and intelligent. Finally, we as Americans only need to look to other countries to understand what poor really is.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While the author's experiment is certainly intriguing and even worthwhile, objectivity is quickly clouded by Ehrenreich's opinions on various social issues. During the brief time she works as a maid, she's pretentious enough to criticize the people who own the homes she is cleaning. She implies that these owners, many of whom she has never met, must be mean, selfish people because they actually own something of monetary value and are paying to have it cleaned. The possibility that they may have earned money through hard work to buy their possessions never seems to occur to her. Of course, this might have broken her moment of self-righteousness. Likewise, on page 100, she describes how self-conscious and ostracized she feels about wearing her garish maid's uniform in a supermarket, saying that she's 'getting a tiny glimpse of what it would be like to be black.' In today's society, that is hardly an accurate comparison. If anything, maybe she got a glimpse of how a disfigured or physically handicapped person may feel, but I doubt such people go about their daily routines with the indignant paranoia she displayed. Granted, there are injustices everywhere in America. However, it still remains the best country in the world for individuals to achieve their goals and attain economic comfort. It is up to the idividual to take the initiative for improvement; no one else can do it for them.
AdditionalReport More than 1 year ago
The setting of this book begins in the place at where Ehrenreich lives, Key West, Florida as she decides to start her low-wage life. The plot of this book begins as Ehrenreich is planning her project on how people live in a low- wage life, and the problems that they may come across, like affording a place to live. After leaving her normal life for this project her first task was to find a place to live, since she figured she would probably make around $7 an hour. But once she found a job at Hearthside she found out that her salary was for $2.43 an hour and eventually decided to find another job at Jerry’s in order to live. From there she started moving a couple of more times because she could not find to work with such a low-wage and have enough money for the necessities she may have to come across. In her evaluation she explains how housing is really expensive but, wages have not increased. The main character of this book was Ehrenreich the one who was doing the project to experience a low- wage job. There were also many other characters in which she came across when she was working at different places. The theme of this book is poverty because poverty had a great role in Ehrenreich’s book throughout the book she demonstrates the difficulty of survival with a low-waged job. She shows that there are so many other people that are actually living their lives with so many limitations and, things they have to sacrifice like health insurance that may eventually leave them in debt if anything ever really happened. Nickel and Dimed, 235 pages.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I bought this book hoping to maybe spark some sort of social progression in myself, but I ended up with a bitter taste in my mouth toward the author. When she attempts to make the blanket claim that people cannot live on minimum wage, well as true as that can be, she doesn't give up her luxuries to do so. She still continues to smoke and drink and spend her money on items she does not need. I would say save your money.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
After reading this book required for a project for my economy class I found that it did provide some useful information about the struggles of finding a job and about some of the obstacles the working poor encounter. I do feel like the author included a lot of negative and unecessary remarks about the people she worked with and I did get the sense that she felt superior to those around her simply because she has a PhD and they do not. In the conclusion of the book, and overall throughout it, she implies that changes should be made, like increasing the minimum wage but comes to no real conclusion. Although the book somewhat depicts the current situtation in regards to the recession and teaches readers about how the working poor are being treated, I feel like the author makes the working class seem hopeless and like they will never be really able to better their lives.
cafereadsblogspotcom More than 1 year ago
This book is well-written account of an undercover journalist's journey into the world of the working poor. At times, the tone is biting and sarcastic. More often, it is sincere and sympathetic as Ehrenreich recounts her experiences working an array of low-paying jobs. The end notes can be daunting and Ehrenreich can be a bit cryptic at times, especially toward the end of the book, but overall I think this book is an important wake-up call to the struggles of America's working poor.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A must read for anyone who wants to thoroughly understand the obstacles in life when one get paid minimum wage. It was a fantastic book that opened my eyes to the harsh realities that people have to go through everyday. Nickel and dimed is a reminder of the very substantial underclass in our society. It's about those who toil long hours at menial jobs to make our lives so very comfortable. They work in our kitchens, clean our offices and bathrooms, wash our cars, mow our lawns, take care of many of our needs. They do it quietly, often unseen, without complaint, and without much reward.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In all honestly I did not like the author of the book. I strongly believe that the book should have been written by someone WITHOUT a college education. I personally thought that it was asinine how a college educated woman was writing a book about America's working class. In the book she mentions how she has a Ph.D., a savings account, IRA, health insurance, and house. Reading this book, I could not get out of mind that she is one of the privileged people in America. Although this book does provide in-depth the struggles that many hard working Americans face every day. Nickel and Dimed would have been more powerful if it was written by an actual working class American. I also hope that Ms. Ehrenreich gives some of the profits from this book to help out those who are in need of financial support.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book is a short 230 pages. It's the longest 230 pages you will ever read. The book is slow and I felt uninterested in the topics. It's not the greatest book and there are better books on the subject.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Having heard so much about this book, I was a little disappointed when I actually sat down to read it. While I appreciate the author's honesty about her unwillingness to be inconvenienced in certain ways (using a car, having a wad of 'start up' cash, etc.), it made her alternating moments of whininess and self-congratulation all the more irritating. Also, her focus on the process of making herself poor limited her ability to go deeper into the actual experience and, more importantly, the experiences of those around her. I found 'The Broke Diaries' more entertaining and insightful.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The author certainly talked the talk, but she really didn't walk the walk. She only spent three months trying to figure out the problems of the working poor; and all the time having her emergency money handy, her ATM card, and her mind set on the things that she would absolutely not do without. In the REAL world of the working poor, those options are not always a reality. The concept of the book was good but if she had stayed with it for a year or more without any help from her 'real life', then the story, from her point of view, might have been a better read for me. This book seemed more like a reality show that the author stepped into while knowing she could bale out at any time. If I had not had to read it for school, I would not have read it for pleasure.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The concept of the book seemed good, but the narration of the book ruined it for me. While reading this book, I couldn't help but feel that the author was completely ignorant on the idea of living off of a low wage job. She seemed to be completely prejudiced. To those who do happen to read this book: NOT EVERYONE LIVES THIS WAY.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book couldn't help me wondering how efficient a person with zero degrees, no money, no car, etc. would do in this situation. Just the simple fact that Ms. Enrenreich had start up money puts her far and above the average person looking for work. This book reminds me of the world I grew up in and visit quite often, rural America, except for one obvious difference: there are no Merry Maids and very few restaurants to even apply for a job. People there rely on friends and family, a garden, and the land, using its wild fruits, plants, and trees to survive. If one wants to know how to get by and thrive in America, get away from the cities and towns and travel the very rural roads of Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, and Nebraska. The people you will find are certainly not loaded with money, but have the values and substance needed to not only survive, but lead a rich and stop-to-smell-the-roses lifestyle.
Anonymous 3 months ago
Nickel And Dimed is perhaps the single greatest book on wealth and income inequality in modern America. It is jarring and full if wit but at the same time it is incisive and written by someone who definitely is as the critics say "a veteren muckraker." Ehrenreich is a pure genius who is able to transform an already interesting topic into an irresistible masterpiece that you just cannot put down. I find myself constantly providing my waiters and cabbies an exorbitant tip after reading this book because it illuminates the struggles of poor Americans. I do not have a single negative thing to say about this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have always felt the need to show respect to all people because you never know their circumstances and what they’re going through, but I feel that embedded in everyone of us is a feeling of superiority towards those of a lower status than our own. This riveting story made me feel a greater sense of respect for blue-collar Americans and what they undergo on a day-to-day basis. I now feel more conscientious of how I treat the lower class and how I view those in poverty, because even though some might simply be lazy, most are working hard to be successful. Although Ehrenreich is incapable of fully transforming her life into one of a minimum wage worker, she still gives great insight into what blue-collar Americans go through. On her first day as a housekeeper in Florida, Barbara cries, “I had gone into this venture in the spirit of science… but somewhere along the line… it became a test of myself, and clearly I have failed.” (Ehrenreich 48) She goes on to say that although she doesn’t ever cry, she found out that day that her tear ducts do still work. Even though this job doesn’t seem to require much skill, it does (like many other low wage jobs), cause a great deal of stress that even caused a woman with a PhD to quit on the first day. Hearing this made me question how I treat others and how it might affect their lives outside of work. According to New York Times, there was a study published in 2012 that, “Tracked women for 10 years [and] concluded that stressful jobs increased the risk of a cardiovascular event by 38 percent.” (Porath) I have also always had the misconception that there are tons of secrets to getting by on minimum wage, but Barbara explains, “There are no secret economies that nourish the poor…” (Ehrenreich 32) These people work such stressful jobs and don’t get a ton of help from anyone, especially their customers. Most blue-collar Americans even have shorter life expectancies because of their stressful jobs. In the Washington post it was said that, ”…job insecurity, long hours, heavy demands at work and other stresses can also cut down on a worker’s life expectancy by taking a heavy toll on a worker’s health.” (Swanson) Through reading Nickel and Dimed I have gained a greater appreciation and respect for the minimum wage workforce of America. They undergo so much that many of us don’t understand and they deserve to be treated just as fairly as the richest people. I have realized that there’s a lot that I’ve taken for granted in my own life and I have been very fortunate to grow up in the home that I have. Nickel and Dimed has changed my perspective on blue-collar Americans for the better and has strengthened my desire to excel in schooling so that I never have to know what it’s like to work in such a stressful job!
pumpernickel1997 More than 1 year ago
Had to read this for college. Terrible. This author is an absolute arrogant woman and it showed throughout the entire book. The concept and idea was spectacular but she executed this with bias after bias after bias.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ilovemister More than 1 year ago
This book should be required reading in high school. It should be required reading for all branches of the government (especially republicans). The working poor are not a myth. They are real Americans trying to make it in this country  All of the pundents who blab on Fox should read this and then be made to work like she did and then see if they change their tunes. I doubt it. They beleive it is not that way. What ever happened to compassion?Please read this book. Everyone should
WhiteFlowerLei76 More than 1 year ago
This is an incredible book that exposes income inequality. Don't believe the fake bad reviews that are clearly written by tea party conservatives that would prefer you ignore income inequality because if you were more informed you might not vote for the people responsible for making it worse.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book gives an inside scoop on poverty in America, which some of us are totally unaware of. The book is not meant to be biased or racist, but rather depicts hard workers in the lower- class, trying their best to achieve the popular "American Dream". The negative reactions to this book are aimed at the characters of the story, while it's the big picture of the story that should be analyzed-- that low-wage jobs require "unskilled" labor. Ehrenreich attacks this notion and society's provincial point-of-view.   
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ehrenreich tells a great story while uncovering a shocking truth in America. Her determination to call attention to the living situation of the poor in America is refreshing in a society dominated by the rich and powerful. Definitely a good read for anyone interested in economics or social work. - Andrew R.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ehrenreich, in my opinion, has showed the plights of the poor working class and how there needs to be changes. She has proved that it's  difficult or impossible to sustain oneself on minimum wages and I commend her for doing so. However, she is better off than these people  and only needs to be in these situations for a month. Also when her own voice comes out, like her swearing it can be annoying.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In the book entitled Nickel and Dimed Barbara Ehrenreich investigates what it is like on not getting by in America and how people live on minimum wage. First Ehrenreich points out how some of the workers are living she said “Marianne who is a breakfast server, and her boyfriend are paying $170 a week for a one person trailer” showing us that people who are on a minimum wage budget have to share a place and it still is not even a decent place or comfortable living style for the couple earning only 7 to 8 dollars an hour. Then Ehrenreich moves to Maine where she got a job as a low paying maid and experienced some more people with housing issues and she hears holly say “Something snapped […] I heard it snap.” Ehrenreich tells Holly they have to take her to an emergency room […]”, but her response is no I don’t have enough money too and this shows her point on how it is hard to live on minimum wage if you can not even afford doctor. Finally she moves one more time to Minnesota where she works at Wal-Mart and hears about Caroline’s situation which was even more precarious, we learn: “she had two children to take care of. How did she do it? She found a church as soon as she arrived in Orlando, thereby found a school for her twelve year-old and day care for her baby, got a job cleaning hotel rooms, and made friends”, this also backs the author up because this lady is barley getting by with her two kids. What I really liked about this book is that it shows you how some ordinary people strive to live on minimum wage and support there family’s too. For example Caroline who supported two kids on 7 dollars an hour, to me that is amazing that you are able to still support a family with such little money to even begin with. I also liked this book because of the way she explained what she had to do to get a job. For example she said “Each potential new job requires (1) the application, (2) the interview, and (3) the drug test—which is something to ponder with gasoline running at nearly two dollars a gallon, not to mention what you have to pay for a babysitter”, telling me what the process was so that you could get a job. The only reason I did not like this book is because of some of the foul language the author had chosen, but otherwise I loved the book and thought it was interesting. I would recommend this book to you because it is good to know what to do when you run into a situation like this and the author really goes into detail on how she survived on minimum wage.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
it was weak
Anonymous More than 1 year ago