Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century
By Jessica Bruder
251 pages, $26.95
Meet Linda May, a 60-year-old grandmother who is spending Thanksgiving alone in the beat-up trailer she calls home.
Like May, a growing number of Americans are giving up houses and apartments they can no longer afford and living instead in their "wheel estate" – vans, secondhand RVs, school buses, pickup campers or cars.
These are not wealthy retirees out to see America in glitzy mobile homes. Instead, they are living on the outer margins of society, dependent on patched-together vehicles, and in many cases, one precarious step away from living on the streets.
"People who never imagined being nomads are hitting the road," writes Jessica Bruder, a journalist and professor at Columbia University. "In a time of flat wages and rising housing costs, they have unshackled themselves from rent and mortgages as a way to get by. They are surviving America."
Bruder tells their story with gripping insight, detail and candor. In the hands of a fine writer, this is a terrific profile of a sub-culture that gets little attention, or is treated by the media as "a quirky hobby, rather than a survival strategy." Bruder says.
There are "tens of thousands" of people living in vehicles, many of them female and elderly, the author estimates. It is difficult to be more precise because many of these "workampers" use phony addresses to satisfy federal employment law.
Roaming the country as seasonal workers, they pick raspberries in Vermont and apples in Washington, operate rides at amusement parks, take tickets at NASCAR races, guard the gates of Texas oil fields and give tours at fish hatcheries.
Amazon.com distribution centers rely heavily on these workampers to keep packages moving during the holiday season. Linda May chose to work an overnight shift at an Amazon warehouse in order to earn an extra 75 cents an hour – boosting her pay to $12.25 an hour – and to be eligible for overtime. She quickly learned why generic pain-relief pills were offered free to workers in wall-mounted dispensers. (Brand name products, however, were available only for sale in the break room.)
"Apart from walking up and down endless aisles, she was bending lifting, squatting, reaching, climbing and descending stairs, all the while traversing a warehouse the size of 13 football fields," Bruder writes.
In winter, huge throngs of nomads gather in Quartsize, Ariz., a town with three small motels and more than 70 RV camps. They sell odds and ends, work as cashiers, gather around campfires, ride three wheel bikes and attend informal classes on auto repair, constructing toilets, dealing with visits by police and obtaining cut-rate dentistry in a Mexican border town. The London Financial Times called it "one of America's most bizarre and seriously demented places."
Determined to directly experience life as a motorized nomad, Bruder bought a beat-up van and slept at truck stops, Walmart Supercenters, a casino, an abandoned gas station, barren deserts and suburban streets.
In addition to fear and loneliness, she learned, nomads have to make accommodations that would otherwise seem outrageous.
While having supper in a neighbor's van, Bruder placed her food tray on a sealed and covered toilet bucket. "Back home, I realized, that impromptu table might have bothered me," she wrote. "Here it was a detail that dissolved in the background. We were in a tight space, just using what we had."
Peter Simon is a retired Buffalo News education reporter.