(689) Hand to Mouth: Living In Bootstrap America [Book Review]


Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America
Linda Tirado
Putnam, New York: 2014
195 pages
ISBN: 978-0-399-17198-7

“I took my damn teeth out on YouTube.”

Working and being poor in Linda Tirado’s world is not pretty.  Unless you consider stress and bullshit pretty, that is.  Pay is crap.  Hours are brutal.  Personal decision-making gets goofed up by layers of expediency.  Self-esteem heads south.  And that’s just at your first job, the one you go to before your evening job that you fit in after taking classes, raising kids, fighting the welfare bureaucracy and maybe relating to someone.

A Canadian probably wants to read this f-word-laced firecracker of a book about American life with a couple of things in mind. First, that lots of people live this way here. We are a little luckier than Americans in a number of ways but there is more reason for caution than indifference. Second, have some imagination for what living like Ms. Tirado would be like without a public health-care system. Hand to Mouth wasn’t written as a favour to the upper half of this continent, that is simply a nice extra benefit of Ms. Tirado’s effort to share what it means to be among the working poor in post-2008 America. Her book serves as a warning to wise Canadians they best guard their blessings.

North Americans either side of the border retain a set of unfortunate generalizations about the nature of employment and prosperity.  Much of Tirado’s pain comes from this philosophy impeding the understanding of what it means to work and remain poor.  Sure, academics study poverty, bloggers blog about it and journalists immerse themselves in it for a stretch and report back.  Barbara Ehrenreich wrote the introduction to Hand to Mouth which stands strongly beside that writer’s own direct experience of working class life.

Tirado’s essay is relentless, adhering to a singular and difficult reality shared by millions. Luckily, it’s funny, too. Anyone who tells you there is no comedy in poverty is a liar. What choice do the poor have but to use everything they can to survive including the ability to see a desperate humour in life? The wryness and dry wit of Hand to Mouth is one of its strongest features, remarked on almost universally by readers.

Constant making do in endless shit jobs with multiple chains of nasty events all around show Tirado and her people are resourceful, they are trying hard. Not once in this powerful book does a union come anywhere near. Management? Forget it. They are just as likely to grab your ass or make some stupid demand as the public is half the time. Even toilet breaks are policed Gestapo-style in American working life.

Yup, the workers are pretty much on their own in Hand to Mouth. Headache after headache reels by. The migraines associated with cars came on as soon as suburban-poverty.com began reading. Readers know the “getting around” file is a big one for us. That’s because when a gassed-up motor vehicle with good tires and insurance is available it’s an important tool for the working poor. Anything goes wrong, however, like a bad dental injury at the hands of an uninsured drunk driver, or there’s a costly repair to keep a shitbox moving, and that useful tool becomes a millstone, a part of the disaster.

And yet, the working poor are almost totally dependant on cars to stitch together jobs and other obligations. Again and again in this book automobile-inflicted pain and stress is never far. Cars soak up pay in these unpredictable, obligatory ways that almost seem purposely designed to cement in place the margin of difficulty in low income lives.

Hand to Mouth began first as an extended comment on gawker.com to an item on the Huffington Post. In her comment, Tirado tried to share a reality-based explanation for some of the imponderables of poverty. She was pushing back at the shallow philosophy of so many which is based on judging the character of the poor. She admits the poor can act in self-defeating ways. In exchange for this honesty and self-criticism she asks only that the enormous energy extracted from the working poor by basic survival be recognized as the debilitating factor, not character. On the part of the better off it seems to require major effort to blame something other than the defective character of the poor for the shortcomings of an increasingly dysfunctional system. Tirado is telling us we are, well, fucking up on that one.

The Huffington Post published the comment as a stand-alone essay after the hits started to climb vertically.  From that, Hand-to-Mouth was born. We think this says something great about the truthfulness and the value of the book. Some further references might have been nice at the end, just to cross reference and further place the reality.  We hope to hear from Linda Tirado about specific solutions to poverty in her future work.

We read this one straight through, almost in one sitting. Powerful testimony delivered with humour. What we say when we like a book is “buy this book!” We don’t have any higher praise.

Hand to Mouth review – Linda Tirado’s howl of protest about plight of the poor. Poverty means bad jobs, bad credit and bad housing – but even worse is the assumption you aren’t trying hard enough, as Tirado’s angry, coruscating memoir proves theguardian.com