The selection in this year's Columbia Public Library’s One Read, now in its 18th season, turned out to be a worthy read.
I started "Nomadland" by Jessica Bruder only because I believe community One Read programs are a great idea — lots of people read the same book, attend book-related events and hear the reactions from fellow citizens.
It is sort of like an extra class in high school or college.
I liked the book, but I was expecting a tale of retirees with golf clubs who visit several of our 60 national parks on their way to someplace like Sun City, Arizona.
My expectations were off base, in part because I judged the book by its cover, which conveyed a pleasant photo of a sun-drenched camper, and a hard-to-read subtitle: “Surviving America in the Twenty First Century.”
It turns out that “surviving” plays a large part in this nonfiction book about older citizens who take to the road and live in their cars, vans and RVs.
Certainly over-the-road truckers and national park summer hosts have been hitting the road for years, but they often had permanent homes.
It is estimated that about 1 million Americans are nomads. Most are retirement age but without much retirement income due to lack of a pension, a small monthly stipend from Social Security or fallout from the 2008 recession and housing crash that ate up their savings.
Often, they took to the road after losing a job, enduring a divorce or surviving a big family emergency. Maybe their RVs should be called SVs — survivor vehicles.
It is not clear how many year-round travelers are wandering by choice and how many are on the road as a last resort because they cannot afford more traditional shelter.
Some are certainly following the spirit of "Walden" and "Blue Highways," but Henry David Thoreau and William Least Heat-Moon camped and wandered by choice. They had a place to which they returned.
Bruder’s 21st century nomads are different. Their survival often depends on staying out of sight, so they go unnoticed by the police and by society.
They sleep in their vehicle/homes in RV parks, rest stops, Walmart parking lots, Bureau of Land Management land and deserted side streets. Modern nomads consider themselves “houseless,” not “homeless.”
The internet has improved the quality of life on the road. Van dwellers can locate each other, find places to camp and even work remotely in some instances.
Bruder tells the story of Linda May, who traveled for periods over three years and had a budget of $15,000. Bruder also writes about Bob Wells, who organizes an annual gathering of van dwellers called "Rubber Tramp Rendezvous" in Quartsite, Arizona.
Linda and Bob, the two main characters in the book, represent contrasting types of road wanderers. Linda is there by economic necessity; for Bob, it is a choice.
Bob Wells’ website and book, "How to Live in a Car, Van or RV: And Get out of Debt, Travel and Find True Freedom," plus his YouTube channel, may make him the guru of the houseless.
Wells sought and has achieved a simpler life by living off the grid and getting rid of unnecessary stuff. He has learned how to find community when he needs to and maintains his RV mostly by himself.
May, on the other hand, struggles to survive. She has worked numerous low-income jobs that always seem to disappear for one reason or another. She has been a truck driver, a cocktail waitress and a “cigarette girl” at a casino where vending machines helped put her out of a job.
Bruder followed May to Amazon’s CampForce — the online mega-collection of local warehouses that recruit and hire seasonal workers as “stowers” and “pickers” at $12.25 an hour.
The backbreaking work for 10 hours a day is made less painful by the free supply of over-the-counter pain relievers.
Despite being a frequent user of Amazon to purchase too many books, running shoes and clothing — but not yet food — I was unaware of the company's exploitation of aging workers.
Apparently, Amazon gets a 25-40% federal income tax credit for hiring workers who are recipients of some form of federal assistance — Social Security, Medicare and/or Medicaid. No wonder Amazon paid NO federal income tax in 2017.
"Nomandland" reminds me of Barbara Ehrenreich’s "Nickel and Dimed," which was Columbia’s One Read book in 2004.
While reading "Nomadland," I thought of several public policy issues that have been inadequately addressed. Here are a few:
1. Should local governments be chasing Amazon and similar minimal-paying corporations? What is the local benefit of attracting van dwellers to a community?
2. Affordable and attainable housing is the root cause of houselessness. Gentrification and rapidly increasing house prices force some citizens to the road. Can anything be done about this?
3. Where should van dwellers be counted in the census, and where should they register to vote?
4. Increasingly local ordinances prohibit sleeping in a vehicle. What don’t we make it easier for van dwellers to park safely overnight? There must be unused parking lots at sport stadiums and airports that could serve the needs of van dwellers.
5. As these van dwellers age and can no longer drive and care for themselves, where will they go?
Author Jessica Bruder will talk about her book at 7 p.m. Sept. 24 at Columbia College’s Launer Auditorium. I will be interested to hear if her experience changed her public policy views and to hear other reactions from readers.
For a list of Columbia’s One Read events, go to https://www.dbrl.org/events?fwp_event_type=one-read.