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Ehrenreich got a PhD in cell biology from Rockefeller University in 1968, but before she could do much with it she hooked up with a group of activists trying to improve health care for poor New Yorkers. "Health seemed related to biology," she says, and it turned out she loved reporting and writing on the subject.
Before long, her feminist-socialist take on the world was showing up in magazines like Ms. and Mother Jones. A well-reviewed 1983 book called "The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight From Commitment" earned her assignments from the New York Times -- and a foot in mainstream journalism's door. From 1990 to 1997, she wrote a regular column for Time. By then she'd also written a number of other books, including "Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class" and the densely researched "Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War."
She'd never gone undercover, though.
One day in 1998, in conversation with Harper's editor Lewis Lapham, she threw out a question that has long concerned her: "How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled?" She followed this with the offhand suggestion that "someone" -- presumably a younger, hungrier someone -- should just "go out there and try it for themselves."
"You," said Lapham, smiling.
She says she didn't want to do it. But she was a freelance writer who needed to eat.
So she went to work in Florida, struggling to pay the rent and gaining new appreciation for the stamina of waitresses. ("The break room summarizes the whole situation: There is none, because there are no breaks . . . For six to eight hours in a row, you never sit except to pee.") The resulting Harper's piece got a ton of attention and earned her a contract with Metropolitan Books.
"My book editor said, 'Oh, go out and do some more of this and we'll have a book,' " Ehrenreich recalls. "Easy enough for you to say, Sara!"
She signed on with a cleaning service in Portland, Maine, where she learned to scrub floors "the old-fashioned way" (on her knees) and to distinguish the three kinds of excrement stains that must be removed from toilets (don't ask). She also watched in horror as a co-worker hopped around cleaning on one leg: Afraid to anger the boss, the woman refused to go to the emergency room after a fall had badly injured her ankle.
Later, while earning $7 an hour at a Minnesota Wal-Mart, she learned that bathroom trips and conversations among employees were banned as "time theft." Ehrenreich rebelled by sneaking into the rest room before she punched out for her 15-minute break.
There were obvious downsides to the undercover shtick. She had to change most people's names, for one thing, making it harder for readers to trust her. What's more, maintaining her cover meant that she couldn't delve too deeply into the lives of her minimum-wage colleagues.