To say I am not on the cutting edge of popular culture would be the greatest of understatements.
Not long ago, I read about the winners of the Grammy awards. Not only had I not heard of any of the artists, I had not heard any of the songs. That is not unusual for me.
I might recognize the name of someone who wins one of the Country Music Awards because the artists live around here and I occasionally listen to the Bobby Bones morning radio show, but I’m only marginally better in that category.
A few years ago, when I first started listening to podcasts, I happened upon one that centered around pop culture. I really liked the people that hosted it – a young man and a young woman who had witty back-and-forth with each other – but it wasn’t long before the content about current movies, TV shows and songs left me yawning and distracted.
In addition to my lack of knowledge of the subject matter, I realized I had little interest, except for the occasional discussion on books. I came to terms (again) with being past my prime in some areas.
But my stature in the pop culture world might have recently risen. Without meaning to, I read a book that was made into a movie that won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
A few weeks back, a book title, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” popped up on my Kindle as a recommendation. It was available through my library app, where I get almost all my electronic books. There was not even a waiting period for this one.
I checked it out without knowing much about the storyline, other than it being a non-fiction account of folks who travel around the country in vans and recreational vehicles. I enjoy stories about people in real-life situations, so I decided to try it.
It didn’t take long to realize how much more there would to be to this fascinating narrative of a subculture of American folks who have not necessarily gone off the grid (in fact, many of them depend heavily on technology), but have taken on a lifestyle not for the faint of heart.
Author Jessica Bruder, a Columbia University professor, followed these people for about three years, during which time she bought a van herself, naming it Halen after the band Van Halen, and lived among the “workampers,” as they have come to be known.
Bruder centers the story around Linda May, a 64-year-old grandmother who had worked in a casino, a carpet and tile shop (as a manager) and as a Home Depot cashier before she is introduced working at her current temporary job as a campground host, where she checks in campers and performs other menial tasks such as cleaning toilets.
May travels and lives in her converted van, with the goal of building a self-sustainable “earthship” from recycled materials. Following her journey and meeting more like her, the reader learns this is a common objective among workampers.
She makes friends of fellow workampers, even attending conference-like meetings (outdoors, of course) to exchange information with others living this life.
One of them maintains a website devoted to the workamper community (hence my previous reference to technology) and has built a virtual cottage industry dispensing advice and guidance to his brethren.
As you might imagine, there are some quirky characters, and although there are common threads among them, they are also surprisingly diverse.
There are religious and non-religious; clothing optional and fully clothed; traditionalists and non-conformists. The commonality is their itinerant life, whether it’s in a converted van, a more souped-up RV or, in some cases, a car.
They are mostly over 60, and many of them were hit hard by the financial crisis of 2008, never having recovered. After losing a home, a job or both, they decided to give the nomadic life a try. Some say they were forced into it.
Their seasonal employers include campground owners and farmers, as well as the behemoth Amazon, which has capitalized on the workamper community with an entire segment of its employee base called the CamperForce program. The work is grueling, moving and stacking products in warehouses, and typically lasts from September until just after Christmas.
Although the people Bruder interviews in “Nomadland” are largely upbeat, she pulls no punches with her commentary about the displaced middle class and income inequality. While her agenda is not overt to the point of being tiresome, it is definitely an underlying theme.
I was not very far into the book when I started telling my wife about it, and she said she thought it sounded familiar.
“Isn’t it a movie?” she asked.
And what do you know? Last Sunday night she turned on the Academy Awards, which I cannot sit through in its entirety, but saw enough to learn “Nomadland” was a favorite. I happened to be in the room when it was announced as winner for Best Picture, at which time I smugly stated how I was way ahead of the game, having already read the book on which it is based.
I’ve not seen the movie, so I can’t comment, but those folks who give awards obviously thought it was pretty good. It appears to be available through a streaming service I don’t have, which is a different rant for a different column about how complicated TV watching has become.
For now, I definitely give the book “Nomadland” a thumbs up, and I can confidently say I have inched closer to that cutting edge.
Bob McKinney is a longtime Brentwood resident, happy husband and proud father, father-in-law and grandfather. Email him at [email protected].