Report — From the August 2014 issue

The End of Retirement

When you can’t afford to stop working

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On Thanksgiving Day of 2010, Linda May sat alone in a trailer in New River, Arizona. At sixty, the silver-haired grandmother lacked electricity and running water. She couldn’t find work. Her unemployment benefits had run out, and her daughter’s family, with whom she had lived for many years while holding a series of low-wage jobs, had recently downsized to a smaller apartment. There wasn’t enough room to move back in with them.

“I’m going to drink all the booze. I’m going to turn on the propane. I’m going to pass out and that’ll be it,” she told herself. “And if I wake up, I’m going to light a cigarette and blow us all to hell.”

Weeks after leaving her job at Amazon’s warehouse in Fernley, Nevada, migrant worker Linda May still suffers from repetitive strain injuries. All photographs © Max Whittaker

Weeks after leaving her job at Amazon’s warehouse in Fernley, Nevada, migrant worker Linda May still suffers from repetitive strain injuries. All photographs © Max Whittaker

Her two small dogs were staring at her. May hesitated — could she really envision blowing them up as well? That wasn’t an option. So instead she accepted an invitation to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving dinner.

A couple of years later, May found herself close to the edge again. She was working as a Home Depot cashier for $10.50 an hour, which barely paid for her $600-a-month trailer in Lake Elsinore, California. She wondered, not for the first time, how anybody could afford to grow old. She had held many jobs in her life — building inspector, general contractor, flooring-store owner, insurance executive, cocktail waitress — but none had brought even a modicum of lasting financial security. “Never managed to get myself a pension,” said May, who wears bifocals with rose-colored plastic frames and reveals deep laugh lines when she smiles, which is often. She knew she would soon be eligible for Social Security benefits, but at $499 her monthly checks would not even cover the rent.

Soon after, though, May discovered the philosophy (and the extensive website) of a former Safeway clerk from Alaska named Bob Wells. In 1995, Wells had divorced, gone broke, and moved into a van. As he mastered the transient-survival arts — including “stealth parking” tactics to evade police and tricks for installing solar panels on vehicles — he shared them online. According to Wells, some “vandwellers” subsisted on $500 a month or less, a sum that made immediate sense to May. “If they could do it,” she thought, “I’m sure I could.”

She began to save up for the right vehicle. Then came a windfall: a temporary job at a Veterans Affairs hospital removing signage and repairing walls. The pay was fifty dollars an hour. Within a couple of months, May had accumulated enough cash to buy a 1994 Eldorado motor home with teal and black stripes she’d seen advertised on Craigslist. With only 29,000 miles on its odometer, the twenty-eight-foot RV should have been worth $17,000. But it smelled musty and had a broken generator and a hole in the shower, and a recent collision with a telephone pole had left a football-size crater in the loft above the cab, which had been patched with a smear of caulk that looked like dried toothpaste.

May got the RV for $4,000, then spent another $1,200 to replace the rotted tires. In June, she drove to her first seasonal job, at a campground near Yosemite National Park. For $8.50 an hour plus a place to park the Eldorado, May registered visitors, collected camping fees, and scrubbed toilets.

By late summer, smoke from the Rim wildfire was thickening the air and it was time to move on. May said her goodbyes and drove north. In mid-September, she arrived in Fernley, Nevada, where Amazon runs a warehouse so immense that its workers use the names of neighboring states to navigate its vast interior, calling the western half Nevada and the eastern half Utah. May now joined the company’s CamperForce: a graying labor corps consisting entirely of RV dwellers, many in their sixties or seventies, who work during the peak shopping season that starts in October and ends just before Christmas. She was hired for $12.25 an hour plus overtime to shelve inbound freight. But before her shifts actually began, she went through orientation sessions to acclimate herself to ten-hour workdays spent roaming the concrete-slab floor — a process Amazon refers to as “work hardening.”

“I was in construction and I cocktail-waitressed, which was harder work than construction,” May recalled. “What would I be worried about?”

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teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and is the author of Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man.

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