Originally published: New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, c2012.
An Oprah.com "Must-Read Book" Award-winning journalist Jeanne Marie Laskas reveals "enlightening, entertaining, and often poignant"* profiles of America's working class--the forgotten men and women who make our country run.
Take the men of Hopedale Mining company in Cadiz, Ohio. Laskas spent several weeks with them, both below and above ground, and by the end, you will know not only about their work, but about Pap and his dying mom, Smitty and the mail-order bride who stood him up at the airport, and Scotty and his thwarted dreams of becoming a boxing champion.
That is only one hidden world. Others that she explores: an Alaskan oil rig, a migrant labor camp in Maine, the air traffic control center at LaGuardia Airport in New York, a beef ranch in Texas, a landfill in California, a long-haul trucker in Iowa, a gun shop in Arizona, and the Cincinnati Ben-Gals cheerleaders, mere footnotes in the moneymaking spectacle that is professional football.
"Jeanne Marie Laskas is a reporting and writing powerhouse. She doesn't just interview the people who dig our coal and extract our oil, she goes deep into the mines and tundra with them. With beauty, wit, curiosity, and grace, she finds the hidden soul of America. Hidden America is essential reading."--Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Jeanne Marie Laskas is a columnist for The Washington Post Magazine, where her "Significant Others" essays appear weekly. A contributing writer at "Esquire," she also writes for "GQ," "Allure," "Redbook," "Good Housekeeping," "Health," and "This Old House," She is the author of The Balloon Lady and Other People I Know and We Remember: Women Born at the Turn of the Century Tell the Stories of Their Lives in Words and Pictures. She lives and farms with her husband and daughter, along with their poodle, mutts, mules, sheep, and other animals, at Sweetwater Farm in Scenery Hill, Pennsylvania.
"A literary miracle. In effortlessly lucid prose, Laskas tells stories that spellbind precisely because they remind us of the center that quietly holds America together."--Robert Draper, author of Do Not Ask What Good We Do "In this thoroughly entertaining study of what some people do that other people would never do, journalist Laskas makes her subjects sing."--Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Each of these profiles rings true."--*The Huffington Post
"At a time when American workers seem most prized for their ability to serve as campaign props, Hidden America comes as a breath of fresh air with no political slant, no hidden motive."--Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Hearing [these] voices, it's impossible not to see the world a little differently."--The Daily Beast, Hot Read
"It's not a stretch to use the name Studs Terkel in the same sentence with the name Jeanne Marie Laskas. She's one hell of a journalist, a world-class storyteller. This is not just a good read, it's an important one."--Linda Ellerbee
"At once heartwarming, funny, sad, ironic, and most of all, insightful."--Bob Schieffer
"A finely crafted look behind the curtains of everyday life--think Dirty Jobs for the literate set."--Mike Sager, author of The Someone You're Not
"A wondrous book, fierce and intimate in its investigations...Like Studs Terkel if he wrote novels and Tom Wolfe if he wrote about working folk."--Ron Carlson, author of Five Skies and The Signal
THIS IS PARADISE Puente Hills Landfill City of Industry, California Herman asks me if I smell anything, and the way he says it I can''t tell if I''m supposed to lie. He says he loves being part of nature, enjoys watching the sunrise, and then he says it again. "Do you smell anything?" "Well, it is a landFill," I say, Finally. I''m trying to be polite. He is old, wiry, chewing a toothpick. He''s been at this for decades, always the First to arrive, pulling no. 72, the thirty-foot-long tractor-trailer full of trash assigned to him each day. Dumping is permitted to begin at 6:00 a.m., and he keeps his Finger on a red button inside a panel on the truck and constantly checks his watch. "Women smell things men can''t smell," he says. At this hour the landFill looks nothing like what most people picture when they imagine a landFill. Nothing messy, nothing gross, nothing slimy, no trash anywhere at all. It looks, perhaps disappointingly, like an enormous, lonesome construction site, a 1,365-acre expanse of light brown dirt hiding buried trash from yesterday and thousands of other yesterdays. The scale of the thing alone boggles the mind. To stop and ponder the fact that nearly Fifty years of trash forms a foundation four hundred feet deep is simply to become fretful with some unnamed woe about America''s past and the planet''s future, and so I am trying not to do it. When fellow truckers arrive, pulling up next to Herman, the ground--so deep with trash--is so soft it bounces. The Puente Hills LandFill, about sixteen miles east of downtown Los Angeles, was a series of canyons when people First started dumping here. Now it''s a mountain. In 1953 the Film adaptation of H. G. Wells''s science Fiction novel The War of the Worlds featured the Puente Hills as the landing site of the First spacecraft in the Martian invasion. Dumping started in 1965 in an area named the San Gabriel Valley Dump. In 1970 the dump was purchased by the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, a partnership of twenty-four independent districts serving Five million people in seventy-eight cities in Los Angeles County, and renamed the Puente Hills LandFill. Every day 13,200 new tons of trash are added. That''s enough trash to Fill a one-acre hole twenty feet deep. The other way to look at it is a football stadium Filled two stories high. On November 1, 2013, the landFill will be out of room, and all that trash will have to go somewhere else. At six o''clock, Herman pushes the button. The back end of the trailer rises and 79,650 pounds of debris comes thundering out, most of it wood and plaster and nails and shreds of wallpaper. Be- side him a truck is dumping decidedly more organic garbage, pun- gent indeed, and way down the row, off to the side, a guy is pouring a truck full of sludge, sterilized human waste, black as ink. Herman gets a broom, sweeps his trailer clean. Unlike most of the haulers who come here--the guys who drive for the conglomerates like Waste Management with their continuous eet of shiny green packers--Herman works for the Sanitation Districts itself, moving trash from a central dumping station in the nearby town of Southgate. Thus, his priority status. He will make Five trips in a day, stopping only once to eat Oodles of Noodles and cheese crackers and a cookie. On the ride home, he eats a green apple. "I''ve got my routine," he says. "Every day I do it all exactly the same." He talks to me about his philosophy of slowing down, not making mistakes, same way every day, the power of ritual. Peaceful. Using this method, he worked his way up from paper picker, day laborer, trafFic director, water truck diver, on and on until he found his niche. There is honor, he says, in being First each day, all those other trucks parting at the gate so Herman can get through. He is careful to note that he is the only one of his entire eighth-grade graduating class of 1954 who has not yet retired. "Why would anyone retire from a place like this?" he asks. "Why would you?" Having spent more than a week at the landFill, by now I am get- ting used to hearing workers here, from the highest to the lowest ranks, speak like this. Concerning the landFill, they are all pride and admiration and even thanks. It seemed, at First, like crazy talk. A landFill, after all, is a disgusting place. It is not a place anyone should have to work in, or see, or smell. This is a 100-million-ton solid soup of diapers, Doritos bags, phone books, shoes, carrots, watermelon rinds, boats, shredded tires, coats, stoves, couches, Biggie fries, piled up right here off the I-605 freeway. It''s a place that smells like every dumpster you ever walked by--times a few hundred thousand. It''s a place that brings to mind the hell of civilization, a heap of waste and ugliness and everything denial is designed for. We throw stuff out. The stuff is supposed to go away. Disappear. We tend not to think about the fact that every time we throw a moist towelette or an empty Splenda packet or a Little Debbie snack cake wrapper into the trash can, there are people involved, a whole chain of people charged with the preposterously complicated task of making that thing vanish--which it never really does. A landFill is not something we want to bother thinking about, and if we do, we tend to blame the landFill itself for sitting there stinking like that, for marring the landscape, for offending a sanitized aesthetic. We are human, highly evolved creatures impatient with all things stinky and gooey and gross-- remarkably adept at forgetting that a landFill would be nothing, literally nothing, without us. In America, we produce more garbage than any other country in the world: four pounds per person each day, for a total of 250 million tons a year. In urban areas, we are running out of places to put all that trash. Right now, the cost of getting rid of it is dirt cheap--maybe $15 a month on a bill most people never even see, all of it wrapped into some mysterious business about municipal tax revenue. So why think about it? Electricity used to be cheap too. We went for a long time not thinking about the true cost of that. Same with gas for our cars. The problem of trash (and sewage, its even more offensive cousin) is the upside-down version of the problem of fossil fuel: too much of one thing, not enough of the other. Either way, it''s a mat- ter of managing resources. Either way, a few centuries of gorging and not thinking ahead has the people of the twenty-First century standing here scratching our heads. Now what? The problem of trash, fortunately, is a wondrously provocative puzzle to scientists and engineers, some of whom lean, because of the inexorability of trash, toward the philosophical. The intrinsic conundrum--the disconnect between human waste and the human himself--becomes grand, even glorious, to the people at the dump. "I brought my wife up here once to show her," Herman tells me. "I said, ''Look, that''s trash.'' She couldn''t believe it. Then she couldn''t understand it. I told her, I said, ''This is the Rolls-Royce of landFills.'' " "Nobody knows we''re even here," Joe Haworth is saying as we make our way around the outside of the landFill, winding up and up past scrubby California oaks, sycamore trees, and the occasional shock of pink bougainvillea vine. He is driving his old Cadillac, a 1982 Eldorado, rusty black with a faded KERRY-EDWARDS sticker on the bumper. He has the thick glasses of a civil engineer, which is how he started, and the curls and paunch and demeanor of a crusty retired PR man, which is what he is now. He wears a Hawaiian print shirt and a straw hat, and the way he leans way back in the driver''s seat suggests an easy, uncomplicated conFidence. "People driving by on the highway think this is a park," he says. "Or they''ll be, like, ''What''s with all the pipes going around that mountain?'' " In fact, we are driving over trash, a half century''s worth, a heap so vast, there are roads and stop signs and trafFic cops and a his- tory of motor vehicle accidents, including at least one fatality. The outside of the landFill, the face the public sees, reminds me of Disney World, a perfectly crafted veneer of happiness belying a vastly more complicated core. The western side, facing the 605, is lush greens and deep blues, a showy statement of desert deFiance, while the eastern face is quiet earth tones, scrubby needlegrass, buttonbush, and sagebrush; the native look on that side was re- quested by the people living in Hacienda Heights, a well-to-do neighborhood in the foothills of the dump. They wanted the mountain of trash behind them to blend in with the canyons reaching toward the sunset. A staff of Fifty landscapers do nothing but honor such requests. The goal: Make the landFill disappear by making it look pretty. "No matter what you do with your trash, nature has to process it," Joe is saying. "Okay? Think about it." We are making our way up to a lookout point where we can get an overview of the action of the trash trucks and bulldozers and scrapers