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Hidden America

Cover of Hidden America

Hidden America

From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work
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 people 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
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 people 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
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  • From the book 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 fleet 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...
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from August 27, 2012
    In this thoroughly entertaining study of what some people do that other people would never do, journalist Laskas (The Balloon Lady and Other People I Knew) makes her subjects sing. She homes in on jobs that the rest of us take for granted—or deny exist—interviewing the people who perform and even like onerous tasks: coal miners, Latino migrant laborers, La Guardia air traffic controllers, Arizona gun dealers, Texas ranchers, Alaska oil-rig roughnecks, a rare female long-hauling trucker, and California landfill workers. Refreshingly, Laskas eschews sentimentality but imbues her portraits with humanity and authenticity: guided by veteran landfill workers, for example, she confronts a mountain of rubbish and learns all about the wonders of alternative electricity and recycling. Waddling through Hopedale Mining Company's Cadiz, Ohio coal tunnels, she gets lessons on pride in accomplishment from such workers as Pap, Ragu, and Foot. The Ben-Gal cheerleaders are shown to be disciplined professional women who, in their other lives, attend school and toil as single moms. Laskas's depictions are sharply delineated, fully fleshed, and enormously affecting.

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Hidden America
Hidden America
From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work
Jeanne Marie Laskas
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