Jeanne Marie Laskas's Hidden America is an exploration of the unseen people who make America work, from coal miners to oil-rig roughnecks to Latino migrant laborers. Laskas shared five facts she learned while researching the book.
1. NFL cheerleaders make $75 a game. At least that was the case with the Cincinnati Ben-Gals, the squad I hung out with for a season. Seventy-five bucks for each of ten home games. The grand cash total per person per season did not keep most of them flush in hair spray, let alone gas money to and from practice. They were also not allowed to even socialize with players, let alone date them. Zero tolerance around that one. What I came away with was an understanding of the cheerleader as pure: the one actor in our most celebrated entertainment empire (the NFL is a $9 billion industry) who gets nothing tangible in return. She is nationalism at the most basic level, every Sunday embodying a distinctly American contradiction.
2. We really need to thank our air traffic controllers. They’re the reason all our airplanes don’t bash into each other, land on top of each other, crash in mid-air. They’re like guardian angels in those towers, and we never know they’re there. When pilot C.B. “Sully” Sullenberger famously landed that jet on New York’s Hudson River in 2009, a controller named Patrick Harten was sitting behind a radar screen in Long Island talking to him on the radio, giving him options, and then, mid-sentence, the radio contact was abruptly cut off. Silence. It was the worst moment of Harten’s life. He could not speak. He sent his wife a text. “Had a Crash. Not ok. Can’t talk now.”
3. People who work at America’s largest landfill are happy. Easily the most optimistic and contented workers I met in all my research were the people at the Puente Hills Landfill, about sixteen miles east of downtown Los Angeles, a 100-million ton solid soup of trash. When people first started dumping there in 1965, it was a series of canyons. Now it’s a mountain. The engineers were enormously and deservedly proud of what they’ve done with all that garbage. They turn landfill gas into electricity—enough to power 70,000 Southern California homes. And areas of the landfill have been turned into a park with biking trails. Even the bulldozer operators and the trash haulers and the paper pickers were proud to work in that place, and one guy I met, Joe Haworth, was a trash philosopher. Who knew?
4. Cowboys aren’t kidding. It seems quaint, or somehow adorably retro, to think there are men (and women!) right now on horseback out west driving cattle through mesquite-laced valleys, dressed in chaps and long sleeve shirts and cowboy hats and swinging lassos. You mean they don’t use helicopter or ATVs or something now? That’s what I had imagined. But cowboys still work the old-fashioned way, and if you were out in the range with them you would have no idea what century you were, in fact, in. The difference now: when they get back to the barn they might, as the cowboys I followed did, walk into a lab with high-tech microscopes and ultrasound equipment and spreadsheets filled with genetic data—all in an effort to make us the perfect steak.
5. Down in a coal mine you can hear what the earth sounds like and it isn’t silent. When the machines were off, when the fans weren’t whirring, when the coal miners were resting and even our hardhat lights were off. The darkest dark you’ve ever seen, and then: Pop! Hisssss. A crackle like a fireplace. Hissss. As I write in “Underworld”: “When you’re inside the earth, this is what it sounds like. The earth isn’t some stupid rock, isn’t inert, isn’t just a sold mass for people to stand on. The earth is always moving, constantly stretching and squawking and repositioning itself like anyone else trying to get comfortable.” I had been terrified to go down in that coal mine, but by the end I loved it, the adventure, the surprises, and of course the people who had formed a brotherhood as tight as combat soldiers. They taught me a lot about coal—did you know every time you flip a light switch you burn a lump of coal?—and a lot about bravery.