Photo: Image courtesy of Jeanne Marie Laskas
Five years ago, Jeanne Marie Laskas decided she wanted to meet the people who pick her fruit, power her lights and clear the trash away from her sidewalk. She wanted to know Hidden America, the people who “make our lives livable but are hidden from view.”
The project took Laskas to an Alaskan oil rig, a migrant labour camp in Maine, a landfill in California, a beef ranch in Texas, a gun shop in Arizona, even the air traffic control tower in La Guardia Airport in New York.
“I spent months trying to position myself and my world around these people—people who seem stuck in a bygone era that isn’t bygone at all,” writes the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Creative Writing program. “If anyone’s gone, it’s us, the consumer … We live over here and they live over there, and we have almost no access to a way of life that we are so unwittingly dependent on.”
'Repeatedly, the guys at the Hopedale Mining company asked that I not portray them as poor, stupid rednecks,' writes Laskas. 'This characterization, they said, would only display my own ignorance.'
They don't reflect on their lives, either.
'A coal miner is busy. A coal miner doesn't have time to sit around and ponder all of this: methane, bad top, no light, no standing, no bathroom, no water fountain, no phone, no radio, no windows, five hundred feet down, a couple of miles in,' writes Laskas.
Ever wonder why things are so cheap? Ask Sputter, the trucker pictured here.
'Most of the long-haul guys own a truck and are sort of like a franchise,' Laskas explains. 'They pay for their truck, the truck's maintenance, the gas, everything. They do the haul and then they get a percentage of the haul.
'As fuel prices increase, we're not seeing the prices of goods necessarily increase that they're hauling. Well, then who's paying the cost of the gas?'
Long-haul truckers earn around $26,000 a year. A Ben-Gal cheerleader makes $75 per game.
'Since pay is by the haul, the incentive is to break the law, fake your logbooks,' Laskas says. 'You eat crappy food. You get lonely. You get fat.'
We don't see migrant laborers on TV or pal around with them on college campuses, but they're there.
'The western stream begins in Southern California and hugs the coast to Washington state, with a branch heading northeast from Central California to North Dakota,' writes Laskas.
'The mid-western stream begins in southern Texas and divides off through every midwestern state.
'The eastern stream originates around Fort Piece, Florida, where workers pick oranges and strawberries in January.'
'The mythology of America is we all want to do better than our parents by getting a college education, get rich, get famous if we're lucky,' Laskas tells BI. 'We just think that's everybody's trajectory.'
But it's not true for the working class.
'The most telling example was the air traffic controllers, and they would state this directly: If you're hearing about us, it's because we screwed up,' Laskas writes. 'If you don't hear about us, it's because everything is running smoothly ... The only headlines that come out of Hidden America, typically, are of bad news: oil spill, plane crash, contaminated vegetables spreading some horrible disease.'
'We have a rule book that's, like, this thick,' one tells Laskas.
'Practices are Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:00 p.m.--sharp--at which time a Ben-Gal must be in full uniform, full hair, full makeup, a state of readiness that can take two hours to achieve,' she explains.
Cheerleaders have to be weighed. Attend 'fat camp' if they're anywhere over their target poundage. They can't miss practice, and they can't be 15 minutes late more than twice.
'Gone are the days when controllers were expected to have college degrees,' writes Laskas. Thanks to the shortage, 'now people can walk in off the street--McDonald's or Piercing Pagoda or carnival washouts.'
New recruits are fast-tracked through training in as little as two years, unlike the old days when it took five.
'When you think about the number of lives you have in your hands every day and the people they're sending us to put through training, it's scary,' one worker tells Laskas.
Not that becoming an air traffic controller a dream job. It's like enrolling in the Plan B academy for dreamers.
Among the air traffic controllers she met, 'Joe studied to be a history teacher, Lars studied geology and chemistry, Andy was a graphic arts major, and Cali, too, wanted to be an artist.'
'What was so vividly clear there was the death of a culture, and it was a distinctly American culture,' Laskas tells BI.
'You would hear about a guy at a plant living this cultural shift that the life his grandfather and father left, and now he's the end of the line.
'His wife is losing her job because she's an RN who's been working with disabled kids all her career. But now the state's broke and taking people to remote locations, and so her job is gone. And here's this son with no work except for cutting grass.
'It's not like they're saying, 'Hey, government, help me.' That guy's plea is, 'Whoa, you just ripped the American manufacturing industry out from under us, can we get it back?''
Migrant laborers like Urbano know the score: 'kings over here, peasants over there,' Laskas says.
'Kings live in palaces and want berries on their cornflakes; peasants need the money so they work the fields. And you? You were born king or you were born peasant, and that got decided long before you fell out of your mama's womb.'
Meanwhile they say anyone can get a fake IDs.
'E-verify, the federally-mandated screening test that runs your Social Security number and is supposed to tell you whether or not it's legit,' is almost a joke, a migrant worker tells Laskas. 'Everyone pretends.'
Some flash the writer their Social Security cards 'purchased for $100 a pop in Boston,' while others let her sneak a peek at their 'insurance paperwork.'
When a young boy fears he's going blind, his brother frantically dials the number on a business card taped to the wall in a shop.
Most workers discard the card, says Laskas, thinking it 'could be some slimy lawyer drumming up business or a spy from Immigration. One thing you learn quick in this line of work is to trust no one.'
Says one migrant farm reformer who knows the community well: 'America is depending on its undocumented workers, and yet they live in fear and hiding.'
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