NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We flip a switch and take the light for granted. We expect the shelves to be filled with groceries every day. We bite into an apple without thinking about who picked it or who makes the core vanish after we throw it away.
GQ correspondent Jeanne Marie Laskas had her first interaction with what she calls the hidden America in a cramped, dark, coal mine in Caddas, Ohio. She realized how much we depend on those men and how little we know about what they do and why. In a new book, Laskas rides along with a long-haul trucker, visits a migrants' worker camp in Maine, explores the lives of cowboys in West Texas and other unseen workers who make our stuff or move it or haul it away.
So what don't we appreciate about your invisible job? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, we'll conclude our Freshman Reads series with Brooke Gladstone and her book "The Influencing Machine."
But first, Jeanne Marie Laskas joins us from member station WESA in Pittsburgh. Her new book is "Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work." And it's good to have you back on the program.
JEANNE MARIE LASKAS: Great to be here.
CONAN: And I wanted to ask you about the time you spent in the air traffic control tower at LaGuardia, where you discovered the controllers are under enormous pressure, working for better conditions, and still love their work. This dump rocks is one of their slogans.
LASKAS: Yes, the tower at LaGuardia, it was a - the working conditions were not so easy. It was quite dilapidated. But those workers, in particular, regarded themselves really as public servants. They guide our airplanes, make sure they get up in the air at the right time and land without bashing into each other.
And they found it to be work that mattered, and that mattered to them.
CONAN: Some of the interesting parts of your book are the - is the terminology. Every job has its own, you know, special lingo, swivelheads for example.
LASKAS: Yeah, air traffic controllers because they're constantly moving their heads around and around like owls. You know, it's - they're physically watching in those towers you see surrounded by glass. They're physically needing to watch everything that's happening out of the periphery of their vision sometimes - swivelheads.
CONAN: And plugged in.
LASKAS: Plugged in, they wear earphones so they can talk to each other, as well as talk to the pilots. And it's a zone. You know, it's a way of specifically living that they do when they're working. When you plug out, you're back in the real world. When you plug in, you're in that mode.
CONAN: I have to say I read that chapter on an airplane.
LASKAS: Oh dear.
CONAN: And oh dear because it leaves the impression that we are on the precipice of what could be a dramatically bad situation.
LASKAS: Well, here's the good news. They - we have to be really thankful that there are people like Brian(ph) and Lars(ph) and some of the other characters I introduce in that book who are in those towers. The problem is that they're overworked, and there aren't enough of them, and there are not enough of them in the pipeline coming up to be trained. And this is a bit of a crisis.
In fact, it's been recognized for several years. Now, we need to talk to the FAA about that, not our controllers who are - you know, they're doing it. They're doing the job and doing it, you know, heroically.
CONAN: And you actually go to two different places: the tower at LaGuardia, which of course handles the planes on the ground and right as they come in to land and right after they take off; and what's called a TRACON facility, which it picks them up after they're let go by LaGuardia control.
LASKAS: Yes, after the tower, they're passed off to the TRACON, which covers a wider area, all with radar. And so the very different environment: dark warehouse, practically no light except for the light coming out of the radar scope. Those folks are working in extremely tense conditions anyway, without the labor disputes.
But they are then passing the planes off from their radar scopes to the next level, which goes even further, wider.
CONAN: And one of the questions you ask is: How can such a system work where there is such friction between the union and the boss - in this case the FAA and the air traffic controllers union - at loggerheads? And indeed you have a lot of the workers you talked to say fie on both your houses, not that they're not supportive of the union if they're in it, but they recognize the union has problems, too.
LASKAS: Oh yes, it wasn't so much yay, we love our union. You know, if anything, they saw themselves as sort of trapped in - the workers themselves trapped between, you know, arguing parents, you know, battle, battle, battle over this contract negotiations while the kids have to do their homework. You know, it was that sort of, you know, that sort of environment where they're just doing the worked because, you know, they're decent human beings, and they don't want planes to crash but living under this cloud of bickering, bickering, bickering and the conditions, you know, getting - deteriorating.
CONAN: Have you been back since they moved into the new tower at LaGuardia?
LASKAS: I passed it, and it's beautiful, and it's amazing, and I'm so happy for them. But I have not been in it.
CONAN: We're talking with Jeanne Marie Laskas, whose latest book is "Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work." And you picked these various professions as people who are vital to our society, who we literally take for granted.
LASKAS: Yes, we take for granted. We don't think about how, for example, you know, you sit down for breakfast, and you have blueberries on your Corn Flakes. You expect your blueberries. Where did they come from? Who picked them? Whose fingerprints are on those berries?
That is a thought that we no longer have any more if we ever had it, you know, previous generations - maybe. But we are long separated from that kind of thought or conversation. And what I think I'm doing in these stories is trying to maybe reinvigorate that conversation so we have a personal relationship with those migrant workers who we so easily argue about on the political stage.
It's like, well, who are we even talking about? I mean, who actually are these people? That was my really simple question.
CONAN: There's a little paragraph you write in that chapter: The migrant workers I spoke to were well aware of the disconnect. They labored to support a culture they had virtually no part in, for people who had no part in theirs.
LASKAS: Yes, and no easier was that to see at the beautiful blueberry festival in Machias, Maine, that happens every summer. You know, it's happened for generations, and it still goes on today. And they have a tour. You can get on a bus and take a tour to the actual blueberry barrens. You get on that bus, you go out, who are you seeing? You're seeing these migrant workers who don't go to the festival, who don't have time to go to the festival.
They're the ones who are, you know, laboring right there under the noses of, you know, everyone - the consumer. We don't think about that.
CONAN: And this is, you point out, a five-star migrant labor camp. Maine is one of the best examples of the places where migrants are treated best in and around the country. Maine is where they make the best money they make, all on that trip up the Eastern Seaboard from Florida to Maine, from spring until the end of August, before they start heading back south again and repeating the pattern.
But nevertheless, as you point out, it used to be a community that went out and harvested those blueberries and then celebrated in that blueberry festival, and they don't harvest it anymore.
LASKAS: No, and you know what? It's really easy to sort of get romantic about this or to romanticize this situation and think yeah, community, what's the matter, how come you don't come out to those fields anymore. You know, it's sort of like a dying culture, and isn't that sad.
But then you go OK, well, wait a minute? How much are these people getting paid to pick these blueberries? And who has time? And what's the matter with that farmer who's not paying enough money to pick the blueberries? Well, take it the next step: Who - where does that cost translate, that translates to us, the consumer. Are we really willing to pay $30 a pound for blueberries? No, we want them affordable. So that's who's eating the cost, the worker.
CONAN: We want to hear about your invisible job, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. And we'll start with Leah(ph), and Leah's with us from Englewood, Colorado.
LEAH: Hi, how are you?
CONAN: Good, thanks.
LEAH: Yeah, so one thing I know people get so sick of campaign season, they get so sick of politics, but one job that I have I think a lot of people don't appreciate or even don't see is that of a field organizer. I knock on doors. I make thousands of phone calls for week, you know, me and my fellow co-workers, just so that people are informed.
Everyone says I want to know who's running, I want to know who's going to be my representative. Well, we're the ones knocking on your door, giving you the information, you know, supporting the candidate...
CONAN: And there must be some frustration in that job.
LEAH: Well, it's a little frustrating, but, you know, at the end of the day, the good conversations outweigh the bad, and there's always going to be someone who disagrees with you. And I think the important thing for people to remember is that's OK. It's not my job to tell you who you have to vote for. All my job is to inform you and give you every piece of information that I have and then move on to my next door, you know, or move on to my next phone call.
And, you know, supporting your candidate, supporting your field organizers, volunteering, it's so, so, so important because you really see what goes on behind the scenes. And every advertisement takes months and months to prepare, every speech, every event takes so much time and energy that people like me - I mean, I'm 23. I'm, you know, in graduate school, and I'm just out of college, and my fellow field organizers are around the same age.
And it's young people like us, it's people who have time and who are willing to give their day just to help someone they believe in and, you know, just appreciating that and respecting that people don't get paid a lot, but we're working for a cause that we believe in and a person we support, so...
CONAN: Leah, it must be hard on the feet, too.
LEAH: I just bought new shoes, so things are better.
CONAN: Well, stay with it; we appreciate it.
LEAH: Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. And Jeanne Marie Laskas, I'm not sure the country would come to a screaming halt if politicians weren't elected, and I'm not sure people would think that would be a bad thing, but I guess in a way it would be.
LASKAS: Oh, I love hearing stories like that, where you get to, you know, just even that tiny glimpse of what goes on, the amount of work that goes into things that we just, you know, flashes by our eyes, like commercials in a campaign season.
I think when you start hearing that there are, like, these people behind it, you know, actual people, there's a grad student, you start feeling like you are maybe participating in the process a little bit more than if you're just receiving, as a consumer, constantly. You know, I like hearing that.
CONAN: Short email from Mark(ph): I'm a blacksmith and ferrier. My job is kind of cool. If a racehorse isn't within one-16th of an inch of balance, a horse can lose a race. So the people who takes care of a horse's hoof and puts on the shoes that they race in. Stay with us. We're talking about "Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work." It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION; I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And we're talking about unseen jobs with Jeanne Marie Laskas. For her new book, she spent time in a coal mine, a big rig, on a ranch and an oil platform, among other job sites. She did it to give us a glimpse of some of the people and jobs that tend to be invisible.
And she also writes about her visit to an NFL stadium, a place where she went to talk with the cheerleaders. She writes: With all the cash floating around, people assume NFL cheerleaders are within some vague sniffing distance of the good life. But a Ben-Gal is paid 75 bucks per game. That's correct, 75 bucks for each of 10 home games.
The grand cash total per season does not keep most of them flush in hairspray, let along gas money to and from practice. The cheerleader is pure, the one actor in our most celebrated entertainment empire who gets nothing tangible in return. She is nationalism at the most basic level. Every Sunday, embodying the American contradiction, she parades around on our biggest national stage wearing the characteristics America loves about itself: loyal, devoted, confident, optimistic; and loathes, shallow, egocentric, materialistic, loud.
She does not question her role, and she does not stop smiling. You can read more from the book, including her first trip to a coal mine 500 feet underground. That's at our website, npr.org. So what don't we appreciate about your invisible job? 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join our conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And let's go next to Trace(ph), and Trace is with us from Houston, Texas.
TRACE: Hi, Neal, how are you doing today?
CONAN: Good, thanks.
TRACE: I just wanted to let you know that us steeplejacks, AKA towerheads - shock towers(ph), blackout towers(ph), television, radio, cellular sites, including I've done a job with the sub-atomic clock. We take it granted just the - we take advantage of that, because every morning we wake up, we turn on our television, we get in our car, we listen to our radio. We use our cell phones in our daily lives. Our clocks are using the sub-atomic clock to set the time right for every device that we have electronically. And this goes without notice sometimes overnight.
CONAN: And this must be difficult work.
TRACE: It's very difficult work. Years ago, we did the first high-definition antenna in '99, which is now a standard broadcast for - of the nation.
CONAN: Steeplejack, though, the term is ancient.
TRACE: Yeah, that's a term that I use. That's traditionally used for us towerhands(ph). The National Tower Erector Association sometimes uses that. Steeplejacks, years ago, used to put the bell inside the steeplejack on top of the church.
LASKAS: Oh my goodness.
TRACE: But what we do - but what I do now is, you know, we go from 1,000 to 2,000 feet in the air, erecting (unintelligible) structures, you know, on multi-broadcast antennas that people don't even realize what they are, how they got there. But they know that as soon as their television or their radio isn't working, their whole world's upside-down.
CONAN: And Jeanne Marie Laskas, if you think about it, that bell sent out signals of various sorts over a broad area. That's why it was up there in the first place. And I guess that was the harbinger of all those broadcast antennas.
LASKAS: I find that just so fascinating. I would - that's a hidden America right there, a way that it's wonderful, especially, to hear - to think about that one. I've not thought about that one, where you're connecting us. You know, you're - our communication wouldn't even be working if it weren't for you guys. That's just fascinating. Thank you for letting us know.
TRACE: I think the neatest experience I've ever had with that job was actually having a conversation on Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colorado, with a parasailer.
CONAN: With a...
LASKAS: Good conversation.
TRACE: I was on the tower having a conversation with a parasailer, somebody that's putting on the thermal waves, the thermal airwaves.
CONAN: Oh I see, as they were floating by?
TRACE: Yes, yes, exactly.
CONAN: Oh my goodness.
TRACE: And this is something that - you know, it's very dangerous, but it's crucial to our country because we have to have some sort of communication, whether it be in AM, in FM, including the station we're listening to now.
CONAN: Well, thank you so much for your work, Trace.
TRACE: Hey, you bet, and I'll talk to you next week.
CONAN: That is fascinating.
LASKAS: That's wonderful.
CONAN: Here's an email from John Woodling(ph): The public has no idea what it takes for water agencies to deliver clean, safe water to their homes and businesses for pennies per gallon, then make sure the waste goes away. A vocal minority comes out of the woodwork when water rates rise, yet people will pay exorbitantly for bottled water at the corner gas station.
So that reminded me, though, of the vital public service your friend Herman(ph) provides for us. He works at the huge landfill outside of Los Angeles. He's the last, he points out, the last - 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?
And that's one of the characteristics, not just at a garbage dump. You would think, well, people would run away from that.
LASKAS: I - the whole life of that landfill, the Puente Hills Landfill in Los Angeles County, was so oddly delightful and surprising. Those people loved their jobs. They loved their landfill. They were proud of their landfill and the science behind it, and the engineering feats that were figured out right there at that landfill, turning gas - turning landfill gas into energy, for example.
That - everyone from the top of the - you know, the charts of the engineers down to Herman, who dumped the trash, they were proud of that place. That was just amazing.
CONAN: And it seems pride, going back to the Ben-Gals, the cheerleaders, pride is an enormous part of their business, too.
LASKAS: Well, and even though our steeplejack friend who just called, you know, he was proud of that work. I think that so much of this is, you know, this is one of the take-home messages for me, that, you know, we just walk around with this narrative in America that everybody wants to be rich and famous, that that's why people do what they do.
And, you know, all through these pages you learn, over and over again, no, actually, no, not even NFL cheerleaders are doing it for fame and fortune. There is another motivation going on here that is so pure and human. That to me was an eye-opener in a really wonderful way.
CONAN: Let's go next to Debbie(ph), Debbie with us from Oxford, New York.
DEBBIE: Hi, how are you today?
CONAN: I'm well, thank you.
DEBBIE: Well, thank you for taking my call.
CONAN: Sure, go ahead.
DEBBIE: I was calling - well, I'm a rural mail carrier, and I am in Upstate New York, out in the farm country. My job entails about 95 miles a day driving, about 500 mailboxes, and it's - until mail is mis-delivered, nobody even notices us. But if something gets mis-delivered, we know about it. But we have - each home nowadays usually has more than one surname in it.
At this point I probably have about 1,500 surnames to remember. And the roads are bad. Most of them are dirt roads: potholes, snow. I've been in so many ditches. I carry kitty litter and a shovel with me.
CONAN: We all remember that neither snow, nor rain, nor gloom of night shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
DEBBIE: Yeah, and, you know, we love it. All mail carriers, to do it, you've got to love it to do it. You really do. Otherwise you don't last. And most new people don't last. It's very demanding.
CONAN: It strikes me that there's some similarities, probably, working for an enormous bureaucracy like the post office, between that and working for the FAA.
DEBBIE: There's a lot of bureaucracy, and, of course, now, you know, we're going through the let's-privatize-it-again routine that we went through, what 20 years ago. So, of course, we're all a little fearful, but we just keep doing our job. It's what we - it's what I love.
CONAN: Debbie, thanks very much, and stay with it.
DEBBIE: Thank you very much; I enjoy your show.
CONAN: Thank you.
LASKAS: What strikes me about one of the points that Debbie brought up was, you know, we don't hear about these people unless they mess up, very similar of course to the air traffic controllers. You know, these - and in America, one of the things I see is people don't want to be noticed because if they're noticed, it means they messed up.
CONAN: They've done something wrong.
LASKAS: Yeah, hidden for them is actually just great.
CONAN: This is an email that we have from Heather(ph), I think: My father has an invisible job. He sharpens and repairs surgical instruments. People don't realize that somebody has to keep those items in great repair. He also modifies them for doctors on a regular basis. We put our lives in the hands of the doctors. They put their reputations in the hands of my father to rely on his hidden craftsmanship. He thinks his job is nothing; I think it's awesome and astounding.
LASKAS: Wow, I would have never even thought of that one. You know what's so great? Everybody has the same - everybody always has the same way of talking about this stuff: people don't realize; people don't realize; people don't realize. It's true.
CONAN: It's true. When you were talking about the coal miners, for example, you quote people saying: we still have coal mines? Well, maybe they're not the bright sparks of your acquaintances and friends, but yeah, we do have coal mines. It's a huge business.
LASKAS: It's a huge business, and we're entirely dependent on it. We think it's sort of quaint and antiquated, but it's actually going on all the time. Yeah.
CONAN: I wanted to ask you about a particular subject that you took rather personally, and this has to do with sitting in a cab and listening to the radio.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORK HARD, PLAY HARDER")
GRETCHEN WILSON: (Singing) I work a double shift on Monday. Tuesday, I get up before dawn. Wednesday, pouring coffee. Thursday night, I'm tending the bar. Well, when Friday finally rolls around, I call my rough and rowdy friends, and we're honky-tonk loud. I work hard. I play harder. I'm a good-timing American daughter, redneck, blue collar, and I party down to my last dollar. I work hard. I work hard. I work hard. I play harder.
CONAN: Gretchen Wilson there. And, Jeanne Marie Laskas, can you tell us where you first heard that song?
LASKAS: Oh, that brings back such good times. That's the favorite song of a trucker I traveled with across the country. Her name - her nickname was Sputter(ph). Everyone calls her Sputter, and that was her favorite song.
CONAN: And why is it her favorite song, do you think?
LASKAS: Oh, because she works hard.
LASKAS: She's a - and she's a woman in a man's world, proud of it, and, you know, not an easy life whatsoever.
CONAN: You've traveled with her and kept falling asleep, napping for long stretches of time while she kept driving.
LASKAS: I did. That - she was so kind about it. You know, that was the one - that's - this is the one chapter in the book where I really take a personal turn, sort of inevitably because that trip, that long-haul trucking trip happened to occur in between my parents' funerals. One died - my mother died. Ten days later, my father died. And in between that, I was in this truck with Sputter, which turned out to be a remarkably healing place.
CONAN: You also talk about her sister, who works with old people, as she put it, the people who are in nursing homes.
LASKAS: Yes. Elaine. Her sister worked doing the - sort of the same job I had been doing, caring for my parents. And so that was quite a interesting experience to talk with her, and I needed to believe sort of as a daughter of a - of patients. I needed to know that this woman liked her job, working with old folks, because I spent so much time with those people, and it was almost like it was put in front of me like a test. Here, I'm going to hear this live, because I did not tell her about my parents. And when she told me she loved her work, it was the best words I could have heard.
CONAN: When I think about the women of "Hidden America," writes Jeanne Marie Laskas, all the labor that traditionally falls on the shoulders of women, I think they are an enormous army of soldiers hidden in camouflage: the caretakers, the nannies, the maids, the sisters and the surrogate sisters, the mothers and the surrogate mothers, all those people tending hearts.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's see if we can get Josh(ph) on the line, Josh with us from Murrieta, California.
JOSH: Hey. How's it going?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
JOSH: Hey, thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead.
JOSH: I heard on the top of your skit here, that you said that everybody expects their groceries to be on the shelf when they go in in the morning and throughout the day. And that's what spurred me to call because that's my job. I go in in the middle of the night to go to stock the shelves for everybody throughout the day.
CONAN: So you take the groceries that people like Sputter deliver in the middle of the night, and make sure they're out on the shelves by morning time.
JOSH: Absolutely. It's a lot of work, a lot of heavy lifting in the middle of the dead of night. While everybody's sleeping, I'm hustling and bustling, working so everybody can buy their groceries during the day.
CONAN: Interestingly, we had this email from Louis(ph) in Anchorage: How arrogant of you. Most of the invisible workers such as my husband, who works in a grocery store, are working now, not sitting around, listening to the radio. I have that luxury today because my work week is Tuesday through Saturday. As a clinical worker, I'm just a bit more visible than my husband. But you can imagine how often either he or I get to influence the public discussion of things that matter to us. How about a funny way to include us in?
Well, we did read your email. And I guess that's another part of this, Jeanne Marie Laskas, is, yes, people are invisible. Sometimes they want to stay unseen. They also want to be appreciated.
LASKAS: I think absolutely. I think - I don't know who doesn't want to be appreciated. I think that one of the reasons that people were so open to talking to me about their lives and their work when I introduced myself to them, was precisely that. It was like - sort of like, oh, you're interested in this. Thank you. Oh, yeah. I actually am helping out here. So, yeah, I get that, and I hear that loud and clear. And I - to these folks, I keep saying, thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
CONAN: Josh, I assume you get a paycheck for your labors, but what is it about the job you like?
JOSH: I like the hours, you know? I just turned 21, and it's good for me because I go to school full time, and I work close to full time. And it keeps me on my toes, keeps me busy and keeps me out of trouble.
CONAN: Out of trouble. That's a good place to be. Thanks very much for the call. Get some sleep.
JOSH: Thank you. I will.
CONAN: Here's an email, this from Peter(ph) in St. Louis: Few understand why our drugs are so expensive except for the chemical technicians synthesizing the active pharmaceutical ingredients or the chemists analyzing them through vastly complicated methods and strict specifications, often working long, undesirable hours and immense amounts of overtime - all go into the drugs millions depend on every day. I personally run quality tests on the drug my own mother takes for her diabetes.
And, in a way, that refers - that sends me back to the piece on the cattle breeders that you did in West Texas, people who use low tech - they ride horses and wear chaps, and they're also incredibly high tech - DNA databases.
LASKAS: Extremely high tech, people who are bringing us our steak, you know? Why is our - I mean, literally down to the marbling, looking at ultrasound of living cows to calibrate the amount of back fat for the precise level of marbling that they have worked with the genes of the cows to create that. I mean, it is unbelievable. And they are these guys in, as you say, you know, cowboy hats.
CONAN: You can read about the world of those cowboys and all of the other groups of people that we've been talking about in Jeanne Marie Laskas' new book, "Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, An Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Work." The writer joined us from member station WESA in Pittsburgh. Thanks very much for the time.
LASKAS: Thank you.
CONAN: When we come back, we'll conclude our freshman reads series with Brooke Gladstone, the co-host of WNYC's "On the Media" and her book "The Influencing Machine." Stay with us. This is NPR News.
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