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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Five hundred feet underground, Jeanne Marie Laskas asked a coal miner named Smitty, “Do you think it’s weird that people know so little about you?” He replied, “I don’t think people know too much about the way the whole damn country works.”
Hidden America intends to fix that. Like John McPhee and Susan Orlean, Laskas dives deep into her subjects and emerges with character-driven narratives that are gripping, funny, and revelatory. In Hidden America, the stories are about the people who make our lives run every day—and yet we barely think of them.
Laskas spent weeks in an Ohio coal mine and on an Alaskan oil rig; in a Maine migrant labor camp, a Texas beef ranch, the air traffic control tower at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, a California landfill, an Arizona gun shop, the cab of a long-haul truck in Iowa, and the stadium of the Cincinnati Ben-Gals cheerleaders. Cheerleaders? Yes. They, too, are hidden America, and you will be amazed by what Laskas tells you about them: hidden no longer.
here,” the man said. “I spend most of my time reloading shells. All my friends are dead.” He had thin white hair and a long, sagging face dotted with age spots. “Do you know what the biggest problem with divorce is? It’s the bedroom. And a lot of it’s the man’s fault. Like a damn rabbit, on and off.” It felt like we should have had rocking chairs, perhaps a set of checkers between us. This was one of the things I liked most about Sprague’s: the general-store feel. Groups would form,
unexpected. He didn’t announce himself. Walked in, shot people, walked out. He must have had tiny bullets—did you see her neck?” “Had to be a .380.” “We saw a lot of snowbirds come in for pistols after that. Old women who had never even touched a gun before.” “Then did you hear the other day some guy back east shot up a pharmacy? That’s probably why I want one of these little shorty shotguns for my truck. He just wanted pharmacy stuff. He wanted his drugs.” “For his wife. She
start. That’s where I started. I wanted the mystique. I wanted to discover that the guys who make their living underground do it because of some attachment to the earth, or to history, or to their own ancestry, or to further some fundamental masculine need for brotherhood, or—yes!—on behalf of the nation’s consciousness and soul. You talk like that in a coal mine, you’ll get your lunch bucket nailed shut. Seriously. That’s a beauty. — IF YOU WANT A JOB at the Hopedale Mining
them. But they would be perfectly fine. They could donate them. They could do something with them.” “When I first started here, for, like, probably two or three weeks these big semitrailers were just dumping piles of brand-new computer typewriters. Piles! Sometimes there would be three trucks next to each other, dumping brand-new computer typewriters. Never been opened. Still in the box.” “Waste. Waste. Waste. Sure, it bothers you, but what can you do about it?” “There was a time
too many people in one place.” He pauses, gives me a moment to mull that one over. He pulls his hat down to cut the sun. “Nature isn’t designed for us to live the way we do. Nature designed it more like the Native Americans had it: When the neighborhood started to smell, you picked up your tepee and went over there. There was some basic human rule that said you go thataway.” He points with both hands moving toward some imagined exit. “Primitive societies knew that nature would ultimately