"Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work" (G.P. Putnam's Sons), by Jeanne Marie Laskas
"Hidden America," a collection of on-the-job profiles that shed light on occupations where work is often done out of public view, is sure to contain at least a few surprises for even the most knowledgeable reader.
Who knew, for example, that the color of the coal seams that miners bore into from their cramped workplaces 500 feet below ground in eastern Ohio is white, not black? That's because exposed areas of the mine are coated with powdered limestone that reduces the chance of fire in an environment where a wayward spark can be disastrous.
Then there are the polar bear cages at an oil drilling site on a 6-acre manmade island 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle on Alaska's North Slope. The cages were not made to house polar bears but rather to provide refuge for oil rig workers who ring the alarm when they spot a bear and then jump into one of the cages.
Danger of a different sort overhangs the work of air traffic controllers in the tower at New York's LaGuardia Airport, a delay-prone, vest-pocket field with tight taxiways, intersecting runways and water on three sides. Known as "swivelheads" because they're constantly scanning in all directions, the controllers appear to be on the brink of exhaustion as they work with obsolete equipment in an understaffed facility while caught in the middle of a toxic relationship between management and their union.
The coal mine, the oil rig and the control tower are arguably the most fascinating of the nine workplaces that Jeanne Marie Laskas visits in her attempt to "reintroduce America to some of its forgotten self" by celebrating people who make life livable by providing essentials such as food, energy, transportation and trash disposal.
These pieces, which first appeared in GQ magazine, showcase Laskas as a journalist with a keen eye for detail who immerses herself in her subjects to come away with terrific stories that focus on memorable characters whose experiences reflect the work they perform.
During her two-year project, the author hopped aboard an 18-wheeler with an unforgettable female truck driver with the nickname "Sputter" for a run that included a stop at the world's largest truck stop. Laskas also rode heavy equipment at the "Rolls Royce of landfills," a 1,365-acre dump 16 miles from downtown Los Angeles that contains a half-century's worth of trash.
Some of the characters that Laskas writes about are hardly hidden from view. After all, the Ben-Gals, cheerleaders for the Cincinnati Bengals, perform before 60,000 fans at Paul Brown Stadium. And the gun dealer she visits in firearms-friendly Yuma, Ariz., is constantly in public view.
Each of these profiles rings true, offering an enlightening, entertaining and often poignant glimpse into occupations that most of us know little about.