Jeanne Marie Laskas first came across "hidden America" 500 feet underground, traveling with miners through a narrow, dark coal mine in Ohio. There, she realized how dependent Americans are on the work of miners, yet most people know very little about their world or their work.
In a new book, Laskas chronicles her weeks spent following the lives of those whose jobs are nearly invisible to most of us, from air traffic controllers and truck drivers, to migrant workers and professional football cheerleaders.
NPR's Neal Conan talks with Laskas about the people she met while researching her book, Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, An Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work.
On air traffic controllers at LaGuardia Airport
"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. ...
"We have to be really thankful that there are people like Brian and Lars 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."
On cowboys at R.A. Brown Ranch in Throckmorton, Texas
"[The cowboys' work is] extremely high-tech ... 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 ... you know, cowboy hats."
On migrant workers picking blueberries in Maine
"The beautiful blueberry festival in Machias, Maine ... 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 laboring right there under the noses of, you know, everyone — the consumer. We don't think about that. ... 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: 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."