UNDERWORLD: Hopedale Mining, Cadiz, Ohio

I rarely knew where I was in that endless catacomb of tunnels, on and on and on, about fifteen square miles in all, where the quiet, when you found it, felt like an embrace. You could sit there. You could shut your light off, sit there in the perfectly dark silence. Nothing. Just—nothing.

Until: Pop!


A crackle like a fireplace.


When you’re inside the earth, this is what it sounds like. The earth isn’t some stupid rock, isn’t inert, isn’t just a solid mass for people to stand on. The earth is always moving, constantly stretching and squawking and repositioning itself like anyone else trying to get comfortable.

“Down here,” I said to Foot, “it’s like you’re away from all your problems. Do you think that’s part of the allure for you guys—that you escape your problems down here?”

He looked at me, laughed. “This is our problem,” he said.

The craziest thing I learned while researching UNDERWORLD
Down in a coal mine you can hear what the earth sounds like and it isn’t silent. When the machines were off, when the fans weren’t whirring, when the coal miners were resting and even our hardhat lights were off. The darkest dark you’ve ever seen, and then: Pop! Hisssss. A crackle like a fireplace. Hissss. As I write in “Underworld”: “When you’re inside the earth, this is what it sounds like. The earth isn’t some stupid rock, isn’t inert, isn’t just a sold mass for people to stand on. The earth is always moving, constantly stretching and squawking and repositioning itself like anyone else trying to get comfortable.” I had been terrified to go down in that coal mine, but by the end I loved it, the adventure, the surprises, and of course the people who had formed a brotherhood as tight as combat soldiers. They taught me a lot about coal—did you know every time you flip a light switch you burn a lump of coal?—and a lot about bravery.

Related Articles:
Read Jeanne Marie’s mediabistro interview, “Hey How’d You Write That Ellie-Nominated Feature, Jeanne Marie Laskas?”
Listen to Jeanne Marie’s interview with NPR’s Talk of the Nation.
• Read How Miners Talk About Death on The Daily Beast

HECHO EN AMERICA: Migrant Labor Camp, Cherryfield, Maine

No one this morning talked about where Urbano and his boys were; it was likely no one even knew their names or noticed that they were gone. Except Humberto, the skinny man who cleaned the kitchen, who told the crew chief about the boy who’d shown up with the messed-up eyes. Otherwise it was business as usual: empties, rakes, masking tape, shush, shush, shush. There was no talk, for that matter, of life outside the barrens, of Cristo’s school in Florida starting next week, of getting home to sign up for soccer or band. There was no talk of making it home in time for anything, no talk of the next crop, the next job, the next day, or even the tropical storm barreling up the East Coast, headed right here. Time in the barrens had no measure beyond the movement of the sun that warmed your back, then scorched it, then mercifully began letting go.

Related Articles:
• Read The Myth of the Illegal Invasion on The Huffington Post

G-L-O-R-Y: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio

Within this gargantuan money machine stands the cheerleader. The one whose job it is to say, “Yay!” 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 seventy-five bucks per game. That is correct: seventy-five bucks for each of ten home games. The grand cash total per season does not keep most of them flush in hair spray, let alone 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.

The craziest thing I learned while researching G-L-O-R-Y
NFL cheerleaders make $75 a game. At least that was the case with the Cincinnati Ben-Gals, the squad I hung out with for a season. Seventy-five bucks for each of ten home games. The grand cash total per person per season did not keep most of them flush in hair spray, let alone gas money to and from practice.  They were also not allowed to even socialize with players, let alone date them. Zero tolerance around that one.  What I came away with was an understanding of the cheerleader as pure:  the one actor in our most celebrated entertainment empire (the NFL is a $9 billion industry) who gets nothing tangible in return. She is nationalism at the most basic level, every Sunday embodying a distinctly American contradiction I explore in the book.
Bengals Cheerleaders
Bengals Cheerleaders
See the Ben-Gal cheerleader slideshow by Lauren Greenfield

TRAFFIC: Air Traffic Control Tower, LaGuardia Airport, New York, New York

Less than a minute later, 1549 flickered back onto my radar scope. The aircraft was at a very low altitude, but its return to radar coverage meant that there was a possibility 1549 had regained the use of one of its engines. Grasping at that tiny glimmer of hope, I told 1549 that it could land at Newark seven miles away on Runway 29, but I received no response. I then lost radar contact again, this time for good.

It was the lowest low I had ever felt. I wanted to talk to my wife. But I knew if I tried to speak or even heard her voice, I would fall apart completely.

I settled for a hasty text message: “Had a Crash. Not ok. Can’t talk now.”

The craziest thing I learned while researching TRAFFIC
We really need to thank our air traffic controllers. They’re the reason all our airplanes don’t bash into each other, land on top of each other, crash in mid-air. They’re like guardian angels in those towers, and we never know they’re there. When pilot C.B. “Sully” Sullenberger famously landed that jet on New York’s Hudson River in 2009, a controller named Patrick Harten was sitting behind a radar screen in Long Island talking to him on the radio, giving him options, and then, mid-sentence, the radio contact was abruptly cut off. Silence. It was the worst moment of Harten’s life. He could not speak. He sent his wife a text. “Had a Crash. Not ok. Can’t talk now.”

GUNS ‘R’ US: Sprague’s Sports, Yuma, Arizona

“If you were more of a radical, militia-type person I would say yeah, an AR makes all the sense in the world,” he said, “but that’s not where you’re coming from.”

I asked if I would need to tell him why I wanted to buy a gun like that, or tell him what I intended to do with it. He squinted and smiled and appeared politely speechless. “Would you have to do what, now?” he asked.

“Well, why would I want one of those guns?” I asked. “What would be my reason?”

“If anyone asks, you can say it’s your Second Amendment right, I guess, but beyond that . . .”

It was hard for us to find a comfortable, common starting place, but the reach was certainly genuine.

One of the things I wanted to talk to Ron and the people at Sprague’s about was Arizona’s infamous 2011 Tucson massacre, and I wondered when would be an appropriate time to bring it up; the massacre was, well, a massacre, and I feared it would dampen the mood.

BEEF: R.A. Brown Ranch, Throckmorton, Texas

“Come on, bulls!” Donnell cried. He sprinkled sweet grain on the brittle prairie grass and the bulls gathered, as bulls do, like children after the big piñata spill. All of them but one. “Come on, bull! Come on, buddy!” Donnell called to the slacker lying some twenty yards away. It was Revelation. “Hey!” He went closer, and closer still, and that’s when he saw Revelation lying there motionless, like some dumb lump of clay. “Come on, buddy!” Revelation lifted his head in acknowledgment. But he could not get up. Donnell bent over to find that his right back leg had been mangled, most likely in a fight with another bull, a battle for turf or just a boyish tussle for fun. Revelation was lame, and a lame bull was worthless. A lame bull would be sent without further adieu to the packinghouse.

“No,” Donnell said. “Please God, no.”

The craziest thing I learned while researching BEEF
Cowboys aren’t kidding. It seems quaint, or somehow adorably retro, to think there are men (and women!) right now on horseback out west driving cattle through mesquite-laced valleys, dressed in chaps and long sleeve shirts and cowboy hats and swinging lassos. You mean they don’t use helicopter or ATVs or something now? That’s what I had imagined. But cowboys still work the old-fashioned way, for reasons I explain in the book, and if you were out in the range with them you would have no idea what century you were, in fact, in. The difference now: when they get back to the barn they might, as the cowboys I followed did, walk into a lab with high-tech microscopes and ultrasound equipment and spreadsheets filled with genetic data—all in an effort to make us the perfect steak.

THE RIG: Pioneer National Resources Oil Rig, Oooguruk Island, off the Shores of Alaska’s North Slope

“You know what time is for?” TooDogs asks me.

“What it’s for?” I ask.

“It’s to keep everything from happening all at once,” he says.

I look at him, nod politely. He drags hard on his cigarette. “Can you imagine the alternative?” he says, and for the first time I notice that his eyes are a deep steel blue, there is a white scar snaking between them, and the saying on his cap reads: HUNT HARD…IN ALASKA. He makes his eyes big, and his face gets red, and the scar appears whiter. “The alternative?” he says. “BOOM!”

Now I’m staring at him. “What?” he says.

“I guess I never thought of it that way.”

“It’s something to remember when your stuff gets cluttered,” he says. “You know, when the stuff in your head gets cluttered?”

He says his stuff has been pretty cluttered this hitch. A tangle of thoughts—family, money, work—clogging up his mind. He says it’s no big deal. He says it’s all workable. “Sometimes I just think my give-a-shit spring is about to bust.”

SPUTTER: I-80, Exit 284, Walcott, Iowa

Together we ready the sleeper cab for the night, make a little nest out of two fuzzy green beanbag chairs, and argue about who gets the real bed (“No, you!”) and who gets the beanbags, and of course she wins. She sets two alarms, one to wake up Michael so he won’t be late for work in the morning, and the second to remind Michael to feed her cats before he leaves. She wonders if Michael shampooed the carpets, but she knows the answer is no, so she decides not to call him.

“I wish Michael was more like my father,” she says again, this time through bobby pins in her teeth. “But I guess a lot of women are like that, just always looking to replace their dad.”

She insists that everything in her life goes back to her dad, watching him work on those rigs. As a child, she devoured his legend: a sharecropper who emigrated north for work, arriving practically shoeless in Cleveland, where he got the job at the garage. That job was everything to a man like that. That job was America itself. He had six kids. Sputter was the youngest. How she dreamed of climbing on his big shoulders, him parading her through town like his pride and joy. She dreamed. It got so she dreamed of becoming a broken-down old truck so that he would spend as much time with her as he did with those rigs.

“I’m going to become a truck driver,” she told him one day.


THIS IS PARADISE: Puente Hills Landfill, City of Industry, California

Before I started hanging out at the landfill, I had no idea we could generate electricity from trash. “Most people don’t know this,” I say to Joe.

“Oh, a lot of people know it,” he says.

No, they don’t. I have checked. I have consulted folks back home, regular trash makers, average citizens going through cartons of Hefty bags, who think little beyond “Gotta take the trash out” when it comes to the final resting place of their garbage. “People don’t know we power homes with landfill gas,” I say. “Don’t you think people should know this?”

He looks at me, weary. “Why do you think I’ve been busting my ass at this for thirty years, lady?”

He blinks, removes his glasses, takes out a handkerchief, and wipes them clean. “That’s what I did,” he says. “I did nothing but tell people about what we do here. Now, how much time does society have to listen and understand? Well, the answer to that is, society’s interest level is pretty low. It doesn’t necessarily want to know where its waste goes. It’s embarrassed by its responsibility in this arena.”

The craziest thing I learned while researching THIS IS PARADISE
People who work at America’s largest landfill are happy. Easily the most optimistic and contented workers I met in all my research were the people at the Puente Hills Landfill, about sixteen miles east of downtown Los Angeles, a 100-million ton solid soup of trash. When people first started dumping there in 1965, it was a series of canyons. Now it’s a mountain. The engineers were enormously and deservedly proud of what they’ve done with all that garbage. They turn landfill gas into electricity—enough to power 70,000 Southern California homes. And areas of the landfill have been turned into a park with biking trails. Even the bulldozer operators and the trash haulers and the paper pickers were proud to work in that place, and the guy I focus on in the book, Joe Haworth, was a trash philosopher. Who knew?