Once again, it doesn't really sound right to say that I "enjoyed the hell out of" Gabriel Thompson's new book Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs [Most] Americans Won't Do, but that's really the only way to say it. The book is horrifying and depressing and stupendous.
Whether you call this type of work immersion journalism or "stunt lit," the style is becoming familiar: a journalist or a memoirist decides they are going to do something over the course of a set time period, and then write about it. One of the best known examples of this genre is Barbara Ehrenreich's now-classic title Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, in which she tried to live on the wages she could make as a waitress, cleaning person, and Wal-Mart employee. This book is very similar to Ehrenreich's, but for some reason it resonated with me more.
Thompson set out, not to live on the wages he could make, but simply to experience the types of jobs in this country that are often filled by immigrants and undocumented workers. He decided to spend two months each working in the agricultural field, a chicken processing plant, and the kitchens of New York City's restaurants. Each job is described over roughly a third of the book.
Let me tell you this right now: his first job, picking lettuce in Yuma, Arizona? One day of it would kill me.* Thompson joined workers who worked longer than eight-hour days, continually bending and cutting lettuce, all for $8.37 an hour. And his second job, at a chicken processing plant in Alabama, only got worse. Ehrenreich did a good job of describing the toll these types of jobs take on the human body, too, but for some reason, when Thompson was describing the pain and chronic conditions he was developing, I could actually feel how terrible he felt. The very fact that there was a vending machine of painkillers next to the pop and snacks machines at the chicken should indicate what workers are going through.
This has been my favorite "eye-opening" book since John Bowe's Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. And I promise you, I've read many, many books about the horrors of chicken processing plants, but before now, I've gone the way of most Americans and tried not to think about where most of my food is coming from when I shop in the grocery store (although I also try to shop at markets and find alternative sources for my meat). But now? It'll probably wear off again, but even the thought of buying chicken breasts in the store makes me ill. What makes this book so different? Because of paragraphs like this (in Thompson's conclusion):
"At the moment, many of the issues being raised are centered on the consumer: Is the food safe for my children? How far did it travel to get to my grocery store? We should expand these concerns, demanding that the foods are produced in a way that is not only safe for consumers and environmentally sustainable, but also safe and sustainable for workers. This, in turn, demands that we rethink our notions of the benefits of cheap food, because much of the pressure driving down wages comes from companies in competition with each other for contracts with national chain...An order of twenty hot wings for less than $10 might seem like a great deal, but the hidden costs are borne by workers in places like Russellville." (p. 291.)
That says it pretty plainly, doesn't it? Check this book out.** If it doesn't make you a. more thankful for whatever job you might have (and I know about hating jobs, believe you me, and I sympathize), and b. slightly more interested in food issues and immigration reform, I'll eat my made-in-China shirt.
*And I grew up on a farm, so I am not unfamiliar with long days and hard physical work.
**It's a great book for another reason: Thompson's stories of worker solidarity are weirdly and totally inspirational.