Monthly Archives: December 2009

Why Go Undercover? This NY Times Article Makes the Case

I’ve been asked dozens of times whether the companies I worked for during the book knew my real agenda. I usually laugh and say, “Of course not.”

No employer–or at least none of the employers in the industries I was exploring–was going to agree to let an unsupervised journalist hang around. There’s a reason companies have public relations departments, and that reason is to control their message. Since I didn’t want to be controlled, and I certainly didn’t want to create more work for the PR departments, I figured it was best on both of our ends to just keep my project quiet.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw this description for a recent article in the New York Times: “A reporter takes on a holiday challenge: what it’s like to be one worker in the army it takes to run a Wal-Mart store in New Jersey.”

Now, I’ve heard that the Times has a policy forbidding its journalists from going undercover for stories. So I read on, intrigued. Indeed, I learned that for some reason Wal-Mart had agreed to allow a journalist to work at a store in New Jersey. From the piece:

Once taciturn, the company has become more open in recent years, engaging with its critics and pulling back the curtain on certain aspects of its operations. The company said I was the first reporter to spend a day in a Wal-Mart store without supervision by its communications executives.

I won’t go into the rest of the article, which you can read here, except to say that it provides another great argument for going undercover. The reporter spent the day learning what it’s like to be a “worker” at Wal-Mart, then describes her day: “Most of my time, though, was spent with Wal-Mart supervisors and assistant managers.”

I’ve never worked at Wal-Mart, but I was an employee in the electronics section of K-Mart for a spell. I can tell you that the only day I spent “most of my time” with supervisors or assistant managers was the day I was fired for forgetting to wear the trademark red vest one too many times.

To summarize, the reporter’s day is spent listening to the manager quote John Wooden on leadership, marvel at the complicated inventory system, and learn virtually nothing about the actual workers of Wal-Mart. One of the only observations that does delve into the realities of the work– “there is still a lot of monotonous physical labor happening inside its stores”–is followed by a quote from a Wal-Mart spokesperson reminding the reporter to wear comfortable shoes.

What I didn’t learn from the article is precisely what I was promised: “What it’s like to be one worker in the army it takes to run a Wal-Mart store.”

But after reading the piece, I do have to admit that there might have been a chance that, had I identified myself as a reporter at the beginning, I could have convinced a company to allow me to “work” for them in the way that this reporter “worked” for Wal-Mart. Maybe Pilgrim’s Pride would have taken me for a tour of the plant, fed me inspiring quotes on leadership, and even allowed me to occasionally say hello to a worker, who no doubt knew I was a reporter and had already received their instructions about presenting a cheery visage.

Either way, I’m glad I went undercover.



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Roadkill & Other Fun Topics

Another round of photos from each job location:

Making Friends with Traffic

Of all the threats to cyclists on the road, I found New York City buses to be surprisingly safe. Sure, they are big, and that bigness takes a while to get used to. But unlike cab drivers or just about every other vehicle on the road, their operators generally seem to follow a defensive driving orientation. By that, I mean that they are in the uncommon habit of looking for cyclists or pedestrians before changing lanes or pulling into the street. Though not always: a friend was recently hit by an MTA bus, which knocked him out and broke both his clavicles and some ribs. He ended up spending several days in the hospital and still can’t remember what happened. So I guess it’s more accurate to say that buses are safe until they hit you. Here I am, delivering food that is hanging from my handlebars, undoubtedly headed for some rich person’s luxury apartment.

Welcome to Russellville!

Cycling in Russellville, Alabama had its own dangers, foremost among them the unbelievable amount of roadkill. If you look closely, you should be able to see the outline of a large animal on the opposite shoulder. If memory serves, that was a dog. On the near shoulder, if you really zoom in you can see a dead armadillo. I should point out that I took this photo only because I thought it humorous that a “Welcome to Russellville” sign was located in a place that seemed to imply Russellville didn’t exist, as there’s nothing beyond the sign for miles. I didn’t even notice the roadkill in the shot until later. While riding to and from town, which was 7 miles from my trailer, I would pass dead deer, dogs, armadillos (tons!), cats, raccoons, and other unidentifiable creatures. Russellville apparently doesn’t have any roadkill clean up program, so animals slowly bake in the sun and decompose of the shoulders. I was successful in avoiding every animal but one, and let me tell you: riding over an armadillo carcass on a bike is not pretty.

What It’s All About

I like this photo because it captures the beauty of the lechugero and the complexity of a head of iceberg lettuce. As you can see, the heads of lettuce in the field look very different from what you find in a grocery store. A lettuce cutter’s job is not only to stoop over and cut the head, but to trim it using his knife and hands so that the outer leaves fall. This is a real skill that takes time to develop: by my second month, my back could handle the stooping, but I lost valuable seconds when trimming. It wasn’t until my final two weeks that I was fully able to keep up with the rest of the crew, and by that time I was getting ready to move on.

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Undocumented and Thriving

I came across an interesting article in the New York Times yesterday about a Paraguayan who had lobbied for a job in the consulate office of New York. The individual, Augusto Noguera, seemed to lead a model immigrant life: he ran a section of a construction company, was involved in various non-profit organizations, and even hosted elected officials in his home when they visited from Paraguay.

Noguera clearly had political ambitions in all this, and finally got his wish for an administrative position in the consulate office after traveling to Paraguay and lobbying hard. But when he applied for a visa to return, it was learned that he was actually an undocumented immigrant. Denied a legal route, he tried to cross through a California checkpoint using another person’s passport, but was apprehended. He’s now in a detention center in Arizona, awaiting deportation.

The story highlights how surprising it could be that such a person–successful, connected, savvy–could be undocumented. But if you’re worked in immigrant communities of New York, you know that it’s really not that surprising. I’m consistently amazed by the ingenuity of people without papers in crafting strategies to thrive. More than a few times, I’ve learned that someone I assumed had a green card was in fact undocumented. Though they run companies and engage in complicated business transactions, they’ve found ways to get around all sorts of issues. It’s hard enough to be a successful entrepreneur in this world, but these folks, having to deal with an especially tough challenge on top of it, somehow make it work.

I also thought one of the Paraguayan responses to the situation was odd. From the article:

“We want qualified people with sensitivity to the needs of Paraguayans abroad, not political appointments,” said Miguel Acosta of Yonkers, the publisher of El Mirador Paraguayo, a monthly newspaper. “It’s more than embarrassing. We’re sad. Coming from one of the most corrupt countries in the world, we’ve lost the capacity to be embarrassed.”

While I’ll agree that the situation might be construed as embarrassing, I certainly don’t understand why an undocumented immigrant would be unqualified to be sensitive to the needs of Paraguayan immigrants. For the Mexican immigrants I know, many would probably prefer at least one undocumented immigrant in the consulate office, so they would find someone that could better relate to their situation.

Not that I’m standing up for this guy. He made a terrible decision by leaving his family in New York to lobby for the appointment. That, and his aggressive courting of politicians, makes me think that he’s likely a very power-hungry individual with grand ambitions who won’t hesitate in the future to again sacrifice the needs of his family when they get in the way of his plans (if so, he’s already on his way to a successful career in politics).

Speaking of thriving in the shadows, the book launch party date is officially set! More details to come, but for now here’s a hold the date invite:

Drinking in the Shadows
Book Release Party for Working in the Shadows
Thursday, January 28, 7 PM
Soda Bar
629 Vanderbilt Avenue
Brooklyn, NY

I can confirm from previous inspections that Soda Bar is indeed shadowy.

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Publisher’s Weekly Reviews the Book!

I found out yesterday that Publisher’s Weekly reviewed Working in the Shadows. Although this is my third book, the intensity of the feelings I suffer–and suffer is the perfect word–between the time I learn of a review and actually read it has never diminished.

Those feelings swing between two poles, elation and dejection, based on two possibilities:

Possibility A: They will absolutely love it. Even better, they just might say it’s the greatest piece of writing they’ve ever encountered. They predict I will be rich within a few months, and anticipate multi-million dollar tie-in deals of all sorts (movies, action figures, etc). They also mention that they couldn’t help noticing from the author photo that I’m extremely attractive.

Possibility B: They wonder whether English is my second language and speculate about who within the publishing house I must have slept with to get my unreadable tract published. Words like boring and pedestrian make multiple appearances. They conclude with the broad statement that far too many books are published each year.

The reviews always fall somewhere in between, but I was happy to find the with PW it was definitely closer to Possibility A.

Publisher’s Weekly, 12/14/2009

Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do Gabriel Thompson. Nation, $24.95 (272p) ISBN 978-1-56858-408-9

“Thompson (There’s No José Here) details working alongside undocumented workers in this stirring look at the bottom rung of America’s economic ladder. Thompson’s project feels initially like a gimmick; that this middle-class white American can go undercover in the lettuce fields of Arizona or the poultry plants of Alabama seems more stunt (or rehash of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed) than sound journalism. But the warmth with which he describes his co-workers and the heartbreaking descriptions of the demanding, degrading, and low-paying jobs quickly pull the reader in. Gimmick or no, the author pushes his body and his patience to the limits, all the while deferring attention to the true heroes: his co-workers, whose dignity, perseverance, physical endurance, and manual skill are no less admirable for being born of sheer necessity. What emerges are not tales of downtrodden migrants but of clever hands and clever minds forced into repetitive and dangerous labor without legal protections. Thompson excels at putting a human face on individuals and situations alternately ignored and vilified.”

¡Gracias Publisher’s Weekly!

One of the really nice aspects of the review is that I could tell the reviewer came to the book ready to tear it apart as a stupid gimmick that didn’t work. It certainly seems a good sign that I can win people over who are prepared to dislike it. (Hey maybe even the ALL CAPS anti-immigrant crowd will be converted? One can dream…) And I can actually appreciate why folks, especially in the book publishing world, are skeptical about the growing genre of books where someone does some experiment for a certain amount of time and writes about it. Not Wearing It: How My Year Going Sockless Changed My Life, and What It Says About Humanity. Those sorts of titles. This was one reason I was actually pushing for a subtitle that didn’t have “A Year of Doing…” in it, because it seemed a bit gimmicky. But, as my publisher told me, those books tend to sell well, so what could I say to that?

On a much more important note: Today Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) will introduce new comprehensive immigration reform legislation in the House. Some wizard with acronyms came up with the bill: the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act….CIR ASAP.

In the words of Michael Buffer, “Let’s get ready to rumble!”

I predict a good clean start that lasts three or four seconds, followed by some serious dirty boxing, concluding with a fourth or fifth round knock out of the ALL CAPS crowd. From what we’ve seen with the healthcare debate, I don’t think we want this fight going into the later rounds.


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Mountain Dew Mouth

One of my best friends in Alabama was a guy who I call Kyle (all the names or workers and supervisors in the book have been changed). I noticed early on that Kyle really liked Mountain Dew. Each night when he picked me up for work, Kyle was gulping down a can. During any 24-hour period, he consumed at least six.

At first I thought it was just his little quirk, but soon learned that everyone drank Mountain Dew. At the plant, next to dispensers of every sort of pain killer you might need to survive the job, were the soda machines. They offered various options: Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, Hawaiian Punch. But few people were interested in anything but Mountain Dew. Around town, if someone had a soda in hand, it was invariably a Mountain Dew. I’m not exaggerating for effect; the loyalty was cult-like. This guy would have felt right at home:

Especially crazy was how much of the beverage folks consumed. Another coworker, who I call Big Ben, could drink seven sodas during a shift. He often finished off two or three sodas each break with a quick tip of the can. One night, his face drenched in sweat, Ben gulped down three Mountain Dews in less than five minutes. I gently suggested that perhaps he was drinking too much soda. He replied that he made sure to piss at the end of each break so he never had a problem with having to go during work (not exactly what I was getting at, anyway). Diego, a Guatemalan coworker, was one of the only people I saw who drank diet soda. His choice was, of course, Diet Mountain Dew.

Months after returning from Alabama, I watched an ABC news special about a phenomenon that dentists in Appalachia describe as “Mountain Dew mouth”: the loss of teeth due to regular consumption of the soda. It turns out that a 20-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew contains 19 teaspoons of sugar and 93 milligrams of caffeine—the same amount as an adult tablet of No Doz—along with very high levels of acid that dissolve the tooth’s enamel at a much higher rate than typical colas.

The program profiled a dentist in Kentucky, Dr. Edwin Smith, who had purchased a mobile dental clinic and was treating the teeth of young children addicted to the beverage. After hearing criticism from dentists, Pepsi—makers of Mountain Dew—issued a response. “This is old, irresponsible news,” they said. “It is preposterous to blame soft drinks or any one food for poor dental health.” They argued that the problem could be “sticky foods like raisins.”

(After placing blame on a fruit, Pepsi soon realized that images of kids with rotten teeth weren’t good PR, and so apologized and made some sort of donation to Dr. Smith. Way to go, Pepsi.)

So, does Mountain Dew make your teeth look like this?

From what I’ve seen, yes. It was impossible not to notice the number of people in the plant who were either missing teeth entirely or had half-rotted teeth turning black. It certainly didn’t help that very few people had dental care, and I’m sure there are various contributing factors. But only a communications flack for Pepsi could have failed to draw a connection between the popularity of Mountain Dew and the loss of teeth at the chicken plant.

So as much as I’ve always wanted to be associated with extreme sports by drinking a urine-colored beverage, I think I’ll stick to something safer…you know, like chewing tobacco.


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A Glimpse Inside a Chicken Plant

One of my major regrets regarding the book is not having had the chance to take photos inside the Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Russellville, Alabama. There have been several instances when I’ve felt completely overwhelmed while trying to describe a scene using only words. Walking into a chicken plant that can kill and dismember up to 1.5 million birds a week was certainly one of those times. Here’s how I describe my first moments on the processing floor:

Superhero comics aren’t complete without an evil genius. Often he seeks to construct the ultimate weapon to hold the world hostage; it he’s really deranged he simply wants to use it to end human civilization. Since the construction of the weapon must be clandestine, work goes on below ground or behind hidden doors. Walk through the door and an immense world of nameless and undoubtedly evil scientists are at work, tinkering with mysterious equipment while wearing smocks and continuously checking devices.

That’s the image that immediately comes to mind when I push through the double doors that separate the break room from the plant floor. This isn’t a workplace: This is an underground lair.

One of the most striking aspects was the sheer volume of dead chickens flying around on hooks overhead. It looked something like this, but on a much larger scale:

On my first night, I walked under the birds and felt a plop of something fall on my head, which I didn’t investigate further. I go on to describe all sorts of other fun stuff, though you’ll have to read the book to get the gory details. In the book you’ll also learn why I wasn’t able to take any photos (hint: it involved chicken plant bosses and didn’t end well).

Thankfully, I was able to get permission from the Charlotte Observer to reprint the following photograph in my book:

The photo, taken by John D. Simmons, depicts a typical scene in the “debone” department. Workers stand shoulder to shoulder all shift, slicing sections off chickens that are continuously whizzing by on a conveyor belt. During a shift, debone workers can make well over ten thousand identical cuts, which helps explain why they frequently suffer from repetitive stress injuries like carpal tunnel.

When I was gearing up for the poultry job, the Observer ran an absolutely fantastic series about the industry. Entitled “The Cruelest Cuts,” it’s available online here. For anyone that doubts the power of investigative journalism, have a look. In my opinion, the staff should have won a Pulitzer.

It’s pretty incredible that the Observer was even able to gain access to photograph the plant, as companies generally make a point of keeping customers as ignorant as possible in terms of how meat arrives on their plate. (For example, who wants to learn that jobs at a plant include the neck breaker, oil sack cutter, giblet harvester, lung vacuumer, or back up killer?) Indeed, from the outside, the Pilgrim’s Pride plant looked like a typical corporate complex, albeit without windows.

Here a photo I took of the plant one day while biking by en route to the town library. You’ll notice the recently mowed lawn and bright white walls. You won’t notice the blood and guts, which is helpful if you’re hoping not to ruin your appetite.

On that note, have a good weekend. I’ll soon be posting confirmed dates for the book tour, and look forward to seeing many of you around the country. Also, if you find yourself enjoying chicken today, remember to pause to give special thanks to the lung vacuumer–the only person standing between the wing in your hand and an unwanted chunk of squishy pulmonary meat.


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Good Press, Bad Christians

I’m a longtime reader and very occasional contributor to In These Times, the radical magazine out of Chicago. A few years back, I got to profile a man for the publication named Jeff Monson. Monson, an anarchist and an activist, also happens to be a world class mixed martial artist.

While the words anarchist and activist might evoke images of skinny kids wearing black who wouldn’t last a minute in a fight (that’s me), Monson looks like a cartoon ready to pop, a compressed giant of crazy shoulders, massive biceps and meaty forearms. Here’s Monson putting in another typical day at the office:

Despite appearances, during our hour long phone interview, the recipient of a masters degree in psychology spoke like this:

“I’m saying that our economic system, capitalism, is structured so that it only benefits a small percentage of very wealthy people. When I was traveling in Brazil, they had us staying at a really posh hotel. Outside the hotel there was a mom sleeping on the sidewalk with her two kids. That’s when reality hits you. What did that woman ever do? Who did she ever hurt?”

Yes, quite possibly the most intimidating person to ever walk the earth is actually a soft-spoken critical thinker. One of my favorite UFC moments (I’ll admit to being a fan) occurred a few years back, when he entered an arena for a championship fight with John Lennon’s “Imagine” cranking over the sound system. If you’re interested, you can read the entire Monson profile here.

I’m mentioning In These Times because they recently ran an article about Working in the Shadows, available here. It’s the first media about the book since the advance copies were sent out, and hopefully is a sign of much good press to come. Actually, considering how hard it is to get media attention, I’ll even take a bunch of bad press. The worst thing, whether you’re at a dinner party or hustling a new book, isn’t being criticized–it’s being ignored.


Moving along. Two different visions for America’s future were on display last week in Houston, Texas. First, the ugly.

The Houston Chronicle discovered that local charities are checking immigration status for children before handing out toys during gift drives. As they reported:

The Salvation Army and a charity affiliated with the Houston Fire Department are among those that consider immigration status, asking for birth certificates or Social Security cards for the children.

Though I’m not a Christian, I did have to sit through a bunch of church services as a child, but must have missed the Bible story where Jesus is about to cure the blind and lame but pushes them to the ground upon learning that the needy are not “legal” human beings.

My many questionable talents include a minimum proficiency with Photoshop, and I was so moved by the Chronicle story that I decided to offer my graphic design services to the Salvation Army. After a few minutes of fumbling around, I’ve designed a new logo to sum up their Christian philosophy, which I hereby permit them to duplicate without charge and incorporate into every aspect of their holiday communication strategy.

Thankfully, all is not awful in Houston. While some “Christian” organizations have incorporated the punishment of children into their agenda, Reverend Harvey Clemons, Jr. of the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Houston has a very different view. He recently penned a great op-ed for the Chronicle. My favorite section:

Listen not to false prophets who wrap their politics around the fear of the immigrant. It is not a new song they sing. In fact, it is eerily similar to the songs sung not too long ago. They sang that slavery was God’s way until that song sounded ridiculous. They altered the song and sang segregation was God’s way until that too sounded ridiculous. Now the song of the false prophets paints the immigrant as a threat to, rather than a pillar of, American society; paints undocumented fathers and mothers working from sunrise to sundown as a drain of our nation’s resources rather than a reminder of our heroic beginnings; and paints immigrant children as a national burden rather than our nation’s blessing.

“Listen not to false prophets who wrap their politics around the fear of the immigrant. It is not a new song they sing.”

To that, this agnostic can only say: Amen.

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