Gabriel Thompson is one of America's finest progressive journalists, and this evening at the Mid-Manhattan Library, we got to hear him discuss his most recent book, Working in the Shadows.
Time Magazine's review lays its premise out pretty well:
Whether or not they choose to acknowledge it, most people know that immigrant and migrant workers are paid poorly in the U.S. What they may not know is how hard these laborers toil for their earnings. That's why Gabriel Thompson, a journalist based in Brooklyn, N.Y., spent months undercover working alongside mostly Guatemalans and Mexicans in the lettuce fields of Yuma, Ariz., at a chicken plant in rural Alabama and as a delivery guy for a restaurant in New York City. His goal was not to survive on his income, which he quickly realized was nearly impossible even at the lowest standard of living, but to remain at each job for two full months, no matter how bad the back pain, how sickening the smell of raw meat or how crippling the fatigue. Thompson succeeds--mostly. He gets found out and fired from the chicken plant a week before his self-imposed deadline and hangs up his delivery bike after seven weeks of risking his life in New York City traffic. Therein lies perhaps the only blemish on the book's premise: Thompson has the luxury to quit.
Over three years ago, after seeing Gabriel Thompson at Bluestockings, we read his book There's No José Here, a masterly study of Mexican immigrants in Brooklyn which let their stories speak for themselves in an eloquent way that made it so much more effective than the typical rhetoric on the subject of immigration, even from pro-immigrant politicians.
Tonight at the Mid-Manhattan Library, Gabriel spoke to a fairly large crowd, most of whom were, uh, weren't born yesterday (although his own three-month-old son came close) about his year in these low-wage jobs that, after hearing him read his excerpts (we're definitely going to read the whole book), sound so horrific that we wouldn't take them if they paid the income of a hedge fund manager.
Gabriel Thompson is a wonderful journalist: he's eloquent and doesn't get in the way of his reportage; he cares a lot for ordinary people and their struggles; and he can see the larger picture and make it clear for his readers. He was as thoughtful in answering questions (for a really long time) as he is in his writing. We're going to try to find Working in the Shadows tomorrow.