Voices From These Times: ‘Short Summer Solstice’

Gale Occomy January 24, 2011

In These Times has part­nered with the Neigh­bor­hood Writ­ing Alliance (NWA) to ampli­fy the sto­ries and strug­gles of ordi­nary peo­ple, includ­ing work­ers in the Unit­ed States. This piece, part of an ongo­ing biweek­ly series, orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the Jour­nal of Ordi­nary Thought, pub­lished by NWA. Find more sto­ries and voic­es at the NWA’s blog.

That sum­mer I was going to angle for a job out­side. The pay had been excel­lent on my last job. But I didn’t like the iso­la­tion and dark gray, rusty stacks of steel coil tow­er­ing three sto­ries on all sides of my work­sta­tion. Dull, col­or­less indoor evenings and night­shifts, con­fined with sounds of a dron­ing steel pick­ling line, weren’t real­ly worth the extra pay.

I was able to get a lot of read­ing done. Each coil took almost 25 min­utes to be pick­led. After the coil thread­ed its way through three 100-foot pools of acid, water rinse, and oily hot-wax preser­v­a­tive, I pressed a but­ton, shear­ing the coil at the weld seam, rolling it onto a band­ing table. Anoth­er switch lit a red light, sig­nal­ing the over­head crane oper­a­tor to move the coil to the ship­ping area after crimp­ing it with met­al bands.

On my first day, I greet­ed some of the old timers, the per­ma­nent work­ers I knew from last year. They were at their lock­ers chang­ing into drab work gear.

Hey col­lege boy, you back?”

Tom’s sooty, dark face flashed effer­ves­cent, white teeth, cap­ping his slight south­ern drawl. Many of the short, stocky East­ern Euro­peans waved behind a slight mum­bled accent­ed Hi.” This year I just might try one of their lunchtime sta­ples, a huge raw Sab­u­la onion eat­en like an apple. Maybe that was the secret to their smooth, raw, steel-stained skin.

Dark, crisp work clothes marked me as the new sum­mer help, even though I thought of myself as a sea­soned vet. The black, steel-toed shoes and crisp, fresh shirt and pants hadn’t acquired the black smudgy pati­na of the reg­u­lars’ out­fits. When washed after a few days’ labor, a per­ma­nent, black, oily smudge wilt­ed the clothes’ crisp­ness and became per­ma­nent, match­ing the soot-stained faces of the long-term mill workers.

Ookay, new guys over here.” The superintendent’s voice broke the lock­er room hubbub.

Three kinds of jobs to start this year. Who wants to make big bucks? Step over here on this side.”

Most of the new guys were direct­ed to a fad­ed-green wall at the front of the room. Expe­ri­enced me wasn’t play­ing the game. I didn’t bite. Then he called out some eso­teric-sound­ing jobs, which I knew were night and shift work. I kept my place on the lock­er bench.

Ookay. Guys I picked, come with me. The rest go out this door and walk to the end of the tracks. You’ll be the ground crew. The yard boss will tell you what to do.”

Eight of us walked along the tracks in front of the coke ovens to a small, black, met­al, cor­ru­gat­ed hutch. A gap-toothed, thin mill hand in brown sooty jeans greet­ed us with, Aw right. Grab one of them long han­dled shov­els an fal­la me. We gonna keep these here tracks clean when coke spills from them hop­per cars.”

My plan worked. Just be patient and things will work out. This time I’m out­side in the air and sun. We were the clean-up crew for coke oven num­ber three. White-hot nuggets filled the coke cars. Furi­ous, quick shov­el scoops min­i­mized expo­sure to the smol­der­ing lumps that lay on the track after the hop­per cars were filled. Eight col­lege guys from schools in dif­fer­ent states and var­ied cul­tur­al back­grounds meshed as a team in the face of tem­po­rary dan­ger, a micro­cosm of the country’s social poten­tial. Each was giv­en a nick­name by a team mem­ber, based on school affil­i­a­tion, accent, per­son­al habits, or some non­sen­si­cal trait. We joked, teased, and bond­ed. I felt that this was the sum­mer I had planned for.

At lunch dur­ing the third week the yard boss destroyed our lunchtime ban­ter with an announce­ment. Jab­bing his fin­ger at me and one of the team mem­bers, he sneered, You an’ you, go up top after lunch. Stop by the shack an’ pick up yer gear. You boys will make 50 cents more an hour. That’s good mon­ey for you.”

He stormed back to the black met­al shack. Embarrassment’s weight silenced us. Shamed eyes avoid­ed con­tact. I couldn’t fin­ish my lunch. Work­ing on top meant remov­ing and replac­ing lids cov­er­ing the coke charg­ing holes in pun­ish­ing tem­per­a­tures. Fifty cents more, who wants it? And what’s this good mon­ey for you” crap?” I thought.

At the shack I was giv­en greasy, heav­i­ly padded cov­er­alls, a safe­ty hel­met with a clear, plas­tic face shield, asbestos over­gloves, tint­ed gog­gles, a small vial of salt tablets, and steel-rimmed, cork-soled shoe plat­forms to be strapped to my shoes as pro­tec­tion against them catch­ing on fire.

I strug­gled for air in the sear­ing tem­per­a­ture. The red-hot lids tipped and wob­bled on the end of my sev­en- foot steel rod. The bowed rod strained to keep its shape.

Go over to the edge near the bench and sit down after each charge or you’ll pass out. An’ there’s some water in a big jug an’ a cup. Take your salt pills.” The yard boss’s words pen­e­trat­ed my heat-fogged brain.

A cup? One stinkin’ cup for all of us to drink from? What about Hoof and Mouth Dis­ease? Anthrax? Cold sores?” Oth­er dis­eases and dan­ger­ous sali­va-borne plagues flood­ed my mind. Buuzz! The charge car engi- neer sound­ed the warn­ing horn for the lids on bat­tery num­ber four to be removed. Weak­ened and thirsty, I stag­gered toward the red bat­tery light to begin my task. There was no cool­ing sweat inside the padded extra poundage of greasy cov­er­alls. My clothes and skin became a sti­fling cocoon. I’m still not going to drink out of that cup.”

No exit. No way out. Sheer absur­di­ty. I was liv­ing Sartre’s night­mare. In the glare of white heat belch­ing from the holes, I men­tal­ly sketched my part­ing words to the yard boss. Of course this would be done after he passed out checks tomor­row. Think­ing slows in this oppres­sive heat.

I’m still not going to drink out of that cup. Only a cou­ple more hours and this day will be over,” I silent­ly mouthed.

In the lock­er room the crew teased me and Jim with mock the­atri­cal heat exhaus­tion and ques­tions about a real man’s work at 50 cents more an hour.

Hey! What’s it like up in high hell? Fifty cents more don’t let you be cool like us on the ground. Aww, don’t let it get you; this will just make you black­er faster. Make sure you get well done. Ha haa huh.”

Every­one made a com­ment while I remained mute, smil­ing, and nod­ding. The show­er reas­sured my skin that it belonged to me, my per­son­al defined space, free of need­less appendages. A knot­ted stom­ach remind­ed me of per­son­al vio­la­tion and insult. After dress­ing and punch­ing out at the time clock, my quick pace strength­ened my resolve to last just one more day.

Fri­day, the day start­ed with the rou­tine ban­ter, the jokes, teas­ing, and Tom’s boom­ing voice.

Col­lege boy…you lid man now? Huh, huh, huh. Mem­ber what I tol’ you last year. Fifty cent more don’t make it no bet­ter. Git on back in school.” At lunch I just want­ed to drink water from my own ther­mos and the drink­ing foun­tain. The ground crew joked and laughed between chews. I real­ized that I would nev­er get a chance to eat one of those huge Sab­u­la onions at lunch. Back on top, I strug­gled with the weight of the steel-rimmed cork safe- ty soles. My breath­ing was shallow.

I was a jack­et­ed roast with­out the juice. The shift-change whis­tle blast pen­e­trat­ed dense heat, sig­nal­ing my freedom.

This is it. This is it. Let me get to the show­er.” My mind savored the wel­come relief. Ban­ter pro­ceed­ed unabat­ed with only slight glances in my direc­tion. A few curi­ous looks not­ed my gym bag being packed with all of my work gear. The yard boss strut­ted into the lock­er room talk­ing loud and pass­ing out checks.

I know how you young guys are. Don’t spend it all in one place, if you know what I mean, spe­cial­ly you big mon­ey mak­ers. Hah, hah, hah.” His self-sat­is­fied laugh trailed off into a cackle.

He gave me my check. In a mat­ter-of-fact man­ner, I told him, I quit.” The cor­ner of his mouth point­ed towards the floor. He scowled and in a loud voice asked, Wha do you want? You got 60 cents more. Give you guys the world and you still want more. The hell with it.”

The room qui­et­ed as he stalked out. Tom’s teeth flashed. You done good, col­lege boy. Don’t come back. You growed up now.”

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