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.”