Every day I came home, grabbed a wad of toilet paper and blew a thick black sheen of soot out of my nose. An hour later, I’d do the same thing with the same resulting level of inky dust shooting out.
My grandfather worked the famed Harlan County Coal Mines. He also died of black lung at 86-years-old. He also shot and killed two people, but that is a boring story.
I was 19 when I started. A handful of my friends had already been working there and that’s how I got my foot in the door. I was quitting my job as a grill cook at a local steak house to work in this mill. It was a Mom & Pop sort of operation. Not like the giant steel manufacturing plant US Steel one town over. We did contract work for mills around the country, though the company’s contracts were getting shorter and shorter by the day.
Named Servsteel and located in an industrial strip in Merrillville, Indiana, the work was an easy sort of grueling spawned out of a company which only paid a little above minimum wage to start and had a lax drug-testing policy. We knew we were wage slaves--the owner saw to this by doling out piddly raises based on nothing but our time employed. The foremen saw to it by turning blind eyes to the sort of prisoners-in-a-high-school-locker-room attitude carried out by the help. When I mention a prison-like atmosphere, it doesn’t scrape much of the truth off the reality of the environment considering over a fourth of the employ being ex and future convicts.
One employee, a wiry gypsy looking guy everyone called Kev who had trouble staying sober while driving was even greeted back to work with a cake upon his release from jail.
In the 70s, most of our fathers got jobs at nearby steel mills right out of high school. It was known they’d end up there fresh from their senior year by the time they were finished with grade school. It was a well-paying job for someone not interested in furthering their education–it was a career. It was also a place for the lunkheads just lucky enough not to get a long-term criminal sentence or overdose on drugs.
Production waning at some point in the 80s, the mill option out of high school was then and now nonexistent. Servsteel was a dead-end whether you wanted it to be your career or not.
Necessity without extreme impoverishment dictates you make over $10-an-hour in Northwest Indiana. The Dollar Store is Mecca at this level of getting by. Only fools and those without any other discernible trade could hack it at this mill. I grew to love it despite the goon-ish behaviors and the established low-paying servitude. From my current perspective, I look back on those years, maybe stupidly, with a fondness.
My friend, Bryan, who’d gotten me the job, warned me before my first day of work that our co-workers were fucking animals. His warning came with an end message of:
“Don’t let them get in your head or push you around. Stand your ground.”
It would be awhile before I got tested.
On my first day, the foreman, Jeff, led me to my department with the sort of casualness reserved for people coasting by on years stacked on years of being able to phone-it-in at work. The warehouse was broken up into departments, or shops as they were known within the mill. My title was “Stamper.” There were giant metal flanges called “nozzles” that arrived to us bent to hell in giant cages. Our small assembly process within my department saw to pounding and refining these dumb hunks of metal anew. Once done, serial numbers had to be pounded onto a specific area of each refurbished nozzle; this was the job assigned to me–a “stamper.” It was mindless labor and I loved it right off.
Six employees, including myself, made up the shop. Two of them were upstart alcoholics I went to high school with and the rest of my co-workers were made up of categorical headcases. One guy, called Lobo, was functionally retarded and operated, for some reason, probably the most technical piece of equipment in my assigned department: A jackhammer-like device which broke up hardened mortar packed into big hunks of bigger pieces of metal. One of the other guys was just a short-tempered hillbilly, Randy, who made his literal mark on the place by spray painting a faux stop sign on the wall of our shop in an attempt to caution the speed of the mill’s near constant area-to-area fork lift drivers. Randy’s imprint as an stringy imbecile was made with this sloppily spritzed warning sign by writing DON’T above the STOP and BAYBEE under.
DON’T STOP BAYBEE.
Rounding out my fellow blue collar colleagues was Greg. I never once heard anyone call him by this name. His assigned title was Mosh. I never found out if this was his preferred nickname, or for some cruel reason our co-workers baptized him with this alias. This was a sad fucking man here. His walk was more of a plodding; like a slow ambling to a metronome of perpetual defeat. If someone called him a “mope” and I’d never heard of this insult prior, well, I’d be 100% certain it was a perfect negative descriptor characterizing Mosh. Even Lobo made fun of him.
Besides the expected and routine thrown around slurs of “faggot” and “fag,” the workplace bruiser mentality was showcased for me in my first week when I watched guys taking turns pissing into a dude named Junior’s left behind work boots. His registered shock when dipping his foot inside these mill mukluks never rose to more than a mumbling outnumbered “Goddamnit.”
Sliding his partially soaked foot back into his tennis shoes, Junior slunk behind the laughter to his department a conquered man who didn’t know he was in a battle. Other than his shoe being in front of them, there was no reason to why they had decided to urinate in it. Again, this happened in my first week. and while a grotesque display, this was not necessarily the singularly worst occurrence of shitty barbaric behavior I’d witnessed there.
My one “test” or confrontation with one of the bully mutants came when I paused too long in order to wait for the rundown bathroom. The person who occupied it was Scooby, the shop’s resident broom pusher. His IQ likely barely hummed above the 80 range. Six months before I started, Scooby got released back to work from a local mental hospital after first being jailed for attacking his mom and grandmother in the house they all lived together in. I never noticed any sort of rage in him, though. He was an affably goofy sort standing maybe five feet tall and spread out on the slightly chubby side. He had an sort of olive complexion suggesting he was Asian or Latin, but he was probably Italian from what I remember. Over his round, non-threatening face, semi-long thick black hair clung finishing off his resemblance of a Svengali Geisha. Scooby, or Scoob as he was also known, also, as part of his handicapped package, had a colostomy bag. His mostly daily routine of emptying it at work began with him lighting a cigar, bobbing to the company restroom, closing the door behind him and setting out to work on disposal. For some reason this typically took at least 30 minutes. On this day, I was stuck behind him and slightly panicked because of how bad I had to go. I breathed a calming sigh as I eased down onto a bench in order to try and relieve what felt like a surging emergency in my bowels when I heard “HEY. What the fuck you doing? There’s no sitting around on the clock!" It was Sleeper. I’m not sure if he got the nickname because of how hyper he was–like giant fat dudes were sometimes called Tiny. He was the resident drunk-on-what-he-felt-was-power employee. He thought he was big shit and important within the shop due to his seniority, but to me, that only made him an idiot because he was a square in this circle of miscreants. He really didn’t belong there. He could have probably, with his time put in, actually gotten a real steel mill job. One that pays pretty well instead of eking out 15+ years at this place and topping out at maybe $16 an hour. The only thing that made sense for his length of employment is he liked to be a bully. Anyway, over the whirring din of mechanics, I shouted ”Shut the fuck up.“
And that was that.
Across from my department were huge furnace-like chambers called coke ovens. Coke is a fuel by-product of coal after heated in these ovens. The always-bandana-wearing gypsy ex-con I told you about usually cued me in that it was time to break for lunch when I noticed him walking into one of the ovens with a foil brick in his hand. Inside this aluminum brick was a sandwich. After placing it on a ledge in the middle of the oven, he’d back out, close the doors, and activate the heat. It never took more than a minute to cook. Convenient, sure, but one important detail about these coke ovens is they’re known to give off cancerous emissions. No shock finding out last year Kev died after the cancer swimming in his lungs spread, giving the rest of his body a solid drubbing. I almost wonder if these carcinogen panini’s he ate five days a week weren’t some perverse DEATH OF A SALESMAN Willy Loman slow suicide.
At any rate, the place around lunchtime launched into spread out factions of loosely targeted loud shit-talking. This was just the recreation in downtime. Once finished with their food and derision, easily over 3/4th of the work force broke outside and got into predetermined cars to get high. Randy would always clamber back into the shop slinky-eyed and grinning for what seemed like he thought was our amusement and jealousy. As if being able to smoke marijuana on the job was akin to, despite making nine dollars an hour, having health benefits.
Going back to Mosh, his appearance lent itself to him being consistently ridiculed and, because lunchtime seemed to be recess for co-worker needling, and although he ate alone, I believe he feared the hour it came every work day.
Undeterred by Mosh’s solitary habits, the cretins would make an effort to unfurl brutal jabs his way almost like a daily rite of passage. It was normal for a lot employees to wear hats nearly everyday. Mosh was no exception and there was enough substantial black hair coming down out of his trucker cap that I never imagined he might be bald. I mean, the man resembled mashed potatoes dumped into and spilling out of a Dickies work uniform. No way God was so cruel to also make this man bald.
Coming back from lunch one afternoon though, there he sat on an upturned mortar bucket, hat off, and his head in his palms. Hat off, his skull looked like a poorly sliced potato with black lace drapes stapled midway around his head. Walking closer, I spotted his hunched shoulders contorting. He was crying. I never found out why, but it's probably an easy guess.
The classic rock station being cranked through the mill’s public address system signaled work starting up again. I went back to hammering numbers into the nozzles while every so often glancing to see if Mosh was still behind me. He stayed on that bucket for a long time without a pause in his crying jag. This wasn’t the last time I’d see him cry.
9/11 happened while I was working there.
The idiot radio deejay my associates chose to listen to in the morning announced a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. A slight pause in work happened. The second plane hit the tower. Working stuttered. Soon, everyone was together, including the foreman, milling around one of the offices, huddled around a tiny television and trying to figure out what was happening. Off in the distance, I heard the whir of machinery. Weird. Once it was clear we’d been attacked, the foreman told everyone they could go home for the day if we’d like. I’ve never needed much to prompt myself to take an opportunity to beat out early. On my way to the changing room, I had to walk through my shop. There’s where the working I’d heard was coming from. Mosh had kept plowing ahead on the nozzles. He didn’t leave early either.
The next day, Scooby hopped up on a crate and led us in prayer for the victims and families in the same office we’d been in the previous day, Mosh seemed ill-at-ease. Not because of the unfolding of events which brought us together in observance, or the absurdity of a sweet but affected little man leading our makeshift prayer circle, but assumably out of being forced to clump together with the submental laborers who’d long tormented him. His probable disgust of society and the world-at-large suggested his threshold of caring about anything outside of the trailer he lived in, his cats, and the sci-fi programs he loved was worn down to a fine misanthropic nub.
A much bigger nearby mill, LTV, was closing. Our company had a decent amount of small-to-big contracts with them. It would be months out before they’d close their doors when Jeff called for work stoppage and everyone to gather around a shop lathe. He clutched a clipboard. His normal lackadaisical manner was non-present as we huddled and he downshifted into speech.
In short, all but five of us were laid off.
After numbly washing up and sliding my punch card in the time clock, I made my way to my car. The dazed feeling started to subside. Panic, fear, and anguish set in. Sensing an onset of crying welling up inside of me, I wrenched my emotions quick, shutting down the possibility of tears, looked to my right, and saw the wreck of Mosh walking in step with me–tears cascading down his lumpy cheeks.
Sometimes day-to-day cruelty is all we get. A broken man can still ram a card in a time clock and earn enough to keep his ramshackle being intact. The undoing occurs when the timecard goes away and the cruelty of man remains.