I was laboring in heavy industry when this country’s brief history of shared prosperity started to fail like a piece of fatigued metal, fracturing between the class to which I was born and the one to which I pretend. To this day, with every return from every election, I find myself thrown back into the jagged divisions that were opening around me in the foundry, where furnace and fire hardened me for escape, while management and politics corroded the prospects of those who remained.
They started me in the core department, which was a semi-circle of gun-metal gray machines in the corner of a vast floor. Fans drew the smoke and soot toward a sixty-foot ceiling. I took the names of my co-workers from the patches on their uniforms, because the endless tumbling of iron castings into steel bins overwhelmed our voices. When the red bulb glowed atop my machine, Bart showed me how to press the red button that brought sand and resin hissing down tubes that hung from overhead. When the green bulb glowed, Frankie had me press the green button that released a fresh core into my gloves. It was a hard body of compressed sand that reeked so badly of ammonia, I put on my gas mask.
Easy as pie, Frankie told me with readable lips that he bared by moving aside his mask. He pointed to the rack where the day’s work would accumulate. In thirty seconds, I mastered the operation that was my co-workers’ entire careers. Red button, wait for it, green button, put’er on the rack. I did not learn till lunch, when we could hear one another, that a core is fitted inside a mold to occupy the space that will become a void in a casting, like the inside of a pipe or the cylinders in an engine block. I calculated that it would take 960 cores to pass an eight-hour shift. I wondered if it would hasten my day to count them down. But no, thinking 957 was not exactly satisfying.
It was my first summer home from college, and if I wanted to return, I needed the money. Enduring the tedium appeared to be my only task. Frankie, who would be making cores long after me, pointed a thumb over his shoulder to a yonder man in a reflective coat, who held a remote control hanging by its wires. Frankie moved his mask and mouthed, Crazy. But I saw nothing to that job, either. The man was simply standing there, waiting. It was tedium upon tedium in there. I turned to my machine – button, wait for it, button – when something slammed my back with enough force to knock me off balance. It was a blast of heat that seemed to move with body and mass, and to strike with volition, like a dirty player on a ballfield. I ducked the whoosh that was overtaking the acre of open floor and turned my face to a newly risen sun. Even the light had force and will. It wanted to twist away my face and scour my eyes.
The man in the silver coat owned the air we were waiting to breath. As he thumbed his remote, an entire wall, thirty feet tall, was tilting forward, and a stream of Hell was flowing from the “melt furnace” into a “transfer ladle” that was half the size of a school bus. The ladle hung by “tackle” from tracks in the ceiling, and the man in silver aligned it to catch the flowing “tap.” He groaned the furnace back to vertical, then tilted the ladle toward himself, so it took the position of a half-filled mug of beer whose head was brought to the brim, except this head was red iron bubbling black cancer that would vaporize anyone who stood in its flow. He took from the floor a five-foot bar that had fixed to its end a bowl that was about the size of soup, and with what I felt in my trembling legs to be too many steps in exactly the wrong direction, he moved close enough to dip iron from the ladle. He walked away with the bar balanced at his side, as casually as a hitter carrying his bat to the plate, but with every stride, one foot was passing beneath the bowl that glowed with enough heat to turn half a leg into a whole stump. His coat was as long as a gangster’s, and it was left unbuttoned to his boots to move on the wind that howled in the heat. Tight to his shins were spats that the “dirt devils” wore strictly for style, because the idea that leather could save a shin bone from spilling metal made the devils laugh. Before he emptied the iron into a mold that took a record sample of the tap, he raised the glowing bowl to his face to light a cigarette.
He swaggered back to his dangling remote, raised the ladle to its track, and walked directly beneath four tons of liquid iron, as if he were taking his dragon for the evening’s constitutional. It was enough metal to overspread the floor on which a hundred men were working, along with one boy who could not stop imagining how his boots would burn away beneath the soles of his feet till his soles burned away beneath his bones and he collapsed to shriek in the spreading lake of it.
The man in the coat led his ladle to a crew who were not happy to see it coming, because one of them had to take that remote into his hand and overturn that tonnage into the mouth of the “holding furnace,” while I calculated how far I might have to run, and how much time I might have to get there, if he missed. Through my long day of frightful watching, he never missed, and that gave his crew the pleasure of heaving buckets of magnesium into the “transfers” that never stopped coming. They covered their darkened glasses with still darker shields against the flare of exploding “mag,” which made them jump back every time, while it made the iron turn ductile. Their furnace stabilized the iron’s temperature for parsing to the “pouring deck,” half a ton at a time. Whatever that crew shouted at the man in silver, he answered them with a backhanded finger, after removing a glove with his teeth. He held it up there long enough for them to see it through however many layers of darkened glass they might try to use against him.
That was Solt, who was called Crazy Mike and did not like it, because it did not capture his character. He wanted it known that he was beyond crazy. Next morning, he taught me this vocabulary, and the means and method of his every move among the furnaces, because next morning, he put me in the silver coat.
My knees buckled the first time I tilted the ladle toward myself. “Keep breathing,” Solt said, but that was impossible. The exposed metal dried the sweat from my face and left a crust of salt that cracked when I winced. I took too many steps in exactly the wrong direction. The iron bar was trembling. I closed my eyes and dipped a sample that I trembled onto the concrete. It formed spastic BBs that flickered off my coat but pierced Solt’s T-shirt in a dozen places. He whacked the helmet off my head and told me to fucking leave it there, and so, with bare head and burning ears, I dipped another sample. I tried to hold the bar at arm’s length, but damn, that made it heavy, and the bowl of iron was still not as distant as my face wanted it to be. “Balance it,” Solt yelled. “If you spill it on your foot, you don’t deserve a foot.”
He told me to unbutton the coat before it cooked me. “Safety equipment makes you uncomfortable and that makes you stupid.” I kept it buttoned tight, because I was already stupid for being there. The first few walks with the transfer ladle, I was not beneath it, but tugged behind with two hands clutching the remote, like a toddler being walked by a retriever. “You can’t see shit back here. Get under it. Know where you’re going.” Oh, I was seeing shit everywhere I looked, I wanted to tell him, but had no voice that could approach him.
After a few transfers, I started walking beneath the ladle. I was starting to trust this crazy person, whose swagger had purpose, and might be useful. I already knew that if I could raise the money to graduate with my class, I might be near the top of it. But a degree would not help me socially, where I was underdeveloped and overly sensitive to the fact. If I wanted to enter places where I could compete on my merits, I would need to kick some doors; no one was going to share the secret knock with the likes of me. I needed more than the foundry’s money. I needed some of its attitude.
I was Solt’s boy for the summer, because I was the twelfth and last college hire he asked to wear the silver suit, and the only one desperate enough to say yes. One of the less desperate was now at my core machine. I gave him the finger, after removing a glove with my teeth. I was on the furnace because the regular operator was out sick. Men called off every day. Most never came back. The toughest jobs had the highest pay and the shortest tenures. But Solt seemed to think he was doing me a favor by getting me away from the button-pushing. He said he needed me between the furnaces until I was ready for something tough. The prospect raised tears that the metal, in all its mercy, dried unseen.
My fear was not that the ladle would snap its cables, or that the remote control would over-tilt the tonnage. The machinery was sound. But what about the boy? It was easy to imagine a meek surrender to ineptitude. The voice that proclaims the will to live is not so jaunty when our faces are being smoked and salted like jerky, and a quick alternative to that life is available among the commands on a remote control. The foundry was fearsome because it offered to resolve all fear. The heat was impenetrable, but the metal was magnetic, and its attraction was finality. I knew enough of Hamlet to understand the primacy of his question. I knew enough Camus to attempt an honest accounting. I could allow myself to be drawn into the annihilating tap; or over-tilt the ladle’s vaporizing content; or will myself to buckle and fall into the slag pit. But I would do none of those things. Without benefit of a soliloquy, I formed an answer, and it allowed me to unbutton that coat. I did not need to secure the last little increment of safety, at the cost of an unnatural enclosure against the world as it was. The place was deadly dangerous, and yet, no one was dying. I chose to be, and then I chose to be a bit of a badass about it, now that I had my coat swaying on the furnace’s howl.
Task by task and paycheck by paycheck, the foundry shook me out of the mold that constrained me since birth; it allowed me to form new mettle and new capacities. But as I worked my way out of the working class, its resentments were still working their way through me. Some of my friends had jobs like lifeguard and camp counselor. Some were hiking the Appalachian trail with ounces of weed borne manfully on their backs. When others asked me to come out drinking, I was too embarrassed to admit that I needed the sleep, and then too angry to sleep. This was the logic of my father and his father: to resent and alienate anyone who had what they wanted for themselves, especially if it was a job to offer. For myself at college, it was anyone who owned a shirt with buttons and a tie that matched. The form of local loser was always going to offer a comfortable fit.
And yet, the foundry hands were not losers. They were Bart and Frankie, and a hundred unnamed heads that nodded “morning” each morning, and pairs of dirty hands that offered me butts from sweated packs when I was feeling as limp as a sweated butt myself. I was a college kid, but once I dared the silver coat, I was all right to these men, and that gratified me in a way that no school’s grade ever has. I often had lunch with Bart and Frankie in a break room that was kept hilariously clean by a recovering addict. He was a former dirt devil who got himself “moved down the scale” from the “hot end” to the custodial, before he killed someone. Men crusted in filth tried with almost touching concern not to soil their colleague’s kitchen by any brush of elbow, boot, or knee. But they ended up sooting everything down to the sandwiches packed by wives and mothers.
Bart talked cars. He had a ’71 Shelby GT 350 that cost more than his mother’s home, which was why he had to live there. Frankie had two daughters. One tested smart. He was anxious to know whether every college had to be so far away as mine, which was barely 120 miles across the Blue Ridge. Bart advised a Shelby, so college would be a hot ride at any distance. He wailed “vrrrrm, vrrrrm, vrrrrm” in rising and falling pitches that seemed to advise the shifting of gears at the red line. Bart and Frankie never bid into harder, higher-paying jobs for their own considered reasons, which were partly the fears pressed upon them by mother and wife, and partly the cars and children they wanted to be home to hug every day at 4pm sharp, unburned and unbroken.
But the wages that paid my tuition were forever going to be barely enough for them, and that was by design. This was the “new foundry,” recently built on farmland north of Easton. Its German equipment was part of a burgeoning line of products called DisaMatic, which was being developed to automate everything down to the transfers of iron. Someday, sluices, gates, and injectors would replace Solt himself. Chips would bypass the buttons worked by Bart and Frankie. The new foundry was already taking half the work from the old foundry in West Easton, which was unionized before the Second War. Pending its planned closure, it paid what Americans thought of as a Steelworker’s wage. My tuition dollars flowed through a separate contract that the company negotiated with a newly created local of the same national, which was a willing accomplice. The company moved over some old hands at the old wage, then filled the ranks with men taking their first real jobs. Some of them spoke of fathers and grandfathers who once made nineteen an hour in West Easton. They thought the seven that was being paid here by union consent was a sellout, and a foretelling of an America that they did not want to see. But many more were thrilled to have come up in the world from McDonald’s and the like. They taunted those who thought they were underpaid with testaments to the deeper degradations that were barely one step down.
This was Reagan’s America, where unions were becoming the willing bitches of ownership, and ownership was celebrated for living by the ethics of a dog who licks his balls: the extent of their right was limited only by their reach, and those who advised seemlier conduct were suspected of hating America for being home to the dogs with the happiest balls. I told any foundry hand who would listen to a college boy that his income was under political assault. Some agreed. They wondered if I had to pay tuition to learn the obvious. Some thought Reagan’s tax cuts were meant for themselves. Some voted for Reagan’s Southern Strategy: they wanted to keep their union white more than they wanted to keep their union wage. When labor’s vote fractured, the New Deal was scrap, and labor’s own connection to the middle class began to corrode.
Bart and Frankie were raised to believe that blue collars were as valuable as white collars. For their elders, that was true, and none of them had any reason to warn Bart and Frankie that the truth was under new management. They passed up additional years of schooling to start that much sooner down the path that led their elders to middle America. They acquired their muscle cars straight out of high school and planned for the houses and boats that always used to follow. What would follow now? Why, in the new local, nothing at all.
Solt smoked cigarettes and inspected the ladles while the “lady folk” took the cooling airs of the lunch room. Often, he hauled me away before my contracted time was up. I had two jobs: one was to be attached to his hip and the other was to allow him to bark in my ear. Frankie said one time, “It’s his lunch.”
Solt raised gloves that were charred around holes where they most recently took flame, so we would know who had some say-so and who had to shut the fuck up. “Little brother! Let’s go.”
I trooped behind him into the foundry. During the lunch break the ladles turned slowly in their tackle, like mobiles in the lobbies of the grander buildings in Philadelphia. As I pondered the beauty of hardened drizzles of iron down their battered sides, Solt regained my attention with a firm punch in my sternum.
“If it was true,” he told me, “there wouldn’t be a door.” He meant the one that said,
DO NOT ENTER
But if I ran away, I could never leave.
I needed equally the education that I bought with the foundry’s money, and the education that the foundry gave me from its own curriculum, to combine knowledge and nerve in a fist that stopped a sternum on State Street in Boston some three summers hence, where I was working between college and law school. I was strolling that evening from office to Irish dive with a girlfriend. I became increasingly annoyed by a young man who was following too closely and talking too loudly. He was assuring his date of the low intelligence of unionized workers, whom Reagan was “right” to break, given how overpaid and underworked he said they were. So no, he told her, he was not ashamed to be clerking for a law firm that broke unions. That was his goal. I pivoted on my left foot, squared my shoulders, raised my right fist, and was relieved to see that he was not big enough to do much about it. I stopped him cold. “Please allow me to introduce myself,” I said. “I am a man of labor and PBK.”
He tried to step aside but I caught his lapel. He looked more quizzical than threatened. I told him, “United Steelworking Phi Beta Kappa.” I tried to say it with menace but almost smiled. I do not claim any originality in my harangue. It was what you might have heard in those years from Ted Kennedy or Walter Mondale, delivered with as little chance of persuasion. He replied with standard Milton Friedman. We were walking to the same destination, with our dates mostly forgotten as our arguments became more entertaining to ourselves. We raised pints of Harp in the Black Rose. Suit by suit, stool by stool, we were members of the same class, which was not a class of birth, but of schools. Still, I promised him, before clinking his glass so hard I soaked his shirt and tie, no one was going to badmouth my fellow laborers without getting a mouthful of the heat and dirt that I acquired in the foundry. I simultaneously formed and announced my intention to become a union lawyer.
In subsequent years, when fewer Harps were playing in my head, I had to consider that many of the foundry hands were loud supporters of Reagan. This did not weaken my indictment of him, but it corroded my zeal for them. When recruiters from the highest paying firms of Wall Street and K Street came to Georgetown, I indignantly rejected an opportunity with a union-busting firm. I pursued the only firm that promised never to work against an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. By then, I did not necessarily want to represent unions, but I refused to work against them. In the words of my firm’s founders, my goal was to do well while doing good. Ten percent more salary than the union-busters was doing well. A wary neutrality with labor would have to suffice for doing good.
Whatever motivated my mouth on State Street, I formed the mettle in the foundry. By the time I followed Solt through the door that said TOXIC ATMOSPHERE, where I would take barely hardened metal in hand, I was already expert in jackhammering the spent asbestos out of the ladles’ linings; running to every clogged or jammed or burning chute or manhole or conveyor that needed a skinny boy to climb atop or crawl into or slide down it; slagging the bubbling scum off the surface of the metal in the holding furnace; bashing castings free of their sprues with a hammer in each hand; sneaking up to the crapper to see if one particularly useless guy was dead in there, with orders to hasten that death, as necessary; and always, always, keeping my mouth shut, because if Solt had me doing it, I was not supposed to be doing it, per the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which was too much to say, or apparently, obey.
The shakeout room was the deepest Hell beneath OSHA’s notice. It was a squatty shed on the deck where pouring ladles with wheels the size and silver of those on a yacht allowed men to parse quarter tons of iron among molds that came smoking out of the DisaMatics. We walked between rails of molds that were inching toward the shakeout, which was jamming. The sign on the door was not going to stop Solt from going in there. He was said to live on the side of a mountain that divides the Lehigh Valley from Appalachia, with a kennel of hounds, an arsenal of guns, and no humans for miles. No one knew if any of this was true, but Solt wanted us to believe it. He came up from lowest labor in West Easton and was superintendent of the new foundry, with a corporate title and reserved parking for a vehicle that looked like a chicken coop. Of hundreds of hands, he was the only one risen from the ranks. But he was not risen too far to miss the pleasure of kicking open that door and prying barely hardened castings from the rails they were jamming.
“When you count thirty in your head,” he said, “you come out, or you’ll pass out.”
It was like drowning in burning sand. Breathing was no more thinkable than eating sewage. Glowing castings were the only sensory perceptions. I was supposed to grab and run, but it was like running in an avalanche. Asbestos-filled gloves gave me only a few seconds to handle a casting that was almost hot enough to shape with my fingers, before I threw the casting and shook off the overheated glove. Solt gave me fresh gloves during my breathers, which I took among the molds. It was mountain fresh out there. After three tries, I retrieved one casting. Solt moved me aside. He stayed in there till double the thirty count and came out with two castings in each glove and a suffocated cigarette in his lips. “One more,” he said. “Back left.” I brought it out in one try, flipping it from glove to glove till both hands were howling in heat.
Those gloves came back to me when I studied Heidegger. We took the entire semester to read Being and Time. He re-wrote the history of metaphysics in images of hands and tools. By using a hammer, we experience its being, and through whatever we build, we discover our being-in-the-world, as the usefulness of our work to others, and of the work of others to ourselves, unfolds the world-being into which we have been thrown without consent or ascertainable purpose. His argument was a love letter to daily effort. When a casting burned out my glove, he might have said I found being-in-hand. The foundry did more than pay for my education; its heat shed the light in which I did my most formative reading.
Of course, thinking about labor in this way probably separated me from most actual laborers. As I studied Heidegger, I saw the foundry hands serving more than their animal needs. I saw them attain an equality of usefulness to a world of connected beings, which was enlivened for them by lighting cigarettes in melted metal while gangster coats exaggerated their moves. But when Solt lit a fresh cigarette for each of us after we re-locked the door, the gathering faces were silently condemning us as fools for the company. Only a lucky few saw romance in their work. For most, it was a purposeless slog from hour to hour, week to week, life to death. They were not gathering material for the writing they wanted to do after semi-retiring from a lucrative profession. We might have been connected across a world of being, but I was singular.
My last shift was on the overnight crew that started the melt for Monday morning. Solt asked me to delay my return to school till after the weekend. By then, I had the right to say no, but chose to say yes. The crew gathered on the roof, with a few hours to ourselves until the crazy man arrived before dawn. We opened the furnace to the sky, and with a magnet on a crane, fed its gaping mouth with cold tonnage from rail cars that were aligned on a siding next to the building. The cars carried the road’s scrapped spikes and rails, along with quarter-ton pigs of pure element that were smelted somewhere down the line. When we threw the switches, lights dimmed across the Lehigh Valley, from Easton in front of us to Bethlehem on our right. The furnace consumed more juice than five thousand households. The melt was underway. Other than being the first to know that we burned the place down, we had nothing more to do but drink Wild Turkey and smoke weed. Sitting in the night’s air without helmet or coat or crusted salt, it felt like the beach vacation I did not take. The guy with the weed was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. Sunday night was the easiest shift on the schedule, and it paid double. I raised my bourbon to Solt.
The leader of the crew had some college. He wore a clean uniform, but no helmet, goggles, or spats. He was relaxing on a beach chair with his socks warming on the railing that kept the Sunday-night stoners from falling in. He told me, You could run this place someday. The big dogs like you. Majoring in business? English. Minoring in business? Doubling in philosophy. Well, he said, I was going to be a teacher myself. The money’s not much better than this, he hinted.
The joint left a sweet resin on my lip. A soft glow rose through the roof and toward the moon and slowly turned red. The crew moved back their beach chairs. I stepped up and leaned over the rail. I allowed the heat to howl in my hair. It was not the maw of death down there, but a crucible that accepted every twisted scrap and nascent pig that was thrown in. It annihilated useless forms and offered new shapes that might yet harden into something useful, whole, and infrangible.
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