Peter Johnson’s essay, “Truscon, A Division of Republic Steel, 1969-70: A Prose Poem Sequence Disguised as a Lyrical Essay, Itself Aspiring to Be a Memoir,” reads like a series of prose poems that cohere seamlessly as a moving and occasionally brutal coming of age story about the author’s first job experience in a steel factory in his hometown of Buffalo, NY. Each paragraph in this personal essay concatenates with the previous one in vivid prose that accelerates as it goes with riveting details, self-effacing humor, and memorable vignettes that capture the industrial milieu of Truscon more than fifty years ago. But in addition to capturing the milieu of Truscon, Johnson also reflects on just how his first blue collar work experience played such an important role in influencing him as a poet. His remarkable memory for specific events, dialogue, and encounters with his fellow workers instill this essay with a freshness that transcends time with wit and a literary keenness that melds poetry with prose.
“Truscon, A Division of Republic Steel, 1969-70: A Prose-Poem Sequence Disguised as a Lyrical Essay, Itself Aspiring to Be a Fictional Memoir”*
I was a hooker, which was a step up from being a bender’s helper. A bender’s helper, not surprisingly, was an assistant to the bender, whose job it was to train the helper to eventually run the bending machine. Although the training took fifteen minutes, the apprenticeship could go on forever if the bender didn’t ask for a new assignment. The bars had different circumferences. There were #10 bars and #12 bars, but mostly #8 bars. They needed to be bent in different ways to be used in heavy concrete construction. The bender’s helper would drag three or four twelve-foot-long reinforcing bars over to the bending machine. You had to make sure you held the bars firmly on top of each other. If you didn’t, when the bending machine caught the bars, their tails would snap together and could very easily break a thumb. Which was how I became a hooker. A steel worker with a broken thumb is about as useless as ballerina with a broken toe, but if a thumb was tightly wrapped in a splint and taped to a forefinger, a worker could still wield two heavy metal hooks. And that’s what a hooker did. The crane would pass overhead, its two long metal chains swinging like tentacles, while the hooker followed it down aisles of bent and unbent steel rods. Nighttime was the best, the inside of the plant aglow with bright lights and dust, the clanging creating a strange and dangerous symphony. There was no talking when you were on your shift. Just hard work. We were all part of something. We were helping to build America. At the time, there was unlimited work. You could stay for two shifts, crash on a cot, and then work two more back-to-back shifts. Overtime. Double overtime. It was a lot of money. You could do that for a week, cash your check and disappear for a month, then get your job back when you returned after partying it away. It was easier than training someone new. The plants have been torn down now. Just fields of weeds and mounds of dirt. Not even the whiff of a time when an 18-year-old could make as much as his father if he could get through the year without being maimed.
* * *
Rudy Thompson hated rats. When he was an infant one crawled into his crib and tried to nibble on his ear lobes, or at least that’s what his parents had told him. Could something like that actually happen? All that mattered was that Rudy believed the story, so when a rat invaded our work areas, Rudy would come running with his shovel. The plant was crawling with rats. We were told not to leave scraps of food around, and it didn’t hurt to make a lot of noise. One night I was unloading a gondola railroad car of steel bars. The crane operator lowered his chains, which I slid under a pile of bars held together by thick wires. I grabbed two hooks from the chains, fastened the load tight, and twirled my finger in the air, which was a signal for the crane operator to haul the load away. This went on for some time until I reached the lowest level of bars that sat on wooden pallets. When the last load was lifted and disappeared overhead, I began tossing the pallets over the side of the gondola. Sometimes the pallets were large and heavy and I had to wait for the crane to come back, but that night I could manage the job. I had about two or three pallets left when I noticed something large scurrying in the darkest corner of the car. It was a rat, a big one. He was checking me out, his menacing rat eyes shiny from the overhead lights. I jumped and grabbed onto the topmost side of the gondola, throwing my body over it. It’s a long drop from the top of a gondola car. At the very least, I should have broken an ankle, but for some reason—was it the adrenaline? —I landed safely onto the ground. Ten minutes later, a crowd of guys surrounded me, laughing and chanting, “Rudy, Rudy.” Rudy smiled, then climbed into the car, from where we heard yelling and swearing, the clang of shovel and metal, followed by a large hairy rat traveling through the air, as if trying to grow wings, before crashing to the ground. It lay there, twitching for a few moments. Then it went limp, as if smart enough to die before Rudy came crawling out of the car with his shovel. “Back to work,” the foreman said. And that’s what we did, a bit nervous every time we moved a pile of steel or entered the communal bathroom that didn’t have a door.
* * *
South Buffalo was an Irish Catholic neighborhood bordering a black inner-city neighborhood that was once called the First Ward. The streets in South Buffalo were lined with identical small boxlike houses that were thrown up quickly after World War II. They were cheap and functional, so every working-class family could afford them, and they weren’t far from the coke ovens and steel plants where most of the men worked. I don’t remember any women working in those days. A single mom was unheard of. To file divorce papers on a drunk of a husband was the fastest way to get yourself ostracized. The guys would just defend each other, and many of the women didn’t want to be reminded of the numbskulls they lived with. But there were good men, too. Men you could trust. Men who had principles. It wasn’t as if my father and his friends were saints, but they had limits. You didn’t brag. You didn’t publicly make fun of someone’s physical disability. And you never, ever called a woman fat or said she looked like a dog, not only because it was unmanly, but because those women might be someone’s wife or daughter, and their husbands or fathers would most certainly track you down. My father looked like Paul Newman and my mother like Elizabeth Taylor. At weddings people would clear the floor just to watch them dance. Everyone loved my father, and I never once heard him swear. After 25 years of marriage, my mother divorced him, the first of her friends to make that decision.
* * *
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,
As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames
No light; but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
–description of hell from John Milton’s Paradise Lost
Truscon: A Division of Republic Steel is where I worked, a huge, cavernous warehouse of steel bars and railroad cars situated next to the Buffalo River. In 1968, a report of the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration stated that the “Buffalo River is a repulsive holding basin for industrial and municipal wastes. It is devoid of oxygen and almost sterile. Oil, phenols, color, oxygen-demanding materials, iron, acid, sewage, and exotic organic compounds are present in large amounts. Residents who live along its backwaters have vociferously complained of the odors emanating from the river and of the heavy oil films. In places, the river’s surface is a boundless mosaic of color and patterns resulting from the mixture of organic dyes, steel mill and oil refinery wastes, raw sewage, and garbage.” When the lunch horn would sound, we would go outside, spread out on a large grassy area about twenty yards from the river, and eat. On the other side of the river was National Aniline, a chemical plant that continuously spewed out toxic chemicals from a number of smokestacks. But who knew that then? To me it was beautiful, especially when I worked the 11-7 shift and had lunch at about three in the morning. No one spoke much on that break. Just quiet in the pitch-black summer night, except for the smokestacks watching over us, their occasional explosions lighting the night sky with fireworks. One morning, after our shift was over, we headed for our cars, only to discover their exteriors were riddled with metallic BB-size blemishes, eaten away by whatever the smokestacks had coughed up that night. The supervisors at the plant said they would compensate us for new paint jobs. They never did.
* * *
I was always scribbling at the plant, on scraps of paper, on an empty brown paper lunch bag, once on the back of a candy wrapper. If I didn’t have a pen or pencil, the guys in the office would lend me one, probably thinking I was keeping track of an order. If I could have articulated it back then, I would have said I was auditioning to chronicle a lifestyle and a certain kind of man. I had read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and something like that was in the air: the anticipation of books like Stud Terkel’s Working and Milton Rogovin’s hyperreal pictures of Buffalo steelworkers. But I was no visionary. I had the attention span of a new-born kitten and the discipline of a drunk. If I had said to a college-educated coworker (and there were some), “There’s a story to be told here, man. Something heroic and brave, an epic,” he would have known I was full of it. I was a poet and fiction writer in name only. I had the drinking down, but nothing of worth was coming on paper. Still, I was absorbing stuff—fact, fiction, but also a certain energy from the sights and sounds around me. Stuff that was reminding me of who I was. “Amidst confusion, a glimpse of possibility,” someone much smarter than me might have said. The plant, indeed, was the perfect apprenticeship for a prose poet—a museum of found material: fragments of dialogue, remnants of old grudges, historical documents, latent socio-economic inconsistencies, and a history of bad behavior to be assembled by a postmodern consciousness comfortable with, to borrow from T.S. Eliot, “constantly amalgamating disparate experience.” I was just the man for the job.
* * *
Ernie Redenski ate like a pig. Never even washed up beforehand. Would sit down at a metal picnic table munching on chunks of garlic, halved tomatoes, and uncooked kielbasa that he’d dunk into a jar filled with something that looked like chopped-up pickles soaked in blood. “Fucking-A, Ernie, you’re disgusting,” Frank Esposito told him one day. “But how can you not honor such devotion to garlic,” I said, adding that Ernie was “our high priest of Polish cuisine.” “What the fuck is that supposed to mean, Johnson?” Frank said, shoving a whole meatball into his mouth. Ernie just smiled. His bald head was as big and shiny as a brand-new basketball. He had the calm smile of a Buddha and never missed a day of work.
* * *
One source documents the human tragedy when the huge Bethlehem Steel complex in Lackawanna, just south of Buffalo, closed. “At its peak,” the source says, “Bethlehem had employed more than twenty thousand workers. Along with subsequent closings at Buffalo’s Republic Steel plant and a host of smaller facilities, the shutdown was part of a much broader change of immense proportion in America’s economy and the lives of its working people. By some estimates 2,700 plants were closed in the United States in the 1980s, costing some 1.3 million manufacturing jobs.” I was long gone by the time the plants closed but I heard stories of guys who didn’t work the twenty necessary years to get a pension. They were told they’d be paid to retrain in other occupations, mostly menial office jobs. But to them those weren’t meaningful jobs. These guys weren’t stupid. They weren’t lazy. They just wanted to do what they considered real work. After the plants shut down, one guy painted his house every year and would park his car outside the empty steel plant and drink coffee all day, reading magazines. I wondered what these poor laid-off souls dreamed about at night: the whirr of gears, the clang of steel bars, the occasional rat darting past them, sometimes stopping to look up and smile, saying, “Now it’s your turn.” I imagined them working in offices or changing oil in cars for one-tenth of what they made in the plants, and without the protection of a union. I imagined the sweat crawling down their spines, the terror, almost Sisyphean, of spending eight hours a day doing something they hated.
* * *
There are a lot of things I wish I had kept: my high school baseball glove, some old Beatles and Stones albums, all those baseball cards (worth a fortune now) that I glued on the concrete wall of my basement to create a mosaic of my happy middle-grade years. There was also the metal lunch pail and thermos, made, not surprisingly, by a company named Thermos. My first pail was a much-abused one, gifted to me by my grandfather. The outside had a few dents, and the paint on the thermos was chipped off in places. I had always been a fan of Arthurian legends, so my grandfather might as well have passed down Excalibur to me. I felt cool walking into the plant swinging the lunch pail rhythmically back-and-forth, or, on cold nights, sipping from the open thermos as steam moistened my nose and forehead. You could customize a pail. One guy painted a map of South Vietnam on his, circling where he’d been stationed; another crafted a heart with an arrow through it, a woman’s name written beautifully below the heart. I liked mine the way it was: beat up, with some history. All the shine gone off it.
* * *
The plants could maim or kill you if you weren’t careful. My grandfather lost an index finger under the wheel of a railroad car, which put a damper on his bowling career and wedding saxophone gigs. This latter loss was significant. He was a good saxophonist, so good that he’d been offered a job in one of Guy Lombardo’s bands. But there was also something cool about losing a digit or occasionally getting broken up. My fractured thumb seemed to make me immediately legitimate, allowing me to join a club whose membership was growing day by day. It amazed me how one’s body could compensate after an injury, how one could rely on other fingers to pick up the slack, as my grandfather’s remaining digits bailed him out while bowling at Lucky Strike Lanes. But I don’t mean to glorify the dangers of the plant. There was a frightening fickleness about the place, as my uncle Larry discovered when he was killed by a crane one night. It was an event that stuck with guys, and for a few months, every time a crane passed overhead, we all felt the cold shudder of death just one fuckup away.
* * *
One day Tony Polak, or at least that’s what everyone called him, said, “Johnson, someone said you can help me with my taxes.” “Someone was wrong,” I said. “But you got college, right?” “Not yet,” I said. I had just graduated from high school. “Get college,” he said, “or you’ll end up like me. Fucking-A.” “There are worse fates,” I said. “Not really,” he replied, laughing.
* * *
In the 1960s some bars seemed to be open 24 hours a day, especially the ones around the steel plants. It was not uncommon for workers to stop for an “eye-opener” at 6 in the morning before the 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift. The drink of choice was a boilermaker: a shot of whiskey and a beer. Some guys would down the shot first, then the beer. Others would make a depth charge by dropping the shot glass of whiskey into a mug of beer, then chugging it in one gulp. Esquire Magazine once wrote that drinking a boilermaker as a depth charge was uncool and diluted the whiskey. That analysis of getting hammered would have never registered with any steelworkers I knew. They probably couldn’t have even told you why they were drinking at 6 a.m., right before handling machines capable of crippling them. After a few months, I figured out who the heavy drinkers were. I always gave them a wide berth.
* * *
One afternoon we had an “emergency” meeting on goosing. It seemed that in another plant a prankster was killed when he snuck up behind and goosed a coworker, who happened to be holding a hammer. Startled by the unexpected pinch in the ass, the guy swung his hammer back into the forehead of the prankster, who died almost instantly. Goosing was becoming a bit of an epidemic, we were told, which would have been funny if a guy hadn’t been killed. Our foreman, a man unfortunately named Dick, had the unwanted job of running a safety meeting on goosing. He showed up with a handful of red plastic hammers and spades, the kinds of tools you’d buy a kid for the beach, and he asked for volunteers to act out the tragedy. The guys on my shift, like a bunch of 8-year-olds being asked to test-taste banana splits, shouted over each other to participate. It was frigid that evening, and they probably wanted to prolong the meeting rather than going back to work. Dick chose only two volunteers: Tony Polak and a skinny fidgety guy named Eddie. Today Eddie would’ve been diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome, but back then, everyone just thought he was crazy. He was the happiest crazy guy I knew, and a real practical joker, capable of putting a cockroach in your lunch pale, or crooning “Silent Night” in the middle of July at four o’clock in the morning. Dick couldn’t have chosen two more unlike participants. Tony approached his part with the seriousness of executioner, swinging his oversize plastic hammer in sweeping rhythmic motions, as if he were a toy clock figure. Eddie was after authenticity. He didn’t wait for his cue. Instead, he smiled at us maniacally before sneaking up on Tony and goosing him. It must have been one hell of a goose, because Tony yelled, “Fucking-A,” as his right hand came backwards, his hammer smashing Eddie in the face. Eddie swooned, then pirouetted, his eyeballs going back into his head. He fell backward and stretched out on the dusty concrete in the position of a crucified Christ. Tony turned, at first mad, then concerned. Had he forgotten that his hammer was plastic? It didn’t matter, because Eddie twitched a couple of times before popping up like a Jack-in-the-box, forming his hands into one big fist and shaking it over his head like a prize fighter. Some guys laughed; others clapped. The unexpected success of this demonstration should have pleased Dick the Foreman, but all he said was, “What a bunch of fuckups.” Which, as I came to learn later, meant that he liked us.
* * *
My father’s mother died with him at childbirth. He was the last of eight children, and after her death, some of his brothers and sisters were temporarily split up among family. My grandfather couldn’t raise the seven of them and do his job. At the time, he was a cop. My father took the biggest hit, spending his first two years in an orphanage. How much do children remember from those early years? He spoke of looking through the bars of his crib when his older brothers and sisters came to visit. He never recounted this memory with sadness or anger. More with a sense of wonder, as if pondering whether he had done something wrong to have been abandoned.
* * *
“You know, in every town you have bad people,” Dick Hughes said, “but If you live in a small town, you have less bad, people, I guess.” To me, statements like these were pure poetry. That’s what guys thought I’d be: a poet. “A Fucking-A poet,” as one guy put it. I’m not sure how it got around I wanted to be a writer because it wasn’t something one shared in the steel plants. I often wondered if my fellow workers had ever read a contemporary poem. Some would snicker at the idea, but others seemed interested. We all grew up reading the Bible and hearing family stories that changed monthly, depending on how much alcohol had been drunk.. There was the story of the red rose that shriveled the night my grandmother died; or did my uncle Eddie, the alcoholic test pilot, dream of a red rose dying, and, upon awakening, know that my grandmother had passed; or did a red rose mysteriously appear in my grandmother’s coffin on the night of the wake? What was the truth? No one cared. All that mattered was the story, and how poetically it was told, so that we could let it wash over us—transport us from death’s misery in an attempt to canonize the frail woman lying in the coffin.
* * *
“Fucking-A” was the choice expression at the plant. Some pundits have argued that it means “Fucking asshole”; others, that it’s a World War II military phrase, meaning “Fucking Affirmative.” Its etymology didn’t interest anyone at the plant. To us it was an all-purpose, Fucking-A functional phrase. “Fucking-A” could be used as an adjective, a noun, a helping verb, and most often, an interjection. “Did you see O.J. on that last kickoff? Fucking-A, can that dude run,” someone might say. “Or Fucking-A, Johnson, what’s that shit you’re eating?” But you also could employ it lyrically, as in “What a Fucking-A beautiful moon,” to which someone might respond in wonder, “Fucking-A right, Johnson.” Sometimes you could even double up on it, as when a guy said to me, “Just give me the Fucking-A broom, Johnson. Fucking-A.” I thought of this expression years later when I was coaching Babe Ruth baseball with an unusual guy. He was a tall Swede with a big gut and proud of his immense stash of pornography. He once told me, “I tend to say fuck a lot, so you better get used to it.” He often wore (though thankfully not at games) a T-shirt he purchased at a local strip joint. The shirt had Foxy Lady: Pulp Friction emblazoned on the front. I told him that swearing in front of the kids was a non-starter for me. Fortunately, shortly after practices began, someone at work stole his T-shirt, though I still had to battle him periodically about the swearing, which wasn’t as hard as you might think. You see, he could have easily been a character in my South Buffalo neighborhood, where, I assure you, the moms would have raised holy hell over that T-shirt.
* * *
People offer two reasons for why the plants closed. Some blame it on the steel executives, who fattened their paychecks by moving the plants abroad, paying foreigners obscene wages, and not having to worry about unions or safety regulations. Others blame the unions for not making concessions during hard times. I’m a union man. My father was a mailman and a steelworker, and my grandfather worked in the coke ovens. I knew it was insane to trust the bosses. In high school, I learned that our country was built on two opposing impulses: idealism and opportunism. For most of my life, I’ve only seen the second impulse at work. In America, when things get fucked up, follow the money.
* * *
In summers, college kids came to work at the plant. They were mostly the sons of the supervisors, who wanted their kids to experience hard work before becoming supervisors themselves, or maybe doctors or lawyers. I was lumped in with them. I had just graduated from Canisius High School, a prestigious Jesuit college preparatory school. I was a Greek Honors student, which meant that I carried seven courses per semester for my final two years, not one of them being gym or shop. But I was, in fact, an imposter. In 1969 I had been accepted to Fordham and other premier Catholic colleges but had decided not to go. With the Vietnam War at full speed, that choice was considered suicidal, but I couldn’t have cared less. I was making great money at the plant, and I wanted to go to California. I was living from day-to-day and enjoying the unpredictability of that life. My choice put me in an interesting position. Both the rich kids and the steelworkers confided in me. The rich kids thought I was rich, and the steelworkers knew I wasn’t. Some of the rich kids were good guys, but most of them held the steelworkers in contempt, thinking them grotesque in appearance and manners. Some of the steelworkers teased the rich kids, calling them pussies, but, surprisingly, many of them were impressed, mistaking wealth and power for something magical. Something they might “get” someday, like you could “get” college. Or maybe they thought the rich kids had somehow cracked the code and might share the “Secret” with them. I wanted to tell my fellow laborers that the college kids called them “dumb fucks.” I wanted to punch out a few of those kids, because, according to their views, my father and grandfather were also “dumb fucks.” But I did neither. Back then I fashioned myself a writer, an observer of human nature, unlike in high school where I could be aggressive. Early during my freshman year, a rich kid made fun of my tie. At the time I would have been more open to the idea of Mick Jagger being the Pope’s son than of the possibility that one human male might poke fun at another human male’s tie. I ignored his comment the first time, but when he came back for seconds, I slammed him into his locker five or six times until I was sure I had his attention. It’s not something I’m proud of, but, after that, the kid did leave me alone.
* * *
Some Things I learned at the Plant:
That a handkerchief was useless against the constant assault of swirling ore dust.
That, after an hour, that same handkerchief looked like a piece of tar paper.
That you could shoot snot a yard away by pressing one finger against a nostril, then blowing hard
out of the other nostril.
That such an emission was called a snot rocket.
That you never brought your lunch in a paper bag, and if you did, you made sure your locker was
closed unless you wanted to find a well-fed rat in it.
That a heated butter-soaked sandwich roll from the snack truck at 3 a.m. tasted as good as a
crème bruleé prepared by a four-star chef.
That little joys like the one above made the rest of your shift bearable.
That grown men could page through magazines of naked and half-naked women staring back at
them with sad post-coital expressions, while these same men shoved bologna sandwiches
into their mouths and sipped coffee as nonchalantly as if they were eating breakfast while
reading the Sunday funnies.
That these same men, mostly churchgoers, were fiercely loyal to their wives and daughters,
especially to their daughters.
That I would make a conscious decision not to date one of their daughters unless I planned on
That during a slow period I had an obligation to “look” busy, not to be busy, or I’d be accused of
“killing the job.”
That if I killed the job, physical and/or verbal abuse would be inflicted on me.
That a discussion of the fine points of bowling could be every bit as interesting as an article on
the symbolism of the whale in Moby Dick.
* * *
I haven’t talked about my brother. It would be impossible to find two guys who looked more different. He was black Irish, dark-skinned, with brown eyes and curly brown hair. I was blond Irish, fair, with my father’s blue eyes. My brother’s hair caused him trouble in the mid-60s, this before it became cool for white guys to wear Afros. Like a lot of black guys in the plant my brother would straighten his hair by going to bed at night with a woman’s stocking pulled over his head. This seemed perfectly normal to me, but it drove my father crazy, so my brother usually wore it only to bed. At the time, my father wasn’t around much. He’d deliver mail all day, come home to eat, then go to the plant where he worked in the office or filled in, if needed, as a crane operator. Two full-time jobs for thirteen years. He was considered an intellectual at the plant. He’d bring home various magazines that were orphaned at the post office, and during those busy years, when he was home, I remember him sitting in his La-Z-Boy and reading magazines like The Atlantic and Time and Life. When my brother and I got into trouble, my mother always said, “Wait until your father gets home,” but we knew he’d be too tired to do much, except under extraordinary circumstances. One of those occurred on a Saturday. My brother had fallen asleep on the couch curled in the fetal position with his ass visible. I saw my father checking him out, squinting. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing to my brother’s ass. I was going to say, “Kevin’s ass,” but knew, unlike my brother and me, that my father’s sense of humor hadn’t been formed by Mad magazine. My father never hit us, but that day, he came close. He walked over to my brother and pulled a knife from the rear pocket of his jeans. This was during the era when teenagers didn’t shoot each other. It was all about knives and chains. Real messy stuff. I knew some gang had been threatening to jump my brother, and I guess this was his protection, though he and I had little knowledge of knives, and the lame one my father held in his hand would have been best for peeling a pear. My father wasn’t interested in explanations, so poor Kevin was tossed around the living room for a few minutes until my mother ran in to save him. By that time, both my father and brother were panting for very different reasons. Later, I said to my brother, “Think about how bad it would have been if you had forgotten to take the stocking off before you fell asleep.” “Yeah,” he said, smiling.
* * *
What I Learned from My Brother:
Not to join a gang, even if it had fancy fraternity names like Beta Tau or Beta Phi, which was
what the white-boy gangs were doing at the time.
That no one played the blues harp better than Paul Butterfield.
That I was lucky I had straight hair.
The Blues Project, Nazz, the Byrds—all from my brother
How to make a fake ID.
Which bars served underaged kids (most of them).
That if I ever was close to getting jumped, I should mention our cousin, whom everyone called
That Irish, without killing anyone, had done something so crazy, even crazy guys were afraid of
Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Young Rascals, and Al Kooper—again, all from my
* * *
Jigaboo, spear chucker, jungle bunny . . . I heard them all, and worse, while growing up, often spoken in private by normally decent men who worked side-by-side with blacks, sweating and joking with them. Even when I was a kid, I knew, on some very basic human level, that there was something obscene about those slurs. What was it like hearing them? It was like that cold, tight sickness in your stomach, like a fist, the first time you saw a parent slap their toddler’s face at the grocery store, or kick their dog, or, as a middle-grader, watched the school bully make a kid get on his hands and knees and drag his tongue along the school’s heat-soaked cinder track. Fortunately, I never heard those words at my house. In 1969 and 1970 I was beginning to lean into the civil rights movement, and most of my friends at the plant were black, though when our shift ended, we usually went our separate ways. But one night a crane operator named Jimmy Washington said he’d take me to a “Negro bar” called the Governor’s Inn to see Buddy Guy, a blues guitarist I worshipped. “Just don’t stare at anyone,” he said, “and keep your hand over your beer. Stick by me and don’t mess with our women.” As Jimmy’s turquoise Impala approached the bar, we noticed a large rowdy crowd on the street, so Jimmy decided to rescind his invitation. Instead, he pulled over and we sat for a while, checking out the action. “Look at that,” Jimmy said, pointing to a wiry black man playing an electric guitar in the middle of the street. The long cord attached to his axe snaked its way back into the bar, as if the bar were a giant amplifier. “That’s Buddy Guy,” I said. “Damn right,” Jimmy replied, before peeling away.
* * *
In terms of steel mills, Truscon was a rose among the thorns. Sure, you could get hurt. Sure, some of the jobs were boring. But at least we weren’t involved in the backbreaking manufacturing of steel, like those guys across the street at Republic Steel, or in nearby Lackawanna at the Bethlehem plant. We cut and bent the steel and sent it on its way. We weren’t working in the coke ovens, coming home covered in soot, downing a few shots of whiskey to get the taste of it out of our mouths. We didn’t need to be protected from the blast furnaces by wearing jackets made with asbestos materials. We could focus on the job, trying to learn new skills. “Just like Louie teached me,” Tony Polack said to me on the first day of the job. “I teach you.” Months later, he asked me if I had a girlfriend, and when I said I most certainly did, he responded, “That’s good, because with that long hair and fancy education, some of the guys thought you was a fag.”
* * *
Memory is an odd thing. You think you know what happened, what was said, and then you discover that an event you think you witnessed actually happened in a movie, or the image or turn of phrase you think you created was unconsciously stolen from a Walt Whitman poem. Kind of like the rose-story surrounding my grandmother’s death. All memoir, in a sense, is fictional, which makes it more real. I lied at the plant every day. What better training for a writer? For example, I think this happened: A guy who only worked at the plant for a week told me he “put a guy in the hospital” in Cleveland. No details, and I wasn’t about to ask for any. No, a guy who worked at the plant told someone else who then told me that he had “put a guy in the hospital” in Cleveland. It was over a stripper. No, a guy from another plant told me he knew a guy who knew a guy who “had put another guy in the hospital” in Cleveland for drinking his shot of tequila when he went to the head to take a piss. All I really can be sure of was that someone had been “put in the hospital,” and that the event most likely happened in Cleveland. That’s what lunch in the plant was like: a convergence of real and imagined parallel stories.
* * *
Railroad cars vexing the night with their abundance of steel. Linked like sausages. Follow it through memory. The rumbling, like a noisy, half-broken sewing machine taking over a room. “I am turning to stone,” I said to Jimmy, as he passed me the loco weed. Above us, in the night sky, an old lady was wrestling with the moon. A new constellation? Or just another entry from God’s illustrated dictionary?
* * *
In spite of its tough, often unforgiving male culture, the plant was also a place where guys—black and white, and from many different ethnic backgrounds—could hang out. My mother once said that the best way for people to get along was to eat together. Similarly, there was nothing like doing the same lousy Truscon jobs to create a certain camaraderie, so if you saw a coworker on the street, you always gave him a smile or shook his hand. Still, old feuds from outside the plant sometimes resurfaced during the working hours. New feuds could also arise. Lenny was a skinny Italian, one of those guys who could eat anything and never put on weight. Though skinny, he was strong, his arms veined and sinewed. If there was such a thing as a dandy in the steel plants, Lenny was it. After work, most of us dragged our sorry asses to our cars and went home, but Lenny would take a shower and change into his street clothes, consisting of brightly-colored shirts, and ridiculously tight black polyester pants, whose hems always broke over a pair of black pointy shoes. “Spic” shoes, as one guy called them. Lenny was hung, and he knew it, which was why he bought pants so tight his member bulged—an invitation and a warning to the local unmarried young women and their parents. He had a Roman nose an anteater might envy, and a head of wavy black hair slicked back with Brylcreem. He always talked about the girls he slept with. I didn’t like that. It was not only uncool, but I had a younger sister who was blossoming into a woman, which put me on alert to predatory guys. I had already decided upon a few tortures for Lenny if he came snooping around my house. One cold night, the break horn sounded, and everyone headed to their lockers to grab a snack. I decided to finish wire-wrapping a load of thirty-foot #9 bars. After that, on my way to the lockers, I saw a fight break out—a lot of dust and a few rows of lockers toppling over. When I got there, an Irish guy named Mike had Lenny pinned on a row of fallen lockers and was beating the hell out of him, until a couple of the tougher guys dragged him off. “What the fuck?” was all Lenny kept repeating, and then, “How the fuck could I have known?” After the tough guys calmed Mike down, I noticed a bunch of Polaroid prints on the dust-covered concrete. It seemed Lenny had come armed that day with trophies from his conquests—Polaroids of naked girls he’d slept with. Why a normal girl would agree to pose like that was unfathomable to me. Why they’d do it for a jerk like Lenny was even more baffling. But they did, and it turned out that one of the girls was Mike’s daughter. I was eighteen at the time, my view of relationships formed by the innocent sexuality of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, so I wasn’t prepared for these photos or the look on Mike’s face. Someone might as well have told him his daughter had been found in a sewer with her throat cut. Not knowing what to do, we all fell silent. We stood the lockers up, then arranged them into their rightful places. No one said anything to Lenny that night, but he must have realized he’d crossed a line. He didn’t show up for work the next day, and a few weeks later, we heard he was working at the Bethlehem plant in Lackawanna.
* * *
My grandfather died of black lung. He was born in Scranton and on his sixteenth birthday, he quit school to work in the coal mines. At eighteen he married my grandmother, who was two years younger. Shortly after, they moved to Buffalo for a better life. A “better life” was slaving at the coke ovens at the Donner Hanna plant in South Buffalo. It was a dirty job, and between the coke dust and asbestos-containing materials and clothing, a worker’s lungs didn’t have a chance, especially if those workers chain-smoked Camels like my grandfather did. My grandfather worked hard, so hard that he eventually became a popular supervisor, and, at his wake, grown men, black and white, cried. It was painful to visit him at the end, to see him hooked up to oxygen, periodically sneaking out of his room to have one of the smokes my grandmother would smuggle in. It was hard to witness this avid hunter and fisherman—a man I’d spent nights with yanking night crawlers out of a perfectly manicured lawn—reduced to a pale anorexic skeleton. The Donner Hanna plant closed in 1982. By the late 1990’s, it became clear that the neighborhood was contaminated with carcinogenic and other hazardous industrial wastes, including coke waste, arsenic and lead. According to the New York State Cancer Registry, the “zip code where the plant was located had 51 percent more instances of lung cancer than expected among men, and 42 percent more instances than expected among women.”
* * *
Even before my grandfather’s death, it was clear to me what the price of being a steelworker would be, and I knew I wouldn’t work there long. When, with my 1-A draft status hanging over my head, I decided to leave for California in October of 1970 to “find myself,” I didn’t expect a big sendoff, and I didn’t get one. Just a few pats on the back and whacks on top of my silver work helmet, a few guys making attempts at affection by shouldering me as they passed by, some envying me the “pussy” awaiting me in L.A. In fact, my reasons for going west had nothing to do with girls. There were enough beautiful girls in Buffalo. But I had always been fascinated by California, especially by its geography. I had never seen the ocean, or played beach volleyball, or tried surfing, and I was immersed in the music coming out of Laurel Canyon, Venice Beach, and up the coast to Monterey and San Francisco. I was looking for a new education. I didn’t want to be a lifer at the plant and blow off the classical education my father had worked so hard to give me, but I also wasn’t ready for the college grind. I still enjoyed manual labor, and in the following years, I would work as a carpenter in Colorado, and as a drywall subcontractor back in Buffalo. The steel plant prepared me for those jobs, taught me how to navigate the landscape of working-class men—what virtues to take from those experiences, what vices to avoid.
* * *
When my father was in his late seventies, he came to one of my poetry readings. For weeks before the event, I’d wake up in the night sweating. Would my father be embarrassed of me? Would he think me unmanly? Would he laugh at my zany comic prose poems, or, conversely, think them stupid? Night after night, I’d toss and turn, feeling as if someone had crapped in my stomach. It was a good reading, funny, and afterwards he put his arm around me. He didn’t say anything, but then he didn’t have to. Later, alone with him at his house, he asked me how I had managed to publish so many books. “It’s the same as working with steel bars and nails,” I said, “only now I work with words.” I cringed as I invoked such a lame metaphor, knowing that, over the centuries, it had become a cliché of a cliché. But it seemed to resonate with him. We talked a little about the reading, and then I asked him what he had learned from being a steelworker and a mailman. “I learned the importance of hard work,” he said. “Same as you.” In response, I mentioned all the guys at the plant who had been slackers, morally reprehensible, or complete assholes. “So what?” he said. “It’s not about them. It’s about waking up every morning and doing the job, then going to bed and doing the same thing over again the next day. You bust your ass and try to be decent. At some point, you look behind and you’ve accomplished something. You’ve made a difference.”
He stared at me as if perplexed, then leaned over and smiled. “I mean, what more do you want?”
*The names of the men at the plant have been changed for obvious reasons. I am deeply indebted to the best photographic and oral history of the steel mills in Buffalo: Portraits in Steel: Photographs by Milton Rogovin, Interviews by Michael Frisch (Cornell University Press, 1993). This book has always transported me back to my time at Truscon, invoking the sights, sounds, and smells of the plant, along with the speech cadences of my coworkers.