Green Hills Literary Lantern

A Dirty Job

 

Willie Anaya (1951-2012) was one of those who helped me survive in the job I describe below. He helped many. Willie died a year ago, on the job.  This article is dedicated to his memory.

 

Dirty Jobs is a TV show in which host Mike Rowe tries his hand at the dirtiest and worst jobs, at least the dirtiest and worst the show’s producers can find. But these producers are folk bred in Hollywood or a similar environment. The jobs they feature may be the worst that Hollywood can imagine, but as bad as they are, they are not as bad as some held by the show’s viewers. In at least a few workplaces around the country, men and women probably discuss the previous night’s episode on the Discovery Channel. They contrast it with their own jobs and conclude they’d change places in a heartbeat—with the scrapple maker, shown in one episode—maybe even with the boiler cleaner. 

We’ve all had bad jobs. Writers from Herman Melville to Philip Levine and Dorianne Laux have turned horrid employment into fine literature. It puts grit in the writing. Toughens it, like gravel mixed with otherwise flabby cement. But for many of us, the worst job we’ve ever had is not raw material for a story or TV show. It’s the job we’re doing right now.

During twenty-five years of manual labor, all over the US, I did some grueling work, in iron ore mines, in garment sweat shops, and in a power plant; I drove a city bus through sprawling barrios, worked on the waterfront unloading raw beef hides and 160-lb. coffee bags. I was a nomad, not always well-paid, often happy with what I did. But one day I woke up from a longer than usual stretch of unemployment to a new reality: prospective employers did not seem to appreciate my nomad-resume. In fact, they laughed at it. I had become a bottom feeder in the slimy fish tank of the job market. I had to apply for the job no one else wanted. 

“You know what, darling,” I said to my wife that fateful morning. “I’m going to put in an application at the magnesium plant.”

My career path had entered a downward spiral during which I had to fight for and keep—not for a few hours like Mike Rowe but for more than six years—one of the world’s worst jobs.

 

The rust on the little yellow bus

An overstatement, that no one else wanted this job. About thirty men younger than me waited in a Kmart lot for a battered yellow bus that had spent its best years on the road for the Salt Lake School System. When it finally pulled up, I remember thinking, an unusual amount of rust on this bus, not yet connecting this fact with a corrosive environment at the other end of the line.

We boarded our rust bucket near the eastern rim of the Great Salt Lake, shortly after ten p.m., a warm July night. Ah, those graveyard shifts, and the lonely feeling that comes with knowing everyone else is at a party, opening another beer—and you’re stone cold sober, on your way to work.

As we bounced for many miles, I watched a sliver of moon on the waters of the lake, which were still except for a few wind wavelets. Some of my bus mates tried to doze.  Some finger-flicked the ears of those who tried to doze. We rode forever through the darkness of US Route 80, arriving at the intersection of Nowhere and Forever, turning North into the Great Salt Flats, which were invisible in the darkness beyond our windows, invisible but still unmistakable due to the stink. It was like an ocean but many times stronger, a stink rich with the rot of tiny creatures, brine shrimp, by the billions.

Except for the brine shrimp, which were either decomposing or had digestive problems, this expanse was entirely unpopulated. Why would an employer choose to locate a plant so far from human habitation? Or was it that humans chose not to live anywhere near the plant? Same answer to both questions, I realized, as the stink of rotting things gave way to a chemical sting in my nostrils.

Chlorine gas! My new employer had been winning quite a name for itself by releasing this gas into the atmosphere. Attempting to escape the notoriety, it changed names several times. Despite the name changes, the Numero Uno rating with the EPA stayed with the property. Or rather it stayed with the plant, for there was nothing wrong with the physical property, other than the physical plant. Life on earth predates industrial polluters. The Flats as a property was once under the stewardship of the Goshute Indians, who lacked the technology to pump toxic material into the earth’s atmosphere. Backward Indians.

 

A man with a mission

There it was, a thick stack rising into the night from the Salt Flats, a towering cylinder made visible by the blinking lights designed to prevent a plane from lopping off the top third of its height. In the strobing red glare, tendrils of orange gas glowed eerily as they seeped from fittings in a jumble of corrugated roofs.

We had to file into work through a guard house, where we punched a time clock and, next stop, mounted a set of weigh-in scales. Yes, you heard that right, scales. As a convenience for dieters?  This company the Jenny Craig of modern industry? In a way. One worker had set a record for weight loss in a twelve-hour shift, eighteen pounds. Another first place for the company! Probably a tubby guy who needed to lose weight, you might think. 

In the overcrowded locker room, I met this man, whose nickname was Stretch. He stood 6’6” and weighed all of 180 lbs. The truth of the situation was beginning to dawn. We were being weighed, and the poundage would be compared to our weight after the previous shift, to make sure we were sufficiently rehydrated to withstand the rigors that lay before us.

Stretch was one of the memorable characters in a memorable workforce. A big-boned, gray-faced black man, wearing coveralls that hung on his body only a little more loosely than his skin, he had a mission in life. He put his arm over the shoulders of each new hire and told us about a young casting-machine operator who’d been asked by his foreman to take his fork truck and nudge a large ball of scrap magnesium into an open furnace. It had been resting on the furnace lip, warming up. Nobody wanted to touch it. The young operator knew full well that when even small quantities of water are submerged in molten magnesium, powerful explosions can result. So he resisted his foreman, stubbornly maintaining that not all the moisture had burned out of the ball of scrap. Then the request became an order, accompanied by bullying. The operator finally gave in, and several tons of hot metal erupted from the furnace, ripping a hole in the roof of the foundry. The young operator was nearly incinerated. There was just enough left of him to survive for twenty-four hours in the burn unit of University of Utah Hospital. He spent the time well—in one long, final conversation with his brother.

Stretch’s story was a warning about the intrinsic properties of magnesium. Always preheat your tools, he said. And an even greater hazard than the temperamental metal—the foremen. Don’t believe or trust them. Never.

 

The life of an ingot stacker

Stretch counseled resistance, which was not easy, especially for a new hire.

My first job was in the foundry, a large dark building lit by incandescent flares from burning magnesium. Every piece of equipment that touched the molten metal sparkled like Fourth of July. It was spectacular, but I didn’t have much time to appreciate it since ingots were dropping out of a casting machine, threatening to bury me if I didn’t begin arranging them in stacks for a fork truck to haul off.

The ingots were so hot they couldn’t be handled, even with gloves. We used awkward steel handles, fumbled, as the casting machines spat out ingots at a sadistic pace. The handles slipped on the still-slimy mag, I slipped, I fumbled, as hot ingots populated the floor, precious few in neat piles. Fortunately, mag is a light metal. No ingot weighed more than fifty pounds.

“Hey, Dude, your killin’ this old man,” a sympathetic co-worker hollered out to the casting-machine operator. “Slow down!”

But Dude didn’t know how to slow down, and the heat of the ingots was overwhelming. Losing eighteen pounds in a shift? Would there be eighteen pounds left of me?  Rivers of sweat were carrying the salt from my body. My gray coveralls were streaked white with it. After an hour, my hands were cramped and blistered from the steel handles. I wish Mike Rowe would’ve been there to give me a break instead of wasting his time selling Ford trucks.

Eleven hours to go. Ten fifty-nine. Was I being punished for a sinful life, to toil for an eternity in hell in this world of furnaces and fires?

Not surprisingly, new hires wanted to quit on the spot. The prospect of losing a paycheck, even starving, was not what kept us at it. To starve to death in the comfort of my living room often seemed an attractive prospect during my sojourn at the magnesium plant. No, what kept me there for the duration of that first shift was the fact that we were twenty miles from civilization. We were trapped in an Alcatraz of blood, sweat, and tears. One brave soul made a daring effort. Or so the legend went, and every workplace has its legends. He took off walking through the Salt Flats, flinging curses behind him, determined to cover the twenty miles on foot rather than remain in the foundry one second longer

 

Smutter, par excellence

I was not well-suited to the life of an ingot stacker, which required not only great endurance but dexterity and speed. Younger guys, All-American athletes, were best suited for this work. So I looked for another entry-level job to transfer into.

“You’re crazy,” most of my co-workers said. “Smutting is ten times worse than stacking.” Some truth there. But a small band of veteran workers were now advising me. Stretch was among them. “Smutting sucks,” they said, “but it’s easier to learn, and we’ll look out for you.”

And now for a linguistic and lexographic digression into the word smut as it applies to the job class smutter. The technology used at this plant had a Norwegian origin.  Brine, in this case from the Great Salt Lake, was condensed into magnesium chloride and squirted into electrolytic cells, a little like car batteries only large enough to walk on. Two products resulted when magnesium chloride was passed through these giant batteries—molten magnesium and chlorine gas. Well, there were three products. The third was the dark, soil-like substance that fell to the bottom of the cell. According to the Norske-English online dictionary, a site I often visit just for fun, the Norwegian word smuss can be roughly translated into English as smut, or as another word, even more familiar to all of us. All day long we removed smuss with eight-foot ladles, toiling in the heat that came off these 1300f cells.

A few short days before, I had lived in happy ignorance, unaware of smutting or any of its derivations or implications. When this blissful state ended, I was in deep smuss.

A master smutter showed me how to handle the ladle, the basic tool of my new trade, which first had to be preheated to drive out all the H2O. He had a good sense of humor, which he’d learned in his native Missouri, the Ozarks to be exact, but he had no use for the pranks of the youngsters on our crew, many of whom hailed from the tough town of Tooele, only an hour away. Although some of these young toughs may have had the physical endurance to match or better The Master, none had the mental stamina. It took steel in the back and an equally tough material in the head to stand in that heat and run the heavy ladle into the mix, pull out the smut, and dump it, hour after hour.

This work was indeed easier to learn than stacking ingots. In fact, I smutted into my fiftieth year on this earth—and then some. The Master was the oldest, plying the tool of our trade into his late fifties, retiring to die from cancer in his beloved Ozarks. The next oldest smutter was a former Marine corps officer, who one night created a lot of talk when he kept on smutting even after his coveralls burned off.

 

‘It’s a great life if you don’t weaken’

Some of us learned to cope at this job, which didn’t change the fact that it was back-breaking labor, performed exclusively on the midnight-to-noon shift. Even the supervisors at the plant, not squeamish about how they deployed their labor force, declined to force us to smut in the afternoon heat. 

“I’m dyin’ out here” was what we’d murmur to each other, although we had to remove our respirators to murmur. These were heavy rubber masks with canisters that had to be changed regularly. They were only partially effective at best. And in the middle of the shift, when it didn’t seem things could get any worse, the system that sucked the gas out of the cells would go down, and high-test chlorine would overwhelm our respirators—and our lungs. That’s when we gagged, hit the dirt on all fours, puked our guts out.

On such occasions The Master—whose life had been shaped by the rough boards of country outhouses and the still rougher pews of country churches—would put his arm around my shoulder and pronounce, “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.”

Perhaps no long-term damage to our lungs resulted from gulping gas. That’s what the company maintained. Their claims notwithstanding, we coughed from exposure to the everyday levels. Our lungs scarred and tightened, like we had pneumonia. But not to worry. It was working pneumonia, even better than walking pneumonia.

Despite the best efforts of Stretch and others, the workforce in those days was fractured and beaten down, with only brief interludes of resistance. On one of these, a short strike before my tenure, convicts were shipped in from a detention center to serve as scab labor. That experiment didn’t last long. After just one shift—“You can have this place, we’ll stay in jail”—convicts shouted at pickets as their buses crossed back over the line.

Shift after shift we had to thread our way through catch 22s. If we cut corners in order to meet our quota of smut, we could get nailed for that. If we worked to rule, the foremen would write us up for not producing. Either way, we got put on the smut list. Reporting accidents hurt the company’s standing with the insurance industry.  Sometimes it was better to limp around with a missing limb than to report an injury.

 

One hyphenated word

People all over the Salt Lake Valley would give you a special look when you said you worked at the magnesium plant. Either they thought you were incredibly tough or a total moron. In any case, they were greatly impressed.

And while all this was going on, my home life miraculously prospered—for one splendid reason: Barbara always had my back. That didn’t surprise me. She herself was a veteran of foundry and machine shop work and no stranger to bad jobs. But our daughter Lily? At six, she conducted herself like she understood about dirty jobs. 

What is the point of this, you might be asking. Well, it was six years of my life, a life in which you take special interest, no doubt. Another possible motivation is to give you a counterpoint to the views sometimes expressed by newsmen, economists, politicians, and other talking heads—that the jobs like those Mike Rowe tries his hand at are the only bad jobs in America today. We have lost our competitive edge, so we’re told, because we are a country of overfed slackers who have forgotten the work ethic. At least a few of us, probably many of us, know that ethic and would rather forget what we know.

Now to forestall the charge that I’m painting an unbalanced picture. My experience at this plant was not all negative, due to one great, redeeming feature: co-workers. The men and women who bailed me out hailed from all over the US, and from Central America, Poland, Tonga, and Samoa; their numbers included bankrupt farmers, cons, ex-cons, and soon-to-be cons; pushers, gamblers, other poets, great, handsome guys like myself, and a handful of rats.

There were great stories, jokes, and pranks. Like, on the bus ride home, after twelve grueling hours, the one playful soul who stayed awake so he could tie the shoe laces together of his sleeping mates. We always fell for it, tripping each other in a sprawling mass as we woke up to get off the bus.

And there was Stretch. I know there are many bad workplaces out there: offices, classrooms, plants, and mines, where humiliations mount and benefits decline; dangerous places, dangerous to the workforce, hazardous to surrounding communities, workplaces that are multiplying as the economy deteriorates. At such places, we need workers like Stretch, the man with the mission.

 

 

 

David Salner is the author of John Henry’s Partner Speaks (Word Tech, Cincinnati, 2008) and Working Here (Rooster Hill Press, Minnesota State University, 2010). He worked for 25 years as an iron ore miner, steelworker, and laborer. His poetry appears in Poetry Daily, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, North American Review, Threepenny Review, and many other journals; his essays and stories can be found in previous issues of Green Hills Literary Lantern (2011, 2010, 2008), Cottonwood, Fourth River, and Potomac Review. He lives in Frederick, MD, with his wife, Barbara Greenway, a high school English teacher. He is working on a novel about the lives of hard-rock miners in the Old West. Find him on the web at http://www.davidsalner.blogspot.com/