When The Work Was Steel
Hashtag throwback thursday. Listen, I want you to know something about me that you might not know because isn’t that the real reason we throw it back on Thursdays? I have forgotten the reason we throw it back on Thursday. Namely because I am constantly throwing back, I throw it back on Sunday and Tuesday. I throw it back on Monday, but anyways, I want to tell you something about myself. during the four and half months of late spring and summer after I graduated from high school and went to college I worked in a steel plant. I started out just doing labor, you know, whatever they wanted. Sweeping. Painting. I started on the second shift and moved to the third pretty quickly. I would have lunch in the lunch room with some of the old timers. Guys who had worked at Bethlehem Steel or Republic for 18, 19 years. They had battered lunch boxes and drank from thermoses. They swore a lot and talked a lot of shit. They were relentless to each other and then they turned their wit on me. I mostly kept my head down. Bit by bit they opened up some. Their lunches were packed lovingly by their wives and they appreciated it. You could tell by the way their eyes shined when they opened their boxes. This was the type of place where there was a giant furnace where they would process sheets of steel into coils, I think it was used in automobiles or office furniture. It was a really clean operation, processing was different than manufacturing. Anyways. After a month of sweeping and painting, I got put on the line, shadowing an old thin guy who worked the banding machine. He showed me how it all worked, told me what went on before and where the steel went after it left us. That type of thing. Sometimes we sat silently in the racket of the machinery. I asked him one night about what he did before this, what he did in the other plant he worked in before it closed. This is what I want to tell you about myself. I want to tell you what this old time steelworker told me in the middle of the night in Buffalo, New York one summer before I left Buffalo to go to college.
He said: Oh, jeez, you know, I worked in the chip shop, when the work was steel. When the blast furnaces billowed smoke that turned snow black. He said: the poured ingot molds don’t come out too perfect, so a back needed to lean into a nine, ten pound hammer & chisel to chip & smooth them until they come like they ought to be. He said: you work days, evenings, and midnight. Swinging, you know, like 7 to 3, 3 to 11, & 11 to 7. I liked the midnight, the big wheels wasn’t around then, you know the guys that don’t get dirty & well, I don’t know, just starting out everybody there weren’t talkers & everybody there weren’t open to you, you know. You might not last so what’s the point in getting to know you. You know, so you do what you do. Like anything. You find the ones that you could talk to, the ones you can joke and josh with, the ones that are drawn to you & the ones who’s easy and tough the same, and in the end they will be the ones that make the way for you & show you how it’s done.
That’s the one thing.
He said: the guy who showed me to chip the mold, real nice guy. We called him Squeege. Squeege says to me, you can do this work in two ways, you can just push & push hard on that hammer like all these galoots do or you can sharpen your chisel. Another thing, don’t cut no more than you can cut. You do it right if you are going to do it and if you do it right you ain’t going to be aching harder than nobody else. A day’s work won’t hurt at all.
This is what he said to me over the machinery, in the middle of the night, before I left Buffalo, and what I want you to know about me. He said: Eventually, I come to call myself a pretty good chipper. They come down to the shop, the big boss and them and says, I got this for you to do and that for you to do and the other to do, & that made me happy. I figured I must be able to do it, like maybe I was one of the good chippers & maybe I come out like I ought to.
David Gianadda’s stories and poems have appeared in Midwest Quarterly, ArtVoice, Opium Magazine, Eyeshot, and Surgery of Modern Warfare. He is originally from Buffalo, New York, and lives with his wife, the photographer, Emily Stoker, and their two dogs in Texas.