Hashtag throwback Thursday. Listen y'all, 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 theromoses. 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, but after a bit they opened up to me. I noticed 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. Mostly we sat silently in the racket of the machinery, watching the steel pass along the conveyor belt. I asked him one night about what he did before this. What he did in the other plant he worked in before it closed, and 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, and though I didn’t know it then, the last summer I would spend in my hometown.
He said: 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 leaned into a nine, ten pound hammer and chisel to chip and smooth them until they come like they ought to be.
He said: you work days, evenings, and midnight. Swinging.like 7 to 3, 3 to 11, & 11 to 7. I liked midnight, the big wheels wasn’t around then, and well, jeez, just starting out everybody are not talkers and everybody are not open, so you do what you do, you find the ones that you could talk to, that are drawn to you and in the end they will be the ones that clear the way for you
and show you how it’s done.
That’s the one thing.
He said: the guy who showed me to chip, real nice guy. We called him Squeege. He said, you can do this chip in two ways, you can just push and push hard on that hammer like all these guys do or you can sharpen your chisel.
don’t cut no more than you can cut.
you do it right
you ain’t going to be aching harder
than anybody else.
a day’s work won’t hurt at all.
This is what he said to me over the machinery, he said: I come to call myself a good chipper. They come down, the boss and them, the big wheels, and the boss said, I got this for you to do and I got that for you to do, and that made me happy. I figured I must be able to do it, like maybe I was one of the good chippers and maybe I come out like I ought to.
(this appeared in slightly different form in New World Writing in 2014.)