Walking the Line

By Ed Staskus

   When I was in my twenties finding a job was easy as pie as long as it was the most thankless job known to man in Cleveland, Ohio, work like grit blasting, jackhammering, and tearing roofs off. None of it was a bed of roses, not that anybody ever said it was going to be. It was more like a crown of thorns with the only salvation at the end of the day being the end of the day.

   The only good thing about grit blasting was that the work was indoors, in an all-metal walled room out of the sun and rain. The worst thing about it was being in an all-metal walled room in a haze of abrasive dust hoping the hose wouldn’t bust a gut or simply explode. The blasting room measured 20 feet wide by 50 feet long by 15 feet tall. It was all business, no windows, no distractions, no escape.

   The metal finishing shop was off Brookpark Rd. near the airport. Starting time was 7:30 AM, no ifs ands or buts. God forbid I miss my bus. They did shot-peening, deburring, and metal polishing. The only thing I did was blasting with steel grit or crushed glass. Sometimes, if the object was small, I worked at a sandblasting booth.

   I wore a thick canvas long-sleeved blast suit, gloves with gauntlets, and steel-toed safety boots. When I was ready, the last thing I put on was an air-fed blasting helmet with a shawl protector. I could hardly move, which was all for the better. My boss was adamant that I go slow, never stopping at one spot, keeping the same pace, which was a crawl.

   The shop was noisy and hot, dusty and dingy, although when we got finished with whatever we had been working on it looked resurrected. After three months, though, I felt like I was down for the count and quit in the middle of my shift. I took a bus to Edgewater Park, stripped off my shirt, and lay on the sand in the sun the rest of the day.

   I didn’t think jackhammering could be worse. I was wrong. It was much worse. The pneumatic t-shaped beast weighed a hundred pounds and was ear-shattering. It was louder than a jet engine. I was given Willson earmuffs to save my hearing. I didn’t wear them my first five minutes on the job. After five minutes I never took them off.

   Charles Brady King, an engineer who built and drove the first motorized carriage in the United States in 1896, created the first air-powered jackhammer for the mining industry. Before that, miners labored in misery, breaking up rock with sledgehammers.

   Jackhammers are percussive tools. They pound and pound rock and concrete with thousands of hits a minute. Once it’s been broken into smaller pieces it’s time to take a step back and start pounding again. For basic breaking I used a basic point bit. The old hands used a flat bit for better control.

   We wore face masks and sprayed the concrete with water to keep the dust down. Since shrapnel wasn’t unusual, I wore heavy-duty pants and a long-sleeved shirt. I still had my steel-toed boots. Even though I was young and fit, I took breaks all the time. The shock waves were too much to stand. Whole-body vibration is fun and games for only so long. 

   The warhorses knew the score but still complained about fatigue, headaches, and lower back pain. They sometimes took five to lay down flat on the ground. It was hard work controlling the heavy powerful tool. We rotated on and off. Everybody said jackhammers were better than sledgehammers in the hot sun, but it struck me as making a fine distinction to no purpose.

   I didn’t last long. I was neither strong nor sizable enough for the work. After my last day I went home to my apartment and slept for a day-and-a half. My lumpy mattress felt like a bed of roses. 

   It was still summer, so I signed on with a roofing company. It wasn’t hard to learn, since I was dragooned to be one of the guys who tore roofs off, but it was hard to do. I didn’t know it was the most physically demanding contractor work of all time. I didn’t know it was the fourth most dangerous job in the country, either.

   “It’s big risk, hard work,” my boss said. “You need to be proud of what you do. It’s good stuff.”

   The other guys said don’t slip and fall. I said I would watch out for that. They said, don’t get electrocuted. I agreed to watch out for that, too. Everybody said the company was a storm chaser, even though we never worked during storms. I found out what it meant soon enough. After that I wasn’t proud of what I did, although I didn’t do it over long.

   If it was 90 degrees on the street, it was 900 degrees on the roof. If it was a black or metal roof, it was even hotter. After I got a sunburn my first day, I wore sunscreen and a baseball cap. I got heat rash and learned to never wear jeans or dark-colored clothing. I got heat cramps and learned to drink gallons of water. 

   There were two of us at the bottom of the totem pole. We were responsible for cleaning up. The rolling magnetic sweeper was my favorite. Sweeping for loose nails and screws was incredibly easy and meant the end of the job was at hand.

   The pay was good, but I didn’t like going up and down ladders. Once I got on the roof, I settled down, but ladders made me jumpy. I finally had enough of them and called in sick. I stayed sick until the office manager stopped calling me.

   Summer started collapsing after Labor Day. I applied for work at the nearby Collinwood Rail Yards and was hired as a temporary for as long as they needed me. The railroad yard and diesel terminal had been there for about one hundred years, after a machine shop and roundhouse were built to repair locomotives. Stock yard rail was laid for freight trains coming and going. By 1930 there 120 miles of track handling 2,000 cars daily. During World War Two the Collinwood Yards became one of the major switching and repair facilities for the New York Central, and after that for Penn Central.

   My job description was Extra Clerk. I thought it meant a cushy office job. What it actually meant was I had to work wherever they wanted me to, filling in when somebody was sick or on vacation. I found out soon enough that nobody in the offices ever got sick or went on vacation.

   A warehouse had been built northeast of the roundhouse. There was a smaller storehouse with two offices next to it. The front office was for whoever wanted to sit around in it. The back office was for my boss. He was Isaiah Wood, a short older man who always wore an Irish scally cap indoors and outdoors, rain or shine. He was a rabble rouser for the Nation of Islam. He always had stacks of their newspaper “Muhammed Speaks” on the floor. When it became “Bilalian News” he had stacks of those.

   He sold them to African Americans who worked in the yard. They trooped in, plunked down their dough, and walked out with the newspaper stuffed into a coat pocket. Nobody who was white ever trooped in and plunked down anything. He was disliked by every white man to whom I let out what dismal dead-end I was stuck in.

   He had a poster on the wall of the Nation of Islam kingpin Elijah Muhammed wearing sunglasses and a funny hat with stars and crescent moons emblazoned on it. The poster said, “If you think the white man isn’t the devil like I have taught you, then bring me your devil and I will show you that the white man has no equal.” Whenever I had to go into his office the poster was right behind him right in my face.

   He liked to say things like, “Whenever you look at a black man you are looking at God.” Then he would tell Wally and me that there were two or three gondalas with rail wheels on them that needed unloading. He tried to make it sound like orders from the mouth of God, speaking low and slow.

   Ozor Benko was Wally. Nobody ever called him Ozor or even Ozzie. Everybody called him Wally. He was shorter and older than Isaiah. He had been married for almost fifty years. His wife put together his lunch pail, sandwiches, apples, oranges, and grapes. The sandwiches were always Hungarian since they were Hungarian. He especially liked black bread smeared with cream cheese and topped with black cherry jam.

   Wally and I worked together. Every morning at 7 AM when it got wintry, we collected wood from broken pallets and built a bonfire. Some days the fire was as big as Isaiah’s hatred of white folks. We stood around it once it got roaring and warmed ourselves up. Anybody passing by was welcome to stake a spot. Whenever we had to unload a gondola, we made sure to have a 55-gallon steel drum nearby with a fire going in it. We dried our gloves and thawed our hands there.

   When we were unloading rail wheels the two of us stood in the gondola with a crane on a flat car at hand. The crane operator swung his block to us, one of us wrote a number on the wheel with a thick yellow crayon, while the other one attached a sling to the wheel. The crane lifted it, setting it down in a row of them, and swung back to us. It wasn’t hard work, except when it was cold snowy slippery. There wasn’t as much snow that winter as there would be a few years later during the Blizzard of 1978, but it was icy enough.

   Wally started taking days off when his wife got sick. I didn’t mind because another Extra Clerk like me, who was about my age, filled in. One week Wally didn’t come to work at all. At the end of the next week Isaiah told me Wally’s wife had died and he would be taking a few weeks off. When he came back, he looked terrible. He started going to one of the taverns just outside the yard for lunch, eating pickled eggs, greasy sandwiches, and swigging bottles of P.O.C. Even still, he lost weight, getting thinner. His clothes hung loose on him. His skin got gray.

   He passed away a month-and-a-half later. He missed his wife so much he didn’t want to go on living. He had a heart attack and died on the spot. We thought he died of a broken heart. Isaiah didn’t say much, although he went to Wally’s funeral.

   When spring came, I was assigned to be a tracker in the switching yard. I was given a clipboard and a pocketful of pencils. Boxcars flat cars and gondolas were busted up a cut and sorted by railway company, loaded or unloaded, destination, car type, and whether they needed repairs. The black snakes hauling coal, unloading across the street, weren’t on my beat. I walked miles a day every day, noting and writing it all down and delivering the paperwork to an office in the shadow of the terminal.

   I discovered small beat-up shacks tucked in all over the place where workmen hung out, making hay, killing time, reading the daily papers, listening to the radio, playing cards and drinking. A lot of drinking went on in the yard and at the bars on East 152nd St. just outside the main entry gate. Even more drinking happened on payday, when many men cashed their checks at the bars and drank part of it before their wives could get their hands on what was left.

   By the beginning of summer, I was out of a job. Conrail was taking over, cutting costs, and laying workers off. When the 1980s rolled around they closed the diesel locomotive repair facilities and sold off most of the rail yard. By that time, I didn’t care. I had squirreled away the hard cash I made and gone back to college so I could make my way.

   My father had been a miner in Sudbury, Ontario in the 1950s until he finally saw the light. We emigrated to the USA where he worked days and studied nights at Western Reserve University, graduating with a degree in accounting. He was determined to work with his head not his hands.

   I had my father’s looks, but we didn’t always look at things the same way. He had a way of threatening me with the world, with what was out there. Even though he and I didn’t routinely see eye to eye, after a year of punching the working stiff clock, I started thinking he was on to something. I didn’t want to end up digging graves in the land of plenty.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

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