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Steel is the only thing that shines in the belly of the mill. The walkways, which were once the color of jade, have dulled to a sickly, ashen green. The cranes, once yellow, have browned with grime. Dust settles on everything—on walls and fingers, on forklifts and lunches, on train cars and coat jackets. Even the workers, who lumber through their long shifts, seem to be collecting dust.
I am one such worker. To the company, I’m known as #6691: Utility Worker. 6691 is a number given to new hires. Greenies. Fresh meat. When I first landed a job in the mill, one of the older employees congratulated me.
“You won the lottery,” he said. “You’re gonna make a lot of money.” The man paused. He thought for a moment. He let out a long tapered breath.
“Just be careful,” he said. “These machines will eat you up.”
On most days, the mill looks like a nightmare. A tall chimney shoots an orange flame into the early-morning air. Smokestacks let out clouds of white steam. Train tracks divide the drained and dreary earth, and the brown water of the Cuyahoga River slogs toward the mouth of Lake Erie. Many of the buildings, which are covered in rust and soot, have taken on the blackish-red color of congealed blood. Inside those buildings, furnaces blaze and machinery churns and cranes screech under the weight of their loads. Inside those buildings, iron turns to steel. Billows of bright gas leap atop molten metal as it’s poured into ladles standing upward of thirty feet tall. This leaping gas, which looks orange in the metal’s glow, licks and whips in a devil’s dance. Every inch of the mill is a screaming reminder: This is the kind of place that will kill you. This is the kind of place where people have died.
On one of my first afternoons in the mill, an old-timer told me a story about a woman he’d known. Like me, the woman was a Utility Worker. Like me, she probably felt grateful for her job in the mill.
One day, the woman set her gloves on a steel table near a conveyor belt. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. Everyone set their gloves on that same table. The conveyor belt chugged along, loaded with steel cylinders that weighed twenty or thirty tons. On that particular day, the cylinders on the conveyor belt had been heavily coated in oil. The steel was particularly slick, and the conveyor belt tended to shudder when it moved. Just as the woman reached for her gloves, one of the cylinders slipped from the conveyor belt and pinned her body against the steel table.
“Imagine it,” the old-timer said to me. “The weight of that steel. It just split her in half.”
I didn’t know what to say. I imagined my own body being crushed.
“She was still alive after it happened,” the old-timer said. “That was the worst part. She was still alive. ‘Get it off me,’ she kept saying. ‘Get it off me. Get it off me.’”
I looked down at my dirty hands. The grit of the mill seemed to bore its way into the creases on your palms. It got right down into your skin.
“When they finally got that steel off her,” the old-timer said, “she died instantly.”
The man paused and stared into empty air. He seemed to be looking at something very far away.
“Her body,” he said, “her body just fell apart.”
* * *
I wasn’t supposed to be a steelworker. I wasn’t supposed to spend my nights looking up at the bright lights on the blast furnace, which glimmered in the starless sky. I wasn’t supposed to learn the language of the mill, telling men twice my age to swing the rolls or jog the mill or clear the line.
I attended an all-girls Catholic high school. I ran track. I played Beth in a school rendition of Little Women, and I was valedictorian of my graduating class.
The possibilities are endless, adults said to me when I was young. You can do whatever you want in this world!
Like a lot of kids who grow up in Cleveland, Ohio, I mostly wanted to leave.
In high school I often talked with my friends about our plans of future escape. We would travel far and wide to give ourselves culture. We would attend colleges in legitimate cities like San Francisco or Boston. The real world happened in other cities and other towns, and we wanted to build our lives somewhere—anywhere—but here.
As a native-born Clevelander, I had always viewed the mill as part of my landscape. It was a fixture, a backdrop, a given, much like the mountains of the Rockies or the cornfields of Iowa, and I can still remember driving past the rusty buildings on summer afternoons as a child. My father often took me on errands to pay bills or send packages or pick up groceries at the West Side Market, and we sometimes found ourselves near the orange flame that shot up from the mill’s furnace.
I loved every minute of these afternoons with my father. The most mundane task felt like a mission when I sat in the passenger seat of his station wagon, which was the color of flushed skin. Together, we were Timmy and Lassie, Sandy and Flipper, Batman and Robin. We were sidekicks, comrades, kindred souls cut from the same mold.
One afternoon, as the station wagon crept toward the mill in heavy traffic, my father raised his middle finger at all of the idiot drivers who didn’t deserve to be on the road.
“Learn how to merge, asshole,” he said with a long honk of his horn.
I tried not to listen. The man who yelled at passing cars wasn’t the father I usually knew. For the most part, he was a quiet, gentle man who indulged my every whim, but there was something about traffic jams that unhinged him. In those moments, it felt as if he were harboring another person inside. There was a contemptuous spirit lurking below his skin, and the slightest injustice had the power to release it into the world.
I cringed at every middle finger my father flicked into the air, but I fought the urge to sink into my seat and disappear. If I disappeared, then I wouldn’t be his sidekick, so I did the only thing that made me feel more comfortable. Copying my father, I scowled at the other drivers on the road, but the traffic didn’t ease despite our frustrations. With a sigh, he turned up the car radio, which was tuned to a fuzzy AM station. Rush Limbaugh was talking about all of the bad things Democrats were doing in America. I was too young to know much about the world, but I was drawn to Limbaugh’s energy. He had conviction and charisma, like a preacher struck by the spirit, and I wanted to believe the things he said, even if I didn’t understand them.
At the very least, I grasped the crux of Limbaugh’s message: Being a Republican was good, and being a Democrat was not. My family believed some version of the same, except we added a heavy dose of religion into the mix. We were Republicans because God wanted us to be Republicans. Satan had corrupted the Democrats by tricking them into the sins of abortion, homosexuality, and, worst of all, feminism. Now the Democrats were trying to destroy everything that was good and moral in American society, and it was our job as Republicans to oppose them.
As the traffic inched forward, the station wagon drew closer to Cleveland’s industrial valley, which was located just outside the center of the city. My father and I had driven this same stretch of highway many times before. It was one of the main arteries that wrapped around downtown Cleveland, and you could see the Terminal Tower and the Key Building looming to the north. If you looked south, however, you had a bird’s-eye view of the industrial valley, which was often plagued by acrid smells. On some days, you might detect a vague odor reminiscent of decomposing fish. On other days, the scent of burnt rubber might linger in the air. On that particular afternoon, everything smelled like rotten eggs.
“Why does it always smell so bad around here?” I asked over the sound of Rush Limbaugh’s tirade.
“It’s sulfur from the steel mill,” my father told me.
“Which one is the steel mill?”
My father smoothed his mustache with fingers that had grown plump with age. As a child, I often marveled at his ring finger, which was so fat that his wedding band wouldn’t budge. His flesh had grown around the gold, forming a smooth indentation in otherwise calloused skin, and he used to joke that it was a good thing Catholics didn’t believe in divorce.
“See all of those buildings in the valley?” he said.
I stared down at the old rusted buildings, some of which looked close to collapse. They stretched far off into the distance, like the remnants of a forgotten city. If there hadn’t been smoke swelling from the smokestacks, I would have assumed they were abandoned.
“Yeah,” I said, “I see the buildings.”
“Well,” my father said, “most of them belong to the steel mill.”
“I think so. I know it’s a huge place.”
From my view on the highway, the mill looked like a cloaked villain, both sinister and mysterious. Nothing good could possibly come from buildings so decrepit, and the smokestacks made me nervous. My grandmother smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, and everyone told her that she was going to get cancer. If something as tiny as a cigarette could make you sick, then the rotten-egg chemicals the mill shot into the air would surely send you to an early grave.
I took a shallow breath and plugged my nose as the station wagon crawled forward. Rush Limbaugh boomed on the radio, railing against the Clintons, and I held my breath until my chest burned. I clenched my fists and wiggled in my seat, taking tiny gulps of air that were just big enough to keep me from passing out.
Like my grandmother’s cigarettes, the mill belonged to a past I couldn’t quite fathom at the time. It was the dividing line between the generations who had built America and the ones who were supposed to inherit it next. The word Millennial hadn’t yet entered my vocabulary as I held my breath past the mill, but I already understood that my generation had been promised a better future than the one contained inside the sulfurous buildings of Cleveland’s industrial valley. We weren’t supposed to settle for trivial jobs that would provide us with nothing more than a paycheck, and adults encouraged us to pursue something more than the drudgery of blue-collar work.
If you can dream it, you can do it! they said. The world is your oyster!
As a child, I took the catchphrases and clichés to heart. The rust-covered buildings smelled of rot, not opportunity, so I stubbornly held my breath as my father honked his horn. I didn’t care how long it took us to move through traffic, and I didn’t care how badly my body wanted air. I was going to hold my breath as long as I could, because I didn’t want the ugliness of the mill inside me.
* * *
When I was twenty-eight years old and months away from starting at the mill, I was still living on the outskirts of Cleveland. I had rented the only one-bedroom I could afford, an apartment that smelled like dead animals. It came with ugly burgundy carpeting and a mouse problem, which my landlord had remedied with poison. Now there were dead mice festering in my walls, so I had decided to pack a bag and visit my best friend in Washington, D.C. Unlike me, my friend had remained true to her adolescent wanderlust. She had escaped.
As I threw a fistful of underwear into a suitcase, I wondered what I’d done wrong. My friend and I had both gone to college. We had graduated with bachelor’s degrees and turned a blind eye to our rising debts. Of course, we were both struggling in our own ways, even if my friend had managed to get out of Cleveland. She was barely making ends meet in an entry-level position in D.C., and I was painting houses for a living. Neither of us could afford to make payments on our student loans, and we wondered if we would ever be able to build meaningful lives for ourselves.
As teenagers, we had been told to follow our hearts and pursue our passions. She had chosen Chinese, and I had chosen English. Admittedly, English was an odd passion for me to pick, mostly because I didn’t particularly like the subject in high school. I’d thought Shakespeare was dumb. Symbolism was a waste of time. Ten-page papers were invented by the Devil, and The Great Gatsby wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be. Truth be told, I probably would have made a decent engineer. The STEM subjects came easily to me, but that was precisely the problem. Calculus didn’t provide a challenge, which didn’t jibe with the American ethos. We were a people who put our faith in hard work. Earn what you have. Struggle to the top. Pull up your bootstraps and build yourself from nothing. A true American passion needed to be conquered, like the ascent up a mountain, so I forsook engineering for English. I wanted to master the thing that I found most difficult.
Back then, my future job prospects didn’t seem like cause for concern. For years, adults had assured me that people with college degrees could always find full-time work. It didn’t matter what you studied; the degree itself was a golden ticket to a career, so I figured that a liberal arts diploma would do just fine. Then the Great Recession hit right after I got my bachelor’s. I hadn’t yet secured a job, and my prospects dwindled to nothing inside a Rust Belt that was hurting for available work. Even so, I wasn’t worried. I still trusted the promises I’d been given in youth, so I enrolled in graduate school in the hopes of becoming a professor.
For three years I studied and went to classes. I deferred my student loans, which continued to accrue interest, and I earned a living by painting houses on the side. When the time came for me to get the degree, the college notified me that I had filled out one of the graduation forms incorrectly. Even though I had completed the coursework and finished the thesis, I needed to amend the form if I wanted my diploma. The problem seemed like a monumental hurdle as I was struggling with an unshakable bout of depression at the time. My life had followed a cascade of unpredictable events, and somewhere along the line I’d lost control. My low, often suicidal mood was only exacerbated by my anxieties about my future, so I ignored the graduation form for months. Inertia took hold, and the months turned to years. I continued to paint houses—I was unable to find work elsewhere—and now I was living inside an apartment filled with rot.
Copyright © 2020 by Eliese Colette Goldbach