From Rust by Eliese Colette Goldbach, out today and for sale wherever you find your books. Copyright © 2020 by the author and reprinted by permission of Flatiron Books.
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—
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 yourself 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.
My couch had been someone else's trash. My kitchenware had been someone else's leftovers. My mattress, which I had salvaged from a friend's attic, was stained with someone else's menstrual blood. I was glad for a chance to escape the apartment, even if only to spend a few days with my friend in D.C., so I eagerly threw my suitcase into my tiny black hatchback and sped out of Cleveland.
When I arrived at my friend's place for the weekend, we went out and drank whiskey with two men she'd met in the city. The men were both lawyers on the fast track, and they seemed curious about my Cleveland heritage.
"So," one of the lawyers said. His thick brown hair was slicked back with just the right amount of gel. "What does Cleveland produce?"
"What do you mean?" I said.
"You know, Maine's got lobsters. Hawaii's got coffee. Virginia's got peanuts. What about Cleveland? What comes out of Cleveland?"
The man's question reeked of sarcasm. It was less of a question and more of a challenge. I dare you to find something important that comes out of Cleveland, Ohio. I sipped my whiskey and thought for a moment. I didn't know what to say. What did Cleveland produce? What made us important? What separated us from the rest? I couldn't think of anything, so I did what Clevelanders do best. I made a joke.
"What comes out of Cleveland?" I said. "Failure."
The joke got a good laugh. I laughed too.
"It's too bad that you got stuck in such a dead-end city," the lawyer said.
My fist tightened around my glass of whiskey. There's an unspoken rule among Clevelanders: Those who've been born and bred in the city can joke about its blunders, but outsiders had better keep their mouths shut.
"Listen," I said, "you don't know shit about Cleveland."
The man looked surprised, almost amused.
"We have all kinds of shit that you don't even know about," I told him, desperate for the right words. "We have the orchestra and the art museum and the lake. We have the fucking Cleveland Clinic."
The man took a long sip of whiskey. No doubt he was trying to discern whether or not I was joking. Truth is, he had struck a nerve. I felt torn about my city, my home, my heritage. I did feel stuck in Cleveland, but I also recognized the beauty of my hometown. It's a city nicknamed "the Mistake on the Lake." It's an underdog town marked by a spirit of dogged perseverance. Its people have a unique breed of gritty optimism in the face of dire odds.
I grew up in the nineties, when every Cleveland sports team carried with it an unbreakable curse. The Indians lost the World Series. The Browns packed their bags and headed to Baltimore. The Cavs weren't even on the map. Every year people always said the same thing: This year's the year! It didn't matter that they'd been saying the same thing for decades. Every year, they had a desperate hope. It might not seem like much—after all, it's just sports—except it's not just sports in Cleveland. It's a way of looking at the world.
Of course, the underdog mentality had its disadvantages. It could get so ingrained in your identity that you couldn't move forward. For years, people had crooned about my potential, but I was a product of my hometown. Every year, I told myself, This year's the year I get my diploma! Three years had already elapsed, and, like clockwork, I had fallen short of getting it done. Earning my graduate degree felt too much like a moment of truth. I had spent years trying to become proficient at the one thing I found most difficult. If I got the degree and failed to secure a job in academia—just as I had failed to secure positions in other fields—it would have meant that my years of study had been a wasted effort. It was better to fail on my own terms. It was safer to paint houses.
Before I went to work at the mill, it had never occurred to me that I didn't know shit about Cleveland, either. My hometown was more than just a city of blunders, but I didn't realize it as I talked to those lawyers from D.C. My half-baked defense had failed to persuade anyone, because I was only seeing half of the picture. I couldn't possibly defend Cleveland's spirit until I learned to appreciate its orange flame.
In a Rust Belt town, that flame isn't just a harbinger of weird smells and pollution. It isn't an anachronism, and it doesn't prove a lack of innovation. While people in cities like San Francisco or Boston might think of the flame as an embarrassment, it's something more than that to us. It's jobs and tax dollars. It indicates a thriving economy. If that flame is burning, steelworkers say, then it means that Cleveland is doing all right. The flame is very much a part of our history and our identity. It's a steady reminder that some things can stand the test of time, even in a world where nothing is built to last.
The mill itself has stood on the banks of the Cuyahoga River for more than a century. Back in the early 1900s, the river provided access to a wider world. Barges traveled the Great Lakes before shimmying up the river, delivering raw materials to the mill and transporting finished steel to anyone who would buy it. From the turn of the twentieth century until now, the mill has gone through booms and bankruptcies and name changes. It's been the colossally successful Republic Steel. It's been the ill-fated LTV. It's weathered depressions and recessions. It's survived fluctuating prices and foreign imports. It's adapted to new technologies and new markets and new demands. Even now, the mill keeps chugging along.
Inside its borders, men and women work long hours to make a living. It's a good living. Good benefits, good pay. One person's salary can feed a family, so the men and women chug along at the mill's rapid pace. They have bags under their eyes and dirt under their fingernails and fully loaded Mustangs beneath the rooftops of their garages. They work through the night. They work through the holidays. They work through marriages and divorces, birthdays and graduations, sicknesses, deaths. They keep the steel moving. They keep the production high. They work for ten hours, twelve hours, sixteen hours straight. If they don't do it, someone else will. A job in the mill is a coveted position. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people vie for a few open spots. They want what the mill offers. The livable wage, the good benefits, the union protection. They want to feed their families. They want the American dream, or what's left of it.
* * *
In the winter of 2015, as the holidays were swiftly approaching, my future didn't look very bright. The house-painting business always slowed from Thanksgiving until Valentine's Day, and I was strapped for cash. When an old friend asked me to paint a few rooms in the house he'd just bought, I jumped at the opportunity to make some quick money.
I lugged my drop cloths up his driveway on a cold gray morning, edging my way past a brand-new pickup truck. It was the tricked-out kind that costs money, which seemed odd to me. The last time I'd seen my friend, he had been working overtime just to pay off the loan on a shitty old Pontiac.
When I got to his door, he greeted me with a quick hug and a cup of coffee. He had the rich, buttery accent of someone who'd spent his childhood in Puerto Rico, and the two of us got to talking while I worked. We asked about each other's families and relationships, and we caught up on gossip about mutual friends. Eventually the conversation turned to our jobs.
"I started working at the steel mill a while back," he said, smiling proudly. A maze of freckles patterned his round cheeks, making him look younger than his thirty odd years. "I never would have been able to afford a house otherwise."
"The steel mill?" I asked with a pan of drywall mud in my hand. "No way. Do you work with the molten metal and stuff?"
"Kind of. I'm in steel producing, but I mostly just clean the tundishes."
I continued to patch cracks and holes as I talked, my drywall knife scraping against the walls like nails on a chalkboard.
"The what-dishes?" I said.
He went into a lengthy explanation about equipment I couldn't even imagine at the time. He talked about the caster and the BOF and these things called tundishes that apparently needed to be cleaned quite often.
"That's crazy," I said when he finished.
"Yeah, I know. I really don't mind it, though. It's a union job, so it's got great benefits and everything. I don't know how much you make as a house painter, but you should really think about applying."
I thought back to those ugly buildings that I had once driven past with my father.
I still didn't really know what a tundish was, but I was pretty sure that I didn't want to clean one.
"I don't think I'm cut out to be a steelworker," I said. My friend turned and riffled through some papers on his dining room table while I finished fixing a crack in the ceiling. "Here," he told me. "Let me show you something."
I set my drywall knife aside, and he handed me a crisp blue pay stub. I honed in on the section labeled Gross Income.
"Shut up," I said. "You make that much money?"
"Yep," he said with a smile.
Seeing my friend's paycheck was enough to make me forget about my childhood fear of the mill. When I finished painting his house, I doctored up my résumé and embarked upon a four-month- long application process that involved so many tests and background checks that I wondered if I had been recruited into the FBI. When the mill finally called me with a job offer, I accepted without hesitation. It was the first full-time offer I'd ever had, but it didn't damage my underdog persona. I was still an underemployed English major who had hopes of becoming a professor. I was still striving toward a goal that I was too afraid to attain.
When I accepted the offer, I called my friend to tell him the good news.
"Just be careful," he said after congratulating me. "Don't get caught up in all the money. I've seen it a hundred times. Someone smart comes to work in the mill. Maybe they could've been somebody someday, but they get used to all that money. They buy new cars and new houses. Before you know it, they're trapped."
I assured him that I wouldn't suffer the same fate. I was striving for financial stability and nothing more. Many months later, however, I sat behind the steering wheel of the brand-new car that I'd bought with my newly found income. I rode along the same stretch of highway that I had once driven down with my father.
The orange flame shot into the sky, and liberal pundits on the radio talked about all of the industrial workers in the Rust Belt who elected Donald Trump to the presidency. I hadn't been one of them, but I also fell into a slew of other demographics. I was college educated, a Millennial, a woman. But I was also now a steelworker. These people had become my people. Our country felt severed, as if crushed by a great weight, and I was straddling some invisible divide.
As I drove past the orange flame, I did the only thing that would befit a steelworker in my situation. I breathed deeply and raised my hand. Then, with great love and affection, I flicked that damned flame off.