Keep Shoveling (excerpt)

APAHEF06 - 01112006 - WIEN - OESTERREICH: ZU APA-TEXT WI - FEATURE - Archivbild vom 23. Februar 2005 zeigt einen Arbeiter in Schutzkleidung beim Abstich des 1470 Grad heissen Roheisens. Die Verhandler der Metallergewerkschaft und Arbeitgebervertreter treffen am Donnerstag, 2. November zur 2.Verhandlungsrunde wegen eines neuen Kollektivvertrags zusammen. Die zuletzt von Arbeitgeberseite gebotenen 2,3 Prozent Lohn-und Gehaltserhoehung sind fuer die Gewerkschaft nicht ausreichend. RAINER JENSEN/DPA


     To be a laborer, all you need are sweat glands. If you have sweat glands, congrats, you qualify. A pair of hands, a strong back, and the willingness to be screamed and cursed at for hours on end helps as well. So does a streak of masochism. What is not needed under any circumstances is higher brain functioning or advanced cognitive ability. Thinking is strictly forbidden, unless of course, that thinking centers on the holy trinity of sex, sports, or hitting the lottery.

There is a rigid caste system on the construction site. As a laborer, please remember that you are on the bottom. You are one of the untouchables, the unholy ones. Unlike the carpenters, millwrights, ironworkers, operating engineers, pipefitters, and electricians, there is no apprenticeship program required for your trade. You are not a “skilled tradesmen.” No, to these exalted beings, you are a simpleton. You do not operate sophisticated machinery like levels, trowels, calculators, tri-squares, Skil saws, arc welders, voltage meters, spud wrenches, Vernier calipers, or overgrown Tonka trucks called end loaders, bulldozers, cherry pickers, steam rollers or backhoes. You do not swagger around with jangling tool belts or wear your hardhat backwards. You do not fire up Luckies with acetylene torches in emulation of the Marlboro Man. You are not a higher being who gets marginally dirty pounding a nail, soldering a wire, or working levers in an air conditioned cab.

No, you are part of a rag-tag gang of hillbilly goons, ghetto bozos, clueless dorks, hulking child-men, and other slobbering, half-drunk, half-educated buffoons. You are a desperate soul, one of the grunts, the shitbirds, the fuck-ups, one of the shuffling, shambling, booze-addicted zombies who will suffer any indignity, any torture, any horror, to get your grimy fists around $13.23 an an hour.

Your tools are the jackhammer and the shovel. The jackhammer is your enemy. The jackhammer is teeth jarring, bone numbing, and even when your ears are crammed with Kleenex, it is deafening. On top of the general clamor, the nonstop barrage of clangs, bangs, thuds, roars, hisses, alarms, and screams, the jackhammer’s rat-a-tat-tatting tears into the ear drums, blendering the brain around with each jarring strike of its metal fang. It sends shockwaves up the arms, twangs ligaments and tendons, plays entire chords on them. It stresses joints, rattles fingers, mortifies knees, inciting bruises and calluses, not to mention sending chips of razor-sharp shrapnel flying in all directions. If you like your corneas, keep your safety glasses on. Numbness, headaches, tremors, limbs that suddenly begin flapping and spasming in the middle of the night, all are demon children of the jackhammer. Even when the ninety-five pound beast is finally silenced, you will still hear it reverberating in your brain as you sit, shell-shocked, with shaking claw-fingers that can barely lift your Bud longneck.

Shoveling is hardly a joy, but it beats running the jackhammer. Say hello to Mr. Shovel and get acquainted, because the two of you are going to become very close. Mr. Shovel is your special friend. Your best pal. Your Lucille. Like Linus has a blanket, you have a shovel. You will do many things with your shovel. You will get to know your shovel immediately. The second you drive your shovel into something and tear away a big hunk of that something and throw that something somewhere else, you will bond with your shovel. Your shovel is there to do one thing, and that is to shovel. And being a laborer, shovel you shall.

You will carry your shovel in one of two ways. At the start of the day, after you choose your shovel, plucking it off the wall where it hangs with the other shovels, you will hold your shovel low, down at your side, gripping it at the hip, like a spear, with the blade pointed straight ahead. You will do this when you are walking into battle, when the phalanx of failures you are now part of marches into the BOP shop, or any of the numerous other chambers of horror that now qualify as your workplace, eight hours a day, five days a week.

When the eight hours are up and you trudge back to the yard, you will carry your shovel in a different manner, a more victorious and carefree manner. Casually, you will sling it over a shoulder, one arm curled over it as a counterweight, keeping it balanced perfectly across your back, its duties for the moment finished. Your familiarity with it is represented by this uber-casual carrying position, this slouchy, rifleman’s technique that implies a nonchalant mastery over it and a job that’s been well-done. Or at least done. The “well” part of any job, as you and your shovel have recently noticed, is entirely optional.

As you bond with your shovel and it becomes the fifth appendage of your body, you will gradually become so comfortable with your shovel that you will begin to perform tricks with it. When your shovel is lying on the ground face up, you will scoff at the notion of putting any additional strain on your throbbing back by bending over to pick it up. No, instead, you will perform the time-honored laborer’s tradition of stomping on the upturned blade with just enough force to make the wooden arm of the shovel spring back up towards you, then, ever so casually, perhaps without even looking at it, you will grab your shovel with a gloved hand and resume your task. Be careful, though. Too much force will send your shovel careening directly into your testicles, causing you to see flashpoints of white hot pain, impede your chances of procreating, and make you the laughing stock of the entire crew.

Shoveling is mindless, a series of rote movements that you fall into and conduct with a smooth, efficient rhythm. You must let your body get into this rhythm and go with it, become it. Place shovel blade on ground. Put right foot onto lip of shovel. Leverage foot. Utilizing body weight, push foot onto the lip of the shovel, stepping onto it, applying constant pressure until the blade of the shovel enters the earth. Lean over. Bend legs slightly. Place left hand halfway down the wooden shaft. Turn your torso into a pendulum, and using your legs and arms, hoist up your load, swinging shovel back towards you, building momentum. Now stop and swing it forward in one fluid motion, taking care to shorten the hurl and halt your shovel-throw, at the peak of its apogee, timing it perfectly, so the slag, dirt, rock or concrete is flung smoothly off of the blade. Take a deep breath. Exhale. Place shovel back on ground. Now do it again. And again. And again. Do it over and over and over. Do it silently. Do it without protest. Do it all day. Shovel.

Be advised. The only way to get through this monotony is to let your mind wander. But not too far. You can’t gallivant off into the lyrics of “Iron Man,” dwell on how great it would be to eat and fuck in outer space, or relive your days as an all-area quarterback who threw for twenty touchdowns and banged three of the four varsity cheerleaders, because there’s all sorts of dangerous shit around, shit that will leave you vaporized, maimed, crippled, blinded, double amputee’d or burned to a crisp if you take a wrong step.

No, it’s better to hover in an inert but aware state, alert physically, but vacant mentally. This way your task can be completed by rote, without knowledge of it. This is shoveler’s high, a condition that occurs when your blood gets flowing and the endorphins take over and the pain vanishes and you enter a zone of peaceful empty headedness. If you do it right, not even the ladles slopping out liquid steel and the glowing, red hot slabs sending off waves of heat and the furnaces charging and the mad, constant rush all around can penetrate your womb of isolation. Your glorious removal. The transition of your consciousness to a reptilian state: aware and reactive, but sedated. You must do this to conserve physical energy, and to let the body take over and do its muscle-memory thing while your mind drifts away. If you can tune out this din, this clamor, if you can keep quiet, keep your head down, sooner or later, when you look up, it’ll be noon and holy shit, motherfucker, where did the morning go?

As much as you hate this place and the people in it, already, you feel it. A strange sympathy, a glow of understanding. An acceptance. It’s the realization that sometimes, when a shaft of light angles down out of the dusty air the right way, or the wind changes and you catch a whiff of the lake and the rich heady swell of dead alewives and the lakeweed stirs your nostrils, working here really isn’t that bad. If you can find a small corner of the mill, say your own special little trench, and if you know Bob had to run to the sheet and tin mill and will be gone all morning, and if your special little trench is out of sight, then you can work nice and slow, have some smokes, take a few piss breaks, and get into an empty-headed timespace where the hours fly by. That is the perfect eight hours – one where you sail along, working at a modest clip, shooting the shit, smoking, sharing dirty jokes, farting as freely as an infant, and of course, calling everyone as many varieties of cocksucker as you can imagine.

Routine becomes more of a routine. The entire place is routine. Furnaces charging and slabs being dropped from overhead cranes and elecromagnets are certainties, and once you learn their rhythms they will become your rhythms, and suddenly the big mill begins to make sense. It becomes a fascinating interplay of incredible scenes, a grand spectacle of metallurgic wonder, a supernova of molten glory erupting every few minutes, perfectly synchronized, right before your eyes, and as you pour your concrete and shovel your slag a few feet away from such epic processes, it is mesmerizing. The heat bathes your body, and with your face aglow from the flames there is nothing else to think about except that exact moment, and marvel at how these puny, pathetically vulnerable, fleshy little creatures called man ever figured out how to melt down the elements of the earth, heat them to such fantastic temperatures, and shape them into this wondrous, glowing, molten life force, this metal called steel, in this incredible factory, this gargantuan kitchen from hell, this hometown Hades, this place of fire.

The big mill also provides one other working condition you will take advantage of—it is vast, sprawling, huge, so full of machinery and infrastructure that it is the perfect place to hide. Here in the maze of Gary Works, you can disappear. Visibility is murky at best. Armies of fellow contractors and mill employees, piles of concrete forms, mounds of earth, stacks of scrap, concrete foundations, holes, pits, sump pits, catwalks, scaffolding, trailers, giant earth-moving equipment, railroad cars, ingot fields, train tracks, ore bridges, blast furnaces, and other obstacles are everywhere. If you want to play Hide-N-Go-Seek, no one will find you here.

During your ten-minute coffee break or lunch, please remain seated. Lying down is strictly forbidden. Blame the rats, the hordes of hulking, gray-streaked brutes who patrol the ditches and trenches, the yellow-fanged rodents whose presence insures that you never, ever bring your lunch in a brown paper bag or turn your back on a ham and cheese.

If you snag some time and a half on a big pour and wind up working late, into the night, this world will become even more profound. At night in the mill, all of nature’s elements are on prominent display. The moon shines on the cooling slabs and turns the rails silver. Fire belches from furnaces and the orange glow of the flames is hot and bright amid the gloom, sending flickering shadows across the soot-streaked walls. The lake heaves and moans, tossing great swells of dark, forever waves against the rocky breakwater at the mouth of the slip, and when the wind picks up, the fires and the orange, still-glowing slabs glow brighter and even more vividly in the shadows.

Finally, mercifully, the day ends. You’re mangled, drained, aching, every ounce of energy squeezed out of your body. Hobbling out of the doghouse, you’re bone-tired, bleary-eyed, smoked-out, scorched, singed, scarred, bruised, banged up and battered. If you’re lucky you’ll remember where you parked your car, but it might take you a few tries to push in the door handle after you find it because your hands are as numb as a statue’s.

But there’s no way your hands are ever going to be too tired to grasp an ice cold bottle of Bud or a shot of Beam or any other container that holds the irresistible substance that removes all pain and suffering, the magical elixir of your tattered and tattooed tribe: alcohol.


Keep Shoveling is a memoir depicting my experience as a laborer in U.S. Steel. Bracing, bawdy, and full of seedy, unforgettable characters, it’s a rollicking, whiskey-fueled, warts-and-all coming of age story that confirms that not all of life’s lessons are learned in the classroom.