Thursday, June 5, 2008

My Career in Steel

One summer in university, I had somehow managed to screw the pooch long enough that there weren’t many high-paid summer jobs left. Scratch that – there were no jobs left, short of the typical burger-flipping, $7 an hour grunt jobs that really don’t contribute much more than pizza money to your accumulated funds.
I needed a high-paying dream job, and I needed it fast.
Enter Rachel – my friend from the Student Union. She had a job at an aluminum factory typing letters, or something similar. Glamorous – not so much – but it paid.

In case you didn’t know it, Hamilton Ontario is also known as “Steel Town.” Didn’t get that nickname for no reason. Nossirree. Hamilton is literally jammed with steel and aluminum factories. Not near the university. No – over there it’s all coffee shops and nature trails. You’d never even know about the concrete hell that exists on the other side of town. On the other side of James Street – to be exact.
Hamilton’s one of those funny places where you can go and hang out and feel very happy and comfortable – as long as you stay west of James Street. The minute you cross over – it’s like a different world. Everything is run down, closed, or smells like urine. Even the sky gets darker and cloudier. Nope – east Hamilton is the stuff of scary scary legend.

Needless to say, my one big job hope that summer was east of James Street. Not just east, but north. North by a mile, on the slow bus. About an hour after catching my first bus, I had transferred two more busses, and walked up a factory-lined street.
The lovely thing about factories is they don’t really have inviting glass doors with potted plants to show you where the entrance is. What they do have is a lot of steel double-doors, about one set every 50 feet, all around the perimeter. Most of them have either 18-wheelers, or men smoking cigarettes outside. I picked one with smokers.
Inside I found my friend, along with a lot of other job hopefuls, and waited for instruction.
Ah – clipboards and application forms. No problemo. I scanned the sheet looking for the part where I told them how fast I could type, or take dictation, or something equally office-y.
Hmmm. Likely just a standard form. Just because there wasn’t room to share my super fantastic office experience was no reason to panic.

Next came an orientation. Everybody shake hands, say hello, hear the history of the company, which, for purposes of this story, will be known as Aluminum Casting Corporation.
Still not sure why I would be required to be familiar with the layout of the factory floor, I followed the tour.

Two things that are vital to know about an aluminum casting plant, before the tour begins:
One – it is unbearably hot inside. You know those days in summer where the humidity saps all energy out of you, and the heat greets you like a brick wall whenever you leave the safety of your air-conditioned office? Double it. Triple it.
Two – the smell of melted aluminum makes you wish you had been born with no nose. But since you were, it makes you want to rip out whichever parts of your brain process odours, and burn them. The smell is indescribable – and I’ve smelled a lot of barnyards, rendering plants, and slaughterhouses. An aluminum plant is so much worse, I cry and cry just remembering it.

Back to the tour.
“Now – over here is where the aluminum is superheated to become molten aluminum. It’s then piped through to the casting molds. Never ever come this way – it has happened before that molten aluminum has squirted out the side of the machine and….well…” awkward silence. The foreman looks at us meaningfully, then carries on. I look at my fellow tour mates – they seem slightly concerned also.
“OK – now here – just watch your step. The floor gets pretty slippery, and someone fell and broke their leg yesterday.” The mental checklist of places to get injured here is growing by the second.
“Now – this is the casting machine. This is where we take the extra aluminum off the casting. So – what you do is this…you….here you try. Fit the casting to this piece here. Now – take your hands off. Both hands. Use both hands to push these buttons. Just remember to take BOTH hands off. If you don’t, this thing’ll break your arm.” Fuck.
“…and watch out for the forklifts – they move pretty fast, and they don’t always see you.”
“…long pant legs, long sleeves, safety goggles, steel-toed boots, and heavy gloves – or the aluminum is sharp enough to slice you.”
“….need to check each piece and file them down quickly. If you see a bubble or hole – pull the piece out – otherwise it could explode when these get to the automotive plant for fitting.”

Now, I’m not a practicing Catholic. I’m not even Catholic. But at that point, I was earnestly wishing I knew how to Hail Mary and ask her to preserve me.
It was looking worse and worse for the cute little office job, and more and more like I would be joining the aluminum worker team.

Next came our training.
This consisted of standing behind a current plant employee, and watching what they did for an hour.
This is not as fun as it sounds.
My particular employee was a very sweet man. He told me about his family, and how long he’d worked at the plant, and what he liked to do on weekends. He pointed out how to keep from breaking my arms, getting sliced, melted, or run over by forklifts. As he talked, he picked up pieces of aluminum off of a conveyer belt. The aluminum had just been poured into a mold, set, and dumped onto the belt. Eldon’s job was to take those pieces (carburetors, I soon learned), and cut off the excess bits of aluminum, with the arm-breaker machine, which works kind of like a big, arm-breaking 3-hole punch.
Next, he would take the excess pieces, and throw them into a scrap bin.
He then took the carburetor and filed down any sharp edges with a big file. This was to make sure that the workers who would install the carburetor later didn’t slice their hands off on rough leftover aluminum.

All very interesting, but here’s what was going through my head.
“Wow – I can’t believe this guy does this for 12 hours a day every day. This is pretty tiring work. And you only get one half-hour lunch break? Crazy. God it smells in here. Where should I stand? I don’t want to get in this guy’s way. But I don’t want to stand to close to the arm-breaker. And if I stand over here, I’m in danger of getting run over. But if I’m over here, he can’t stack the carburetors properly. I guess I’ll just stand directly behind him. I really hope that as he’s flinging the excess pieces of jagged sharp aluminum into the scrap bin, which is also directly behind him, that he doesn’t forget that I’m here, and accidentally fling them at my head. He does this every day for 12 hours a day. Surely the routine of flinging those super sharp pieces of aluminum into the scrap bin is like breathing to him. How can he possibly remember that I’m here. Instinct will take over, he will forget I’m standing here, chuck that extra shit back, and I will end up with a lethal spike of aluminum in my forehead. Or across my jugular. Or in my eye. Oh god. Please don’t forget I’m here. Please. Please. Geez I wish I were Catholic.”

45 angst-ridden minutes later, we were able to take our lunch break. I stuck to Eldon and the new recruits like glue. On the inside I was crying. On the outside, I was trying to figure out where the ladies room might be. It then occurred to me that, other than my bitch friend Rachel, who had tricked me into coming here in the first place, there weren’t any other ladies here. There weren’t even any butchy broads. Nope. Just me. Awesome.
We completed the day with our trainers, and were asked to check the schedules to find out when our next shifts were.
Lucky me – mine was 7am the next morning. 7am to 7pm. Then, 7am to 7pm the next day. Then again, and again.
I headed outside, and found the bus.
I sucked back tears the entire bus ride home.
I climbed into bed and cried and cried.
I woke up the next morning at 5am, and started crying.
I got back on the bus, and cried my way east through the nice part of Hamilton, all the way to the factory.
I got changed in a broom closet, since there wasn’t any ladies room.
I spent 5.5 miserable hours by myself making carburetors, crying.
I wandered into the lunchroom, and noted despondently that all talking ceased when I entered. Apparently a sad looking girl in the factory was a bit of a novelty.
I finished my shift, got back on the bus, and cried all the way home.

My second full shift varied from the first very little, except that I learned my neighbour on the arm-breaking machine to the left was out on parole. Umm, yeah. Murder.
The next morning, I called the plant. I told them that physically, I couldn’t handle the job, and that I wouldn’t be coming back.

And so ended my career in the aluminum business.
For anyone who ever thought I was brave or tough or capable of anything – now you know the sad sordid truth: I was beaten by the aluminum industry. Beaten badly.

1 comment:

Mungo said...

So that just made me choke and cough with laughter about a half-dozen times while sitting in my office. Great story... great story telling.

Hope you're well!