‘Now the yard’s just scrap and rubble, he said, ‘them Big Boys did what Hitler couldn’t do.’
– Youngstown, Bruce Springsteen
It was just after two o’clock in the morning, back in June of ‘77 when I stumbled out of the State Theater on Forbes Avenue in the Oakland district of Pittsburgh, PA with a cute, petite strawberry blond named Tanya.
We met in college when she was a freshman. I was a junior, she was a freshman. She was a virgin. I was a virgin, converter. We fit together well.
The evening started a little bumpy when, about ten minutes before the midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, I looked past my date to spot what looked to be a ten year old boy at the other end of the row helping an overweight, balding guy, maybe 40, adjust his seating then watched as the old man leaned over and went to sleep. I nudged Tanya and said: “This guy thinks he’s gonna sleep through this movie!”
With no hesitation the kid leaned forward and yelled back over to me.
I always was pretty good at giving a good first impression.
In my defense I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to drink Irish whiskey after you dropped purple micro dot before going to the midnight movies.
A couple of hours later Tanya and I, along with about 600 other crazies, that warm Summer’s night, with nothing better to do while looking for direction in our rudderless lives, had just watched The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Richard O’Brien’s astounding unclassifiable film had yet to reach world-wide success but it was the hippest hip phenomenon at the time.
Largely because it hadn’t yet become universally hip.
However, lurking in the shadows was the bad news that the Japanese were about to pull the rug out from under us. Pearl Harbor didn’t work out so well for them so they decided to get us with improved gas mileage.
Yes, the pride of western capitalism everywhere was about to be flushed down the shitter like a gastrically digested and processed Foot Long Chili Dog with cheese and a large order of fries fresh from the Big O!
The Big O Restaurant, right there on Forbes Avenue, was where we now found ourselves. Not the entire 600 members of the audience, but most of them jammed into that thirty-five seat, fast food joint with several, rotating metal stools sprouting from the white tiled floor lined up in front of the dinged up, puke green, linoleum counter.
Peering over the heads, (or from my 5’7’’ stunted P.O.V. between the heads of the mob), I watched the intense focus and concentration of the three young men behind the counter as they strove, (Strived? Striven??), to turn the seven loaves and five fish into enough to feed the masses.
Penis shaped dogs seemed to fly off the grill, sometimes two and three at a time, and gracefully land comfortably between the wide open, gaping halves of spread, steamy, white virgin, buns only seconds before various condiments appeared and gently oozed and bathed said slightly seared savory sausages.
Sexual innuendos aside, grub and Greenbacks changed hands at an impressive rate down at the end over the counter which held the register while the fed crowd undulated out through the narrow door spilling along the side streets sometimes blocking what little traffic there was as the hungry crowd members ebbed into and up to the marble-based alter. It was rush hour in the Manhattan IRT except with food minus the screeching, steel wheels and everybody was under thirty, happy, high and hungry.
An argument started out on the avenue when some cantankerous son-of-a-bitch decided his over-sized Dodge Dart was being purposely held up by the crowd until two good looking co-eds from the university sashayed over and offered to share their food with him. Poor hard hat orientated bastard never stood a chance. As a small amount of blood rushed from his brain to his penis he immediately became light headed and suffered an attitude adjustment.
Meanwhile, back in the world, the war in Viet Nam was over, at least for the Yanks, the Cold War still raged on and the price of booze had hit a bench mark high. An entire dollar for a beer and a dollar twenty-five for a whiskey!
Was there no god?!
There were a new slew of sitcoms out including All in the Family featuring the comically racist Archie Bunker and Barney Miller, probably the most realistic cop show ever dealing with day-to-day routines in a station house. Finally U.S. industry was on the rise, or so we were told.
All seemed as it should be.
Then came those pesky Japs with their pesky affordable cars and their pesky pain-in-the-ass reasonable gas mileage engines. To top it all off the little bastards had the balls to re-engineer their cars to meet American safety standards! Along with millions of workers, like the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. auto industry was about to be nuked. Pay back’s a bitch.
Although Toyota had brought some cars to the States back in the late Fifties, the first signs of the actual full-on invasion appeared on most U.S. streets in the early Seventies in the form of the Mitsubishi Galant, a compact car reminiscent of a pregnant roller skate that had perhaps been raped by a Lincoln Town Car. The following forward recon units were composed mainly of other cars made by Mitsubishi, those nice people who brought you World War II.
As if that wasn’t enough of an affront to American sensibility, they got upwards of forty miles to the gallon, 25-30% more efficient than the American land yachts which were quickly becoming as expensive to fill up in one go as it costs to have a kid. Only you got to keep your kid for at least 18 years.
Maybe not always a good thing.
While the American sign of prestige and success was to drive through your neighborhood in a Pontiac, Caddy or Lincoln, unbeknownst to the good people of Peoria, Illinois or Flint, Michigan the measurement of success to the average working class Japanese was to have a friend who owned a car. Especially a car made by Mitsubishi.
It was about two weeks after the fantasy of The Rocky Horror midnight show and our Big O feast in Oakland that the real horror show began for a million steel workers in the Steel Valley stretching across Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia with devastating knock-on effects for the dirt poor coal miners of several other states.
After closer examination, and at the risk of earning the undesirable label of ‘communists’ and being euphemistically tarred and feathered by the public, a small handful of people in the industry quietly acknowledged that, perhaps, just maybe, Japanese steel was every bit as good as American steel. Ergo the prevalent redneck argument that Japanese cars were not safe due to inferior steel was shot to shit.
The same kind of ‘scientific’ testing used by the big tobacco companies to prove there was no proof that tobacco hadn’t yet been proven to be bad for you, had been applied to the testing of Japanese steel.
Apparently those million odd cancer patients who died every year and also just happened to be smokers, we were told, was pure coincidence.
The race to prove Japanese cars were unsafe also came to a screeching halt.
As I drove along U.S. Route 80 West heading back to college that afternoon, I have to admit the DJ’s and talking heads on the Six O’clock News had a point regarding the uncontrolled and cancerous spread of unemployment in the valley. The U.S. Steel mill along Route 80 was no less than a full mile and half long and it was many a night I drove past and watched in awe as they rolled out one 50 yard long, two foot square glowing, red hot steel ingot after another to sit on the exterior rollers and cool overnight in the outside air while tool laden men scurried around the massive yard in golf carts or on foot working their way through the night shift.
That night the entire U.S. Steel mill complex, to include the 1200 car parking lot, looked like the set of a disaster movie an hour after the air raid sirens had sounded. Just a few weeks prior more than a couple of hundred men would have occupied Yard #3, one of half a dozen yards that size. Now the only evidence of former activity was a single, rusting steel ingot patiently waiting for a rail car to rescue it.
When I got back to Youngstown the devastation had hit even more emphatically home.
Next morning the tiny, downtown, two room unemployment office three blocks from my dorm was inundated by more than three thousand former steel workers lined up out the door and around the block. A scene that would be repeated through rain or shine for better than the next five to six months, day-in and day-out.
The workers were told they had been ‘laid off’, a cute Americanism intended to mean, “It’s slow now but there will be work in the future and you’ll be among the first we call back”, but in reality meant, “Thanks for your loyal contribution of what were probably the best years of your life, but you are now a redundant component in our global mass market”. ‘And remember . . .’ as the tens of thousands of bumper stickers, T-shirts and billboards which suddenly appeared across America read: ‘Buy American!’
Over the ensuing months and later years all manner of solutions were sought.
The earliest efforts were protests which evolved into work stoppages by the dwindling work force still in the mills and factories as they too saw no end in sight to the rapidly advancing ‘down-sizing’ as the spin doctors pitched it.
Some desperately industrious groups formed their own tiny companies and attempted to negotiate a buy over on a time share basis from the mill owners but the idea was doomed from the start. There weren’t enough of them to muster a fraction of the former Brobdingnagian profits the steel mills reaped. The workers had no money and the banks were being bled dry as, even in the boom days, there was never really much actual cash in the vaults anyway. As in the days leading up to the Great Crash of ’29, everything had been done on word of mouth, a handshake and credit. The thing that ‘could never happen again’, happened.
Even the old American stand-by, the law suit was attempted, but with no money for the high powered, high priced, fast talking lawyers required to track down, chase and nail the fat cat industrialists and union leaders who had succeeded in raping the entire Ohio Valley, it was like pissing into a cup from the top of the Empire State Building into the wind. On a windy day with an updraft.
Above all everyone seemed to be overlooking, or were in denial of, one simple fact, American steel was no longer a viable, competitive commodity because American cars were no longer practical. Like World War I, the Flu Epidemic of 1916 or Boy Bands nobody saw it coming and couldn’t sort it out or explain it when it hit.
Eventually a compromise was reached. The Japanese would still manufacture the parts for their autos but would move their assembly plants to the U.S. and let the Americans assemble them. Under Japanese supervision.
The American workers weren’t happy about that stipulation but I got it straight away.
I remembered the concentration the three hash slingers had displayed back at the Big O as I watched them systematically tame the crowd to the point that even the rowdies were controlled by others in the group to allow the young guys on the other side of the counter to do their jobs.
Bottom line people wanted to eat, the cooks wanted to serve them so the place could bring in money so they could get paid and for the whole thing to work everybody had to do their part.
But the thing that struck me the hardest was what I had seen a year or so earlier while being given a tour of the GM assembly plant in Detroit by a friend who worked there. The entire 45 minute tour was punctuated with stories of how they, the workers, ‘fucked’ with the distributors and dealers with no consideration for the ultimate loser, the consumer.
Apparently it was great fun to deposit empty Coke bottles in the rocker panels of a car still on the line before the panel was riveted shut. This caused the consumer, usually the first to discover the annoying knocking when they drove the car, to return it to the dealer who had to pay a mechanic to find and fix the problem. Other fun things to deposit in rocker panels were items of partially eaten food such as banana peels. This was even more thrilling because as the food began to rot it gave off an odor.
Those merry little pranksters on the line never considered the reputation of the company and how everyone had to do their part to make the whole thing work.
Aggravating the situation was the attitude of the workers towards their supervisors which rivaled that between the L.A. cops and the blacks of the city.
Workers on the assembly line, an unskilled labor position, were making, including health and holiday benefits, upwards of $40-$45 + per hour and were pushing for more. Minimum wage in the U.S. at the time was around $1.60. UAW members then had more lucrative benefits than any U.S. soldier, teacher or most airline pilots and many novice doctors. A clear indication of a flaw in the system.
The U.S. auto industry had gotten too fat and too lazy. Worse yet they had lost pride in who they were and the dollar sign had again reared its ugly head and come to rule everything.
But Detroit, they reasoned, was the biggest auto manufacturer in the world and therefore impregnable. Indestructible. Unsinkable. Kind’a like the Titanic.
It was in those days that I came to realize anyone who attends university just for the sake of a sheepskin and some didactic education is a fool. The penny dropped when I observed that the men and women of the Steel Valley, now labeled the Rust Belt, had come to believe and so had come to expect that the U.S. government had owed them a living. A foreign people were attempting to break their rice bowls and so Uncle Sam was supposed to protect them with tariffs and import quotas.
The simple fact of the matter was they had lost their competitive edge. Their ability to concentrate and focus on what was needed to get the job done and so, like a 15 year old marriage, had ‘settled into’ the relationship they had established with their livelihoods. Divorce was only a matter of time.
Safe in the knowledge that I was never going to work for any company, anywhere, for any period of time much less the rest of my life and so would never have to depend on someone else’s entrepreneurial ability to play dice with my money, I re-affirmed my commitment to myself to rely on my own abilities and resources. No matter what fucked up road that choice would lead me down.
Regardless of what happens from the time of finishing this essentially pointless essay that may never get read beyond a few friends and family, it’s been a pretty good God damned road so far and I’m God damned glad I bought my ticket and am looking forward to the rest of the ride.
See ya. I’m going to the movies. Probably a comedy.
Thanks for the read.