'Now the yard's just scrap and rubble, he
said, 'them Big Boys did what Hitler couldn't do.'
- Youngstown, Bruce Springsteen
t 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. Pun intended.
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
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
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
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
Then came those pesky little
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
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.
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 wile 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 one 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, tee 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.
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
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 that
night 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 was 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
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.
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.