The Main Buildings of the Baltimore Procter & Gamble Plant Now A Day Care Center
The Wire Insider
Part III The Last of Three Commentaries on The Wire
July 5, 2008
The street on which my family lived was a major route to a place we called “The Point,” a short version of Sparrows Point, location of the Bethlehem Steel Company plant that was at one time the largest steel plant in the world. My father and uncles came to work there during and after WWII, when steel was needed for the war. There were about thirty thousand people, mostly men, working in the mills in the late sixties. I took a job in the 42” Skin Pass section of the tin mill, on the cold side of the plant as opposed to the hot side where they handled molten steel in places like the coke oven, where some of my uncles worked. My father worked in the pipe mill on the cold side for thirty-six years.
I was there for one year beginning in 1970, when I dropped out of the University of Maryland at College Park after two years. After that year I moved on to the Procter & Gamble plant in Locust Point. The points are these nautical areas strung along the Baltimore harbor, the largest inland harbor on the east coast. There was a time when slave ships pulled up to the docks, and Frederick Douglass lived in Fells Point until he escaped. I could look from the window of Procter & Gamble and see where he lived.
The machines in the tin mill were massive, full of metal’s heaviness. I worked in what was known as the “labor gang,” a job category where you went wherever you were needed on any given day. It was the bottom of the rung. One day my supervisor walked me over to a pit of dirty oil in the floor of the tin mill. My job for the day was to get down in there and clean it out, which meant dipping the slime for eight hours. But at least I had work.
In Baltimore you could get a job at The Point or at Social Security and be thought to be somewhat successful. There was also the post office. I could not abide the idea of being in an office all day, or worse, in some cubicle.
Never mind the fact that I am in academia now.
Getting to the steel mill was easy. Many drivers traveled up and down the street on which my parents had the house they bought in 1957, during the national blockbusting project of real estate companies all over the country. They used scare tactics to tell white neighbors the blacks were coming and then sold the houses to us for a neat profit. Our white neighbors were gone so fast I only remember a little girl who was my playmate for what seemed like a microsecond. When my father took his job in the mills, segregation was the order of the day. Blacks and whites had separate lockers and eating areas. Moreover, they hardly spoke to one another. But getting there in the time I was a steelworker was easy.
I just stood on the street and held out my brown paper lunch bag. Before long, someone would pull over and ask if I wanted a ride. For a week you gave the rider five dollars or so for gas, and on Fridays nearly everyone stopped at a cash checking place called Micky’s to get cash and very often something to drink. One of my riders, a short and somewhat corpulent man, drank a half pint of Vodka on the way in to the job and at least that much on the way home. It was as if he was using it to clear the soot from his system.
This was the world that allowed men and women to support themselves and send their children off to college. It was a world that seemed as sure as the steady drumming of the machines that made the products that fed the burgeoning economic system that is the largest in the world. Detroit, for example, was the largest manufacturing city in recorded history, or so I have been told. I do not doubt it.
If I worked at night in the tin mill and had the crane’s helper job, I would put my sandwich on the top of the heaters we had to keep us warm. The galvanized tin walls increased the heat of summer and the cold of winter. The same would be true in P&G’s warehouse, where I would spend ten years before my manumission came in the form of an NEA fellowship for poetry. But there in the tin mill my sandwich was always ready after it sat on the heater for a while. I followed the giant overhead electric crane that could lift several tons at a time. It was used to change the giant steel pins in the processing plants that pressed the raw tin to where it was smoother and shinier until it was eventually the texture needed for tin cans. It was a job that required vigilance, as you could lose your hand if it got caught between the hoisting cables and the pins themselves. Without seeing you, the operator could lift the whole affair and tear your hand right off from your wrist or mash your fingers until they were nothing but bloody mush.
I was fortunate enough not to lose any limbs, but others were not so lucky. My uncle Paul was killed in the coke oven when I was nine years old. One of the vats of molten steel tipped over on him while he and my cousin Melvin were in the pit. Melvin tried to save him, and he lingered in the hospital for a few days before passing. When my mother got the news over the phone, she screamed. I was in the back room of the basement playing with my Civil War army set, things made of plastic to represent things made of metal.
I left Bethlehem Steel for Procter & Gamble in the spring of 1971, just after I returned from basic combat training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri. At that time the Maryland Dry-dock company was also in Locust Point on Key Highway, the street that eventually leads to Ft. McHenry. On the way to P&G on the afternoon shift, I often saw several hundred people crossing the street for the change of shifts, and driving by there at night I could see the ships in dry-dock lit like giant Christmas trees. The sparks from the welders seemed celebratory, as if these were little victories, the joining of one metal thing to another.
In the tin mill, I concealed my books in brown lunch bags and wrote on paper I brought from home or on the backs of the tally sheets we used to weigh the tin coils after they went through the process of being made thinner and shinier. At P&G I kept the practice of concealing my books, but it wasn’t until I got to the warehouse in 1975 that I could find spaces to steal time and really focus on poetry.
The city was changing rapidly. Drugs poured into the communities as the industrial jobs began to disappear. At P&G they constantly reminded us that costs had to be cut, and one way of cutting costs was to get rid of the dead weight of a plant that was doing substandard performance. In the late nineteenth century, the rise of industrial engineering brought with it the idea of a perfect factory where machines had perfect efficiency and humans worked like machines. The idea grew out of mechanistic philosophy, an idea the thinkers of the Enlightenment resurrected and developed more distinctly as an aspect of the western march to accumulating massive amounts of wealth through industrialism and colonial expansion.
Now when I read about the deliberate campaign to make people work like machines, I get angry. However, I am immediately faced a central paradox in our lives. There is the incredible array of “stuff” available for consumption. I have worked and lived on both sides of it and have no real answers for the quandary we humans have given ourselves, and I do see it as a collective act inasmuch as I believe human consciousness is a massive creative force. Otherwise I would sell this laptop and try to get off the grid. However, it seems the grid has become so self-aware that it preempts its own deconstruction by allowing us the time and space to ruminate over all the ironic constructs of life in this postindustrial and postcolonial age in which we live that gives us access to so many material goods, so many things.
One day in the early eighties I was on my way to work on the afternoon shift. I picked up a coworker who lived in my old neighborhood, and we headed down Milton Avenue toward the southeastern part of the city where P&G was located. Just as we got onto Milton Avenue, we saw the door of a house open with a black man bursting out and running for his life. Behind him was another black man chasing him and loading a double barrel shotgun as he ran. By the time we got to the job, the man being chased was dead, shot to death by the man following him. During my adolescence I saw my neighborhood change. Friends died or went to prison. The story was repeated in black communities in large cities all over America.
The steady world of factory jobs like the ones my father and uncles had were fading, and so was the stability those jobs allowed. In the context of all of this, my P&G job was thought to be one of the best. Men and women retired from Procter & Gamble with small fortunes in stock, but after retirement, the challenge was to find a new life. Sometimes work and the routine of it was all we knew as blue collar workers.
Every good warehouseman knows the value of a flashlight. I have five of them now, including two medium size Maglites. At Simmons, where I am a member of the English department, I sometimes sit and watch the men working on the construction of the new parking lot and school of marketing. I love to get outside and walk when the weather is nice, and the difficult reconciliation of these two lives inside me is easier now than it used to be, but only because I do not place so much value on the responses of people when they learn about my factory life. Proletarian minds are supposed to have limits that do not include being a published poet and a professor.
I was processed as a poet among the masses, stripped down and melted and crafted into the shape I would need to go out in the world and grow and function as poet and writer. As a lifelong factory worker my poetry would have suffered. A poet needs more than two ten minute coffee breaks and a half hour at lunchtime.
In The Wire the blighted areas you see--many of which are in my old neighborhood--were full of people and bustling with energy forty years ago, before the gradual and steady disappearance of blue collar jobs that had formed so much of the economy, before the great decline in Baltimore. The days when my father and uncles sat around in our kitchen eating my mother’s hot chili or ox tail soup and sipping their whiskey and Coca-Cola are gone along with the steady lives they were able to give us children.