Maybe it’s just the wind whistling through my woodshed, but some mornings I swear I hear the air horns from the trains and factories in the Ohio Valley, echoing through the hollows and the decades that have passed. They greet me at the gates of Armco Steel, running full tilt when I turned 21 and joined thousands of men and women who filed in and out of the mill three times a day, seven days a week. Throughout the valley, all the mills’ horns had a way of keeping time in close measure for those of us working 60-hour weeks. Like the rivers and rails that hemmed us in, we had no room for deviation and rolled along, punching in and punching out.
Outside the mill, our elbows resting on the edge of a bar, the old guys winked at an inside joke and smokers rocked back and closed their eyes at the end of a long drag on a Marlboro. In the quiet moments, I noticed how the family men sank into a hunch while picking at a longneck label, transfixed by a wooden chit that magically turns into another beer. They looked like they were taking cover, the way a boxer does against the ropes.
This would be the final round for the steel industry in America. We all saw it coming—written in yellow crayon, usually in Asian characters—on the imported billets stacked in the shipping department.
As always, bars and churches held us together, and the streets of Ambridge were thick with both. Every ethnic group had at least one church: Russians, Greeks, Italians, Croatians, Poles, Serbs, Ukrainians, Scots, Czechs and Slovaks, Germans—Catholic and orthodox mostly, but Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians too. A bigger, modern synagogue replaced the old one in the 1960s. Belief in God and country, family and football, preserved the hopes of 16,000 souls who were welded together by the business of steel and crammed into Ambridge.
When faith faltered, we had bars—hundreds of them in every neighborhood and lining Merchant Street. Even legendary boozehounds who began a pub-crawl anywhere on Merchant, drinking a beer in every joint, would cover no more than three blocks before collapsing on the sidewalk. In those days, Ambridge had more bars and clubs per capita than most anywhere in the nation: Manhattan had one for every 600 residents, Philadelphia had one for every 500, Pittsburgh had one for every 400, and Ambridge had twice as many: one for every 200.
Taverns, like Maxim’s directly across the street from the mill gates, stayed open all day and night. They served workers who were mostly tired and harmless but were not always friends. Some brought axes to grind, bones to pick, and hairs to split, simmering beneath the surface or looking for a fight, if only to feel more alive.
Toby Schmidt had that hateful look on his face, sitting across the horseshoe-shaped bar one morning, boring a hole straight through me. I hadn’t noticed him sitting there until I dropped onto a stool, beat after an 11-to-11 shift. Sunlight knifed through the tiny windows and bounced off the pool table, adding a green cast to Toby’s wavy black hair, still slick from his shower. The wiry Carl DeLessio sat next to him, puzzling over dollar bills, steadily losing at liar’s poker to the smooth coot at the end of the bar. I looked around for my pals—guys I grew up with—through the dust of the sunbeam in front, down the hall toward the cigarette and pinball machines. I expected them any minute, so I dug into my jeans for money and caught Toby still staring me down.
The bartender, wearing a peasant blouse that set off the freckly tan on her shoulders, stepped between us and smiled. She placed a shot glass in front of me and filled it to the very top with Imperial, cheap whiskey I found too penetrating for a summer morning. “It’s from Toby,” she said. I could hardly hear her; my ears still ringing from working a jackhammer. I read her lips and followed the jerk of her head to the jerk across the bar.
“A bottle of Iron, please,” I probably shouted, sliding a few bills toward her. “And return the favor, okay?” She swung around the island and the cash register and filled his glass. He lifted the shot toward me and stretched a rotten grin across his face. I acknowledged the gesture, threw back the whiskey and chased it with cold beer.
Where were Jack and Lenny? They should have showered and been here by now. Toby hadn’t bought me a whiskey to be friendly. He was pissed off, or so I heard in the locker room, and Imperial was his way of settling the score. I felt a pang of wishing I were back in a Pitt college bar, where nobody threw gauntlets all too common in bars like this one. The goal was to force me to drink or refuse his generosity, which he would take as an insult. He was older, about 30, heavier, a big drinker with high tolerance. I was a stringbean kid. Going shot-for-shot, I’d fall off my stool before his cheeks turned rosy.
It had started seven hours earlier, as Emil Sammartino and I stood before a mound of curly steel shavings that were congealed in oil, waste created by cutting threads in the ends of pipe. We were shoveling it into a crane bucket, a steel box half the size of a dumpster. Each shovelful weighed about 50 pounds. Emil and I held the lowest status of the roughly 2,500 workers at Armco and we often laughed out of disbelief at the tasks we faced. We paced ourselves, knowing we’d be at it all night.
Toby, whose job elsewhere in the mill had been canceled, appeared in the shadow of a foreman who didn’t like him. He had a reputation for sucking up and slacking off. Until he could be reassigned, Toby was told to help Emil and me.
Fuck this, he spat, after lifting two shovelfuls. And he headed off to take a leak. We figured we’d seen the last of him for a while, and we were right. Before lunchtime, the foreman came by looking for Toby to give him a different job. Not finding him, he ordered me back to the shop to sign out a small jackhammer. For the rest of the shift, I lay inside a machine used to squeeze 3,000-degree billets into shape. This chore, intended for Toby, was the most hellish work I’d ever done. Wedged in a dark, cast-iron hole, I chiseled caked grease out of the machine’s innards, striking metal against metal, a racket I thought could shake my skull right off my spine.
Enviable, I know. But Toby didn’t know or care where I had gone, only that I’d left him with Emil and a ton of nasty waste. So now he wanted to poison me with whiskey. He left me with two choices: to stay and let him keep buying me shots until I was drooling on the bar, or leave as if he were driving me out, giving him a victory. It never occurred to me to decline his offerings, because the moment I waved one off, he would have shouted, “What? You too good to drink with me?” And our beef would move out to the blinding sidewalk, his friends following, and my friends—where the hell were they?—following me.
Fine, I thought, I’ll take another shot from this prick. The first one hadn’t even soothed me. I had grown more agitated as the summer went on and my bosses started telling me that I could stay at Armco indefinitely. That would have made most guys happy, but letters kept coming from the registrar at Pitt asking about my plans for senior year, and, for the first time in my life, I was torn about my future. I had gone to college with a single goal: to become a lawyer, fight for justice and make a decent living. But two years as an intern at a law firm had only convinced me that I had been carrying a romantic and unrealistic view of the profession. I faced three more years of school and a lifetime of chipping away at massive loans, arranging wills and mortgages. I was tired of being broke.
On his way to the toilet, Toby passed behind me and made a crack, but I didn’t catch it. I sipped the rest of my beer and considered having another round, until I realized that my friends were probably not joining me after all. Toby returned to his seat and prepared to order round three. He left me no choice.
At such times as this, I parted company with the braver men I knew growing up. I am part coward and part sensible. I’d seen blood and battle in schoolyards and bars, on sidewalks and in parking lots. One stupid remark led to another, then another. It was pointless and harrowing. If I had learned anything from seven years of Catholic school, it was to grant everyone a measure of respect, even those you’d rather spit on, especially those you’d rather spit on. My older brother could be a bully, as could his friends, and I got used to approaching them with calm self-assurance, speaking to them as if they were A-students, peers, and the tactic shocked and disarmed them. They felt respected while I made my point and escaped injury, or kept them from hurting someone else. I grabbed my beer and went to confront Toby. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the bartender backing toward the corner where she kept a Louisville Slugger.
“Thanks for the shots. What’s the occasion?” I asked Toby.
“Fuck you. You wanna talk, let’s go outside.”
“Here’s what I did last night,” and I proceeded to describe the greasy sphincter where I spent the shift that he dodged by walking off to take a piss.
He laughed and threw a forearm into my chest, a love tap, then squared back to the bar and said to Carl, “Like I fuckin’ care.” I set my empty on the bar and waved to the bartender on my way out.
Paul Hertneky has written stories, essays, and scripts for many print, TV, and radio outlets. His work centers on culture, food, industry, the environment, and travel. Excerpted with permission from his new book, Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood (University Press of New England, 2016).