13 December 2010

The Rigging Crew

The following is the first of two excerpts from Paul Clemens’s Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant, an account of the last days and the dismantling of the Budd Company stamping plant on Detroit’s East Side. Punching Out will be published by Doubleday on January 18, 2011. The second excerpt will appear here in January.

Though the rigging crew comprised a rotating cast, the characters ran to form. Mostly, the crew was made up of men who had banged around a bit and who had landed, however briefly, at Budd—ex-UAW guys, roofers, plumbers, electricians, a vending machine deliveryman, a repo man, an Iraq war veteran, a Bosnian immigrant, a strip club bouncer, assorted jacks-of-all-trades. The collection called to mind a critic’s description of the crew of the Pequod—men who had “come sulking away, address unknown, from howling creditors, accusing wives, alert policemen, beggary on shore.” They almost all drove trucks; after a time, I’d identify guys by their Dodge Ram, Ford Ranger XLT, Chevy 1500, or Ford Custom F-150. These trucks tended to be dilapidated but basically dependable. Bumper stickers memorialized Dale Earnhardt. Some guys greeted me the same way, day after day. Switching their cigarettes to their left hand, they’d extend their right, then quickly retract it, inspect it for grease and grime, and—after succeeding in wiping away none of it on their work pants or plaid flannel—re-extend the hand with a shrug, to say: your call. Beards, mustaches, and stubble of various stages were near universal. A clean shave would have clashed with the surroundings.

For a short time, the crew had two black workers, one of whom was also the crew’s only female worker, a young black woman whom everyone liked and called Z. Such exceptions aside, an entirely male and predominantly white crew took apart a plant in an almost entirely black city. The relative lack of blacks in the plant had less impact, behaviorally, than did the almost complete absence of female observation and oversight. You didn’t need to shave, shower, brush your teeth, or wash your clothes before work; you didn’t need to worry about your beer breath, your BO, your black eye, your smoking, your burping, your farting, your constant fucking cursing. Pretty much anything your body could do, you could do with impunity in the plant, which made its own sounds and smells, masking yours. The plant felt like a frat house, but of a peculiar, contradictory kind—one for men who had never set foot on a college campus.

Still, the fact that a predominantly white crew was taking apart the equipment in a closed plant in a predominantly black city gave the proceedings a peculiar feel. Several blocks over from the Budd plant, on Garland Street, is the onetime home of Dr. Ossian Sweet, the black physician whose move into the house in the then-all-white neighborhood resulted in a white mob, a death, and an acquittal, for Sweet, on the murder charge. The mob had gathered in 1925, the year that the plant became the property of the Budd Company. More than eight decades later, Sweet’s old neighborhood was completely segregated a second time. With few exceptions, Detroit’s neighborhoods have followed this pattern: long-standing segregation followed by a more rapid integration, with the neighborhood becoming so integrated that, soon enough, it is segregated again, this time in the other direction. After this second segregation, the neighborhood starts, slowly, to disappear.

In Detroit, race is never not an issue, always at least subtext when it isn’t quite text. Come January, Eddie—a former Budd worker who stayed on to work security—would ask the boss about a day off for the Martin Luther King holiday. “You’re not in the UAW anymore,” Eddie quoted the boss as saying. Eddie complained, half-kidding, to a co-worker. “We’re in the city of Detroit,” he said. “We might get shot for working. It should be a double-time day.”

A concern of blacks that one hears occasionally is that white people want to take the city of Detroit back over. This is demonstrably untrue: no city that loses 150,000 residents a decade for six consecutive decades can realistically claim that anyone wants to maintain it, let alone recapture it. And yet, in the closed Budd plant, this fantastic claim had, in some small way, come true: the white neighborhood that had become a black neighborhood that had become a vanishing neighborhood was filling up with white people again, at least in the Budd plant, which was itself vanishing.

By a considerable margin, the crew’s most dependable member was Nedzad, a Bosnian immigrant who’d been with the rigging company since more or less the day he arrived in this country and who was nearly alone among crew members in working the Budd job end to end. His English was good enough, though Nedzad’s proficiency and comprehension seemed conditional, dependent on how much he felt like saying, or hearing, in a given instance. His speaking role was somewhere between Harpo and Zeppo. Nedzad kept his own counsel, avoided the bars, and brought his lunch pail. He endured some good-natured ribbing. A crew member trying to remove a stubborn bolt covered in grease applied heavy-duty barbecue grill cleaner to a wire brush, in order to scrape the grease away. The foam bubbled on the wire bristles. “Hey, Nedzad,” he said, holding it up. “Bosnian toothbrush!”

One noon, I said I was hungry—I didn’t bring a lunch pail—and regretted saying so straightaway, as Nedzad immediately offered me a hunk of his chicken. “Wife,” he said. “Cook every day. Bosnian food. Meat, mixed vegetable.” Declining such an offer from a well-meaning immigrant is a delicate matter.

One of five children, two of whom still lived in Bosnia and two of whom were now in Austria, Nedzad arrived in the United States in January 2001. He started work with the rigging company weeks later. He was 48 and had two kids—“big boy, little girl.”

I said that was nice.

“No, two is not nice,” he said. “Five is nice.” The cost of living in the United States, he said, made this impossible.

Gray chest hairs peeked out of Nedzad’s work shirt, which in winter would be a heavy plaid flannel caked with crud. He was one of the few crew members to always wear a hard hat. His was white and unadorned. He had a bit of a belly, a European pot carried low, suggestive of small consolations after a day’s hard work. He greeted most of what was said to him with a smile, a shrug, or both. To my winking admonitions that he get to work, he smiled. To many of my questions, he shrugged, as if to say, “What’s the difference?” When, in late winter, Kosovo achieved its independence, I asked his opinion. “I’m here,” he said.

That he was, day after day. On any given morning, my inquiring after this or that torch man, rigger, electrician, millwright, or wrench turner could draw a range of responses: he’s late, he’s drunk, he’s dead, he’s hungover, he’s in the hospital, he’s in custody, he’s in court, he lost his license, he lost a fight, he got a flat, he couldn’t find a ride, he’s fucking fired. Amid such confusion, Nedzad was the crew’s universal constant. He drove a gold Chevy Caprice Classic, not a truck, and where the trucks tended to be dirty and rusted, his Caprice reflected and gleamed. He said he had it washed every other day. This I didn’t believe. No car could stay as clean as his—particularly not on heavily salted Detroit roads over the course of an exceptionally snowy Michigan winter—without a daily cleansing. Its wintertime sparkle suggested Southern California. On its back bumper was a “BIH” sticker for Bosnia and Herzegovina, his homeland.

Whereas Nedzad, near silent, would spend a year in the plant, the talkers tended to fall off the crew fast, forcing me to get them on the page before they departed. One such extrovert was Duane Krukowski. On a slow Saturday afternoon a few days before the auction I asked Duane, the job’s first electrical foreman, what he and his men were up to. Two young “tunnel rats” under his direction, using cables, hooks, and safety harnesses, shimmied down beneath the presses of 16-line (purchased by Spanish auto supplier Gestamp for installation in its Aguascalientes, Mexico plant), from which oil still oozed. From there, it was a further twenty-foot drop into the deep pit beneath the press line and the pool of standing oil that a series of pumps carried out to the skimmer pit alongside Eddie’s guard shack.

Duane pointed out that the floor of the plant, where we stood watching the tunnel rats work, wasn’t really the floor. The floor was down there, where all the oil was. Those of us on the shop floor were, in a sense, standing above the plant’s sea level. “Some greasy I-beams is what he’s holding on to,” Duane said as we watched a tunnel rat descend. “He’s actually not holding on to anything but luck.”

The tunnel rats, Jason and Paul, liked their work, which was easy compared with work they’d done before. Jason, who answered questions with a crisp “Yes, sir,” had already dodged his share of death. “I got wounded, my last time, in Pakistan in 2004,” he told me when he’d come up for air. In addition to Pakistan and Afghanistan and the border territory between the two, he listed “Iraq and Bosnia and Philippines and Colombia” as countries he’d fought in. He listed his injuries in said places. “Got my right knee shot off in Bosnia,” he said. “I was incapacitated for six months.” All together, he calculated, “I stayed in for five years, eight months. Got shot six times and did my time like I was supposed to. Iraq, I took three bullets, one in the right kidney, and two in the lung. I lost my right kidney. They couldn’t save it. Said it had sepsis. In my right lung I lost 60 percent capability because it collapsed. And then in Pakistan, I took a .762 round. In April, I took a bullet right here”—entering near his temple and exiting by the bridge of his nose. That bullet hit him when he was “right on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

“Hunting for bin Laden?” I asked.

“You could say that. We were hunting for the wanted list.” His stint in Iraq included time in An-Nasiriyah, which he helped me to spell by pulling up his shirtsleeve and pointing to the tattoo on his shoulder. He was 26 years old and looked younger.

The other tunnel rat, Paul, was the youngest on the crew at 20. The previous line on his résumé, a job he’d enjoyed, was that of repo man. “You get to steal cars, only it’s legal,” he said. He said that most of the cars he repossessed were in the city, that many had belonged to drug dealers, and that—since such tradesmen tend to exercise their Second Amendment rights—he’d heard his share of shots. Paul’s grandmother, one of the area’s few remaining white residents, lived two blocks from the Budd plant, in what Paul said was a company-built home that had belonged to his grandfather, who began working at Budd after World War II. Paul’s early years were spent at the house. Since his grandfather’s death, Paul had taken ownership of the home, next door to which were two former crack houses that he’d considered buying. On the day we visited, I saw notices in their windows stating that the homes were at present in possession of the Thirty-sixth District Court.

As Jason and Paul tunneled, Duane talked. He began his explanation of press electrical systems at the beginning. “This is the nervous system,” Duane said. “Electrical is the nervous system. Nothing happens—nothing doesn’t happen—without an electrical signal. There’s actually an electrical signal that says ‘Nothing’s happening.’ And there’s an electrical signal that says ‘Something’s happening.’ The computer knows the difference between something and nothing.” It was the job of the tunnel rats, Jason and Paul, to remove the tangled wiring cables that dangled beneath the presses. It was the job of Duane to guide them. Some cables weighed as much as a hundred pounds. “They’re full of wires,” he said. “These aren’t empty hoses. There’s probably seventy-five to a hundred little tiny wires.” As the cables were covered in oil, they were not just heavy but slippery besides. “We gotta break through the grease to get to the wire,” Duane said.

I asked Duane how long the electrical disassembly on 16-line would take, making mention of a timeline I’d been shown. “That is a guideline,” Duane said, angry at a floor grate that was preventing them from disconnecting a cable, “and that guideline has no way of knowing that it took us over an hour to get this grate off here. That timeline has no idea of the problems you run into. The guys that were putting this shit together, once upon a time, were laughing to themselves, saying, ‘I’d hate to be the MF that has to take this shit apart.’ And we’re the MFs. So there you are.” If he could get the wiring cable around the grate, he said, “I have a good afternoon. If that thing gets caught on something, I have misery.”

That said, he was happy to be where he was—inside an auto plant on Detroit’s East Side, like those before him. “The history of the place,” he said. “I want to be here to take this apart. I told the guy that hired me in here, ‘I want food, beer, and gas. You don’t even have to pay me.’ I’ve had grandparents who worked at Packard and Chrysler for forever. They retired from those places. And on and on. I come from a long line of this. I had to cut my teeth on it. I had no choice. It’s like, if your dad’s a doctor, you’re gonna go to medical school.” He looked around the press shop, then the plant itself, contemplating. “It’s hard to believe that all of this stuff has to go into something making just a couple of parts for a car,” he said. “And you can go into machine shops all over town, and there’s so much more going on—just to make one car. That’s why you cannot make one car. You have to make a million of ’em in order to make it pay off.”

There was reverence in his voice. “The front of this building kind of looks like a church,” he said. “I’ve known people, through the years, they thought that was a church out there.”

I noted that it was a replica of Independence Hall.

“They wouldn’t know Independence Hall,” Duane said. “They went to public school.” Duane was a product of Detroit’s once-extensive system of Catholic schools, and he liked the idea—an error that wasn’t mistaken—that the Budd plant was a sacred site.

“My dead relatives would be honored that I’m here taking this place apart,” he said. “It’s a crowning jewel. We’re not the king of England, but it’s something they passed on, and it’s something”—the disassembly work—“that needs to be done. You can’t leave this here, to rot in history. There’s still life left in these machines. It’s real important that they keep doing what they do, because a lot of people gave a lot of sweat and equity that has gone into these machines. You can’t measure it. You can’t measure the lives, you can’t measure the lunches, the allowances, that people were able to give their kids.” It’s “what these kinds of machines do,” he said. Duane hoped that Mexican families might now benefit as much as his own had. “It’s why we’re taking such care getting this thing out of here.”

He learned these lessons early, getting inside the plants where family members had worked—Dodge Main, the old Cadillac Fleetwood plant. Later, his regard for machines increased out of necessity. “I used to work at Ford’s,” he said, applying the possessive, as working-class Detroiters do, “and I got laid off from Ford’s. What they did was, they built a new assembly line. One day, we went over for a tour of the new line, and they showed me a machine that was doing my job. The line that I was working on was built in 1942, and this was in 1979. They turned the lights out, and the machine was still doing the job. So I said to myself, ‘Now I gotta learn how to build machines.’ It wasn’t cry me a river or whine to the government. I said, ‘Okay. Now I learn how to build machines.’ Which is why I’m here taking ’em apart. Because I know how to put ’em together. Now I’m fifty years old, and I wouldn’t give up being here for nothing.

“America’s view of this world works,” he went on. “We have no problem with Germans coming in, helping the Mexicans get this equipment out of here that helped to win the war. I think it’s good. I’d rather have them try to make cars than make bombs and kamikaze pilots.” Duane admired those who wanted to work, and had a deep respect for the Mexican ethic. “Mexico’s come a long way,” he said. “Those people have come a long way, if they’ve got time to deal with this”—that is, the hassle of getting 16-line across the border. “They’re not sitting there, talking about revolution and saving the planet. They want to get down to business and support their kids and give their kids a better life. And I can appreciate that. That’s why we’re taking such pains and great care to take this thing apart.”

Duane preferred to take pains without being told that he had to. He’d take care based on his own calculations. He found governmental interference infantilizing. “They gotta justify their jobs by stopping other people from doing theirs,” he said of OSHA. “ ‘Oh, some idiot died.’ Well, idiots die driving home from work. They die driving to work. They die going to the doctor’s office.”

“Sometimes they get home and their old ladies kill ’em,” a nearby worker said.

“There’s no guarantee stamped on your ass when you’re born,” Duane said. “And we come from a long line of people that make damn sure you know that.”

Detroit is a union town, but anti-union feeling of this kind (unions organize precisely to get stamped guarantees, after all) is not uncommon. Pro-union and anti-union members of the working class can be as difficult to distinguish, for those who haven’t made a study of the schism, as Shia and Sunni. Unless there’s an obvious giveaway—a UAW jacket or bumper sticker or, as in Duane’s case, a T-shirt that said “Proud to Be Union Free”—there’s typically no outward tell. They live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same churches, share similar conceptions of the good life. Many people unconvinced that unions are an unqualified plus still drive American cars, since love of country trumps any competing dislike. Such folks are often called Reagan Democrats, a term that would make more descriptive sense if they hadn’t also been Bush Democrats, Dole Democrats, Bush II Democrats, and, later, McCain Democrats, by which point it’s both easier and more accurate to call them what they are, which is Republicans.

Though I vote with the unions, I find Duane’s philosophy attractive. As approaches to life go, “Now I gotta learn how to build machines” has much to recommend it. It neatly distills working-class self-reliance, a virtue that unions, by their collective nature, can’t, or don’t, particularly encourage. Self-reliant should not be confused with stoic, by the way. You don’t have to be stoic to be working-class; you can complain without ceasing so long as you do so without whining.

Subscribe!

It’s the right thing to do.

Sign up now to start receiving the magazine that believes history isn't over just yet.

Subscribe now »

  • Paul Clemens
    • The Arkansas Boys

      By the time the Arkansas Boys had walked into the bar and seated themselves at a table, I’d lost my nerve to approach them. This was their habitat, not mine, and I was out of my depth, sipping my Coke. More…