Wednesday, April 18, 2012

All the livelong day

It’s hard for me to write without my sneakers on.

(The view from work at about 830am, Saugus, MA)

This was the first full week of the tie job. We’re headquartered at an old lot behind the GE factory in Lynn. The yard is split in half by a set of tracks where a water train is parked. The water-train is used in the fall; dead leaves crushed on the rails by passing trains create a gummy residue that can weaken or block the low-level electrical signals that travel through the rails. Come October or November, the water-train is rolled out at night, blasting a highly pressurized spray over the tops of rails, clearing the mashed up foliage.
It is amazing how many function-specific pieces of equipment are used . My guess is that with 150 years of experience, the railroad as an entity has learned the best tricks to keep itself functioning. I had the same thought when I learned during orientation that we don’t pay into social security, but something called the railroad retirement fund. I wondered, how can any industry avoid paying into social security? Then it hit me: compared to the railroad, Social Security is a relatively new invention. The first railroad workers to unionize were the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, and they did so in Detroit in 1863, before the Civil War was over. A long time to get all your ducks in a row.
We share this yard with some division of the T. They have a trailer near the entrance (a ten foot high fence topped with barbed wire with one side of a gate open) and a dumpster that we can’t seem to stop parking in front of. All these spots where we go to work are so hidden from the rest of the world. Maybe this can be attributed to age, too. The railroad has been around so long, pretty much since the start of the Industrial Age, perhaps the rest of the man-made environment of businesses and homes have morphed around and away from the tracks. No one told me this, but you can only work next to so many shut-down factories and mills to realize that most of the freight in this country was once transported by train, not truck.

The tie job is just a mobile assembly line. Each machine has a very specific function. I haven’t figured out the exact order or role of all of them yet, but I do know that one pulls the spikes, one drags the old ties out, a machine pushes the new ties in, but not all the way, because there’s another machine for that. There is a machine that scarifies the stone on either side of the tie; the next one tamps that stone down. Two guys operate a rolling jack that lifts the rails so they can then slide the plates on top of the new ties, and they are followed by a spiking machine. I am missing some, screwing up the order. The whole production is analogous to a modern factory in that the machines do the hardest, most important work. Unlike a present day factory automation is almost nonexistent. Every machine is manipulated by an operator, some have two or three. There are “ground guys” sprinkled here and there, performing tasks the machines cannot. If you subtract all the ground guys, the operation shuts down.

(Out of focus shot of the machines lined up and waiting to go) 

On Monday I was a watchman, all day. Translation: I was one of three guys standing along the stretch of the work zone—one at either end, one in the middle—whose duty it is to, upon seeing a train approaching from either direction, blow an air horn three times to alert the guys working of “hot iron” on the adjacent track, and to hold up the “lollipop,” a circular orange sign with a reflective “W” on it to alert the engineer operating the approaching train that he or she will be passing through an area where work is taking place. When there’s hot iron, federal regulation mandates that all work stop and all workers leave the track on the field side (not in the space between the tracks) and observe the passing train.
            If trains were coming and going regurlarly all day this wouldn’t be a bad job. Since they don’t it’s the most boring assignment you can draw. You’re alone all day. Your mind can’t wander too far. The trains roar by at 70 mph and you don’t want to be the guy that was daydreaming and let another worker get smashed to pieces. After a couple hours, though, you can’t help it. You recall the weekend, or try to remember what your wife asked you picked up at the grocery store on the way home. And since it’s such a shitty job, and most of the other ground guys don’t seem to have much familiarity with union social custom, only one guy volunteered to give one of us a break. I was stuck out there all day. This pissed me off to no end. When I went home I wrote a long speech in my head about what it means to be in a union brotherhood and how you ask to help out your brother instead of waiting to be asked. I was ready to step up and take the lead…except by the next morning, a bunch of guys volunteered to be watchmen without being asked. It’s OK to be proven wrong sometimes.

            Tuesday I worked banging on clips. These clips fit into a slot in the plates that are spiked onto the ties, and once on they hold the tie to the rail. There’s a machine that uses a hydraulic press to squeeze them in tight; the ground guys tap them in with sledgehammers for the machine. It was a warm day, especially when we got moving. We trailed behind the “spiker .” The assistant foreman placed the clips on either side of the tie, then the two guys with hammers set the clips in the grooves, one on each side of the tie, and tapped them in for the “squeezer.”
The ground guys only go as fast as the machine they work behind, which can vary depending on the ability of the operator or the condition of the machine or their own experience at the task. You either drag or you race.  I am lacking in expertise. I was racing on Tuesday. It wasn’t a hot day, in the low 60s. I realized later I was sweating from marching from tie to tie swinging the ten pound hammer. I wasn’t aware of this at the time because there was a marsh on both sides of us and a strong wind cutting across it. The gusts dried my sweat before I could notice it. I didn’t drink enough water. Thinking about it later, when trying to figure out why I had such a nasty headache, I do some math. I hadn’t taken a piss between 630am and 5pm.  When I did, after picking up Kieran and bringing him back to our apartment, my piss was brown, which I’m told is bad, bad news health-wise. The headache lasted into the next day but I guzzled enough water the rest of the week to keep it away. I was less successful at protecting myself from the sun. 

         (First sunburn of 2012)                                    

            All I’ve done so far is watchman, clips, and place plates in front of the track jack, but I can feel myself becoming bored. Each task is repetitious. I’ve been told that all the trackmen will have an opportunity to get qualified on the machines. This is a step up in pay and quality of life. You are not a ground guy, wielding a fork or a hammer, trudging after machines through the heat and elements. But once learned, operating the machines is another series of repeated actions. There are 44,000 ties to be replaced and the process for each one is exactly the same. I already want to move on.
            There’s a guy on the crew who’s around the same age as me and went to school for teaching. I found this out as we were shooting the shit when the scarifier broke down on Friday. I told him I’d done some teaching while I was in grad school. He asked me if I’d like to go back to it. I told him the story I use for these kinds of conversations: if I found a full-time job teaching writing or literature at a community college I would take it. I’d rather teach students who come from a similar economic background as me. What surprised me was the sincerity behind the answer. I’d rather be helping kids learn to decode a text and manipulate a paragraph than swing a sledgehammer.
            But this is where I am. This is what I'm doing. 

            It’s Sunday at 6:42pm when I write the first draft of this. The light outside is softer and more welcoming than those bright evenings in the winter that give me headaches. Autumn and spring are where I’d always like to be.


  1. I loved this. I know it isn't what you want to do, and that it's boring and awful, but I can't help but think you'll mine this for writing material someday.

    Have you read any John Stilgoe? I used to use Outside Lies Magic in my teaching a lot. The kids always dug it once they got over their initial doubt, just like I did. He talks about some of the things you observe.

  2. Besides keeping us in food in clothes, it might as well serve some purpose ;) I've never heard of Mr. Stilgoe, but will check him out.

  3. >but I can't help but think you'll mine this for writing material someday.

    I had the exact same thought.

    Some other random thoughts:
    -is that a picture of you on the can? Stay classy, dude.
    -the residue caused by fallen leaves that get crushed also makes the tracks slippery, as if they'd been greased. I know a guy - let's call him "Dad" - who rode the same train in and out of Boston for over a decade, and got to be good friends with the engineer. Eventually "Dad" got to ride up in the locomotive. He got to observe first hand the delicate touch an engineer needs in order to stop a train at precisely the right spot along a platform when there is virtually no friction between the track and the wheels. Crazy stuff.

  4. Lol @Jober. He's sitting on a stool next to the tub while Kieran takes a bath ;)

  5. I have two of his books--I can loan them to you. He's a professor of landscape history at Harvard (only Harvard would have such a thing). Looking at his list of publications, I actually want to obtain and read more of his books; they sound really interesting. The most recent, from 2007, is actually called Train Time: Railroads and Imminent Landscape Change.

  6. I need to get that one. And there's one called Railroaded that was on the short list for the Pulitzer I want to read. Because I have so much time.