8 April 2013
At the morning meeting Nicky, the oldest foreman, calls my name.
"Right here." I raise my hand.
"Right here." I raise my hand.
“Want to run the scarifier?” Nicky says.
Marlon is in Jamaica for his uncle's funeral and I'm next in line. If I run the scarifier that means no plate machine. A short reprieve for my back and legs, a little less money in my chiropractor’s bank account.
Still, I hesitate. I have never run the scarifier. On the other hand, I’ll be paid as an A-rate machine operator. Another three bucks an hour.
“Sure,” I say, and then, when a couple of the guys give me a knowing smile after they detect the nerves in my voice, I shrug. “What the fuck, right?”
Instead of driving out of the yard with the rest of the track dogs and parking closer to where the day’s work will begin, I trudge down the short hill of sapling stumps and wood chips to the siding track where the machines are parked. The scarifier is close to the front. I can't unlock the door to get inside the cab it because I don't have the right key. Craig is running the the cherry-picker on one side of me and he has a key. He gets me in.
After I find the battery box and turn the switch to on, feeding electricity to the machine, I climb inside and look for an ignition key to turn and start the machine. Except there is no key. I am already nervous. I hate learning new things in front of other people--and this only makes it worse, though I can’t let anyone know that, I can’t project weakness of any kind. Ignorance, annoyance, and ambivalence are fine. I don’t know. What the fuck. I don’t give a shit. But never, This has me really scared. Never that.
I flag down Gary, one of the foremen, as he’s passing by on his way to something more important.
“How do you start this thing?”
“You not run dis before now?”
“Nope.” I shrug. “That a problem?”
“No, no.” Gary chuckles. He climbs up and pushes his big frame inside the cab. Gary has a couple kids my age, plus another five that are younger, but he’s still ripped in the arms and chest and shoulders. He’s originally from St. Kitts and has the thick island accent to prove it. Most have a hard time understanding him. I worked with enough Jamaican guys when I was in the Laborers’ union that I don’t find him indecipherable.
“Let see I can remember. It been a while...Ah, yes. De button.”
He points out the “start” button on a console under my right elbow. He presses it a couple times but the engine does not turn over.
“What de fuck is dis now. You press it?”
“You had to point it out to me, Gary.”
“Right You use this on Wednesday?”
Gary tightens the white bandanna wrapped around his head and scratches his chin. He speaks into his radio.
“Tie job mechanic?”
The mechanic responds and says he’ll be right over once Gary describes the problem.
“You wait for him, hear?”
He climbs down from the cab and walks off to the beginning of the line. I jump down and wait. The machines at my back move far away while this one sits quiet and dead, holding up the rest.
The mechanic pulls up in his truck on the roadbed running adjacent to the tracks.
“You forget to turn off the lights Wednesday?” he says.
“This is my first fucking day in it.”
After some investigation, it turns out the battery is dead. The mechanic pulls a starter kit from his truck. He jolts the engine to life, tells me not to shut it off until the end of the day, and heads back to his truck. I get in the cab, release the brake, and I'm rolling, slowly. I stop and fill up at the fuel truck. The guy who runs it gives me a wave when he's done so I know his hose is off the tracks. I move on, still very slowly. The first ten minutes of the ride, the scarifier is crawling. Justin, the kid in the cherry-picker on the other side of me, calls me on the radio.
“That as fast as it goes, Scarifier?”
“Fast as it’ll go for me,” I say. “I got the pedal to the floor.”
Now everyone in earshot of a radio knows I’m having trouble. I tell myself not to care, fuck them all, but I hate being perceived as incompetent.
“Hold on,” Justin says.
I probably create this in my head, but Justin sounds annoyed. Fuck you, I think. He calls the mechanics through the radio but my machine runs so loud I don’t catch what they say. Justin waves at me to stop. I pump the brake. He hops down from the cherry-picker. I open the door for him.
“Right here,” he says.
There is lever to the left of the accelerator. Justin shifts it back toward me.
“That shifts it into second gear.”
“OK,” I say.
I shut the door on him. In second gear the scarifier moves much faster. I gun the pedal to the floor to catch up to Craig.
Later, during a pause in production, I’ll walk up to Justin’s machine and knock on the door.
“Thank you for your help earlier,” I’ll say.
Justin will be caught off guard by this. He won’t be wearing the dark safety glasses we all wear and I will see this in his eyes. He is young, twenty-two or twenty-three, and he has not learned how to guard such reactions from other people. Or, he does not feel the need to. Then he’ll shake his head.
“Fucked up no one told you how to run that thing. How you supposed to know?”
I shrug and nod and head back to the scarifier. Insecurity turns me into an asshole. But I don’t say this out loud.
The scarifier has a long barrel on an axle on its front, and the barrel is studded with metal teeth the size of a large man’s hand. By manipulating a set of three levers--Gary shows me how to use these when we get out on the tracks and are about to begin work--I dip the barrel into the space left when the old tie was pulled, then I spin the barrel and its teeth forward then backwards. If I do it right, and on the first day this rarely happens, it is a little easier for the cherry-picker behind me to place the new ties halfway and the Inserter to push them the rest of the way.
A few hours into the day and the nerves can not maintain their strength. They wither and fade. I am too busy learning brake and barrel and spacing. Can’t be too close to Justin, can’t let the teeth bite into the remaining ties, can’t skip spaces. All of this happens. But when we stop and steps down from the cabs of my machine and I talk with the other operators, all I get is sympathy.
“That machine sucks, man.”
“You’ll get the hang of it.”
“They stick you in there without training you, so fuck ‘em. It’s your first day. Go slow if you need to.”
I nod even though no one, not Nicky and Gary, not Owen the new super, has complained about my work. I get back in the machine and keep going.
It has not rained in a while. The sun is shining and it warms the air. Someone has left the decomposing ribcage of some poor creature long dead is left between the tracks, a morbid joke that makes me smile. I tap the gas and the break. I lower the barrel and spin the teeth. Scoured debris tings against the guards around it. The stone packed tight between the ties is very dry. I eat dust, all day. It floods the cab whenever I disturb the ballast. Gary brought me a few dust masks earlier, but I waved him away. I’d rather choke on the fine particulates than breathe my own hot breath all day.
This beats the plate machine.
9 April 2013
After I borrow Craig’s key and get in the cab to start the machine, I notice a hole in the ceiling, behind the little fan mounted on the wall. Someone tried to weld it shut at a point in the distant past and failed. The collected rain water is dripping in. Given enough time and the certainty of human error, the rain always finds a way in.
Big Pat walks by, wood-tipped stogie hanging from his mouth, carrying a new fire extinguisher in his hand. I wave. He stops and walks toward me, digging through his pocket. He produces a key and hands it to me. I mentioned at the end of the day yesterday I didn’t have one. Pat was busy collecting the tools, one of his duties as the job driver, and he told me he’d grab me one. I didn’t expect him to remember.
“Thanks, Pat,” I say.
“Pain in the ass, always got to ask someone else.”
The second day in the scarifier and already the brake and the levers and pacing is becoming second nature. Already the body is lost in the repetitive functions. The work of a track dog is harder, no two ways about it, but there is a certain appeal to the solitude of being alone in the cab of a machine, earmuffs blocking the harder decibels, focusing on the immediate task. What I miss is being around the others, the jokes and shit-talk and stories, the friends and the enemies.
Because of the solitude, when I catch up to the operator in front of me there’s nothing to do but lower the throttle, sit back and take in what is going on around me.
Men are working around a cranberry bog, but not in it. They are using chainsaws to cut the trees around the bog. A backhoe digs the smaller stumps out of the ground. The guy running the backhoe has a greasy face and wide mustache. We begin to move again, skipping a long stretch of ties we did yesterday. He plucks the burning cigarette out of his mouth and waves at us as we pass. The severed branches and butchered trunks are tossed into a large burning pile on a flat stretch of sand next to the bog. The woodsmoke cuts through the stink of diesel exhaust and industrial-strength grease that permeates the cab of the scarifier. I keep both doors open for just this reason. The dust be damned.
We reach more cranberry bogs, two side by side, these unattended. I get out, take a piss in the bushes beside the track. There aren't many berries visible in the thick red bushes growing above the water. They are there, but hidden beneath the thick snarl of branches and leaves. Not ready, not yet.
Another smell to find its way inside the cab of the scarifier is the scent of water, carried on the breeze from the long pond nearby. There is so much water here. We are beset on all sides by it.
Further along there is the odor of manure and feed from the wire pen we pass after the pond disappears behind a thick wall of young maples. In the pen there is a girl of eleven or twelve wearing a hooded sweatshirt with the name of her school printed in large, white block letters on the front. Her long, curly blonde hair glows in the sun. The girl leads her goats this way and that, skipping at one point because she does not know I'm watching, or because she does. I consider for a second taking a picture of her, the goats following their girl the pen, the coop of chickens pecking the dirt for bugs, the large, well-kept house in the background. I want to capture that moment so I can prove later when I describe it to my wife or my father that it was really there. But I imagine my reaction to seeing a guy in dark glasses operating a loud machine snapping shots of my pubescent daughter. Since I don’t feel like getting a baseball bat upside the head or a shotgun shell to the chest, the phone stays where it is. The words will be enough, I hope.
10 April 2013
At six twenty-five I pull into the parking lot and the rain falls in sheets. I can feel the thunder rumbling through the seat of my car. Lightning colors the dark sky bright electric blue. A glimmer of hope sparks: they'll call it. Rain rule. We get to go home.
The spark is extinguished at six twenty-nine when the downpour abates. The thunder carries north. Pale gray clouds are made bright and orange by the rising sun. We assemble for the morning meeting in a foul mood, the aftermath of dashed expectations resting sourly on the back of the tongue.
We stand in a wide semicircle, hats on and hoods up against errant drops of rain and cool morning breezes that kiss the neck. The lot is mostly flat and made of leveled stone. Spots around the edges are uneven, pine needles and dirt, the occasional thin stump. Sections of the grounds behind this large warehouse where Mass Coastal repairs their trains were cleared to accommodate our presence. Most of us are wearing dark safety glasses and the orange and yellow safety vests MBCR passes out at orientation. A few wear gloves. The super, Owen, stands between the two foremen, and there is a little space on either side of them. Sometimes Gary and walks around a little but he never gets far. Steve, the assistant foreman, head shaved and arms covered in tats, reads the rule of the day. Owen tries to make a joke that falls flat. He is young and new to the company. There is a scab over his upper lip. It looks like a cold-sore or a really bad cut from shaving. He repeats himself by telling us our deadline is a hard one, May fifteenth we must be off the property, so we will be aiming for eight-hundred and fifty ties a day to make up for the short days of the first week when everyone was learning their jobs and machines.
“What about overtime?” someone asks.
“I’m trying to set it up for Thursday,” Owen says.
“Trying?” a different voice says.
More grumbles, less optimistic, a few hiccups of sardonic laughter. There is an aggressive tone to the questioning, bordering on accusatory. There have already been disagreements between us and the decision-makers over lunch breaks and quitting time and the lack of OT and rumors of the foreman getting paid late into the night every day in return for his allegiance. The relationship has become openly antagonistic.
“Overtime is almost definite for Thursday,” Owen says. “Plan on working that day.”
Someone raises a hand. He doesn’t wait for acknowledgement before asking his question.
“What about the differential?”
In the collective bargaining contract, it states that if the work week begins on a Sunday those union members that are part of the crew will be paid an additional sixty-three cents an hour for every hour they work for as long as that schedule is kept. The company that owns MBCR has decided not to pay us that sixty-three cents. Imagine for a second if this behavior became portable to regular life: the terms of your cell phone contract all of sudden seem unfair? Fuck them, cut the bill by twenty-five bucks each month. If individuals acted as private corporations, capitalism would grind to a halt. Owen, at least, takes a chance to ingratiate himself. His nasal whine of a voice acquires, for a moment, a stronger thread of character.
“About the differential,” he says. “I don’t know what the issue is. I’ve talked to your union rep. I’ve seen the provision in your contract. It’s clear as day. They owe you guys the money. There’s no way around it and frankly I have no idea why the hell they’re fighting it. I know it’s a pain in the ass, but it’ll get settled and you’ll have a nice check in your around Christmastime.”
We absorb this and accept it for whatever it is worth. It is too bad for Owen that whatever trust or respect he earned in that small moment of solidarity this Monday morning will evaporate completely Wednesday afternoon when he cancels overtime five minutes before quitting time because the company won’t deliver more ties to the job in time. He was that close.
The meeting ends, the semicircle breaks apart and we begin to float away in different directions. I fix the strap of my lunch bag over one shoulder and across my chest. I pass between the trailer where all the hand tools are kept and the mechanic’s truck and down the small hill covered in brown pine needles. At the bottom is the siding tracks where the machines are parked in the afternoon when the work day is done.
At the scarifier I unlock and open the doors on either side of the cab and put my lunch bag inside. I switch the battery on and press the ignition button. The engine turns over immediately and loudly. I go a few machines up the tracks and ask John, he runs the saw, to borrow his grease gun, like I did the day before. He follows me and talks as I fix the end of the small hose onto the little nodes at various points on the machine and squeeze the handle until I see grease overflow. I thank him and hand the gun back when I am done. I get in the machine and pretend to fuck around with the levers until he leaves. John isn’t a bad guy, but he never stops talking if you don’t cut him off.
Marlon will return from his uncle’s in a few days and because he is senior to me by a couple spots I will relinquish the machine to him. I will then bump Brian out of the anchor-spreader, because Brian is covering that machine while the usual operator is on vacation in Myrtle Beach and he is younger than me by four or five spots. The learning process, and the crackling nerves, will begin anew. I am a little relieved. The shine is wearing off the scarifier. The work and tasks of upkeep are becoming familiar, automatic, and my conscious mind is engaged less and less. This is starting to become boring. I work the throttle down. It is such a loud machine.
During the winter I met a buddy from college at a trendy bar in Southie for some drinks. He brought a friend, a pretty blonde girl he once worked with. She had a couple beers with us before she left to meet her boyfriend for dinner. Learning what I do for a living, she made the observation I’ve heard most often from people who work in offices, who have never had a job where physical pain or threat of bodily harm or death is part of the day to day. Something about manual labor being noble work, even if that isn’t the word she used. It is that type of work a father or grandfather did at some point in the distant past of family history. I sipped my beer and cut a glance at my buddy and kept my opinion to myself. The subject shifted to hometowns and moving from the city to the burbs and before we could object she had paid the tab and left to meet her man. We left to stomp from bar to bar through winter rain until our vision blurred.
I appreciate her sentiment. I always appreciate that particular sentiment when it is given, even if the person is just feeding me a line of shit in order to be polite. What else are they supposed to do? How are they supposed to know?
Leo the mechanic knocks on my window. He shakes a can and points at the front of the machine. I spin the barrel and teeth so he can spray lubricant on the chain. Specks of grease spot the pitted windshield.
Here is the secret I wanted to pass along to the pretty blonde in the bar that night so many months ago:
No act is noble if you are being paid to do it. A job is a job.