Saturday, December 21, 2013

Tears and steel

It started with a hand written bill-of-sale scattering across an asphalt lot in Pittsburgh while branches of dry leaves swayed next to a sign offering Machining in Youngstown. In Flint, a chimney belched puffs of smoke that disappeared into a blustery squall.

We were drinking Bartles and Jaymes, oblivious.

The whirlwind strengthened; the unions weakened. A tornado spun to life; Republic Steel withered. As we played Hacky Sack, the storm grew into a roaring tumult that stretched from the shores of Buffalo to the iron ore mines of Minnesota. It picked up chisels and vises and benches. It picked up pumps. It picked up mills.

The cyclone sucked in a 4,700-pound turret lathe that was manufactured by the Warner & Swasey Company (East 55th and Chester) before you were born. It scooped up a hulking welding robot named Godzilla and a four and a half-ton radial drill named Carlton. It tore apart one shop after another and pulled the contents into it's swirling turmoil.

It lifted all of it into a clanging metal twister as big as the entire Rust Belt and then some, but we didn't hear a thing. We were going Back to the Future with Marty and Doc.

Perhaps tired from it's efforts or discouraged by our indifference, the massive vortex lost its will. It slowed and slumped and heaved a great sigh.

Then it came to a halt.

In one last grand gesture, however, the force deposited it's formidable collection ever-so-gently just south of Collinwood, across the street from the Euclid Cemetery. Behold HGR Industrial Surplus:

Here you will find the machines that threaded, planed and crimped housed within the 13 acres formerly known as the Fisher auto body plant. Here you are welcome to peruse the remnants of what fueled every tool and die man for the last 100 years--until the steel ribbing arching over the Great Lakes succumbed to an army of bytes that obey an omnipotent general named CNC.

I walked every single aisle of this miraculous place where they buy, sell and trade. I marveled at the gathering of giant optical comparators as they gazed over the horizon, searching for the Emerald city. The air was perfumed with machine oil as men bent down to wipe grime from specification plates, stroked their chins and murmured to one another. A constant stream of tow motors zipped to and fro. Gray light angled in through the clerestory windows as two Amish men ambled amid the forklifts and shearing machines, hands in their pockets. Salesmen whizzed by on bicycles, off to verify horsepower, check for parts, and get dimensions.

The space was conspicuously void of the high-pitch whirring the machines trill when they are doing what they were designed to do at the hands of men who know the secrets of their levers and dials and chucks. Instead, a classic rock station played on and on. Mick Jagger whispered to Angie.

Remember all those nights we cried? 

And then there was me; a forlorn figure out of place with a camera, taking pictures of everything, as if I could embrace the whole of this place and never let it go: Maybe if you capture the images, Erin, maybe you can hold onto what all of it represents, what all of it means. Even if it's just one tenuous thread, it will still be something when everything is gone.

I mourned for the Bridgeport milling machines as they carved a jagged skyline over this splendorous field of iron and steel. I mourned for the lathes waiting by patiently. I mourned for the stoic presses, so many silent soldiers. Clients browsing grinders and cutters eyed me curiously, then looked away when I set my camera upon the bed of a 20,000-pound press brake, removed my glasses and wiped my eyes with my sleeve.

I mourned for all of it, but mostly I mourned for the men who wore heavy boots and carried their midday supper in a brown paper sack. They drank Carling's Black Label at Joe's Bar after a day spent machining things to a thousandth or better.

I squeezed hot tears. I pulled my fist to my chest. I exhaled.

*  *  *


Kirk said...

Good post. The decline of manufacturing is this town's tragedy. As well as one for a sizable chunk of the middle-class everywhere.

Anonymous said...

Great piece. Thinking about those men and machines evoked Yeats.

"Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?"


Norm said...

God damn, O'Brien. Poetry.

twinklysparkles said...

Thanks, Erin.
You can look up photos of Xu Bing's "Phoenix" sculpture.
If this is what we got ourselves into, surely art helps to connect us in our times of grief. Your writing qualifies as part of that kind of art.
Xu Bing's "Phoenix" was made of machine parts from a factory in China. It's huge, stunning, amazing, mind-boggling, I imagine much like your experience at the machine parts warehouse you chronicle here.

Solstice baby! The light will come back.

Tony Rugare said...

Beautiful! Poetry in prose.

Erin O'Brien said...

Thanks for all the nice comments and the poem (RJ) and the heads up on the Phoenix (twinks).

How I wax so tender for these giant old machines is strange and honest to me. I am honored to share them with you.

The thing that stuns me most is how objects that seemed so solid and enduring could fade in less than a lifetime. I wish you could all see these in person. They are staggering pieces of functional sculpture.

The Fanuc robot is something like six feet tall. I think he looks like a yellow machine version of Mighty Joe Young.

Yeah, yeah. Man, how this one hurts my heart.

John Venlet said...

Erin, reading this brought back a number of memories. I really like that pic of the Kearney & Trecker. Thanks.

Jen said...

Beautiful post. Just lovely.

I started a job this past spring that had me driving down 55th to Carnegie. I was fascinated with some of the old buildings, factories laying dormant. Especially Warner & Swasey, which sits broken and decayed, but wide open on one side.

So one sunny weekend, I dragged my husband along so I could sneak inside and explore. It was stunning in it's strange beauty and sadness. Almost like being inside a broken-down church.

I took my pics (

When we left, I tried to explain to my husband how unbelievably sad it made me. Just thinking about how that building once housed 100's of working people, and how the neighborhood used to be thriving.

My best friend's mom worked there as a young girl just arriving to this country from Serbia. Her sister worked at Richman Brothers, another hulking, decaying factory. Down the road there's Westinghouse, a mass of buildings covering an entire block, falling apart, covered in graffiti and ivy.

I quit the job, but I continue to seek out these old buildings and photograph them. The kids call this "urban exploring" and it's a hip thing to do. Young guys compete over who can get into these old buildings, who gets the best shots, or takes a risky climb up to the roof. I hope that while they're "exploring", they think about the history, the people who worked in these buildings, the people who were crushed when they lost those jobs.

Gosh, sorry for the long comment. Your post just touched me, obviously.

Erin O'Brien said...

I loved your comment, Jen, and I am familiar with the buildings that line 55th. As for Warner & Swasey, they're doing a remediation. No idea if the building will be saved. I sure as hell hope so.

Thanks to you and John both for dropping in and commenting.

The Wizard said...

Erin: Good post. The company which employs me uses, almost exclusively, vintage machinery with quite a few bits purchased from HGR. There is still quite a market for these vintage items and HGR is a testament to that. For us there is nothing quite so satisfying as resurrecting a stamping press.

We have often wondered of the history of these well built machines.

Recently, while cleaning up on 1200 ton Toledo press that we acquired, we stumbled upon a tag that was riveted to the frame of the press. It had been painted over many times. Curious, we carefully removed the layers of paint. The brass tag read, in raised letters "Detroit Ordinance District" Beneath that it read "War Dept" the lines following had a contract number and showed that it was ran by the Chrysler Corporation. I could snap a pic of the press and the tag and email them to you if you were interested. I wonder, now, what kind or ordinance parts it made?

Erin O'Brien said...

Great stuff, Wizard, and thanks for dropping in. LOVE that your employer is championing these old machines.

Keep fighting the good fight.

Brian Warner said...

I have been machining for 15 years. Started on CNC, but we still use 70 year old machines from Warner and Swasey, Fellows, Bridgeport, and others. I frequent HGR to buy machines, but also just to look at the awesome history of equipment.

Erin O'Brien said...

Thanks so much for dropping in, Brian.