Work Safe Or Die Trying
I work heavy construction in an oil refinery. I’ve been here steady for five years now. Same place.
Every morning I drive my car out of NYC and into NJ, I park in a gravel lot, walk through a turnstile before the sun is up, put on a fireproof suit, work boots, and a hard hat that has ‘WORK SAFE OR DIE TRYING’ written on it.
Before this, I’ve worked in nuclear power plants, a couple coal burner power plants, and a chemical plant that primarily makes acid.
Not the cool acid that me and you would do on a Saturday night if we are bored.
The kind of acid that melts people.
At my job, I weld—shielded arc, tig and mig. I also work with cranes, read blue prints, arc gouge, cut things apart with torches, jack hammer, wrench this, wrench that, dissassemble/reassemble pieces of machinery as big as a house with heavy duty impact guns—most of the time I figure I’m just getting paid to either get burnt by molten metal, soaked with fuel, soaked with rain, or just generally covered in rust, dirt and grime.
We have to stay clean shaven in case of a fire, and also to use full face respirators. The safety department comes around in the morning and checks our faces out to make sure we’re not growing big stupid Yosemite Sam mustaches or hipster beards.
I’m not complaining one bit about it. I work outside every day. There’s not really any inside work. So when it’s 100 degrees I’m outside in that. When it’s 10 degrees I’m out in that too. When it’s that cold out the best thing you can do is wear insulated wool socks. When it’s that hot out there’s nothing you can do. Just drink more water, less beer.
I like not having a desk job. I like being outside. I like being able to have a snowball fight with ten of my coworkers on the rare day when we can get away with it.
I’ve never been to college. I don’t have any education past high school, but I write. I’m that weirdo that thinks that anybody can make art and everybody should make art. It doesn’t matter who you are, your life can be improved by making some kind of art. I’ve got no formal training, and I’m pretty much the only guy I know working construction who reads books at all, but—I write.
The closest I’ve come to attending a college is NYU, when I went there with a crew to torch apart the duct work system (big enough to walk through) in the nether regions of the building. The college was in session at the time, and I’d walk through the campus in my work clothes, looking at the kids who went there like they were creatures from another planet. They were looking at me the same way.
When I got hired to do the repairs at the college there was a meeting that I had to sit through where the people from the school threatened us about having any contact with the students. We weren’t supposed to talk to them. Or look at them. We weren’t even allowed to hook up with them, which was the most ridiculous thing because that’s what they were all doing and we all the same age.
While I was working there, one of my coworkers had his hand smashed with a sledgehammer and he ran through the building with blood spraying on the clean white floor. We all bleed the same.
I’m careful of my hands.
I do most of my writing on my cellphone. I type with my thumbs on my iPhone (that I’m not supposed to have at the oil refinery anyway because it’s not intrinsically safe and could cause an explosion) (But that’s just silly, we’re causing sparks all day by welding and cutting things apart with torches).
I’m writing this right now 200 feet up in the air on top off a part of the oil refinery that makes polypropylene plastic. They take Propane and Teal and crack them together in a reactor to remove one particle from the propane, creating the plastic.
I climbed 215 steps to get here, there’s no elevator. Everything is steel grating, exposed to the elements. Platforms and catwalks, galvanized metal. Where I work often looks like a stage in Mortal Combat and this is no different. It looks like we’d be fighting on one piece of catwalk and you’d uppercut me and I’d go sailing up to the next elevation, blood gushing out of me.
If I look out across the skyline, I can see New York City where I live. I’ve lived in the city for ten years now, but I’m from New Jersey. I’m 34 years old. I weigh 215 pounds without my safety gear on. I’ve got florescent ear plugs jammed in both ears even though I was born deaf in the left ear anyway. I’ve got on safety glasses the entire time I’m here and I feel a weird doing anything without the glasses and gloves on when I punch out of this job and go back to the regular world.
Between me, NYC, I can look out there and there are countless smokestacks, highways that twist and double back on themselves, a silver river with a tug boat chugging along, a zillion cars a minute zooming north or speeding south. I’m looking out at the armpit of America, and I am a character in a Bruce Springsteen song, but I’m okay with that.
Sometimes I meet people at literary events in the city who are surprised that I don’t have an MFA, that I’m not teaching kids at a little college somewhere and that’s the most bizarre thing. I wouldn’t know where to start with any of that. Sometimes people say things like, “It’s cool that you work a real job, working with your hands …”
The guys I work construction with all talk about working ‘real jobs’ too, except they’re talking about ‘not working here’. It’s the polar opposite.
When I go to a party, people ask me about my coworkers, what they’re like. It’s like describing animals at a zoo, but I’m in the zoo too.
Power plants have an intercom system that is just a telephone that hangs on a column, house guys usually use it. But a guy I’ve worked with used to sell coke at work and would pick up the intercom and say “Sedermyer on 3”. That meant that he was on the third floor and if you wanted to come there and look for him, you could buy. His name isn’t Sedermyer.
Oil refineries get school busses during the busy time, ‘the turnaround’, and everyone who is working has to stay in a big circus tent instead of a trailer. My friend Evan, who’s dead now, used to talk about his crowning achievement at the refinery being the blowjob he got from the bus driver.
The guys I’ve worked with are storytellers, but the reports they give cannot be expatiated. Everybody repeats the stories amongst themselves. It’s the game of telephone on overdrive until before you know it you’re working with Paul Bunyon. They are a lot like poets, short story humorists, novelists and they don’t even know it.
Here’s the thing about working in nuclear power plants—you have to take a psych test to get in. They have to do an extensive background test. You go through a week of classes on ‘nuclear theory’ which teach you about splitting atoms, fission, cloud chambers, control rods, core melt down, radiation, Isobars, etc—you take all kinds of written tests about these things and if you pass, you get in. But it’s not just you (the guy going in to pull out the control rods in a radiation suit) taking the test, it’s everybody. It’s the forklift driver. It’s the janitor. It’s the person working in the cafeteria making the fried fish sandwiches.
Everybody is equal in an industrial wasteland. We all have to get safety training certified.
One last thing, when my dad worked at this refinery back in the early 80s, he had a car pool that drove up from the beach. They were working on this platform and someone had covered a hole in the grating with a piece of plywood.
The guy from his car pool fell thirty feet through the grating and broke his jaw. That was the end of the carpool.
Back in the day they went to the bar outside of the plant for lunch. Rumor has it, first thing you used to do when you got to the job was to take a oxyacetylene torch rig to the back fence and cut a section out so you could come and go as you please.