In the summer of 93, the planets Venus, Mars, and Saturn were in conjunction, and could be seen in the early morning sky every day. I would notice it when I left the house at 4 AM, before dawn, and walked north to the O'Hare El station on North Avenue. The planets were visible on my right side while I walked north on Chicago's gridded streets. They would stay visible through most of the train trip until the sun rose and obscured them.
This was also the summer of the great Mississippi River Floods. Abundant evidence of that would come when I got off the train at River Road and took a bus line to the Elk Grove Village industrial area. Every ditch was damp and lush. Every creek was nearly overflowing its banks. Every patch of weeds that wasn't regularly mowed was more evidence of the plentiful rain.
I could alternate observations of astronomy and hydrology with reading more parts of Ayn Rand's 'Atlas Shrugged' until I arrived at my stop. Then would come a mile of walking. Sometimes my coworkers would come off the bus with me by that point. Sometimes they would be earlier or later by one bus. Regardless, the walk would be silent, through wide uncurbed roads, filled with small factories, construction sites, and the occasional office park and fuel station.
We would walk silently while the sun warmed the ground beneath us, eventually removing our sweatshirts. Of Jaime and David, illegal immigrants from Latin America, only Jaime spoke any English, and we were all groggy from an early morning. A passing flock of geese might prompt Jaime to mimic their quacking, and then gesture with a nonexistent rifle in their direction. We'd arrive in the factory, entering from the truck bay, change into our working clothes: a light full-sleeved shirt, jeans, rubber gloves (double pair), and a double set of dust masks, we'd punch ourselves in, and get to work.
This factory did 'particle reduction', i.e. we would take various powders in, grind them down to a finer mesh specification, and send them back out. As the Mississippi floods were bringing about a higher demand for construction materials, my machine was the lime grinder. I would take two hundred pound bags of lime, cut them with a knife, and pour their contents into a basin. A water screw would then carry the powder into the higher basin, from which there was the drop into the grinding machine, which itself gave as output a lime powder so fine it was fluid. In the first phase, when the water screw was running, I would use a plastic scoop to feed the powder into the screw. When Jaime showed me the routine, he started the screw, then demonstrated with the scoop. Clanking the scoop against the helical rotor of the screw, he said "like dis, bang." Indeed, the scoop jerked when the screw touched it. He then dropped the scoop, and waving his hand to me, and said, "like dis, no hand!" The clear implication was that the water screw was a good way to lose body parts if I wasn't careful.
The water screw was noisy. But the grinding machine sounded like a jet engine. While it ran, I would strike the top basin from underneath, using a steel bar, to make sure all the dust shook into the path of the grinding arms. The dust would pass through a filter at the bottom of the machine and them into a plastic bag, latched onto the opening of the machine, nestled into a cardboard barrel, which in turn was on a footcart. When the bag filled, I would turn the machine off, close the bag, put a lid on the barrel, and place it on a pallet. The cycle would then begin anew.
Lime is a nasty substance. The stuff would form a fine layer on the skin of my arms regardless of whether or not I wore long sleeves, and it was just alkali enough to combine with my sweat and burn my skin like a day at the beach. Jaime and David worked on a much nastier machine. They would mix bags of calcium stearate, the nastiest hydrophobic substance known to man, with a milder powder known as hexamethylenetetraamine, or 'hex'. That stuff was grossly unpleasant. Dust hung in the air throughout the factory, and we all used every respite to step outside, if only for a little while, and the noise was ever there. For an 18 year old boy, this was a much, much better way to spend the last summer before college, than to vegetate, to work in a summer camp, or in a fast food store.
Apart from the drudge machine work, there was the cleaning. Sweeping meant also picking up forklift grime, which was a combination of the dust in the factory, dirt from the outside, water, and flakes off the forklift tires. There was also the mopping, but the vacuuming was the best part of it all. The vacuum cleaner was essentially an electric elephant on wheels. It had just the right shape and size.
Apart from Jaime and David, we had Jim, Al, Bert, and John. Al was a retired machine operator. He only worked part time to augment his Social Security checks. He was also the most competent guy in the plant. Bert, our foreman, knew this. The stresses of dealing with the rest of us wore him down before my eyes. His inability to communicate with Jaime and David was his first problem. Then came my lousy hearing. But there was more.
John was a lush. I only saw him twice while I worked there. The first time he worked in his end of the factory, and I worked in mine, but Walt (the factory owner) mentioned in passing that I should report him if he started hitting the bottle. The next day he did. Walt, Al, and Bert helped him to Bert's car and drove him home. It sure looked different from television. John wasn't scary, or funny. Just sad, but Walt thought nothing of it. It had happened before. John would sit just outside and sip from his flask until he could no longer stand up and run the machines. I ran John's machine for the rest of that day. It was simpler. This machine would grind soap scraps to grains the size of cat litter. No dust. No fuss. No lime. It was a good day.
Another machine I operated on was set up to grind Southern Illinois coal. This was for a study on how to remove sulfur from he coal and attack the acid rain problem. This machine was usually Jim's turf; I only got it on occasion. But then, at 2:30 every day, we'd punch out and start walking back. A bus would take us to the El, through a different part of the industrial area. By then it would be fully warm. The uncurbed roads would lead along swollen drainage ditches through the once swamp, then farm, then suburb, and now factory turf. David would scan the ditches for rubbish. One time he scored a naked Barbie doll for his daughter. I'm not sure what he did for clothes for the doll. Jim would stop at the first gas station and buy lottery tickets. He always knew what the upcoming lotto prize was. (A large road sign along the way was always up to date.) The one time he didn't remember he asked me. "I'm not a gamblin' man, Jim," I told him. "Y'oughta be, Omri, it's where the money is." I took it no further. The lottery and the Golden Gloves were what Jim did outside of work. He offered to let me do ringside for him the next time the Golden Gloves were in town. I declined the kind offer.
We'd wait right outside an office park for our bus to arrive. As the bus arrived, my mind would drift back to the book I was reading in the morning. Ever more so on the train. Everyone else had different stops from me, and we were all to exhausted for much small talk. This was how I got through the obligatory Atlas Shrugged phase.
Lime is a nasty thing to have to handle. The calcium stearate hex mixture was even nastier. But the coal was where the poetic nastiness was. The factory was grinding loads of the stuff to dust for a study on how to remove the sulfur from Illinois coal. So a small machine was devoted to grinding it. Coal left you with black hands with which to repulse the customers at the nearby Dunkin' Donuts come lunchtime. But it didn't irritate you. It didn't itch or burn, and it didn't weasel its way past your face mask. All it did was give you the perfect look for riding the bus and train on the way back.
Lime was king during those months, unfortunately. This was the summer of the great Mississippi River floods, and the destruction meant a need for lime for concrete, whitewash, and so many other uses for all the construction going on.
Even nastier, however, was the sodium nitrate in the machine that only Bert was supposed to handle. It was reactive enough that the area around it had to stay dry, or else. I should have learned what 'else' meant by reading the material safety leaflet on the stuff. Instead I learned it a different way. At 10 O'clock one morning a fire sprang out from the nitrate grinder. I was mopping near it when I heard the sound of firecrackers. From behind the curtain I saw a bright green glow and Bert fleeing. Without any idea what fire extinguisher to use, all I could do was watch this oddly pretty flame, as it grew to a man-sized oval shape, like an emerald. I later learned that the standard baking soda extinguisher would have put out this fire. This was what Bert did in order to save himself, me, Jaime, David, and the factory.
Eventually the summer wore down, and one day I gave notice. I missed the infrequent bus that day, and Walt gave me a ride to the El station. "You know how that fire happened, Omri? ", he remarked during the ride. "No, Walt. I know there was an arc when Bert plugged something in, but that's all know." "Jim's illiterate, you know. The first time I gave him a ride to the train, I asked him which was the nearest station and he answered 'the place where all the bikes are at'. Bert put up a sign by the sodium nitrate machine so Jim wouldn't mop it, but Jim couldn't read it, so he mopped anyway. Then when Bert came to plug the machine in, there was an arc from the moisture and from all that nitrate dust in the air." Hot damn. For months I never realized this. The day I left the plant for MIT, Jim was getting ready for the Golden Gloves.