I had a lot of different jobs, many of them for short stretches. The worst conditions I worked in were at a mill in New England where my father graded wool for decades. His job was a learned skill, a trade, but the wool scouring operation required other kinds of work. The summer I was 18 years old, I learned what hard, mind-numbing work can be. I didn't last long in that job. Later, I was fortunate enough to spend most of my career in air-conditioned offices with amiable colleagues in government agencies, federal and state, working on heritage and education programs. In Lowell, Mass., the American Textile History Museum for a time had a scouring train on display, a nasty piece of business when it was turned on. For Labor Day 2018, I submit the following. The poem appears in my book What Is the City? (2006), which is out of print -- used copies are available on the web.
No adjective for the heat.
My olive-green T-shirt blackens
Before work starts on the scouring train
In the cellar of this mill.
I'm the keeper of the vats,
Three linked in a fifty-foot machine,
My train between two more.
A chute drops raw wool
Into harsh detergent soup,
Bubbling the shit out of it,
Then a big claw rakes acrid slop
From vat one to the next
Until the whole mess hits the dryers.
Like an underground sentry,
I march up and down a yard-wide walk,
Using a hoe to unclog grates
Beneath each vat where steaming
Liquid strains into a waste-way.
There are regular red alerts --
When a section plugs, muck flows over,
And scalding soapy stew boils up,
I run down to scoop out crap.
The stink of cooked sheep dung, bleach, oil, and sweat
Makes me plan to burn my jeans at home.
With no fans, no relief,
And the sight of my twenty-year-man teacher,
I know there's no tomorrow.