Newark at dawn. Me at the airport, sitting in the smokers' ghetto, sucking down Camels like there's no tomorrow, or if there is, I'm still going to be stuck in the airport waiting for a delayed flight. The sky is that shade of bright grey, like mother-of-pearl in front of an arc lamp, that you only see at dawn, and never expect even then.

In the misty distance, I can see giant sets of metal scaffolding, construction cranes maybe, but big even for that, artifacts of some alien civilization that landed in Newark, built an idol to their incomprehensible god at a scale that made sense to them but not us, and left never to return. The Budweiser brewery belches steam and neon light, we hopeless, self-destructive smokers give each other knowing looks out of the corners of our eyes, and somehow, briefly, all's right in the world.

The ride into Newark was like a painstakingly illustrated moving diorama of the Failures of Western Civilization: boarded up broken-windowed factories that you can't believe ever really made anything, tenements, an honest-to-god Maximum Security Prison. Depressing, in context, but all it takes is a little twist in thinking to dissociate this landspace from the actual human pain it represents, and think of it as the philosophical idea of Pain miraculously made manifest, a Bosch hellscape you can drive through, and it becomes a thing of beauty because it's so goddamn pure.

But now at the airport it's somehow different. Maybe because instead of being sealed instead my articulated steel and glass bubble, I'm sitting with other people, maybe because dawn's breaking now, maybe just because. We're all dwarfed by the landscape - even the roof of the smoking area is maybe thirty feet up, but we're all still here, still busy killing ourselves maybe, but that's doing something. I don't know any of these people, they don't know me, but I feel like we're all somehow conspirators together, all in on some desperate mission or horrible crime. Like if we all put our minds to it, we could crack the roof above us, send the prison walls tumbling down, sweep the factories into the sea. Probably we can't. Certainly we won't. But for one still, clear moment, I feel like we already have.

The 6:58 a.m. train from Jamaica, Queens to Hewlett, Long Island...

There is actually a sign near the Jamaica train station (Sutphin Blvd. and Archer Ave.) that reads "Jamaica Industrial Zone". The sign is surrounded by tens of ramshackle, uninhabited grey buildings, probably warehouses. Also, an outdoor plant at which a machine can be seen churning some sort of slag. Incidentally, the plant is not visible from the street. As such, it is visible from the train track.

Within a radius of a few blocks there is a livestock market- possibly a vibrant point of life at a less god-forsaken hour, but at 6:58 the only movement to be seen is the arm of the above-mentioned machine, rising and falling in a huge tub of grey matter. Grey buildings, grey slag, grey streets, grey sky- before sunrise everything is grey. In the right mood the monochrome is beautiful, if in nothing else than the ambiguity of its everpresent sentiment.

And then by 7:20 I am in nouveau riche Hewlett Bay Park, where the teenagers I pass carry around purple or green or blue heads of hair in a laughable attempt to look urban.

When I was deployed to Saudi Arabia one of my units tasks was to implement security for a number of Patriot missile bases in the area surrounding Riyadh. I recall one base in particular was within a kilometer or two of an enormous oil refinery. This place was the size of a small city and dominated the skyline to the north.

As you may or may not be aware, Saudi Arabia does not have the stringent environmental regulations that some of us are accustomed to. As far as I know Saudi Arabia doesn’t have any environmental regulatory committee. This refinery took advantage of this lack of regulation. The pressure release flame was constantly lit and must have stood several hundred feet high. It was impossible to miss during the day, and at night it illuminated the desert. It was bright enough that you needed no extra light to work in the evening.

The flame itself varied from bright orange to a deep purple, depending I imagine on what impurities were being released at the time. It cast an eerie glow over the entire base, and made nightly patrols just that much more tense. I always imagined that this must have been what Herbert had seen to create his vision of Giedi Prime. Unwieldy and frightening, but industrially enticing.

Of course that sort of thing comes with a price. One day a group of rather professional looking people visited and took a bunch of soil and air samples. They instructed the female soldiers stationed with the missile unit not to attempt pregnancy for three years. Each of us received a biohazard tag to clip to our uniforms and were instructed to notify our command immediately if it ever turned colors. To this day I am an unworthy blood donor.

I have seen the morning shaded by clouds of chlorine. I have seen the sky aflame with flares of gas 100 feet high. The warning sirens sing to the beat of pumps and motors. Instant awareness that the wind blows my way. Moments panic fumbling for mask. running to shelter thoughts invade Is it the right mask? which plant is leaking gas? Look to the old who have survived this before. look out for the young hanging around the door. Shelter in place. hope it is just a release. Feel the ground shake. Is it time to jump and race? surrounded by toxic fumes talk is soft and somber like at a tomb. there are three air packs and eight men in the room. but breathing doesn't matter the outside air may remove your skin. Hope the seals hold, pray for the wind sorry for downwind people but I need my skin. Outside looks clear but the invisible killers may still be there. one hour turns to two. Calling family making light of our plight. "people are working on it, everything will be alright." no talk from safety no talk from help fires burn brutal blue and green upwind from here. Two hours turn to three. Eating someone's lunch makes me wonder where he is riding the leak out. worry starting to show on faces of the ones who know. Time is not on our side. wish I was home. wish I could go outside.

Horns Blow All Clear - Leak stopped - fires out - tension released with a loud shout.

Walking out the gate - swapping shifts - talking to operators awaiting a lift. Look around columns and tanks as far as I can see. Money made by the gallon and the standard cubic foot. making plastic, fertilizer, and paint with our lives. But I am walking out not being carried. Another day we cheated death for a dollar but death is patient and can wait another day.

In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, just behind Squirrel Hill the slag heap stands. It used to be like a volcano, trucks would come and dump still-hot slag from the blast furnaces. It released acrid fumes. There was no life on the slag heap then.

The american steel industry crashed, and Pittsburgh, that used to have enough smelters and coke plants to turn the sky and the brick facades black, is now a depressed, sleepy, pleasant town, where the retired steel workers look at the blue sky over Carnegie Mellon University. The old grimness is mostly gone,

But the slag heap is still there, a grey mass over which nothing grows. Take a walk there, early in the morning. Be careful, for the edges crumble, and you would not want to tumble all the way down to the Ohio river.
A miracle happens every now and then: some hardy seeds manage to take root in stuff from which all earthly vitality has been leeched and blasted by chemicals and fire.

I even saw a little tree. The slag is not uniform: it has layers and pockets, and maybe the tree, shaking in the dawn chill, found the lucky spot.
I do not read hope in that tree. I suspect it to be doomed. It stands overmuch alone, a single green thing in the grey. Someone (a man, the weather, an animal) will take exception to its singularity. It is not meet that trees stand alone, says the world.

How long will the slag heap last ? I say that it is good for some millenia. Maybe enough wind-blown dirt will accumulate on it that in some time it will look just like another hill. But at its cold core, remembering the fire, the old grayness, the industrial cold, will endure.

I was born in the fallout plain of a smelter. The world's largest nickel refinery loomed on the edge of my hometown, the axis of radiating arms of mine headframes and abandoned open pits. 200 years of burning rock, pregnant with sulfur, made the Earth acid. When I was born, my city was a man made hell. It left a mark on me, body and soul.

Highway 17E runs through Sudbury, Ontario east to west. Like a creeping cancer, the INCO industrial complex at Copper Cliff sprawls. It is a testament to man's contempt for nature. We claw deep into the earth, tear the silvery veins from solid rock, and feed the sky brimstone and fire.

I was coming back to town after a weekend spent at big city doctors down south. My body had recently decided that my skin was not my own and was trying to shed it, like a snake. "Environmental factors". The fact that I used to play outside when you could taste and see the sulfur dioxide from the stacks at Falconbridge played some role. We drove all night, and as a boy I never slept in the car. Travel in Ontario is measured in hours, not miles. We crested the last hill before the smelter-refinery just as the disk of the sun crawled above the bare black stained hills.

Miles of metal shone in devilish light. Things at Copper Cliff are on a scale that awes my mind. Pipes the size of highways, tiny walkways clinging like remoras on sharks, rows and rows of blinking aircraft warning lights, stacks and gaslines. It spreads completely across the valley, like a cybernetic implant bursting from the skin of the world. Smoke belching concrete reaches for heaven. A black slag mountain holds up the sun. The far off tailings ponds glow an unnatural aquamarine, so full of acid that the pH kills. You can see all the way to the pristine bottom of those dead ponds. Railroad tracks of impossible complexity spread like veins. No trees have grown here for years. Grass is all that can survive, and it has trouble. Raw timbers and posts decay at an unnatural speed, and a wreath of hydro lines hang in the air like a web. Yellow Black billboard signs point out separate parts of the complex. The copper refinery has green windows, like a rusted penny. The acid plant stands over the rail line like a sawhorse, filling the black tankers. The chrome gas leak warning horns sound like air raid sirens, but they are quiet today. The main smelter houses the Superstack, a Titan of concrete you can see miles out of town, God's own cigarette. The road runs right through the belly of the Beast, lifeblood of the city.

I am home.

5 November 1989, Postcards from Hell

An absurdly lush tropical sunset, is sinking into Singapore Bay.  Black shapes crowd the foreground like a tangled pile of sticks and wires.  Sound! The chaotic tortured cry of a million poorly maintained machines. All screaming for attention.  Center stage is occupied by the scientific research vessel JOIDES Resolution which is stranded high and dry in the enormous concrete pit that passes for a drydock.  The huge ship seems befuddled somehow, like the last dying member of it's species stranded in an an alien environment.  Literally a beached whale.

Smoke rises lethargically from the deep pit. Not smoke, worse yet, the poisonous grimy haze of sand blasted metal covering all surrounding surfaces like a shroud.  Coating your eyes and lungs as you stand and gape. At the bottom of the pit, vaguely humanoid shapes scuttle around in the deepening gloom.  Their motion seems purposeful but oddly undirected.  Hive behavior. Fire Ants wielding dangerous probosci: pneumatic needle guns, howling metal saws, stroboscopic arc welders.

Perfecting the ship's humiliation are its two giant propellers scattered uselessly under her stern.  A group of drydock workers are eating hurried dinner squatting on the once proud flukes.  Up on the rim of the drydock pit a line of Rez crewmembers shuffle along stoically as they wait to use the pestilent dockyard toilets.  The ship's sewage system is being overhauled and those of us who must live aboard are condemned to squalor.  A grey wharf rat the size of a cat scurries along the cableway, causing a few of the men to flinch involuntarily.  No one in the line is smiling.

Aboard the world famous research vessel the decks are lined with cables, hoses gas lines and a bizarre plastic tubesnake that simultaneously vents noxious fumes and supplies semi-breathable air below decks.  The galley looks like a scene from ET, the Extra Terrestial, the part where the Men in Black try to kill the helpless space alien.  Visitors to the ship invariably migrate to the ship's Lounge, usually a quiet sanctuary.  At the moment, this strategy proves to be a very big mistake.  The normally sedate Science Lounge is a seething chaos of toxicity; fumes, dust, sweating bodies and ear numbing noise.  The entire lab stack is well over 100 degrees.  It has been for weeks now.  The place has that equilibrated feeling that means, even when the air conditioning does finally come back online, it will be days before it actually cools off in here.  Most of us working in the labs really don't know if the chromatographs, cameras, computers and microscopes we are responsible for will actually come back to life when the power comes on.  No one has ever done anything like this to them before.

It's dark in the Lab Stack.  Not pitch black, but a surrealistic horror-movie twilight that combines with the heat and moist smoky air to cast a dreamy liquidy light.  Every shadow is sharply etched, unequivocal blackness that defies scrutiny.  If you drop your safety glasses, you'd better have a flashlight or you'll never see them again.  In the Core Lab, the predominate sound is the rhythmic throb of a giant electric fan, pushing the hot stale air from side to side.  People are working here,  dripping, grouchy people, moving in a plodding and  stunned mannerTime passes very slowly for these people.

Droplights reveal new lab furniture stacked against the wall.  The color appears to be various shades of dusty blue, dusty olive blue, dusty green....hard to say for sure.  Prefab maple countertops are stacked behind the new chairs awaiting installation.  The sickly sweet smell of epoxy, carpet shards and small hillocks of empty cardboard boxes, attest to the fact that installation of all components is underway. Simultaneously.  Everything is on a deadline and we're behind.

Near the door to the Operations Superintendent's office is a stack of well-used ice chests.  The contents of these plastic boxes comprise the sum total of all human sustenance aboard the ship.  This meager stack of Personal Pan Pizzas, Big Macs, Whoppers, Kentucky Fried nuggets and Mandarin hairy-crab noodles (thanks to Michiko, who's more creative than the rest of us), represent the thin thread that binds us to the rest of humanity.  The sight of something so deliciously mundane as junkfood is enough to make our eyes water with longing.  We all want this to end.

Time passes.  At last, it's time for us to leave this awful placeTime to emerge from the pit and be relieved by the oncoming shift.  We look up expectantly as two headlights bounce down the dock.  A battered minivan pulls up beside us and disgorges the Day Crew, still warm and drowsy from their beds.  We nod, they nod. There isn't much to say for the crossover.  No good news except that we're another day closer to deliverance.

In the east, the sunrise is peeking over the slag piles and steel buildings. Bluish laser beams slatting through the clouds in competition with the sharp snapping sparks of arc welding down in the pit.  We board the bus and, in a moment, are gone.


On the edge of the parking lot with my back to the overhead lights,
I could see an odd little clearing with a tree-lined perimeter not a hundred yards
from the back door of the multiplex and not fifty yards from the dumpsters.

Two particular trees, side-by-side on the left-hand side of the clearing, were odd.
Supported between them was a third, massive and long and very obviously not alive
but not hewn, either, the very opposite of a 2-by-4,
or maybe a cousin supported by two opposites.

But that wasn't right, either,
as the trees keeping the pole vertical were very much dead,
their trunks split at least halfway down by the fallen pillar,
cleaved harshly by a javelin the length of a semitrailer.

I was fascinated by this little altar; little not because of the effort necessary
or because of the masses involved, but because of its scale
compared to the sheer concrete wall of the movie theater
just out of sight outside the clearing.

It certainly wasn't my space: empty beer cans and soda bottles littered the grass
and the background whiff of stale garbage carried over from nearby,
but it felt decorous, almost. It felt necessary, as if this tiny patch of green
was counterbalancing an entire economy.

- - -

I was haunting the rail yard that winter, waiting on a train, deciphering graffiti,
when I saw the high-tension power lines. Their poles were rough-hewn and knotted,
and each of them lived in a patch of ground wherever it was necessary
to light what needed lighting, like tiny little pockets of industry cut into the world.

The holy buzz I felt in the little clearing, like energy from above; it was precisely that.

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