By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Lit Writer
You probably don’t imagine a young woman who has been published in Ploughshares and Best American Essays wrapping T-Rex-sized coils of processed steel and operating a crane, but Eliese Colette Goldbach did just that for three years working at the ArcelorMittal Cleveland Temper Mill.
“It is so different from what most people experience in their daily lives,” Goldbach told the Current recently by phone. “It was hard to convey the scope and size of the equipment. At various times I tried to boil it down in ways that people might understand, like ‘this piece weighs as much as an SUV.’ It’s amazing what you get used to when you’re down there. These things become normal — they become part of your daily life.”
The work required endurance, intelligence and tenacity. It demanded that workers balance on an edge between audacity and vigilance. When working 12-hour shifts in these conditions, around colossal moving equipment, train tracks, chemicals, and heat, danger is everywhere.
Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit (Flatiron Books, 2020), is Goldbach’s account of her time as a steelworker — the first day walking around the sprawling behemoth of a mill, learning to drive a forklift, skimming molten steel for waste product, and banding towering coils of steel for shipping. She worked almost constantly through her first six months in training before becoming an official member of the United States Steelworkers of America.
“This is really hard to explain. I was basically spilling raw materials into these big huge bins that held hundreds of tons of stuff,” she said. “There was this dust in the air — I think dolomite was one of the things. It was unbearably hot, it was summer, and you’re right above these huge furnaces that can explode or leak carbon monoxide into the air. You have your little carbon monoxide monitor and hope nothing goes wrong. It’s definitely an insane environment to be in.”
She describes the nitty-gritty of the different jobs she performed in the mill but she also details what the work required of her physically and emotionally. She conveys the soul-breaking exhaustion unique to shift work and the bone-tiredness that comes with making steel. She writes about knocking elbows with a few co-workers, and the bonds she formed with others.
She also writes about the unexpected joys of working in the mill. Most of us spend most of our time at work, but there are so few books, shows and movies that revolve around the things that take us through our days, most days of our life. But Goldbach allows the reader to feel the confidence she gains as she masters precise work in demanding conditions.
She grew up driving by the mill, seeing the iconic flame of the old Republic Steel plant. That flame is a powerful symbol for Cleveland itself. According to Goldbach, it symbolizes the relevance of the place and the fact that this is a city, like Pittsburgh, built to make things. However, that in no way prepared her for life inside the mill.
She says, “I think the flame came to symbolize various things. I remember I was afraid of it when I was young and I didn’t like to breathe when I was near the flame. Then it became a symbol of my own economic freedom. Then, because of the crushing hours of the mill and the danger of the job, I started to resent the flame a little bit.”
But Rust is more than just an account of Goldbach’s time in the mill: it is a snapshot of all the things that brought her there. It is about economic anxiety, her ambitions and fears, and her coming to grips with bipolar disorder.
The child of very conservative parents who loved Ronald Reagan and listened to Rush Limbaugh, the brand of Catholicism practiced by Golbach’s family can best be described as evangelical. She believed very much in heaven and hell. When things went wrong in her life — even when she was the victim of sexual violence — she went to confession. Needless to say, she did not grow up in a pro-union household.
And yet, what remains is a deep love and respect for her union brothers and sisters. Even now that she has hung up her hard-hat and teaches at John Carroll University, that feeling of togetherness and taking care of one another is what stays with her.
“I still pass it and wish I could go back down there and be with people because I miss that camaraderie and solidarity that you find, especially in a union shop.”