Working meant sparks and steel dust when I was a child. My father labored by day in a factory sharpening the milling tools that cut and form metal; after dinner he descended into our basement and a battery of machines, doing the same work as a side business. At age 12 I began grinding steel. I was on track to make this my living. Then I began writing and left blue-collar life. But I couldn’t really leave it behind.
I was there for the steel-mill shutdowns in the late 1970s and later collaborated on Journey to Nowhere, about ruined steelworkers in Youngstown, Ohio, and the new homeless who were the victims of deindustrialization. One character in the book was Joe Marshall Sr., who had come back from the D-Day Normandy invasion to his job at US Steel’s Ohio Works. A decade after his son was hired on, the company closed the mill and then dynamited it. Joe took us to the mile-long ruins in 1983. As he surveyed the rubble he said, “What Hitler couldn’t do, they did it for him.”
Joe spoke to the wind, not in response to any question of mine. It was a comment not of rage but of defeat, a sentiment we found among many others we documented. Despair was the norm.
A dozen years later, my collaborator, photographer Michael Williamson, and I returned to Youngstown, and traveled again across America. What was different, and startling, was the level of anger that we discovered. Defeat had morphed into wrath. In Warren, Ohio, there had just been a strike at a steel mill over a plan to sell it, which would have incurred debt and might have led to its shutdown. Homemade bombs were thrown and windows smashed in a fury. Some workers said they would have dynamited the blast furnace had they lost, effectively killing the mill. “Blowing it up would be better than going through that again,” a worker said as someone gave me one of their bombs from the successful fifty-four-day strike, referring to the other shutdowns they had endured in nearby Youngstown.
Everywhere, we listened to people equally as bitter as the men of Warren–people who worked in textiles or the service economy. But what did the anger mean? It just seemed to be flailing, unfocused, drifting like the smoke from the bomb in the desert wind after we detonated it in the Mojave near old US Route 66. Even the full-band version of the song “Youngstown”–which Bruce Springsteen credits with having been inspired by our book–ends not with the steelman rising politically but simply eschewing heaven for the “fiery furnaces of hell.”
Then came the morning that I watched the second tower go down from my Manhattan rooftop. I looked to the west beyond the New Jersey Palisades. I thought of the anger in the middle of the country. Beginning on Christmas Eve, I spent the next two and a half years largely in the nation’s center. I drove thousands of miles and talked with hundreds of people. I went specifically to the places and people and events ignored by the national press.