This happened a couple months ago at the steel mill. Every part of it is true. I was asked to do one of the millions of things guys like me – roughnecks – are asked to do that showcases the talents and skills that I have learned thus far in life: pick up trash. When you are asked to do a thing in the steel mill like pick up the trash, you start to contemplate your place in life. NOBODY picks up after themselves and people routinely treat the concrete floor and pretty much every surface they see as a trash can until someone like me gets asked to clean it up because, hey, boredom. I got my trash bag ready and gave it the couple of shakes you do to fill the bag with air so it can be ready to accept what ever the hell it is you are going to find up there. Then I began my journey upward. In to the maze of high rise catwalks and corridors. Hot surfaces and imperceptible CO clouds. Zinc dust rain – yes it sometimes showers little bits of cooled zinc that is blown of the strip. Off in to the great dim wonder I went, to find the things nobody gives a shit about. A couple times it was necessary to grope my way along the wall or hold on to gas lines to make sure I didn’t fall 300 feet to my death. On through the hazy dimness of the artificial light. On to the first elevator. Then, through a whole other maze of the mill and on to the second all the way to the top. 19 stories high. It’s up there where it is especially miserable. Heat rises and so does the volume of the voices in my head asking me “What the hell are doing? You are 19 stories in the air picking up a zagnut wrapper from 1985 for money?” On more than one sad occasion I’ve had no answer for them. I just listen and move on and let the thunder of the strip drown out the silence I rebuttal with. Some of the time I can get away with getting a chortle out of myself by changing the voices and what they say. Donald Trump voice: “Daryl is the most fantastic trash picker upper there is, believe me. I’m serious people. Let me tell you. Whenever there is a dirty, disgusting, oily rag that people have overlooked for a decade, Daryl will find it so good and so fast. Its magnificent. Not just rags either people I’m telling the truth. Its great. He does a fantastic job.” Or I’ll do a J.F.K. voice: “I declaihr this job to bee a majah bummah. Not because it is easy, but because – why in the flying hell is there underweahr up heeyah? Jesus people have a little class.” Ugh. The shit I find sometimes makes me ashamed of what I’ve become to be honest. Why couldn’t I have been a marine biologist on a boat somewhere on the sea in the crisp air, or an archaeologist or something adventurous? Or have no job and work freely, living low. The possibilities. How in the hell did I get to this part of life? And why do I feel like I am not where I need to be. The thought that I should be somewhere else doing something else being someone else is so deep and real sometimes I find myself gripping the handrail and looking over the edge through the 100’s of feet of air to the bottom. Not saying I would ever jump or anything like that, no. I’m not being dramatic. I just look out and wonder what is coming next. 30 more years of this? J.F.K. and Trump speak in unison: “Impossible, You’ll go crazy.”
It was up at the top amid the hazy humid artificial light, my eye caught something unusual, out of place. It looked at first to be another rag, but the texture was all wrong and the color too. As I got closer, gaping the opening of the bag I realized it was an animal. Not just an animal, but a bird! A medium sized bird of some hawk or falcon variety. I told myself I could help it somehow. Get some clean water to it and get it down to the ground level where I could let it go, or if it was in real bad shape maybe I could find a way to get it to a vet. When I got close enough to touch it my hopes were dashed. It was dead. long dead. Maybe a year give or take. Like most of the trash in this place it sat there un-noticed tucked away in a corner. Face down on a stretch of diamond plate. I rolled it over and examined it. Its bones showed through its impeccably kept and still beautifully colored feathers. When I picked it up it was nearly weightless. Around its beak was a smearing of a black liquid I could only assume was oil. Most likely during the process of starvation, it had tried to drink what it thought was water from one of the countless puddles of toxic or carcinogenic fluids this mill routinely leaks. I don’t know weather it was, in a small measure mental illness, or it was the image of the bird lying lifeless in front of me. I just sat there for a good half an hour contemplating the humanity of it all. It probably flew in the bottom through one of the truck doors and flew around for a bit before trying to get out. Through the millennia of evolution its mind most likely told it to go higher and higher still. “When I reach the sky I will be safe.” “I must fly higher.” “I must find a way out.” Little did it know, there is no way out up here. I pondered its death as well. Did it remember a favorite meadow it frequented before it died? Did it yearn for the sun on its back and the wind in its face? Did it panic before accepting its death, or did it die in the manner we as humans envision all wild animals dying. With dignity, bravery and a fearlessness devoid of self pity. However it died it died here without a soul knowing its suffering. How many shifts of people came and went below it not knowing this animal’s struggle to be free. Would it require a grand stretch of imagination to envision this bird flying from one handrail to the next thinking with it’s limited comprehension “I beat my wings against the air, but I am not free. I am not where I should be.”? And then after succumbing to it’s fate, it was not even allowed to return its remains to the earth It lay here suspended from the circle of life and the order of the natural world. That, to me, was the most profane thing about the whole image. It echoed an argument that me and Jessica had about her not wanting to be embalmed. I could see now why she thought returning her nutrients to the earth was so important. It was in this moment I simultaneously connected with this bird and had a grim epiphany. I could be this bird one day. I could fall in a basement or cellar and no one would find me for days. Hell I could have had a heart attack right then and it would be a guaranteed week before anyone would bother to look for me. “I thought he went home.” “Why didn’t he come back to work?” “Is his car in the parking lot? I don’t know What does he drive?” This place is THAT big. It has happened before.
I then had an almost irresistible urge to bury her. To canonize her. To care for her like i would have had I found her alive. After all this revelation, she was kin. She fought my fight and lost. Realizing burial was an impossibility so far away from soft earth, I carefully put her in the bag. And as I groped my way back down the dark passage, I swore under the cacophonous thunder of the mill, first to her in the bag, and then to myself: I will find a way out.