Metal and Possibility

williamsjessewilliams
Photo by Jesse Williams.

The first thing Ian Alderman bought with money he made at his father’s scrapyard was an old aluminum Doublemint gum sign. That was more than 20 years ago, when he was twelve. Back then, he hauled metal in the scrapyard’s warehouse on Saturdays. Now, Ian works five days a week. The scrapyard has earned him a house in Westville, a pick-up truck, and enough money to plan for kids. It has earned his father a Lexus sedan and an indoor pool.

Pool, Lexus, money, and all have come from old metal and the hard work of breaking that old metal down and collecting enough of it to make it worth something. To this end, the scrapyard hums. In the warehouse, a crew of workers spends the day turning out bales of scrap — big cubes of material crushed together in a garbage-compactor-like device called a baler. Before it goes to the baler, the scrap has to be sorted and cleaned of plastic, wood, and anything else that’s not metal. One of the crew — a toothless old man named Nate — uses a foot-pedal to operate a pair of hydraulic, hardened-steel shears, which slice through anything that fits between their six-inch blades, chopping plastic off radiators and tires off wheels. I tell Ian that the shears look like they’d take off your fingers like they were cutting your nails. He tells me that his uncle lost much of a hand to them. In the back of the warehouse, the bales — #1 copper, #2 copper, old aluminum, clean aluminum, die-cast aluminum — sit stacked and waiting to be sold. Each month, Ian watches about a million pounds of this stuff come and go.

He explains most of this in the scrapyard’s office, after five o’clock, when the yard is quiet and the warehouse shuttered. Ian is sitting piled over his knees, with his forearms on his thighs, speaking in a monotone that breaks to swing up insistently at the end of every sentence. For a while, his gaze is on his work-boots, or on the floor. Staring at me are the sides of his bright red beard and a head of hair that takes after the rust he washes out at the end of every day. When he looks up, his eyes are impassive — and when he walks, his arms are impassive too: usually they just hang at his sides, half-awkwardly, like idle cranes. Ian is tall, like his father and brother, but unlike them, he is heavy-set and has a round face. I wonder, for a second, whether his father ever fears he was cuckolded by a big red giant.

Ian is still wearing his navy-blue jumpsuit, complete with a little nametag that reads “Ian” in car-mechanic cursive. Aside from a few decorative calendars and some toy dump trucks stapled to the drywall, the office is bare and mimics the yard outside. It is too small, it smells funny, and it is overwhelmed with things. Among them are a Valu-Size bottle of ibuprofen and somewhere, Ian says, a small handgun or two. Here and there the room itself has given up on right-angled order. The ceiling sags. The closet is misaligned, and the window-frame leans so far as to be more parallelogram than square. Ian never wanted to be here.

***

Nor, maybe, did Ian’s great-grandfather. Ian says that Max Alderman became a scrap collector because it was the only job a Jewish immigrant could do in New Haven in 1895. Whether or not that’s true, Ian has a theatrical rendition of his ancestor making the rounds — “Trash! Trash!” — to back it up. Max’s yard was called “Alderman on Dow Street” — to distinguish it from a competing scrapyard operated by Ian’s great grand-uncle — but time shortened the name to Alderman-Dow. And as it happened, Alderman-Dow outlived Dow Street itself. Ian is clearly proud of how long his family has been in the business: “We’ve been recycling since before it was a word.” ­­

Dow Street still exists on an archaic map hung in the office, though only Ian’s father can pick it out. In this ocean of an office, Norm Alderman knows where the used and useful things are. His face is gaunt and his eyes are steel gray, and even though he’s going on 70, he still spends most of the day at the larger of the office’s two desks, filling out forms and making phone calls. He looks like he could do it all in his sleep. Ian’s brother Jay spends part of the day doing similar work. With barely any hand in the management of the business, Ian spends little time in the office: mostly, he’s dealing with customers. That’s because Jay has been at Alderman-Dow for 11 years, while Ian has only been there for four and a half. That was not the original plan.

“Everyone thought I would take over the business,” says Ian. Although he and Jay both heard the scrapyard’s news every night over the dinner table — what came in, what went out, what broke down — and although they both remember hearing how excited their dad was when they hired Art, who now operates the big blue crane (and hearing it all again when their dad found out later that Art could operate a crane), Ian was the one who worked in the scrapyard as a kid.

Then, in high school, Ian began to be pulled away from the yard by a bundle of activities he calls “the arts.” “It’s the other family business,” he says. “My mom’s grandma was an actress, and my mom was into the arts.” Which arts, he doesn’t say. For Ian, it was writing, tap-dancing, stand-up comedy, and above all, acting. And so Saturday rehearsals replaced Saturday work at the scrapyard. When he went off to Muhlenberg College, he kept acting. “I liked the irreverence of it all. There’s a certain kind of knowledge you have to accept to laugh at absurd theater,” he says. “It pulls out the underbelly of basic human feelings.”

After college, Ian moved to Milwaukee to act in its repertory theater, but he tarried in Allentown for a final summer to perform alongside his long-time crush in “The Last Night of Ballyhoo.” Now she’s his wife, and when he says so, he cracks a smile.

When his year at the Milwaukee Rep was over, Ian set out for Chicago. There, he fought a pitched battle to break into the world of professional stage acting. Waiting tables to support himself, Ian studied drama and improvisational comedy. He performed when he could, spending stints in a handful of comedy troupes — even founding his own — and sometimes being cast in full plays. In 2003, Ian performed at the well-regarded Utah Shakespeare Festival for six months in Cedar City. There he had roles in “Macbeth” and “Much Ado About Nothing,” and — his favorite — in “Richard III,” which made it appropriate that problems of fate and family lineage beset Ian just after the festival ended. It’s hard to tell whether Ian remembers his time in Chicago fondly: it was the closest he ever came to living his dream, and yet it was also the long moment in which his dream stalled and failed him. When he talks about Utah, though, Ian’s voice picks up, as if, for a moment, it had all ended differently.

By the time Ian finished “Richard III,” Jay had been back at the scrapyard for about five years, having abandoned his dreams of teaching white-water kayaking and returned to fill the space left by the retirement of his first cousin. Now, Ian’s uncle Elliot — the one who lost part of his hand — was about to retire too. All eyes were on Ian to take Elliot’s place. There was no one else in the family who could: Elliot’s daughters were both in New York, one a lawyer, one a social worker. “I didn’t want to come home,” Ian says.

There’s a way in which any family business has a unique power over the lives of the family involved — evident in the t-shirt Jay gave me at the scrapyard, which bears the motto “Recycle or Die.” And, between Jay and Norm, there was almost an Alderman tradition of returning from the wider world to fill a hole at the scrapyard. Jay had left his rivers, and Norm had given up a life in New York City, as well as business school, to keep the yard afloat after his own father had died. “I was led to believe there wouldn’t be much money for me if I didn’t come home,” Ian says. It took him more than a year to make the decision. But in the end, the scrapyard collected Ian Alderman, and now Ian collects scrap.

“I like to say I came home to run the longest-running show in town,” he says. It is not an easy show to run: loud noise, angry people, dirty metal, heavy lifting, long hours. But the hardest part, he says, “is the reality of not pursuing a professional acting career anymore.” He pauses, and looks for a while out the door to his left. “But you know, the money’s very good here, and it allows for me to, uh …” he trails off again, and then catches his thought “… support the theater that I’m making now in town.”

He’s referring to the theater company he founded when he came home: “A Broken Umbrella Theatre.” They write and perform original work, Ian says, mostly about the history of New Haven. “We wrote a musical inspired by the man who donated Edgewood Park, in Westville. He was a writer … and his pen name was ‘Ik Marvel,’ which means ‘I dream’ in Dutch. So we wrote a story for kids about stepping away from your smartphone and allowing yourself to dream.”

***

Today, out on the yard, it’s snowing flakes of paint and steel. As usual, Ian is indoors buying scrap. First, that means weighing scrap. Alderman-Dow has two scales — a small one for carts, bins, and buckets, and a big one for cars and trucks. Right now, there’s a long line for both of them. A chubby man in an oversized polo shirt has just dropped a bucket of metal — mostly piping — on the small scale, and he tells Ian that it’s “number two copper,” that is, copper with a few bits of soldering and some brass nuts and joints. Ian needs to make sure this man is telling the truth: if there’s other metal in the bucket, Ian will be paying for more copper than he’s getting, and copper is relatively valuable. Sure enough, Ian manages to fish a few stainless steel doorknobs and light-bulb sockets out of the bucket. Sometimes this sort of mix-up is the customer’s honest mistake, but sometimes it isn’t. “You’re protecting your possessions here every day. Every guy who comes over that scale with a brick underneath his aluminum, that’s my money I’m paying out,” Ian tells me later.

He tosses the doorknobs and sockets aside and writes down the weight of the remaining copper on a little Levitra-brand notepad that sits above the scale. Then he gives the bucket a loveless kick off the scale, rolls the doorknobs and sockets back on, records the weight, and kicks them aside as well. Amidst all this clattering, while the next scrapper loads the scale, Ian steps over to the desk beneath the window and records the weights and types of metal in a musty ledger book. “Eleven dollars,” he says. He pulls an enormous roll of cash from his pocket, and hands a ten and a one to the man who brought the bucket. He gives the man a sincere but well-worn “Thank you,” and turns back to the scale.

Next up is a friend: “What’s up man, where you been?” Ian asks with a big grin.

“Haven’t had much time to be scrappin’,” the friend replies. Ian hands him a flyer for the latest “Broken Umbrella” production.

“Come check out my play, man.”

“You’re directing it? No shit!” It’s a reaction Ian seems to be used to. By this time, Ian’s friend has his money and is heading out the door. Someone else is already on the scale, and now the phone is ringing too.

***

Almost all businesses that buy and sell material goods are part of a vast distribution system, producing things — shoe things, washer-dryer things, computer things — in a few central factories, and then shipping them out to cities and towns and villages and eventually into millions of people’s hands and homes. But scrapyards work in the opposite direction. Scrapyards are part of the collection system, drawing things from millions of hands and homes — broken things, used things, still-working but stolen things — breaking them down further, and then shipping them up to larger scrapyards and eventually back into one of a few central mills, where they will be melted down — 140 tons at a time — and sent to the factories again, afresh. Where most businesses push things out, scrapyards suck them in. If Ford Motors and General Electric are the world’s arteries, then scrapyards are its veins. The heart that separates vein from artery, simultaneously the beginning and the end, is a cavernous furnace.

Following things along the arteries is pretty easy: most companies can trace any of their products, anywhere in the world, back to an individual factory. Following things along the veins — from the scrapyards back to the furnace — is much harder. For most metals, there are an impossible number of buyers, aggregators, exporters, and mills: so if you want to trace scrap, it needs to be at least a little bit special. From Alderman-Dow, your best bet is stainless steel. Alderman-Dow only sells stainless scrap to two places, and there are only three operational stainless steel mills in the United States. That means there are only a handful of possible paths between stainless steel in Alderman-Dow’s warehouse and a furnace somewhere. In the great venous system that pulls metal to mills, there is no absolute certainty about what goes where. But it’s fair to say that a lot of Alderman-Dow’s stainless scrap will make its way through McKeesport, Pennsylvania, by truck and by tugboat, to North American Stainless Steel’s facility on the banks of the Ohio River in Kentucky.

When a load comes in at North American Stainless, it usually comes by barge. The scrap is hoisted off by a crane, which doubles as the first of five radiation detectors that will scan the metal before it reaches the furnace. Then it’s trucked to the storage yard. North American, like most major mills, is required by law to be able to trace any end product back to its source material, so at the storage yard, each individual shipment of scrap is kept consolidated. When it comes time to smelt, they’ll take from one lot until they’ve used it up, and all of the eventual products will bear a corresponding, identical tracking number. A series of cranes delivers the scrap, 70 tons at a time, into one of two furnaces. These furnaces burn at over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s a tense moment: if there are any intact containers — beer kegs, water tanks — in the scrap, the air trapped in them will expand so explosively in the furnace’s heat that they will detonate like bombs.

Once two 70-ton loads are inside and the doors are closed, the process of turning steel into a liquid is conducted with computerized finesse. Three electrodes are lowered into the furnace and a current is applied across them. “What you’re creating is basically artificial lightning,” says Ignatio Pascaul, the director of marketing at North American. That lighting does the final job of effacing the scrap’s former identity. Pretty soon there are no forks or pots or monogrammed watches inside the furnace — just metal and possibility. We have learned how to give steel that which we do not know how to give ourselves: new lives, end on end, each unburdened by prior forms and prior failings.

Over the next 40 to 90 minutes, the computer analyzes the molten metal, and various compounds are added to the furnace to produce the desired grade of stainless steel. The furnaces operate around the clock. On a good day, that means 24 loads, or heaps — nearly 3400 tons of stainless. From the furnace, the steel is delivered to a refining vessel, then to a caster, then to a hog-roller, and ends up as slabs about two inches thick, four feet wide, and 30 feet long. From these slabs, the first products are made — tanks for gas, mostly. The remaining steel is cold-rolled into thinner slabs and shipped out for finishing. There are more end products than Ignatio can list: food containers, utensils, and cooking equipment; kitchenware, jewelry, and cars; aircraft and laboratory equipment; oil rigs and eyeglasses. And piece by piece, year by year, most of these will make their way back to the scrapyard again.

***

It’s late October in New Haven, and now it’s snowing real snow: flakes so big you can hear them landing on the warehouse roof. Out in the yard, two enormous cranes tend small mountains of junk. The junk, like most things in the scrapyard, is deceptively well-organized, and the cranes’ principle job is to help it become more so. One of the cranes — “the yellow one” to me, “the Volvo” to Ian — is armed with a huge lobster-like shear and spends its days biting water tanks and I-beams down to a manageable size. The other crane is a blue giant equipped with a grapple that looks like the sort of thing a Martian robot would use to pick up your car and throw it off a bridge. And the blue crane does pick cars up, when it has to — even flat-bed trucks, plunging its talons indifferently through windshield and roof and hoisting the whole thing to the appropriate spot on the appropriate mountain.

Under Ian’s supervision, the truck is being maneuvered atop a pile of what’s called light iron, where it joins beat-up iterations of just about every mostly-metal object you can think of: refrigerators, school desks, ironing boards; satellite dishes and washing machines; car doors and trashcans; bicycles, tricycles, and the rear half of a pickup truck. Across from the light iron, in between the blue crane and the yellow one, is the primary pile of “cleaner” steel — that is, steel with less wood and plastic and rubber attached to it. This pile apparently has well-organized sub-piles of the various grades of steel within it, but to me it’s an indistinguishable mountain of chewed-up I-beams and sheets and tanks. No one can say anymore what these used to be, or what they used to be part of: buildings, barges, bridges. It’s all just “plate and structural.” The truck falls into place, the crane reaches for a new load, and Ian goes back inside.

Four miles north and west of Alderman-Dow, in Westville, “A Broken Umbrella Theatre” has turned the boiler room of an old red-brick factory into a theater. In the parking lot, in the shadow of the crumbling smokestack, they’ve set up several tents. One is a make-shift box office, but the others house posters from prior shows, historical pictures, and documents relevant to the plot of their current production, called “A Play With Matches” and based on the life of a local inventor, Ebenezer Beecher. Ian says he helped to write the play, and while we wait for the doors to open for the Sunday matinee, he explains the significance of some of the memorabilia to a crowd of theater-goers. His wife is here too, running around with a headset and directing traffic. “I’ve got five or six customers here today,” Ian says with a big grin.

The set is built around the great root of the smokestack, in a derelict white-brick boiler room. From floor to ceiling, the room is covered in grafts of metal: ladders and lights and structural supports. Most of this is Ian’s work. There is one seating bank, long enough that people on one end of it have difficulty seeing action on the other. But Ian has warned me to get a seat in the middle, and I do.

The play is good community theater: lively and funny and rough around the edges. There are a few brilliant monologues. There is a monolithic stone dog. And there are at least three confrontations with ghosts, supported by a few clever trap-doors and half a bright-orange Volkswagen bug (with working headlights) that gets pushed on and off stage. Most remarkable is the parable, told toward the end, of a young boy destined to spend his life operating the same lighthouse as his father. “The boy wanted to leave,” the narrator says. “From the lighthouse, he saw the world as a painting — static and flat — and he was sure he would become part of the painting.”

The narrator is standing on a platform high above us, one light on her face, surrounded by darkness. Somewhere in the same darkness, Ian is watching, too, while the labor of many long evenings is rendered back to him new and whole. Once the play has ended and Ian has given some quick closing remarks, we all step outside. A Lexus swoops in, and a smiling, blazer-and-loafers Norman Alderman steps out to congratulate his son and deliver the food the cast will eat before the evening performance. Ian thanks me for coming. I ask him where he got the Volkswagen. “From the scrapyard,” he says. “We put it back together.”

Comments