Baltimore Steel Stories #1 - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Baltimore Steel Stories #1

(Feature photo by David Crews)

It’s getting old. I’m so over political commentators of all stripes trying to say what others haven’t said about the millions of white working class men who voted for Donald Trump.

 I don’t know who scribbled the first “analytical” piece about the Trump Bros. But that writer should be very flattered by the imitations of dozens of others who poke on their keyboards like cover artists trying to make the song their own. Some of their covers are OK, just waiting on the most celebrated literary Adam Levine or Alicia Keyes to effusively praise their “authenticity”.

 No matter. I’m still tired of folks racking up Facebook “likes,” churning out catchy metaphors and mildewed cliches to describe the angry, angst-ridden, resentful, backward, addle-brained, unhealthy, anti-intellectual, uneducated, racist, misogynistic, dysfunctional, drug-addicted, xenophobic, scared, impotent, broken and pitiful white working class male.

 I was part of the U.S. steel industry for 30 years. For most of those years I was a representative in the United Steelworkers, and I lived in exclusively white working-class neighborhoods. The mill I worked in, once one of the largest in the world, has been torn down. The neighborhoods around the mill, once so solid and “upwardly mobile,” are struggling. The closest high school to the plant now has a majority of students on free or reduced lunches.

I do a lot of reading and writing. But I’m not joining the guys putting white males under the microscope like lab rats. Everyone has a story. And I’ve always felt that those stories often have as much meaning as even their most thoughtful, thorough, well- researched and respectful second-hand interpretations.

 So here’s my first Baltimore Steel Story:

In the early 1980s, my wife and I, and our two daughters, moved into a row home about 15 minutes from Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point Plant mill, where I had worked for 10 years. Our southeast Baltimore County neighborhood was one a Sunpaper journalist might call “modest” or “tidy.”

We had only been there a short time when the first African-American couple moved in nearby. The neighbor, I’ll call Bill, worked at the steel mill where he was a member of the office and technical local union. He had a “clean” job.

When they heard a black man was moving in, a couple nearby, who just had a mortgage-burning party for the house they bought 30 years before for $7,500, said, “We’ve got nothing against ‘colored people,’ but once one comes into the neighborhood, they will be coming in like cockroaches after that.”

Bill moved in. He replanted grass seed on his weed-ridden, “modest” front lawn, fertilized it and, soon, it was the pride of the neighborhood. The same folks who were worried about “cockroaches,” could be seen frequently on their front stoop engaging Bill in friendly banter. Life was good.

Then a cross was burned in Bill’s backyard. Everyone suspected two kids who had seemed to be making more frequent walks down the sidewalk on Bill’s block. I asked Bill if he wanted us to help do a neighborhood “watch” to try to prevent more harassment. He declined.

One day, I saw Bill on the street in front of his house talking to the two kids who were suspected of the cross burning. They spoke for several minutes. They shook hands amicably and parted.

Later, I asked Bill about his discussion with the boys. He told them he was from East Baltimore, the neighborhood where “The Wire” was filmed. He said he was the only one of his brothers that hadn’t gone to prison. He said he had fought in Vietnam. And he found out back there in the rice paddies that “if somebody messes with you, there’s always a way to get them back.”

Bill never had any more trouble in the neighborhood. The many African-American families who followed him into Eastpoint owe much to Bill’s courage and strength. I don’t know where the young white guys who thought they could screw with Bill ended up or how their views on race and neighbors and politics developed. But they owe him, too.


About the author

Len Shindel

Len Shindel began working at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point Plant in 1973, where he was a union activist and elected representative in local unions of the United Steelworkers, frequently publishing newsletters about issues confronting his co-workers. His nonfiction and poetry have been published in the “Other Voices” section of the Baltimore Evening Sun, The Pearl, The Mill Hunk Herald, Pig Iron, Labor Notes and other publications. After leaving Sparrows Point in 2002, Shindel, a White Marsh resident and grandfather of seven, began working as a communication specialist for an international union based in Washington, D.C. The International Labor Communications Association frequently rewarded his writing. He retired in 2016. Today he spends most of his time in Garrett County, writing, cross-country skiing, kayaking, hiking, fly-fishing and fighting for a more peaceful, sustainable and safe world for his seven grandchildren. Contact the author.
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