They stand outside, holding onto the spring sunlight until the last minute, when they will move into the ancient low-flung building across the street with its windows fired gold by the sunset.
Later, when the night sky is black, the windows will still glow orange, but then the fire is from within, from a furnace blasting at 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit that can turn red-hot steel into fiery rivers.
These steelworkers cluster and talk politics in this Victorian mill town, so like the others that crowd the Monongahela River. There are 250,000 steelworkers in Pennsylvania, most of them in towns like McKeesport, outside Pittsburgh in what is called the Mon Valley of Allegheny County. It is a crucial swing region for Edward M. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter in today's neck-and-neck primary.
These steelworkers, who generally vote Democratic, have been wooed often -- by local politicians, by national candidates and surrogates and family members who careen through the narrow, potholed streets to dim bars and legion halls and plant gates in search of victory. The steelworkers are sick of it all and want to get on to more important things, like the Pittsburgh Pirates.
In the Mon Valley it is possible to hear nearly every shade of opinion from Blue-Collar America as people anxiously watch the economic turndown. There are the old and proud, the young and malcontent, the anguished and fearful. Above all, there are the overwhelming numbers of outraged and discontented who find no hope or comfort or dreams in any of the candidates running this year.
Mike Stavich holds his lunch in a brown paper bag, his windbreaker open to the warmth of the spring day, and punctuates his opinions by spitting tobacco rhythmically, accurately into a street gutter. "Reagan's too old and getting senile. Don't laugh. I'm pushing 67, and I can see myself slowing down already. Kennedy I don't trust. If he can panic once, he can panic again. In 17 years in Congress, what's he done: Nothing." If Staveich were a Republican, he'd vote for Bush, but he's not, so he's voting for Carter, reluctantly.
Steveich echoes a thought heard often in the valley, a certain reluctance to blame a president, a certain lack of anger. Carter carried this area in the 1976 primary. "It's not all his fault, it's Congress; we've got to give him four more years; who else could do better?" But these thoughts are coupled with the increasingly angry views of others who see auto plants closing down, who themselves have been victims of plant layoffs or see them go down the road and are scared.
In a south-side plant, a huge furnace that holds 350 tons of steel roars incessantly as Rosalynn Carter tours the plant. Nearby is Dennis McConah, the grievance chairman of the union local, who shouts above the roar as he explains his dissatisfaction to a reporter. "We've got so many laid off, from 2,500 down to 1,300 in a year. Many seem to be going toward Kennedy. We feel he is more for labor. Carter is not backing us up on imports. Everybody says they don't want imports, but they'll still coming in and we're getting laid off. If people don't buy refrigerators and cars, we're not going to work. Carter's only hurting working people."
You find them everywhere -- in the cars where they drink shooters and Iron (a shot of whiskey and the local Iron City beer). In the ethnic social clubs. In the union hall. Men who are third-generation steelworkers. Their grandfathers came over from the old country -- Slavs, Serbo-Croatians, Italians, Germans, Irish, Poles -- and settled in shacks nestled in the valley and worked their lives away in the steel mills for pennies. Some of them died in bloody, lengendary union battles in towns like Homestead, up the river a few miles from McKeesport.
Their sons and grandsons are still here, working in the same 100-year-old buildings, but now they make a good living, among the best for blue-collar workers. Many moved out of town as soon as they could afford to buy cars and now many of the boarded-up little houses and empty bars by the mills hold only memories.
These are strong and proud people, men who made the steel for autos, for skyscrapers, for the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. The older ones still talk of craft, of making a good nail or a good seamless pipe. They are kind and generous, loyal and patriotic. Ingrained in them are Middle European values of family. This makes it hard to go against a president. For many of the Eastern Orthodox and Catholics, Chappaquiddick taints Kennedy irrevocably. For others, closet Kennedy supporters, it keeps them from speaking out. One union leader, Lou Kelly, who is openly for Kennedy, hopes that today, in the privacy of the polling booths, "these people will give us a surprise."
In one Democratic dinner rally where both Rosalynn Carter and Ted Kennedy showed up, there was a sudden burst of people wearing blue-and-white Kennedy buttons, but at one table, six women had carefully placed their ted Kennedy buttons face-down on the tablecloth. They spoke of the shame of Chappaquiddick. One, who was wrestling with her strong sense of basic loyalty to the president, said, "Well, you know, Carter is our president." But then, as the conversation wore on, the Kennedy support began to surface. "Republican papers really give it to him". . . "People are afraid to say they think he's better. I feel funny even about wearing the button. But I'm going to vote for him."
For a steelworker like Mike Staveich, early memories are of the mills, but they have long faded. His father started in the mills at the turn of the century and one of his sons is now a crane operator in the same mill.
"I made up my mind years ago that this was going to be my bread and butter, and I was going to enjoy it," says Staveich cheerfully. His plant is not affected by the auto layoffs: "We make strictly pipe." Still, Staveich says he can hardly wait to retire so he will have time to whittle the intricate miniature figurines, statues and crucifixes he taught himself to carve. He hasn't had a drink in 20 years -- "I was told to quit drinking or die" -- or seen a movie since World War II. He and his wife listen to country-and-western and big bands "on the stereo" in the den. They raised six children, and like all steelworkers, he proudly lists their accomplishments. "I put one through college and another through nursing training." Does his wife work? Staveich clings to the old-fashioned macho tradition echoed by many in the valley. "No way, she quit the day we got married."
For this steelworker, there is no anger or discontent about the economy; inflation and recession were inevitable, he feels. "We were living cheap for years. It had to come. I can afford it. Instead of driving up the mountains twice a week, I don't go at all."
He is shocked at the many of his fellow workers who will not vote today. To him, voting is a responsibility and an honor, no matter the choices.
There was a high "undecided" stand among the more than 100 steelworkers interviewed. But while the ballot allowed a "no preference" vote for the first time ever in a Pennsylvania primary, that was an alternative that few preferred.In keeping with some kind of personal code, one steelworker explained that a no-preference vote would "be dodging responsibility."
But around the corner, the view is light-years away as young steelworkers in the 20s begin to talk. Three sitting on a bench say they are not voting for anyone. "You keep on standing here, you'll get 10 out of 10 who ain't voting," says Ron. He stretches his long legs and shakes his head. "Politicians," Rons spits out the word "You got a speeding ticket, they don't know you. Come election time, they'll fix anything." Kevin, a friend, joins the group and says he's for Carter. "The man needs another chance. There's no way you can correct this country, as screwed up as it is, in four years." Inflation and recession are not his concerns. "I'm single. It don't worry me. I'll take out a loan, I'll pay the interest rate. It don't bother me. I make $22,000 a year. It's great if you're single." Ron says, "If you're married it stinks. I got two kids."
Kevin grumbles about much in life. "Too much politics in the union." Another worker volunteers, "U.S. Steel stinks." Kevin says, "I work my eight hours and that's it, and I don't want no crap from management." He shrugs at the mention of Kennedy. "No sense putting him in. No doubt about it, he's gonna be assassinated, too."
Kevin is all for Carter's tough talk on Iran. "Why should he punk down now?" In the bar you often hear talk of war from the young men. Some insist that they are making more armor plate for tanks these days. They talk of war's helping the economy. "It's a hell of a thing, but it helps the economy of a country," says Kevin. "Look at Vietnam." Ron says quietly, "Yeah, but for the people it stunk, I was in Da Nang."
Snatches of conversation from other men float in the air: "I'll vote for anyone who'll take the niggers off welfare and lower the Social Security to 55." Another, furious about the possible restriction of gas for weekend boating, says, "I can't see taking away all the pleasures of a middle-class bo-hunk.'
A retired worker, G.W. Barrick, who acts like the official greeter, has come down to clap his friends on the back and talk with them before they go in to work. He gets $544 a month in benefits, enjoys going to dances and doing the polka, everthing but the disco. "I see these girls in the disco, and the way they dance and dress, it's immoral. But don't get me wrong. I like life at my age." He's voting for Kennedy, but like many in the valley, it is with little enthusiasm, a protest vote against Carter. "He's strictly against the working man. He wants to cut out credit. Without credit, how you going to get ahead? How you going to get a car or buy a home?"
Kevin pushes back his pittsburgh Steelers hat and shrugs as he starts across the street. "Eight hours in the mill, a case of beer and a football game. And that's your life."
Ron gets up slowly from the bench. "Yeah, that's about it."
Throughout the mill towns, the talk of Kennedy-versus-Carter ricochets back and forth. Many mention Reagan or Bush with a certain longing; they cannot vote for either if they are registered Democrats. But for many in this district, the last real hero was George Wallace, who got 13 percent of the vote here in 1968. Many see Kennedy as the "giveaway guy" and speak of wanting a tough conservative.
As Rosalynn Carter toured the ethnic south side of the greater Pittsburgh steel area, where it is nearly impossible to buy a home because they are handed down from generation to generation in each family, a strapping young man with black hair gestures to the milling crowd with the mock expresses raw, outright protest. "I'm voting for Reagan in November and I'm a Vietnam veteran against the war and I've been a liberal all my life. The country just needs a conservative now."
But yet another view is heard as Charles Povich, a Serbian Orthodox, leans down from a back-row table in a mob of 1,500 who have just listened to Rosalynn Carter and Ted Kennedy at a Democratic county dinner. "I can't accept the inflation, hostages gas prices, the whole shebang. I can't for the life of me understand why anybody would vote for Reagan or Carter. The trouble is [voters'] bellies are not empty now. When you have a full belly, you have an empty head. Let some more steel mills shut down and then see what they say,"
Povich, who works in the steel mills, comes from a family of 13 and says with a grin, "I'm an uncle 45 times. We can deliver a bloc vote." He is for Kennedy, but "in my opinion, a lot just won't bother voting."
Scenes from Deer Hunter Country:
The movie "The Deer Hunter" tells of three Penslylvania men who leave the steelmills for Vietnam. Some of the movie was filmed in the mills around the Mon Valley. Tim Fullerton, himself a conscientious objector during the war, says quietly of the film, "it was close to life, like it gave me feelings I don't want. I had friends who left in the middle of it. They worked too hard to get rid of those feelings."
Fullerton is one of the new breed of steelworkers who went to college but then came back. His local is one of the few that are openly endorsing Kennedy. The international has refrained from making an endorsement this year. In 1976, it was embarrassed when the union endorsed Henry Jackson and the rank of file went for Carter. Three years ago, Fullerton was among those college educated members-- five out of 12 on the executive board have college degrees -- who started a reform group in the union. He is fighting for safety in the mill and speaks of three men who were killed in his mill last year. One was crushed when a huge slab fell on him. Another was burned to death in a furnace explosion. Fullerton thinks these deaths could have been avoided through better safety procedures.
Fullerton, 28, wears his blong hair shoulder-length, and when he smiles he reveals a front tooth made of platinum. He jokes that "if people knew what it was worth, I'd get mugged." Another dentist wanted to make him a new one, but Fullerton said, "No, it's part of my character." He and friends like him returned to the mills because the pay and benefits were better than could be had from teaching jobs or the career as a musician that Fullerton once held. The major problem is that they are "just bored to death" with the monotony of the work.
Ascension Hall in Clairton, the site of "The Deer Hunter," is filled with the bouncy polka music, local politicians and steelworkers and their families who have come out more for an evening of togetherness than to hear the political speeches. They talk genially and loudly through all of them. Near one table stands Lou Pesante in black suit, gray vest, black shirt open at the neck to show a large gleaming gold crucifix and chain. He has just come out of the steel pits, but he is full of life. With him stands his father, also named Louis, who says, "We work in the mills together. There's a lot of college people walking the streets who would love to have my son's job. I get to see him when we work the daylight shift. I cook for him, I supervise him," he says, slapping his arm around his son.
The father has been in the same mill for 33 years, his son for three. The younger Pesante changes the coke that is needed to make the steel. "It is the hottest work. The pits run at 2,400 degrees all the time. If you fall in -- you don't come back," he says with a shrug.
The whole Pesante family is voting for Carter. "Inflation don't bother me," says the father. "I'm building a restaurant and I have a nursery on the side. No matter what happens people will always want a garden and will want to eat."
Don Thomas sits in one of the three bars close to the Braddock steel mill.
"People are being laid off like hell," he says, downing his whisky straight. "The young kids don't know what it's like, don't remember the strikes, don't remember nothin' about the past. Some people just don't care anymore," he says, referring to the seemingly complacent attitude toward the economy. "It's like going bald. If you go bald all at once, you crack up. You go bald gradually, you get used to it." He thinks Carter has made a mess of things, is for Kennedy, but has no idea how the rest of his union will go.
Down the street, a Pole, a Jew and a black man are congenially talking things over in the Royal Cafe, a dimly lit bar filled with steelworkers changing shifts. Michael Surniak, 30, is not for Kennedy: "He's unreliable." Lee Zelkowitz, who is Jewish and runs the bar with his father, says that he is voting for Kennedy but that it's a terrible choice. "We're voting [against] who you don't want to get in." Marvin Wesley, the black man and a forman is for Kennedy because "we need change."
And so it goes, up and down the Mon Valley. The last stop is Chiodo's Tavern on the main street in Homestead, two blocks up from the U.S. Steel mill. It is cluttered with sports memorabilia in this sport-crazy district, which now boasts two champions, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates. The tavern is like a shrine to the athletes -- a jersey that Ernie Stautner wore, a kicking shoe worn by Lou Michaels.
Outside there is a small gray monument dedicated to the many workers who died or were maimed in the violence of the 1892 Carnegie Steel strike.
Chiodo's customers are repeaters Chiodo's is like a club. There is a certain pride in remembering that Karl Malden, filming "Skag" in the vicinity, arrived at Chiodo's before it was open for business and was turned away. No one recognized him.
Joe Chiodo, who was born in Italy, is bit of a local celebrity himself since the national media found Chiodo's when the Steelers started their winning streak. He is a little man with soft brown eyes who insists on making the house speciality, the Mystery Sandwich, for strangers, whether they are hungry or not.
Chiodo has been on this corner for 32 years, and he reflects the endemic pride in Pittsburgh, a view held by an one who remains in this region. He sniffs at anyone in the rest of the world who has sneered at Pittsburgh, which is now one of the largest corporate centers in America. "Steel is the backbone of America. If it wasn't for steel, where would those snobs be?"
Now Homestead is having its troubles, a dwindling town threatened by the cutbacks in its sole industry, steel.
Homestead is seeing more layoffs now. Vince Travis, 28, an open-hearth laborer at U.S. Steel, just lost his job. His father was a steelworker for 39 years "and for a long time I worked a skeleton shift," he says. He became a Kennedy volunteer. At the other end of the bar sits a female bartender who also just got laid off. She, too is for Kennedy.
Their anger and frustration are leveled at the White House down in Washington D.C.
The woman sighs as she puts down her beer and moves, a bit wobbly, out of the bar, "You have to blame someone. It's a cryin' shame."