Photo by Adam Ryan Morris
One cold morning, I left the idyllic Beloit College campus where I work and entered a part of Beloit hit hard by the recession. The sign was missing from the KFC, and a chain hung from posts to keep cars out of the lonely parking lot in front of the former Cub Foods. I crossed the railroad tracks and Turtle Creek. I wasn’t following a map, but I could tell I was getting close by the thickening dust that hung in the eerie glow of the streetlights, and the almost tidal roar of grinding and crunching. That’s when I saw the elbows of cranes rising and falling above a tall fence. Limp foil banners were strung around the perimeter of a used car dealership where poor cars, parked in neat rows facing the scrapyard, bore witness to their ultimate fate.
I became strangely fascinated with Behr Iron & Metal after my colleague told me there was a giant scrapyard less than a mile from campus. He sometimes takes his kids to the South Beloit, Ill., site to watch big things like refrigerators and semitrailers get crushed. I’m not sure why I found the scrapyard so compelling. Perhaps it’s because that kind of physical work is so different from the kind that takes place in academia. But once I became aware of it, I knew I had to see it. The same thing happened to former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins when he visited the college. “Surely,” he wrote, “the realization that all the metal in the world is heading toward its own oblivion can only underscore the great lesson of human impermanence.”
Behr’s gate was open, so I wandered in, uncomfortable, nervous. It wasn’t just because I was trespassing – I was peeking behind a curtain, seeing what consumers aren’t supposed to.
A young woman in safety goggles approached, so young and fresh-faced. I thought she’d tell me to leave, but she was just concerned I’d get nailed by a piece of loose metal. She took me to the recycling center to meet yard superintendent Bob Clankie, the perfect name for someone who works in the loudest place I’ve ever been. Clankie has been a Behr employee for more than a quarter-century, long enough to look like he sleeps in his orange hardhat and reflective vest.
A peddler drove up with a washing machine in the bed of his truck. “That’ll get him about four bucks,” Clankie said. With the bad economy, more than 100 customers a day trade everything from copper wire to car hoods. “I don’t know how they cover the price of gas,” Clankie said, clearly sympathetic. I wondered if the free donuts in the waiting area were his idea.
Clankie showed me around the yard and his world, which is divided into piles: ferrous and non-ferrous, before and after. I asked if he worried about his health. He shook his head. “I’ve seen pregnant women work here.” Clankie said his boss treats employees like family. He even bought them respirators, as if that’s what every close family does.
“When kids come for a tour,” Clankie continued, “I get a school bus for them because that’s something they can relate to. We pick it up and drop it a few times.” He grinned. “Then we cut it in half.”
We’re used to crushing small things: the bug we pinch between our fingers, the paper we wad into a ball. It’s different when big things get destroyed. It’s cool, but it’s also traumatic to see what you thought was permanent get stripped of its use, its essence. I thought of the recession, how it forced us to watch solid things get torn apart and made valuable things worthless. Institutions we thought would be around forever, like the GM plant in neighboring Janesville, had been shut down. But lately, it feels like Beloit’s economy is beginning to bounce back.
On that early fall morning, Clankie and I watched the sun come up over the mountains of rubble, listening to the grinding symphony of mulched metal. There was something hopeful about watching the powerful machines do their work, as if they had the last word. Without places like Behr, all of this stuff would go to waste, never getting recycled or finding new use.
The scrapyard made Billy Collins think about mortality; I saw resurrection.