There are ghosts in this town.
Thousands of them. Believe me. I should know. I’m one of them.
Now, I’m not talking about the kind of ghosts that appear in the raft of horror scare movies that flood out of Hollywood each year or even those that stalk the pages of Penny Dreadfuls or Stephen King books. No. I’m talking about those of us that walk the streets of a forgotten town, virtually unnoticed. Ourselves forgotten, ignored, relics of a previous life. Banished from the lives we once knew. Struck out from the existence that gave us our meaning, our identities. Our purpose. We drift through the deadened streets, our footsteps echoing through the silence, aimless and shorn of recognition.
Those of us that are still here that is. Those of us that still refuse to – or, at least, are unable to – leave this dying town. There’s not many of us though, I’ll grant you that. And there’s fewer and fewer of us as the days, months and years drift by. They say something like 30 or 40 thousand people have left this town in the last five years or so alone. Leaving to start again, perhaps. Fleeing the contagion of disillusion, maybe. But more than likely just searching desperately for the tiniest hint or prospect of a job opportunity.
It wasn’t always like this. The boarded up clapboard houses. The shops permanently shuttered. The factories, windows broken, exhausted and lifeless. Graffiti, rust, rot ruling over all. No, it wasn’t always like this. Not when the town’s steel mill was still in operation, anyway. Back then the town thrived. Businesses prospered, neighbourhoods grew, lives were built. All thanks to the steel mill. The steel mill WAS the town. In its heyday it employed upwards of 50,000 men and women of all ages. The vast majority, if not all, came from the town itself. Every morning around 8am the town’s doors would open en masse, spilling out thousands upon thousands of workers as we made our way to the mill on the edge of town. The soaring chimneys, visible for many miles around, summoning us like a beacon. I’m told it was a sight to behold, this mass migration of bodies. Much like a giant collection of birds flying south for the winter months only multiplied tenfold. And then every evening at 5pm every one of us would trudge back out through the factory gates again, shuffling back to the life part of the supposed work-life balance.
It was no-one’s dream job, no. No-one would claim that. But it was our livelihood. It let us make the transition from schoolboy to adult. It let us move out of our parents houses. It let us own a house of our own. It let us take out the girl we had set our sights on. It let us marry that same girl and start a family with her. It let us hit the bars every Friday night, letting us relax with a few cold ones after the rigours of the working week just past. It didn’t make us rich, no. Far from it. But it let us live. As Springsteen once sang ‘factory gives us life’. And in this town nothing was truer than that.
Until it suddenly wasn’t. We’d all heard the rumours of course but you didn’t want to believe them. I mean, most of us had known no other life than the steel mill. We would finish school at 16 in June and then a few weeks later we’d be walking through those factory gates, ready to begin the rest of our lives. That was certainly the case for me. I was barely a week out of school before my first day at the mill. But we’d heard rumours before. If the mill could survive the de-industrialisation era of Regan and Clinton then we could and would survive anything. We chose not to believe it. Decided to continue in blissful ignorance, if you like. An ignorance that was shattered to pieces one freezing cold Monday morning when we arrived to find the gates padlocked. We stood in our thousands, shivering. Waiting. Worrying. And then the word came. The mill had shut down operations. For good. Sold. Overnight. Just like that. Operations moved south of the border. Out of the US. All in the name of ‘cost efficiency’. It was for the good of the company, for the good of the economy. Etc etc. There was anger that morning. Vitriolic, unhinged, understandable anger. If it wasn’t for the police turning up then I honestly don’t know what would happened. I saw grown men – men you wouldn’t dare say a wrong word to in a bar or anywhere else – crying that morning. Tears flooding out of them. Almost as if the life was draining right from them. Me, I was numb. The cold had something to do with it maybe but it was more than that. How do you tell your wife? How do your kids? How do you tell yourself that you’re worthless? How do you reconcile the fact that to the company that you have given your life to you are nothing more than a faceless number, a bottom line crossed off a page all in order to boost that company’s profits just a smidge more. You can’t. Quite simply. You can’t.
It didn’t take long for the town to start fading. To start dying. If the majority of your residents are without work it stands to reason that the local economy will be affected. And boy was it affected. And fast. Businesses struggled, businesses tried to adapt and eventually businesses left. Upping sticks to another more prosperous town, one still revelling in its own blissful ignorance. The high street, such as it was, started to lose its colour, its vibrancy, its custom. The shutters, the boards, the For Sale signs sprung up at a rapid rate. Houses began to empty, some simply abandoned. The town saw a sickening surge in suicides in the months and years after. Crime rates, alcohol abuse, drug abuse all increased. The thing is, when you rip the heart out of anything it shouldn’t surprise you when the life sustained by that heart starts to suffer. Starts to die. I’ve heard the phrase ‘the Rust Belt’ banded about a lot more these days. And it makes sense. You see the thing about rust is that when it sets in, when it is truly exposed to the harsh realities of time, it starts to fester and infect all around it. It poisons all it touches, rendering it irredeemable, confining it to history. Quite simply; a death sentence.
I take a seat on the bench across from the factory gates. As I do most days. The vast brick monster of the steel mill towers above me, casting a shadow over the street and its surroundings, as I stare across at it. The padlock, rusted and long-since broken, still hangs from the frail gates as they squeak ever so slightly and sporadically at the whim of the faint breeze. The mill itself, which once was a target for vandals or just kids looking for something to pass the time in a town bereft of entertainment, stands neglected. Forgotten. I lay my lunch box next to me and open it, the chill nipping at the tips of my fingers. Cheese. Always with the cheese sandwiches, my wife. And the wholemeal bread. I unwrap them from the cellophane and take a bite. She still makes my lunch every single morning, you see. Of course, for the last few months she thinks I’ve been going to the ‘New Skills’ course at that Community College just out of town. And I did, for a few days at least. They try to teach you computer skills, technical abilities, skills to ‘prepare you for the digital age’. But that’s not me. It’ll never be me. And lord knows we need the money but just who in the hell is going to take on someone like me these days? I mean, with jobs as rare as they are these days, what employer, faced with a choice between a young college grad with his life and career ahead of him or her, and computer skills coming out of their ears, or a man in his late fifties with nothing but 35 years or so in a steel mill behind him, is going to plump for the latter? And even if, by some miracle, they did take me on just how in the hell am I supposed to put my faith in any kind of feeling of job security? How can I give my all for a company when the last one cut me adrift, without a second thought, after a lifetime of work? Rust isn’t always visible you know.
So I’ll continue to walk these streets. I’ll continue to sit on this bench. And I’ll continue to eat the lunch that my wife lovingly prepares for me each morning. Every day. Eventually she’ll find out. Eventually she’ll realise the truth, of course she will. I’m not hiding. I’m not sneaking about in the shadows. I’m here, in this spot, every single day. Almost like a grieving spouse turning up to their deceased partner’s graveside, day after day. And there are others like me. I’m certain of it. Familiar faces. I see them wandering the town. Some of them, at least. Others stick to the darkness of the local bars. Drinking their way through the hours they used to surrender to the mill.
Clinging to memories, clinging to life.
Yes, as I said, there are ghosts in this town.