I’ve been thinking lately about Warren, Ohio and lifelong friends who remain there. Writing for a couple of posts about racism, my “sordid” past, peace demonstrations, performing Led Zep tunes as a teen in the Gazebo in front of the Court House, the Secret Service and high school prompted me to search for archival photos. I found a wealth of material, but little of it is positive. Remembering Warren it as it was then, seeing negative YouTube posts about it is a disappointment–but Warren is no different from any other former manufacturing-based small city across the country. Many look like ghost towns. Some more closely resemble Beirut or postwar Berlin.
I had some lean years in Warren. As soon as I’d get money, I’d spend it. It didn’t help that I always had crappy, low-paying jobs. Back then, most everyone I knew worked in steel mills and local foundries. Some were even lucky enough to land jobs at the nearby Lordstown GM plant. Other specialty steel plants that made tubing, plate, cable and steel bands provided good union jobs as well. Where there’s steel, there’s raw materials, storage, skilled trades, transport, handling and brick for furnaces. Warren was a gritty, bustling, hard working county seat.
By the time I was old enough to work in a mill, things in the steel valley were tightening up. You needed someone with pull on the inside to get even an interview in the mills. One of my more lucrative union jobs was in a plant that made bricks for large industrial furnaces.
Many of my friends were musicians and all were interested in music. When not working “day” jobs, we went to bars, where live music flourished, especially on weekends. Most of us were weekend rock n roll warriors, trying to stick with music long enough to catch a break. Some of us were also trying to go to school, which, for me, was a nagging distraction from my bands but ultimately gave me an “out”.
I worked part time at a little bar on the near edge of the southwest side. It occupied a spot near the road and was surrounded by open space, flanked by tree lines along a creek. In the background looking east, always visible was Republic steel, one of many mills in the area.
At night, Republic’s stacks propelled plumes of particulates into local skies that lent an orange glow to the horizon, silhouetting the plant. As nasty as it was (and it was nasty) we didn’t look at it that way. The orange sky meant friends and relatives were working. I never gave it much thought until years later, after the skies had grown dark.
Context is key to what we experience. My dad used to sell livestock feed, seed and fertilizer. When we’d ride through the country on a hot summer day with the windows down, we kids plugged our noses, complaining about the manure smell. My dad, however, had a different take on it. He’d take in a deep breath, exhale loudly and smiling, say “Smells like MONEY!”
To this day, I smile secretly whenever I smell manure. Soon it may be because I’ve had an “accident” but for the time being, it’s because I’m recalling my dad’s reaction.
These days, I rarely find myself on Warren’s south side but when I do, I always check out the horizon heading east, remembering Republic Steel and its reassuring orange glow.