Witness Post: Cleaning Up in Baltimore
Having grown up in “the middle” of a family of eight children and having spent many hours building rock and mud dams in Roland Run, our backyard stream, I know a lot about making a mess and moving dirt. It was not until I was much older, though, that I learned the most important lessons about “cleaning up.”
The topic for this Witness Post came to mind when our family was in Baltimore in June, 2013, for our niece’s graduation from high school. Running from Little Italy to the harbor by way of Fells Point, I ambled through Canton toward Sparrow’s Point. The view of the old refurbished buildings in the Canton neighborhood reminded me of a job I had had the summer between high school and college. When I spotted the American Can Company headquarters the memories flooded back. It was at the American Can plant on Boston and Conkling Streets that I had learned a few important clean-up lessons forty years prior.
The expression of cleaning up has a lot of meanings in Baltimore. As an Oriole fan it is easy to focus on the number 4 batter in the line-up. As a citizen, it is easy to focus on the transformation of our Monumental City into a tourist destination. And as an employee it is easy to focus on those dirty jobs at the margin: garbage and sanitation. All three meanings come into play.
Batting Clean Up
My first exposure to CLEAN UP was from watching the Orioles play baseball. In those days we had Brooks Robinson, Davey Johnson, Mark Belanger, Frank Robinson, Paul Blair, and a quartet of pitchers (Dave McNally, Pat Dobson, Jim Palmer, and Mike Cuellar). When he was not injured, Boog Powell was the fourth batter, hitting “clean up” for the Orioles. Cheering for a ball player, when it sounds like the crowd is BOO’ing him was a rare treat. Powell’s best seasons were in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s. During those summers he hit over .300, had over 35 home runs, and batted in over 120 runs! With men in scoring position in front of him in the line-up, Boog Powell made “clean-up” look easy. The league felt the same way, because in 1970 Powell was voted the American League’s Most Valuable Player.
My next exposure to CLEAN UP came from my mother, Eleanor Evans Hooper. Mom would have said she was a utility player, but in our memory she was the leader of her band of women who loved the city of Baltimore. The women were the official welcoming committee trying to bring back people who had abandoned the inner city for life in the suburbs. Mom took ever larger groups of visitors on bus tours of downtown Baltimore.
From the perch of Federal Hill, while looking out over the rat infested docks along Pratt and Light Streets, she painted a vision. The Baltimore Inner Harbor Commission was planning to clean up the docks, make it safe for pedestrians and create a tourist attraction called Harbor Place. Dressed in stylish boots, hats, dresses, and coats, provided by London Fog Maincoats in Hampden-Woodberry, my Mom and her cohort of loyal women wrote the script for a tour of what Baltimore would look like as a Clean New City. The tour guides included Welby Loane, Meredith Millspaugh, Marty Lancaster and our Mom. The tours initially were for women’s groups invited from the surrounding counties to visit for the day. The goal was to help these women rediscover the heart of Baltimore and followed the theory that if women came back to Baltimore and felt safe and welcome while they shop and dine, the men and children would soon follow.
The tours included a futuristic slide show of the Inner Harbor, followed by a trip to see Babe Ruth’s home, Edgar Allen Poe’s grave, and Federal Hill. Bus tours drove by the oldest teaching surgical center in town (University of Maryland) and the script included stories of pedestrians only running past the school, as cadavers for med students to study were in high demand. Next stop was Lexington Market to dine on box lunches offered by the food purveyors. Everyone got off the bus for a walk through the Market’s wide open stalls, vast selection of local delicacies, and great desserts. The tour members were encouraged to grab some crab cakes and oysters-on-the-half-shell from Faidley’s, and not to forget some Rheb’s chocolate for any sweet tooth at home.
The Inner Harbor Commission, after an extensive search, had partnered with Jim Rouse and the Rouse Company to bring the vision of shops and restaurants and businesses back to the core of Baltimore. The generation who had moved out to the suburbs were invited to shop, eat and live in the city they surrounded.
Within a few years, the view from Federal Hill was transformed from smoke stacks and sludge into the urban gem that is has become. The Inner Harbor of today is a testament to the power that a group of like-minded people can make on a city, when they work together.
American Can Company
My most personal lesson in Clean Up and personal hygiene came in the most influential form of a summer job. My best friend in high school was John Urbanski. John’s idea of an ideal job was working in the food industry: low barriers to entry, good night life, and tips for good service. John parlayed his joy with restaurants into a string of pizza parlors and catering companies in California and Ohio. He made it his career. I wanted no part of that life. As a wrestler, I hated to see people throw away so much food. Plus the tips in fast food restaurants were inconsequential in those days.
When I thought of other jobs, John suggested that I contact his father, Lou Urbanski, about finding some employment downtown. Sounded great! Lou Urbanski had spent his entire career as an executive in the brewing industry. He has worked in Ohio, Arizona, and Maryland and said that he could introduce me to some brewery suppliers who had summer jobs that paid $5.00 per hour. That may not sound like much today, but in 1972 that sounded like a fortune to me. I applied for a job with the American Can Company, working at one of their remote factories in an industrial part of Baltimore on Boston and Conkling Streets. The catch was that the job started “before the early shift.”
For whatever reason, I did not really know exactly what a job would entail. On the first day, I arrived with the early shift for orientation and a plant tour. When I asked what BEFORE the early shift meant, the plant manager said that as night janitor, I should clock-in at 4:00am sharp. What? Living north of the city, that meant waking to a bedside alarm set for 3:30am; grabbing a quick breakfast, pack a lunch, and driving 30 minutes to American Can. Once clocked in, the janitor was expected: to clean the executive offices before 7:00am; scrub the bathrooms and locker rooms before 9:00am shift; take ½ hour lunch, two 15-minute breaks; “help where needed” and clock out at 1:00pm. What had I signed up for?
Upon reflection the early schedule gave me my afternoons free. This might not be so bad after all. That summer I was playing lacrosse with the Columbia Panners (we drank beer from a frying pan) worked at American Can and helped my mom and dad by cutting the lawn and doing various chores. Plus our cousin, Betty Van Metre was living with us that summer, so I had someone to talk with outside of my immediate family, before I hit the sack at 9:30pm.
During orientation the plant super told me that although I was only a janitor, I could make a difference at the Company. He assured me that I could learn a lot from mastering the floor wax machine, the sanitary supplies, the best mopping and grease removal techniques known to industry. I was doubtful, but decided to start by upgrading my job description: for the summer I was a sanitation engineer. Few guys on the lacrosse team asked exactly what I did. Unsure how interesting or challenging the summer would be, it looked as if I would be spending most of my waking hours in hot water and surrounded by soap suds, alone.
What I learned on the first day at the American Can Company was that a can plant has a lot of fine tin and aluminum shavings flung about the factory floor. These tiny parts are very sharp and easily get stuck in rugs, carpet, grease, and fingers. My first day, I had bloody fingers and did not check out until 4:00pm. In order to “clean-up” in Baltimore I had to wear protective gloves, learn new sweeping techniques, and work faster.
In hindsight, the executive offices were the easy part of the routine. DAILY: empty the ash trays and garbage cans, spray some disinfectant in the trash cans, fill the water cooler, and sweep the entry rugs. WEEKLY: polish the floors, clean the windows, clean the display case.
It was the lavatories and locker rooms that proved most difficult. The Men’s rooms are always full of graffiti, cigarette butts, and trash. Lockers smelled like old socks and rotting food. The Ladies’ rooms were far better, the trick was to make sure that it was vacant when I needed to clean and that I worked fast to make it smell fresh.
To this day, I can sweep with one hand, handle a dust bin with the other, wax a floor, clean a window, and handle the dishes with the best sanitation engineers in the business, or at least in our household. I am grateful for these skills have stuck with me and helped keep our home tidy and sanitary.
Just Piss Water
When I got a handle on the janitorial duties, I started looking around for something else to do. I asked the guys in the shop, and they recommended that I read the operations manual and see what I might be able to do. I was intrigued by one machine, about 30 feet tall and the size of a miniature ferris wheel, that tested the airtightness of the tin cans before they were filled with liquid.
Oh, yea, I forgot to mention that the American Can Company was right next door to the Schaefer Brewery. F. & M. Schaefer Brewing Company, which dates back to 1842 in Brooklyn, New York, opened their regional operations in Baltimore in the late 1950’s. They partnered with American Can to take over the building next door to produce the tin cans they needed for their brews. The metal for the cans arrived at the loading docks of American Can on heavy pallets of coated tin sheets. The pallets weighed several hundred pounds and the sheets had razor sharp edges. The American Can workers wore metal-toed safety shoes and heavy gloves when handling the sheets. Once removed from the pallets, the tin sheets were painted with the Schaefer logo (which had to be perfect), cut to size, properly constructed, cleaned, glued and tested. Lastly all cans that “passed” both visual and mechanical inspections were transferred via overhead gravity fed shoots that conveyed the cans through a 4 foot by 1 foot hole in the wall.
On the other side of the wall was the Schaefer Brewery. The brewers filled up the cans with their liquid elixir and sealed the bottoms to the can; then they boxed, palletized and wrapped them for shipping locally and regionally.
The distinctive smell of the hops, barley, and yeast wafted through that small hole near the ceiling of our building, heavily disguised with an aromatic layer of grease, glue, and tin.
During lunch breaks the American Can workers all complained that Schaefer beer was the worst beer on the market. They affirmed they would never buy the stuff: “It’s just piss water.” About once a month, however, the brewers next door would invite the shop workers to a free happy hour at the end of their shift. I never knew a shop worker to pass up the opportunity for free beer, no matter how disparagingly they groused about it in private.
The beers of New York and St. Louis and Milwaukee and the thousands of neighborhood brew pubs in the country were local. Most of the master brewers had deep, Old Country German roots. The brewers cooked up their concoctions in metal kettles, fermented them in wooden kegs, and sold the kegs to the local bars and saloons.
Only later did they bottle and cap the gold or amber liquid for EXPORT beyond the city limits. The bottles were dark because beer ages quickly in sunlight and can spoil in heat and light exposure.
By the early 1960’s beer began to be shipped in trains and on trucks for short distances as the brewers grew from local to regional. When cans came along, the brewers were able to extend their reach. Shipped in cans, the beer was more durable, and the consumer seemed happy using the traditional can opener to enjoy their nightly beverage, or two.
Cigarette Butts & Bubble Gum
About a week into the janitorial job, I decided that I needed to elevate the task I was performing in my own mind. What was I doing, after all? I was keeping the Company clean, hygienic, safe, and presentable to employees, vendors, customers and visitors. I decided that I would tackle the dirtiest place in my efforts to be Mr. Clean. I started by taping some pieces of cardboard above the urinals. One said, “Please Write Graffiti Here. Not Here —->>.” Another said, “Please do not put your cigarette butts in the urinals. It makes them soggy and hard to light.” The men on the second and third shifts did not appreciate my humor and soon tore them down, or wrote sarcastic notes on them, just as embarrassing as the original graffiti. I persisted, however, and put up my signs again and again. Eventually, I got some respect and the male workers stopped writing on the stall doors and on the tiles above the urinals.
One of the female workers, Shirley Johnson, had an amazing ability to pop her gum with every bite. I had never seen or heard of gum that was not big and pink and popped outside of one’s mouth. I asked Shirley about her brand and she claimed that she could pop any gum. The next day I brought in a pack of Wrigley’s and spent my lunch break as a student of Shirley’s popping skills. Many alone hours later, I too had mastered the POP — one of my lasting skills learned at a janitor.
By the late ‘60’s engineers figured out how to make the “pop top” can. The consumer no longer need a can opener to enjoy a ‘cold one.’ The trick was that the pop top was also the part of the canning process that was the most fraught with air leaks. Engineers had mastered the gluing of the tin, the bottom and the top, but that pop top, which was stamped out of aluminum, could be tricky. Before the entire can was transformed from aluminum, the tin and aluminum can was conceived and executed.
In the evenings I studied the manuals on the Ferris wheel device and during the day I watched as the wheel tested the Schaefer cans to see if there were any leaks. When I watched the other workmen, I timed their insertion of the aluminum sleeves of tops, the entry of the tin cans, the fixing of the top to the core, the testing of the can to make sure it was airtight, and the passage on to the next step. Seemed simple enough. I also spotted the RED BUTTON, which completely stopped the production line and sent the horns blaring.
After a few more weekends of watching, I asked the shift foreman if I could try my hand at it one Saturday (which paid time and ½ and seemed nearly as good as Sundays, which paid double time), and I was given permission by the foreman. I put on my goggles, gloves and got ready to start the wheel. After the first sleeve was fitted and the second one was falling into place, the final pressure test phase started. About 100 cans were in a complete cycle. The first sleeve, about 50 cans and tops, went through the wheel. Then as the second sleeve was beginning, the Ferris wheel buzzer went off indicating that one top can had FAILED the pressure test. Suddenly another buzzer went off, then another, then another. I frantically started to take the tops off of the sleeve, but they were already in production near the top of the wheel.
I immediately thought of the sorcerer’s apprentice, as the brooms and buckets started overflowing.
I thought back through the operators manual and decided it was time to run to the RED BUTTON and pushed it to stop the machine. Amidst the sirens and horns, the whole line went down.
The shift super came running and calling, “What did you screw up, Hooper?” He laughed when he saw that the problem was a small pin sized hole in the pop top. He said that it would be fine but added, “They’ll probably just dock your pay today, so that you pay them back for the wasted tin and aluminum!” I was so flustered, I thought he was serious. Only after the shift, when I scurried back to my janitorial duties, did I realize that he was kidding me.
I did not return to the production line that summer, as I felt that there was a reason that the professionals got the big bucks. I was happy working overtime as a janitor and not having to have the whole joint halt due to a parts defect.
Final Word on Clean Up
At the end of August my time at the American Can Company was drawing to an end. College was calling and I had to pack my bags for New Haven and Yale. At the end of my final shift, the Production Manager of the Boston & Conkling office of American Can called me into his office. He sat me down and said words to this affect, “Henry, you have impressed us with your hard work at American Can. I believe there is a great need for quality people in manufacturing in this country. Please consider seeking a job in this field, when you graduate from college.” I appreciated that advise, because it would never have crossed my mind to pursue manufacturing as a career before he said those kind words.
I have worked in two manufacturing environments in my career thus far and I found them to be totally satisfying. One was with our family textile manufacturing company, Wm. E. Hooper & Sons Company. I would never have felt as comfortable and accepted in those settings, if it had not been my summer as a janitor “cleaning up in Baltimore.”
I don’t s’pose this is the blog of Henry Hooper, the Gilmanite and former Baker Watts guy? If so, unbelievable. I stumbled here by way of a search for an image of Huck Finn on his raft, which as it happens appears on one of your posts. (Coincidentally, my search was prompted by reminiscences of my own childhood, especially of my Dad, whom you worked for at one point, as I recall. I’ll never forget a brief conversation you and I had about him at the time.) If you get this note and have a sec, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org; it’d be a hoot to close the loop. Best, Mid Walsh