I was completely enthralled by Scrappers: The Big Business of Scavenging in PostIndustrial America.
Hypnarowski later told me that his company, New Enterprise Stone and Lime, also owned some of the land where Bethlehem Steel once existed. The steel mills had been scrapped long ago, but there were still nuggets to be had — or “buttons” to be precise. Buttons are essentially giant metal boulders that weigh as much as 20 tons. When the mills were still operating, iron ore was melted and poured into great big ladles, at which point the less desirable slag would form at the bottom. This slag was then dumped onto Lake Erie’s shoreline, where it hardened and formed buttons. Together, Hypnarowski and Levin worked to salvage these buttons from the lakeside. They had, it seemed, thought of every conceivable way to mine big scrap. Over time, scrappers have remade Buffalo’s landscape. The city has survived, in part, by devouring itself.
Back when steel mills first closed, Lou Jean Fleron, an emeritus professor at Cornell’s school of industrial and labor relations, ran a series of educational programs for the workers who had been laid off. She got close with the families that became destitute. It was a very hard time, she recalled, and whenever she visited Buffalo’s waterfront, her eyes inevitably drifted toward the derelict mills. “Oh, God, it was like a ghost town — like a skeleton — a big, massive black skeleton,” she recalled. Then the demolition crews and the scrappers arrived to do their work. Now when Fleron goes down to the waterfront, she sees young families with their children having birthday parties. The scene is almost pastoral.
“It was important to take it all down,” Fleron told me. “It does make some of the pain go away.”
The hero of the story is the incredibly hard-working Adrian Paisley:
Paisley typically takes scrap from his piles and moves it inside his garage, where he processes it. This is where Paisley makes his money, by extracting the most valuable nuggets. The air-conditioner that he found, for example, was promising because it contained copper tubing, copper wiring and an ACR (an aluminum-copper radiator). The scrapyard might pay him only $4 to $6 for the air-conditioner in its current form, but if he processed it and removed the copper, he might earn three times as much. For this reason, Paisley spends much of his day surgically removing the most valuable metals. He even removes each screw and sells them together in bulk. Scrapyards are willing to pay a premium for scrap like this because it saves them the trouble of having to process it themselves.
It was great to read of Paisley's dream of one day no longer having to do this back-breaking work:
It was all crystal clear in his mind: “I want to see the fog hovering across the ground on a nice cool fall morning. And I don’t want to hear nothing but the birds, and the insects chirping. I want to stand there, man, and drink my coffee and look at the fog. Peaceful.
Amen, Mr. Paisley.