This happened in 1996. Today realized I wasn’t going to be able to find the pictures I took that night, so I looked for some images on the internet, and found this. It’s from 2008, and I have no idea if it’s the same woman. I don’t think I want to know.
The first time I saw her she was wearing hot pants. I knew that kind of pants had another name but that’s what popped into my mind. I let the name stay because they seemed sexy to me, those pants. I’m old enough to remember when women wore little tight shorts called hot pants, but I hadn’t liked those seventies hot pants at all, because they seemed contrived to me. So I figured I’d keep the name and dispense with its baggage.
These hot pants were like chaps, which called to mind cowgirl images, which worked because she was wearing boots, too, and underneath the hot pants, jeans, which I could see when she turned away from me. And I knew from an artist friend of mine that there was a whole cowgirl thing going on, in some women’s circles anyway, cowgirls as heroic figures, mythic women, not your homey Dale Evans types at all, but wild, free women on horseback. I thought that contrived too, but I didn’t say anything to my friend, who had been quite clearly pleased with her cowgirl tee shirt.
But this early summer evening there were no cows anywhere around, nor any horses either. No men sitting on corral rails, perched like birds, swaying back and forth, spitting and pointing at the horses, no pickup trucks, lariats, no paddocks, just a bunch of people in a back parking lot at an urban cow college, an unpaved lot tucked in behind an abandoned building, where iron was being melted and poured into molds, molds made by artists, presumably including the woman in hot pants. I guessed the hot pants were hers because they seemed to fit, but I wondered whether she did this work often enough to own a pair.
I began to think of her as beautiful and desirable even before I saw her face, which at first had been hidden by her visor and hardhat. And if she were well-formed I didn’t know about that, because of the big apron she wore.
Since nobody was with me and nobody was talking to me – nobody recognized me, even though I was a professor at that college – I felt like a tourist sitting uncomfortably on one of those rails, watching the cowpokes cut horses out for the dudes. I had time to think about what I was seeing and try to decide why the hot pants woman attracted me so much. There was no urgency.
Maybe it was her carriage, the way she strode back and forth, visor up, visor down, shovel in hand, swinging, shovel leaned against some buckets. She moved with economy and purpose, everything about her saying I belong here.
Her gait was stiff but not strutting. I could see a little straightness to her legs, the way they hit the ground without bending much at the knee, as if she were carrying a load and was bracing against it by instinct. At the same time she seemed relaxed, and I decided it was the combination of stiffness and relaxation that appealed to me. It wasn’t a busy, scuttling gait, though that would have been appropriate, because clearly this woman had things to do. Purposeful, I thought, it’s the purposeful sense of her gait that’s attracting me so.
Standing back in the shadows, as I’ll always do if I have a choice, I looked around at the crowd. She was the only woman who wasn’t a spectator. Around the edge of the parking lot there were other women, but they were wearing big loose shorts, tee shirts, tank tops, even a couple of them in summer dresses. Nobody in hot pants.
All the other people who belonged there were men. Some of them did scuttle busily around, places to go, things to do, but others just stood, seemingly in charge of some task yet to be performed, or perhaps only waiting around in case they were needed. Most were older, though some were pony-tailed. Some were balding. Two were up high on the furnaces, standing on platforms, seemingly the elite, the skilled. One tended two furnaces, the other, one. They dumped scrap metal from pails, they poured on coke, and each had a long rod, near-molten at the tip, which he used to prod, poke, move the scrap iron around in the furnaces.
They could have been branding irons, I thought, seeing if I could extend my ranching metaphor, but that didn’t work. The guys were only working their rods in and out of the furnaces, not raking them hissing over hide. Sparks showered over everything as they thrust and heaved, maybe more than they needed to, but I thought that if I were up there in front of everybody, stirring molten metal, I’d shower a few extra sparks too.
I walked over and stood next to a couple of older men, probably sixty or seventy, hoping to overhear them, curious as to what they might say. I was afraid they might be going on about crazy students, and if they were, I thought I’d say something. I’d tell a lie. I’d say some of them were my students, and that might shut them up.
But they weren’t making fun. They were interested. “What are they using?” one asked the other, who answered, “Looks like they’ve got scraps in those pails.” And then they laughed, and I couldn’t detect any condescension in their laughter. They seemed avuncular, grandfatherly even, certainly with an air of mastery about them, an air of knowledge.
I figured them for ex-steelworkers, maybe old Bethlehem guys, come down to Buffalo to be near molten metal again. It had probably been their lives. Now, it merely amuses them that the scrap iron this crew will melt clanks into the furnaces tipped from joint compound pails, the sort of thing everybody else saves for fishing or draining the furnace boiler. But that’s all right because what they’re doing, those people out there, the hot pants woman included, what they’re doing is melting iron and getting ready to pour it, and that’s what the two old guys know.
And they were probably remembering how they did it, although the scale was different, the scale here in the back parking lot with one large and two small furnaces cooking. The scale was not what they were used to, these two old men who remembered the big basic oxygen furnaces, livid cauldrons showering sparks, pouring, then dribbling steel. Tons of it. Here, it was at least molten metal, and they remembered how it was.
There was a human scale to this pour, the furnaces not much bigger than a big man, maybe two big men together. They were right about the scraps because when a pail was dumped I saw sash weights. I thought the students must have poked around in basements for the weights, pieces of black pipe, broken hinges, the tenant’s wrought iron bench, the old lady’s skillet. I liked the idea that they’d had to grub around in basements in order to get their iron, that they hadn’t put in an order someplace, hadn’t phoned or faxed in an order for five hundred pounds of art-grade iron, suitable for melting. And so something someone had loved, something someone had used and broken, something that had been dealt with in a human way, was being melted and would be poured into molds to make sculpture.
So who were the artists? I couldn’t tell; there seemed no way to know. I hoped that the hot pants woman was the only working artist, because that would have made her wholly complete and infinitely desirable. I knew it couldn’t be true, but as I watched her I decided to imagine it so.
Then she was standing in front of the larger furnace with wearing huge gloves and a holding a large mallet. The men positioned a ladle and she struck out the bung. Opened a vein, spilling molten iron out into the ladle. Smoke. Sparks. Energy. I could hardly breathe for it all. She hammered the bung back in.
“Coming through! Hot ladle!”
Her voice was low-pitched, resonant, but not sweet. She led the way, shovel in hand, processing between lines of molds, some decorated, some plain, all with names written on them. Behind her two men carried the ladle, heavy with molten iron, stepped hurriedly yet carefully, so as not to trip and spill what they were carrying. At each mold she motioned them to stop, used her shovel to flip away slag from the lip, clearing the way. Then she tipped the ladle with her shovel and poured molten iron into the mold.
As I watched this, still in the shadows, I started thinking of her as the foreman, the boss. An artist with authority. Thinking about it excited me. I’d known a few strong women, but never one who controlled dangerous material with this easy grace. I demoted the two guys up on the furnaces to lesser roles, technicians perhaps, or functionaries, toilers at the margin of power. Men who knew their place, men whose roles were to make the liquid she would then control.
When the ladle was empty I left, turning suddenly and walking away, not wanting to see any more, not wanting to see her do anything else, not wanting to see her talk to anyone, take off those hot pants, relax with a drink of some kind. I doubted that I’d ever see her again – how would I recognize her anyway? I wanted her to remain wholly as she had been, potent, in charge.
Walking home I thought of the old days when I used to drive from Cambridge to Chicago and back. I always seemed to hit Buffalo at night, and I thought the city was the stinking hellish area between the highway and the lake.
After I moved to Buffalo I realized that what I’d thought was Buffalo all those years was really Lackawanna, where the steel mills were. And I remembered what I’d said every time I drove by: Jesus, I could never live in this stinking place.