$30 a Ton 

Secrets of the Scrap Metal Game

The secret to success in the business of hauling scrap is an early start, but not so early that you have to wait in line to unload, says Robert Jones, driver and proprietor of the "Road Boss."

"You got to avoid long lines, that's a fact. You make money dumping scrap; you don't make money waiting in line," explains Jones, a middle-aged black man wearing a green service station jacket with a Texaco patch stitched to its left breast pocket. The Road Boss is his battered flatbed truck, the name carefully stenciled in black-and-white lettering above the hood.

Jones must be doing something right, scavenging in the morning instead of at night like most haulers. For the moment, there are no lines in sight. Only one other truck slowly approaches on the worn industrial road, embedded with trolley tracks, lost behind the enclave of yuppie lofts on Clybourn.

All around Jones rise mounds of metal--twisted, dented, and rusted--several stories high. There are televisions, shopping carts, refrigerators, bathtubs, garbage cans, bedsprings, car hoods, boilers, you name it. Looming in the distance is a mountain range made up of little dots of color: crushed aluminum cans bundled into large squares.

Jones has to shout to be heard above the roar of machinery and crashing metal. Three giant cranes swing their jibs back and forth above his head: each dangles by a chain a large magnet, shaped like a pothole cover. A crane swoops down. The magnet sucks up a clump of metal. And then--crash--it's rudely dumped onto a conveyor belt that brings it to a noisy combine that, in turn, shreds scrap into hand-sized flakes to be hauled away by truck for recycling.

The dump opens at six in the morning, Jones continues, and that's when the trucks first line up. Those are the early birds, the fellows who can't wait to dump the scrap they've gathered the day or the night before. You get another big crowd of trucks around noon, when the fellows come in with their morning catch. But if you collect your load in the very early morning, when the other guys are lining up, you can dump it during mid-morning lulls, like now.

The only other truck at the yard belongs to Figueroa, a Cuban. For Figueroa this is a sideline. His real profession is construction.

Like Jones, Figueroa hatched a scheme. He noticed that his bosses paid to have most junk hauled away. Then, one day, Figueroa learned something else: scrap metal has value. So, rather than pay others to cart it off, you can sell it yourself.

Best of all, he wouldn't have to make arduous trips around the city, rummaging for scrap through alleys and back streets. His prize was right under his nose, on the job site. He learned to sort the valuable junk from the worthless. And so began his fledgling business.

"I get paid 30 bucks a ton," he says with a smile.

A young Mexican, controlling traffic on the site, in hard hat and rubber boots, walks up and eyes Figueroa's shiny red undented truck. "That's a new truck, and we're not responsible for anything that happens to it," he says in Spanish.

Figueroa is silent. He eyes the magnet on a nearby crane. For the moment, the crane is stalled. Its cargo--an old, dented icebox--hangs precariously, threatening to fall and crush Robert Jones's Road Boss. Finally, with a loud grunt, the crane swings away from the truck and sends the icebox crashing onto the cargo belt.

Hmmm. Figueroa's thinking. But he knows it would take him at least a half hour to unload by hand the bars, poles, and brass crammed into the back of his truck.

Figueroa decides to live dangerously. He drives his truck along a path that cuts for about 20 yards through a canyon of scrap, stopping at the crane. And then he gets out and stands, hands in pockets, silently watching as the magnet hauls off steel girders as if they were pins.

Meanwhile, Jones parks the Road Boss and bounds up the stairs to the second-floor office where he'll cash his receipts.

"What they do," Jones says, "is they weigh your truck when you first come in with all the scrap in the back. Then they weigh it after you've dumped your load.

"It isn't bad. I work outdoors. I'm my own man. I don't have no bosses to answer to. They pay you $30 a ton. This time I got $35.35," he says, waving his receipt. "I still got time now to go out and get me two more loads. And I finished just before the next big line."

Sure enough, at least a half-dozen trucks, their flatbeds piled with contortions of metal, steadily rumble up the bumpy road through the puddles left from the morning's rain. The traffic is so heavy that there are now two yardmen--a Mexican and a black--blowing their whistles and waving their hands in a futile attempt to impose order on the whirl of traffic.

Like Jones, the other truck drivers are self-made, piloting rusting, ramshackle vehicles that rattle and sway under their loads.

There's Jackson & Sons, the truck an old, red flatbed, the company name scrawled in green letters on its plywood sidings. The driver is a wiry black man with thick muscles. Two children, a boy and a girl, sleep soundly in the front seat.

There's Valera, the name spray-painted in red--twice: once in small letters, which have been partially blotted, then again, in larger but still clumsy letters below.

And there's "I am that I am," a baby blue pickup, whose owner does not know the origin of his vehicle's enigmatic name.

A gray van rumbles up. The driver is Big John, a muscular black man smoking a pipe and wearing dirty chino pants that sag beneath his bulging belly. Without, it seems, the slightest effort, Big John jumps from his van and begins tossing long, heavy metal pipes out of the back.

"I got started this morning at six," he says, his pipe still clenched in his mouth. "I goes around and see construction guys on the north and south sides all over town.

"I stops in and I ask 'em, 'What you got for Big John?' Most of 'em don't even know what they got. They give me this, fer instance." And he holds in the air half of an aluminum sink, before tossing it aside with disdain.

"Some son of a bitch gave me that. He don't even know that that's aluminum. Aluminum's no good. It don't weigh much. You want metal. 'Cause metal's heavy."

As he talks, he watches two Mexican men--a father and his teenage son--wrestle with an eclectic assortment of household appliances, including a lawn mower gearshift, an air-conditioning motor, an oven door, a toaster, and a bulky white refrigerator. Apparently they don't want to wait in line for the magnet.

The men can't get the refrigerator off. They push, then nudge, then shove, and finally, red-faced and exasperated, kick the refrigerator, in a frustrated attempt to get it over the edge of the truck.

Big John shakes his head, puffs on his pipe, and then delivers a few words of Satchel Paige-like wisdom.

"For every move you make with your body, you gotta make two with your mind," Big John says, tapping first his left arm, then his head. "That's the way you live a long life in this world. Those boys are gonna just keep on having troubles with that refrigerator 'cause they don't take time to figure out a plan."

In pulls a truck, a white woman at the wheel, carting at least 20 metal drums.

"What a find," Big John exclaims, enviously eyeing the drums. "She must have got it from one source. And, best of all, she probably had someone help her load it, too."

Or maybe she didn't. The woman has husky arms and broad shoulders. She steers her truck to the side of the road, stops, and smiles, revealing a silver tooth.

Big John laughs.

"I gots at least ten years in this business. I muck around here and there. I know all the tricks. Aluminum don't weigh as much as metal. Metal don't weigh as much as brass. And brass don't weigh as much as iron. You find iron, you keep it. Around here, iron's just as good as gold."

Crash--the Mexicans have pushed the refrigerator onto the ground. They laugh, and as a soft drizzle starts to fall, they begin mopping the grime from the back of their truck.

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