My Summer of Rubber Dust

The Machine didn’t work well, not by a long shot. But, in the end, it worked just enough.

My Summer of Rubber Dust
Photo by Sean Ferigan / Unsplash

by J.J. Anselmi

Very quickly that summer, we started referring to it as The Machine. A heinous contraption built atop a dump truck, The Machine was designed to throttle sheets of old AstroTurf, knocking loose the black, sand-like rubber from the underside, which our boss, my friend’s dad, then intended to sell.

It was a filthy, godforsaken enterprise, leaving each of us covered in black dust that took multiple showers to scrub out of our skin. My three friends and I earned more money during those three summer months than we would in the next academic year as writing instructors. So there we were, faced with the reality that rubber dust beaten out of haggard AstroTurf was worth more than teaching college freshmen how to write.

Bossman Lloyd’s modus operandi was to set up The Machine in places where AstroTurf was getting removed and harvest the rubber from said turf. How one gets tipped off about where AstroTurf is getting torn out is anyone’s guess. Our first gig was at a dingy indoor soccer arena near San Jose, and the second was at a bougie high school football field not far away. Normally, the company who removed the old AstroTurf and installed the new stuff would take the ratty rolls to a dump, where they had to pay hefty fees to dispose of it. Enter Lloyd and his business plan: charge a lesser fee to dump the turf, harvest the toxic rubber crumbs, then sell those crumbs to someone, probably to use on more AstroTurf. The rubber on the underside usually got thrown away along with the plastic grass, but at some point Lloyd realized he could sell that rubber—if he had a way to extract it, that is. This is how The Machine came into existence.

Lloyd employed his eldest son, Richard, to help him build the monstrosity. They constructed a roller system on top of a dump truck, through which we fed old AstroTurf. Toothed rollers clamped down and some kind of shaking mechanism was engaged that violently jostled the turf, unleashing a mess of sand-like rubber, some of which was fed into industrial-sized sandbags, the rest clouding above us and attacking our lungs, hair, and skin. The Machine was both janky and impressive: janky in that it was a nightmare by safety standards, not to mention its chronic unreliability and its incessant, belligerent roar; but impressive in that two dudes with a harebrained scheme actually pulled it off to some degree. The Machine didn’t work well, not by a long shot. But, in the end, it worked just enough.

As for my role in this morass, I funneled the rubber product into large sandbags by operating a lever-controlled disposal pipe and then hauled the sandbags via forklift to the edge of the worksite and lined them up in rows. I was the only person on our crew with a valid forklift permit, although my permit was only valid in Colorado. Nevertheless, this shoddy credential landed me the position.

Lloyd’s two sons, Jeff, my friend from school, and Richard, a fighter of wildfires, were the most essential pieces of the operation. The crews who ripped out the turf piled the rolls atop each other, and Richard used a large forklift (bigger than mine) to pick up the rolls and feed them to The Machine. Jeff (and sometimes Lloyd, but mostly Jeff) stood in the control booth above The Machine’s cab, wrestling a perverse system of levers and yelling instructions to the rest of us. Jeff and Richard took turns fixing The Machine when it broke down, which happened constantly. The brothers also helped my other two comrades, Shane and Gavin, pull AstroTurf through the rollers, which required them to firmly grip and tug the rotten stuff, raging against The Machine while also preparing it to batter additional sheets of artificial grass. The turf handling job was the most punishing, leaving these heroic gentlemen with throbbing, ineffectual mitts where they once had hands. And then they had to wake up and do it again the next day.

If you haven’t realized by now, Lloyd was a grifter, the unironically mustachioed owner of a bogus construction firm in Modesto that primarily seemed to consist of weird, petty operations like the one we were part of. As far as I could tell, Lloyd, a short, rotund fellow with unassuming brown hair, who wore suspenders or overalls (depending on his mood), mostly hung out and schemed in his office on his industrial lot: a sea of scorching asphalt and a handful of corrugated steel buildings protected by a rusted chain link fence topped with razor wire. The razor wire was necessary, Lloyd told us, because tweakers had recently stolen spools of copper from him. He was debating the merits of a guard dog.

Don’t get me wrong. My friends and I were grateful (except maybe for Jeff, because doing wacky shit for his dad wasn’t going to end with this job) for the opportunity to earn some real cash that summer. The alternative would’ve been to stay in Fresno, where we lived, hang out, and spend our respective savings, waiting for the fall semester to start again. But I’d be lying if I said the rubber harvesting job wasn’t also existentially taxing. Our paycheck for two weeks of work was more than we’d earn during an entire semester of teaching—and we got paid multiple times that summer. Of course none of us thought teaching writing would get us rich. Even still, helping freshmen think critically and write better were things we considered highly valuable and worthwhile, if not lucrative. The outside world constantly told us otherwise, and this was nothing new for a group of English majors. But the cold fact that rubber crumbs were worth more money than our attempts to give something we thought to have real value to people was especially bleak, even if none of us said as much.

A typical day warring with The Machine: we’d show up to the site—Lloyd, Jeff, and Richard in the cab of The Machine, and Shane, Gavin, and me in my Subaru. The crew tearing out the turf had usually done a ton of work by the time we arrived, leaving us a mountain of rolls that awaited our specialized treatment. The AstroTurf crews moved with efficiency and expertise, professionals who correctly watched us like we were some absurdist industrial performance collective. The looks on the guys’ faces toggled between bemusement, derision, and annoyance.

Fresh-faced in the morning, his photochromic glasses still clear before they tinted in the sun, Richard would man the big forklift, drive it over to turf mountain, and acquire some rolls. Meanwhile, Jeff would gingerly climb atop The Machine and get ready to fire it up. Lloyd would spout incomprehensible commands we mostly ignored. I would get in my lesser-than-Richard’s-but-still-beefy forklift, line it up with the expulsion tube where rubber dust would flow, then put a fresh sandbag on the forks, awaiting the crumby payload. Finally, Shane and Gavin would bravely stand in front of The Machine, visibly filled with dread and anticipation for the work to begin. Their arms tensed up, and they’d stop joking around in the quiet before The Machine bellowed into operation.

My job wasn’t as back-breaking or chaotic as my compatriots’, but it was the dirtiest. When I pulled the lever to release the crumbs, the tube vomited an aggressive cloud of filth. I was fully caked within minutes. Safety goggles didn’t keep the dust out of my eyes, so I bought a pair of swimming goggles to wear underneath. My swimming goggles had a mirror coating. Covered in black grime and dually goggled, I looked like an extra from Mad Max with cut-rate Morpheus glasses.

We’d get a solid rhythm going—something resembling a chain of operations—but The Machine broke down multiple times per hour. Jeff and/or Richard would anxiously fix it, and we’d sprint to catch up on lost time. And then it would break down again. And again. And again. This was the sputtering cycle of our days.

We started each day at the beginning of the summer hopeful about The Machine. Today, it wouldn’t break down and fuck us over. Today we were lords of The Machine. But by the middle and end of the summer, we started each day already slumped with defeat, knowing we’d be spending far more time on the worksite than we would if the contraption worked properly. This was good in that we got paid by the hour, but we were also doughy writer types, and we weren’t physically or psychologically equipped for eleven-plus-hour days of grueling labor. Any fantasies we held that, in another life, we could’ve been gnarly blue-collar workers (real men) popped like sad balloons. And beyond the softness of our privilege was the crushing reality that this bullshit was, according to our lord and savior Capitalism, more valuable than imparting young minds with critical thinking skills.

Some highlights and precious moments from my summer of rubber dust: Lloyd recklessly zooming around the worksites in a Bobcat tractor, manically performing tasks that only made sense to him. At the end of our job at the indoor soccer arena, which of course went horrifically wrong, we were madly cleaning up the site when Lloyd collided with me in the forklift, knocking the industrial sandbag I was carrying to the ground and puncturing it so rubber crumbs cascaded onto hot asphalt. (We worked in the parking lot of the arena.) Bobcats, I learned, can get going pretty damn fast. We had to hurriedly shovel the rubber into another bag by hand. We were hurrying because we needed to drive to the next gig that night, and we wanted to get back to the motel to take showers before making the two-hour trip. Right after colliding with me, Lloyd waved his hands and shouted, “J.J. cost us our showers.” But by then we all knew that he liked to yell inane shit—and it was easier to ignore him than try to argue. I point out this incident because it’s stayed in my mind as a microcosm of the whole operation. It was that stupid.

One evening after work we went to Walmart to buy soap and bathing implements that could actually get the rubber out of our skin and hair. The meager bars of soap and spoonfuls of shampoo at the motels did next to nothing. Black rubber had been ground into our faces, arms, and clothes, and we walked bowlegged with soreness. We looked like coal miners after a day in the mines, except harvesting rubber was infinitely less badass than mining coal, so I guess it’s more accurate to say we looked like a defeated group of writing instructors that had emerged from some rubber-infested apocalypse to buy soap and shampoo. The other Walmart customers looked at us with appropriate confusion and dismay.

Like I mentioned, the first two gigs were near San Jose, where it’s mild and temperate, even in July. We finished our rubber summer on Lloyd’s lot in Modesto, a small and brutally hot Central Valley city where societal collapse seems imminent. Meth is popular there.

A godless berg of AstroTurf sat mercilessly in the lot where Lloyd had dumped it after transporting it from another site. At this point, it was better for us to perform our farce in solitude and not in front of an audience of skilled laborers, although passersby on the sidewalk were welcome to stop for the show. Heat bore down on us from a cloudless sky and simultaneously rose up from the asphalt, cooking us like dejected turkeys. Hot and sticky, we got basted in rubber dust. During the other two jobs the toxic filth had seeped into our skin—but in Modesto it seemed to pollute us on a cellular level. Normally affable, kind dudes, we turned into surly assholes, silently hating every word out of each other’s mouth.

It was here where Sir Richard understandably abandoned us. He was sick of his dad’s bullshit, plus he had an actual job to do fighting California’s wildfires. For lunch, Lloyd routinely bought us a trough of Doritos Locos tacos, which seemed like a treat until we finished eating. The sodium grenades then revealed themselves as additional agents of our demise.

We battled the pyramid of AstroTurf in Lloyd’s lot until it was replaced by crooked rows of rubber-crumb-filled sandbags that sat atop rotten wood pallets. In my head, though, we never finished the job, not really.

We returned to Fresno and our teaching jobs tired, yes, but also dispirited. Throughout that next year, I often felt like I was doing an impersonation of a teacher, performing gestures without imparting anything of value. I told my classes over and over about the importance of media literacy, how we’re constantly bombarded with rhetorical manipulation and how crucial it is to resist it. I’m not sure who I was more desperate to convince.

J.J. Anselmi is the author of Out Here on Our Own, Doomed to Fail, and Heavy. He lives with his family in Southern California.