Metal Machine Music

A RUSTED-OUT, EARLY '70s Ford F-150 pick-up with a missing door tools down Pierce Butler Route in St. Paul, its back end crammed full of water heaters, lawn furniture, and old tires. To the annoyed commuters who honk and zig-zag around it, the contraption looks like just another junker. Yet I immediately recognize what the driver is up to, and say the word out loud: Scrapper.


Metals recycling--otherwise known as "scrapping"--is the magic method by which one man's junk is transformed into another's cash. A scrapper finds the metal, breaks it down, and brings it into one of the many scrap yards located in northeast Minneapolis and along the edges of Frogtown in St. Paul. The yard itself is an apocalypse in progress, an active display of our disposable empire. Forklifts and bulldozers race around in crazed patterns, moving huge piles of mangled metal like ants moving grains of sand.

Scrappers at the yard range from homeless guys with bags of cans to semi-rig drivers delivering dismantled factories, with scavengers like me (who avoid steady employment) and professional contractors who unload "extra" materials out of immaculate trucks mixed in for good measure. As distracting as the place can be--with occasional fights, yelling matches, and fender benders--everyone there seems to remain focused on one thing: that little window where the money gets shelled out.

The scrapper's biggest payout comes from non-ferrous metals. Copper, which brings in up to 87 cents a pound, is always good booty compared, say, to cast iron, which weighs in at less than a nickel. To earn top dollar, one must separate the metals into their distinct species. It's taken me years to know by sight these subtle differences--with each metal having its own subgenres. Brass: Yellow and Red. Aluminum: Old, Clip, Cast, Painted. Copper: New, #1, #2. The list seems infinite. If the metal contains plastic, wood, or ferrous metals, the price downgrades to "breakage" class; the payola is nearly zip for this, and it's almost an embarrassment to be caught with it at the yard.

Before the scrap can be sold, it has to be found--not along the polished fronts of the city, but in the secret world that exists behind the scene. The scrapper spends tedious hours trolling the back roads that run along the metro's perpetual supply of cluttered lots and factories, discovering clandestine routes used only by railroads, funky diners, bizarre convenience stores, and amazing little parks. Part urban pioneer, part pirate, and part nomad of tar-and-concrete streets, a scrapper views the entire cityscape as an enterprise zone where anything is possible--even if it means defeating the laws of physics by fitting a 300-pound brass slab into a '78 Vega hatchback.

As with the rest of the free-market numbers game, desperation breeds true success. To win, a scrapper must be prepared to endure all kinds of inclement weather and to work on holidays while normal people kick back and sleep. There's nothing safe or predictable about it. I've driven around for days and found nothing, but also had the good fortune to chance upon recently demolished gas stations that put hundreds of dollars in my pocket in two hours' time. I've been sprayed in the face with Freon and ammonia gas, sliced up by jagged metal, and come close to being buried alive in several dumpsters. Your clothes will be destroyed. Your hands will never be clean. You can't think about pieces--it's all about your total pile, the big picture.

Here's an inside tip: The best way to increase the size of your pile is to find a like-minded spirit to partner with. I don't suggest it as a dating activity, unless, of course, you're both truly in love. A partnership is best kept to two because of limited resources and the simplicity of splitting the spoils 50/50. As a lucrative venture, the duo should have a certain balance: One is a crazed maniac who wants to scrap the entire planet, the other is plain paranoid. This chemistry should keep the scrappers in scrap and out of trouble. Another duty of the partnership is to break down and separate the scrap. This is a tough, risky job that can involve toxic chemicals and flying debris. However, the therapeutic value of bashing an old auto bank teller machine with a sledgehammer cannot be denied.

Another real hazard for the team is irate property owners who don't understand the earth-saving nobility of "metals recovery." That being the case, the smart policy is to never scrap in the dark, never enter a fenced-off area, avoid humans at all costs, and, if you do encounter them, play dumb. This is usually easy because most people don't want to chat with a guy in a dumpster.

Do scrappers sometimes steal stuff? Well, in all forms of business there are ethical lapses. But yards are suspicious of anything that looks hot, and the cops aren't shy about arresting trespassers. On the other hand, it must be said that if not for the legitimate scrapper, many otherwise promising items would go straight to the landfill. And the city would be a less tidy place.

I've hesitated to share the deeper secrets of scrapping because I harbor the fear that all scrappers hold in their hearts: The notion that someone else--a novice, no less--will beat them to the mother lode. But over time it's become clear to me that your average American is too employed, frightened, lazy, or reasonable to pose much threat to the hardcore scrapper. As for any suggestion of unionizing, banish the thought: Scrappers are an impossible group to unite because, in a classic capitalist framework, we are all competing for the same pile of junk. Come to think of it, the only time I've ever talked to another scrapper is in the yard itself. As we wait in line, eyeing the competition's haul, we may complain about the current market, but more often than not we just stare straight ahead into the metal crusher, fresh from the city in all its ruin and lunatic glory, dreaming of tomorrow's bounty.

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