Stolen Air

Kim Kelly

This essay appears in our third print edition, Breathing Room.

By the time you read this, my grandfather will have been dead for over a year. He picked a hell of a year to go, though of course it was never really up to him. He was a bystander to his own demise. COVID-19 had nothing to do with his passing, and in fact, the timing was almost fortuitous; the pandemic was just beginning to gather momentum as he entered the hospital for the last time, but when he needed a ventilator, there were still plenty available. A week or two’s difference would have made the end that much more painful.

It was still a terrible way to go. The cancer that had first coiled within his lungs like a poisonous viper slowly expanded to fill more of the nooks and crannies of his big, work-worn body, cruelly wending its way through his organs for months until, eventually, when there was nothing left to subsume, it made the final call. For a man like him, who’d always bristled at being told what to do, it felt unfair, undignified. He’d lived his long life entirely on his own terms, but when death stopped for him, it was a fight even he couldn’t win.

Even though I’d known that he was in bad shape, had seen them install the hospital bed in his living room, and had a vague sense that he might not bounce back from this one, I still sort of believed that he’d be okay. My granddad, who I called Poppy, grew up on a farm, the son of poor tenant farmers, and didn’t bother going to high school; instead, he followed his brothers into the Marines. After spending four years doing god knows what in the name of American imperialism, he came back, married my sweet little grandma, Nancy, had two kids, and worked two jobs—as a millwright in a steel mill and as a motel janitor—for the next forty years.

The only times he ever seemed anything approaching mortal were when we’d go visit him in the hospital after a surgery or an accident. It happened fairly often, both because of how badly the mill had broken his body, and because he was too damn stubborn to act his age. He’d mumble and grumble about the coworkers he felt weren’t grinding as hard as he was, but he was still a shop steward for the union; he’d been a member of many, but seemed to like the Steelworkers best. He beat back all manner of physical ailments in the three decades I knew him, from a pesky bout of glaucoma to gruesome workplace injuries to the endless series of back surgeries that had left him stooped and, often, wincing in pain when he stood. Poppy being Poppy, he didn’t believe in painkillers, not even aspirin, so the pain just made him meaner. I assumed he was indestructible.

And I’d certainly never envisioned saying goodbye to him in a hospital bed. He just wasn’t that kind of man. I had always half-expected to come across him laid out in his backyard after falling off a ladder, or after the kind of ugly bar fight he still occasionally insisted on starting (and usually, finishing) well into his seventies. As a younger man, he’d worked as a bouncer at a grimy roadhouse in Jersey, and narrowly avoided more than one knife fight (though we both assumed he would’ve won). His barrel chest would puff out and his gruff voice would go rosy with pride as he described those encounters, basking in his own superior masculinity. He wasn’t wrong there; my granddad was an intimidating 6’4” in bare feet, with a shaved head, a commanding baritone, and a habit of hollering “What?” at you across the room well before his hearing started to go. He was the kind of hard-boiled, raw-boned, working-class hero you’d expect to come across in a rough and tumble 70’s action flick, not bringing oranges to his pigtailed granddaughter’s soccer games. He’d never read Whitman (or anything, really; he used to brag that he’d never finished a book), but still, he contained multitudes.

At his house, Fox News offered a constant wash of ominous background noise (unless the Eagles were on), and my granddad liked to yell back at the screen when he was fed a particularly outrageous particle of faux information. Once I’d developed even the barest hint of a political awakening, we quickly decided to avoid discussing politics, an optimistic nonaggression pact that nonetheless fell by the wayside during the Trump years. As far as he was concerned, he’d lived the American dream, and had even socked away enough money to be able to put his bookish favorite grandchild through college. When I was little, he seemed like a friendly giant; even when his hellacious temper boiled over and he started hollering, that fearsome ire was never directed at me. I was the golden child whose straight-A report cards he delighted in inspecting and at whose sporting events he was a perpetual hulking presence on the sidelines. Looking back, he must’ve scared the shit out of the other parents, but I was always happy to see him there cheering me on.

He liked a gin and tonic, and heaped scorn upon anyone dumb enough to buy their liquor in anything but the plastic gallon jugs on offer at Costco. His home was stuffed with taxidermied evidence of his triumphs in the wildernesses of Alaska and Maine; a seven-foot Alaskan grizzly bear stood watch over his porch, and a trio of black bears accented the pool table and wet bar in the basement. He had more guns than it was polite to mention, and could’ve become an early influencer in the toxic masculinity space if he’d understood the Internet beyond manually pecking out the URL for my Twitter to see what I was up to. To my grandmother’s immense chagrin, he was popular with the ladies at his local watering hole, and spent every Thursday night shooting pool and talking shit with his buddies. As far as he was concerned, it was besides the point whether or not he was drunk when he drove home, since he never got caught.

I could tell you stories about him all day, but ultimately, my granddad was an ornery son of a bitch with terrible politics, a sweet tooth, and a fondness for trouble. He was a working-class bruiser, a union man, and a good guy to have on your side. He was my favorite person in the world. Even as an old man, George Washington Johnson was not someone to be fucked with. But the cancer didn’t care about any of that.

George Johnson in his hospital bed.

My other grandfather, Grandpa Jim, my dad’s dad, also died of lung cancer several years ago. He’d smoked, played the numbers, went to Mass, and spent his life working construction, hunting, fishing, and raising kids with my grandma Veronica—another working-class American dream, really, except it culminated in him lying emaciated on the couch struggling to breathe, and ended shortly thereafter. He was a kind man, eccentric and wholly in the thrall of my grandma, who he’d married when they were teenagers. We weren’t all that close, but he always made me feel loved, even when I showed up to family gatherings in black lipstick and combat boots. When he died, my grandma fell apart; he had left her too soon, and now, she’s just waiting around to see him again. Grandpa Jim had had a more standard variety of lung cancer, one that was deadly but otherwise nothing fancy. It came on quick, and left quietly. Poppy, on the other hand, was gifted his.

Poppy had a massive social network that was primarily rooted in his Loyal Order of Moose lodge but spread out throughout the country, and included a perpetually expanding cast of guys. Ya need a deal on a new car? He had a guy. Ya need someone to come cut down a tree in your front yard? He had a guy. Ya need someone to come take the heat if you get into a fight with some creep and things go sideways? He was the guy (for me, anyway). His clunky cell phone was always ringing. After he retired, he didn’t keep in touch with many of his old friends from the Hoeganaes steel mill where he’d worked, but he didn’t need to. The mill never really left him.

Mesothelioma is a pretty word for a wretched, brutal disease. It’s a form of aggressive, malignant lung cancer that is caused by inhaled asbestos fibers and forms in the lining of the lungs, abdomen, or heart. It steals your breath, causes chest pains, makes you feel like you’re drowning. Mesothelioma is especially dastardly in the way it reveals itself; it doesn’t show up for as long as forty years after exposure, and when it does, it moves fast. The life expectancy of a person diagnosed with mesothelioma is around a year, maybe a little more, often a lot less. My granddad was 82, and lasted about eight months. As COVID-19, another respiratory nightmare, made its way around the globe and into the fragile soft tissues of millions, the cancer was steadily strangling my granddad to death.

There’s nothing more natural than breathing, and nothing more perverse than the moment when that breath is forcefully snuffed out, and vital air is snatched from heaving lungs. The working class is well-acquainted with the effort it can command just to take a breath in the midst of their labors or at the end of a hard day. It batters those who work in the thick of things, like the manufacturing workers whose lungs get loaded up with dust and particles and chemical irritants on the job, or the coal miners who are still fighting for the right not to die from the black lung that killed their fathers and that their own time underground bestowed upon them. It haunts the textile workers and garment workers who spend their days in a cloud of cotton fibers, their fingers sore and lungs heavy with byssinosis, and the agricultural workers at risk of medieval-sounding scourges like cork worker’s lung, farmer’s lung, and mushroom worker’s lung. It burdens the stonecutters with silicosis, and leaves construction workers like my dad to weigh their few options knowing—or not knowing—that they are five times more likely to develop respiratory diseases.

My granddad is only one of millions who breathed in asbestos, and the younger generations who followed his are still putting their lives and their lungs at risk. They are used to breathing through smoke, through dust, through scraps of fabric, through dirt, through fumes, through flames, through tears, and now, through air that may be contaminated with a deadly virus. This past year, it stalked the medical workers and retail workers and farmworkers and delivery workers that kept the world running, in an ongoing nightmare that rendered each maskless breath a calamity. And some workers, like those who are Black and Brown and face disproportionate levels of police violence on top of workplace struggles, have had to reconcile the idea that their breath might be stolen by the state as well as the boss.

I didn’t find out about my granddad’s specific diagnosis until I saw it listed on his death certificate, and realized that, unlike Grandpa Jim’s cancer, Poppy’s version was very specifically someone else’s fault. Over all those years he spent working in that steel mill, he wasn’t only breathing in the same iron ore powder they were being paid to manufacture; he was also breathing in asbestos. Daily, hourly, by the second, those toxic fibers were floating gently through the air and nestling into his internal organs. When those fibers stirred within my granddad’s lungs, they began laying the groundwork for his death.

His bosses must have known. The iron ore powder was bad enough—it’s carcinogenic in its own right—but the dangers of asbestos have been well-documented since the 1930s, and became public knowledge back in the 1970s. My granddad was still working there in the late ’80s, when I was born. When did they finally remove the asbestos from the factory where he worked? How many other people got sick, or died, because their bosses were either ignorant of the risks or consciously ignored them? How much money did they save? How much is a worker’s life worth?

The company he worked for, Hoeganaes, still exists, albeit in an altered state; they still make industrial metal powders, but have also expanded into 3D printing, are owned by a European conglomerate, and have 28 facilities in nine countries. (They’re also on Twitter, and I won’t pretend that I haven’t considered cyberbullying them.) As it turns out, Hoeganaes still doesn’t have a stellar track record for worker safety. In 2011, five workers were injured in an explosion at one of their Tennessee facilities—the third that year—and the highly combustible metal dust blanketing the facility was assumed to be the culprit. The company was fined, and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board confirmed as much in a report that characterized the fatal fires as “entirely preventable.”

The report also found that “significant amounts of fine iron powder had accumulated over time at the Hoeganaes facility, and that while the company knew from its own testing and experience with flash fires in the plant that the dust was combustible, it did not take the necessary action to reduce the hazards through engineering controls and basic housekeeping… The investigation also found that Hoeganaes did not institute procedures such as combustible gas monitoring or provide training for employees on avoiding flammable gas fires and explosions.”

Its facility in Riverton, NJ, where my granddad worked for decades, is listed as a “known asbestos exposure job site” by several law firms that specialize in aiding mesothelioma patients and their families. It’s obvious what killed him, and whose negligence allowed it to happen.

With so much blood on their hands, it’s no wonder the company will happily seize any chance to burnish its image. In 2017, Kylan McQuaig, the Global R&D Manager for GKN Hoeganaes, founded the now-annual GKN Hoeganaes Golf Outing to benefit Virtua Health’s Oncology Services after a family member received cancer treatment at several of their facilities around South Jersey. The initiative has raised over $30,000 since then, which has in turn netted some nice press for the company. As McQuaig commented in a blog post on Virtua’s website, “It feels great to be able to do something to help other people going through the same difficult situation.”

I reached out to McQuaig to see if he’d answer some questions about the company’s history with asbestos, and he did email me back. He expressed his sympathy for my loss, and then ignored my follow-up email asking if the company has ever paid out restitution to the workers whose breath was stolen. I asked if they’d ever apologized. There was no answer.

I mention McQuaig—who seems like a nice enough man, judging from our brief encounter—for a reason. As anyone who’s lived in South Jersey can tell you, it can be an awfully small world, one that invites coincidence. You see, my granddad died at Virtua’s Memorial Hospital in Mt. Holly. It’s the same hospital where I was born, an affiliate of the cancer center where GKN Hoeganaes holds McQuaig’s charity outings, and a quick 25-minute drive from the old Hoeganaes plant, the steel mill that killed him. Poppy was never much for golf, though; he preferred football. Besides, he was always too busy working.

As the pandemic fitfully, cautiously nears its potential end, spare a thought for all the working-class lives that have been lost to the cruelty of indifference, and the millions of poor and working-class people across the country who are still going in to work with a tightness in their chests. Their bodies are always the first to be sacrificed to the gods of capital. Like my granddad, they just can’t catch a break—or, all too often, take a breath. ♦



Kim Kelly is a freelance journalist and organizer based in Philadelphia. Her work on labor, class, politics, and culture has appeared in Teen Vogue, The New Republic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Baffler, and Esquire, among other publications, and she is the author of FIGHT LIKE HELL, a forthcoming book of intersectional labor history. Follow her on Twitter @grimkim.

Cover image: the Hoeganaes Corporation plant in Riverton, NJ. Riverton Historical Society.

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