The Big Thing
Out on Lake Erie, the Big Thing bided its time aboard ship, approaching the Port of Toledo.
Along Airport Highway, a mile or so inland, a city bus smoked past me as I arrived at work. Airport is a large four-lane thoroughfare on the western outskirts of town near the airport it serves. As you enter the city from the airport, the highway gradually evaporates, dwindling first to a two-lane stream and finally narrowing to a trickle barely worthy of a centerline stripe. Then, after seventeen miles of straight running, and diminishing, the road curves away, and Airport Highway vanishes in an inner city neighborhood just short of downtown Toledo. Here at the curve, the end of the line for Airport Highway, resides the bar I run. I opened the door and soon had my morning crowd.
A small beer-and-shot joint with nicotine yellow ceiling and wobbly barstools, the Buckeye Tavern is home to a generally good-natured group of working people off-shift from the Jeep factory or the rail yards. The city is dying economically, or deteriorating — hurt, scarred — and so is my bar. Still, we work. And those without work come to the bar in boots and torn T-shirts with a sense of hope and helplessness common to all. Employed or unemployed, anyone could cite the tonnage of the ship that bore the Big Thing. Everyone knew the strength of the cranes that lifted it to a waiting truck. All understood the horsepower of the diesel engine that pulled that massive burden. No one, however, could put a name to the Big Thing.
Someone had heard about it on the news. Some large piece of industrial equipment would be transported through the city, from the lake port on the east side to an unknown destination in the west — right past the bar. Still, no one knew what it was. A big… thing. As my customers speculated and argued — spilled beer, threw pretzels, overexcited — the Big Thing slowly approached. They would all see it soon enough. All bets would be settled.
“Another round!” someone shouted. “The Big Thing’s gonna be here pretty quick.” It was past noon. I poured a flurry of Rolling Rock drafts and popped a few bottles of Bud, then thinking of liabilities, started to say, “Gentlemen, there’ll be no beer on the sidewalk.” But it was too late. A pickup swung into the parking lot and slid to a halt on the gravel. We heard its door slam and a voice yell, “It’s here!” The tavern drained out like a teenager puking Jack, leaving me, the bad aftertaste, alone in the bar. “Guys! Dammit.” No good. I drew a mug for myself and joined my friends on the sidewalk.
The street was lined with people, as if a parade were coming. But this was no festive atmosphere. No one spoke. Everyone gaped. Traffic had been cut off. A little girl ran into the empty, still street chasing a loose coloring book page. A man on the other side dashed out — as if she were in the path of an oncoming locomotive — scooped up the girl and whisked her to the safety of her mother. The Big Thing was still a couple blocks down the street. From the stoop of the bar we could see it advancing toward the curve — the trailhead of Airport Highway. The diesel roared continuously, but the rig moved forward only gradually. It would be some minutes before it arrived. I downed half my beer. The guy who rescued the girl left her clinging to her mother’s leg and walked stiffly back across the street, gazing at the Big Thing like Clint Eastwood squinting at a street punk.
But it was no punk. The Big Thing kept coming, rolling slowly, carefully down the confines of our little street, foot by foot, and soon we got our first good look. It was mammoth, easily half a block long, and monstrous in its array of pipes, hoses, fittings, and cavernous steel belly. When it finally reached the bend in the road, it paused, as if to rest, or to think. Its minions, men in yellow hardhats and leather gauntlets, mounted its back, swarmed up utility poles, raised the high-voltage wires. And the Big Thing crept forward, negotiating the curve inch by inch.
Standing in the shade of it, we studied the mighty thingamajig. Its main component appeared to be a long, cylindrical processing tank or silo of some kind, lying on its side for transport, but several stories tall, as we could see by the many scaffoldings and flights of stairs. Although at some of the landings there were windowed hatches (“Ovens,” someone whispered ominously), the dark glass revealed nothing of the Big Thing’s inner being. On the outside, its body was painted swimming pool blue with zones of black and yellow stripes, yet the glossy colors were all but obscured by a befuddling complexity of external plumbing and bundled wires. Near the top, a single stainless steel control panel with two hooded gauges stared back at us.
“What is that thing?” I shouted up a phone pole. The hardhat barked down an answer, and we all nodded knowingly. Absorbed by its immensity and hypnotic slowness, however, who was listening? We sipped our beers in silence until the long shadow passed.
A police officer in a squad car trailing the Big Thing shook his finger at me. I flung him a salute and turned to herd my customers, and their open containers, back into the bar. Inside, the bellowing was mostly for more Rock and Bud, but it soon turned into the Big Debate.
“It’s for the nuclear plant.”
“No, it’s for Jeep.”
“No, Jeep ain’t on that side of town.”
“Well neither is the nuclear plant.”
“Maybe it’s taking Airport out to Fort Wayne.”
“That would take weeks. Besides, it’s ours!”
“Yeah, that thing belongs in Toledo!”
The Big Thing was like a cloud passing. No one knew where it came from or where it would go, and everyone saw something different in it. Certainly it was destined for a heavy industrial application. This much we understood, and appreciated. It came to our Port of Toledo. It passed our Buckeye Tavern. And like us, it would labor in the manufacturing engine that is our city. And yet, too, it was a thing of unspoken dread: beyond our abilities, outside our control. And it was big. Very big. I felt small in the bar. There were bills to pay.
In years to come, people would say with pride, “I was there. I saw the Big Thing.”
“What was it?”
“Even the ship was huge.”
“Where was it going?”
“Down the Highway.”
“Doesn’t anyone know — ”
“Right here. To work.”
Maybe the Big Thing brought a few more jobs to the city, and maybe those jobs meant a few more beers were sold at my bar. That day, at least, I sold a few. Hours later, in the twilight between shifts, I stepped out the front door with my broom, looked up and down the street, thinking maybe good things were coming, and started to sweep.