Dear Dirty America


ND Oil Patch: Men Need Servicing As Much As Their Machines Do

June 25
18:41 2012
Dickinson, North Dakota


The only food item McDonald’s offers that I can eat is the fruit and walnut salad. A few apple slices, and grapes. With sweetened walnuts. God damn any walnut that isn’t coated with sugar. The other diners around me mostly wore blackened, sooty coveralls and clunky work boots. I sat across from one of them, uninvited. This is how I get my interviews, and my scoop on local happenings.

You must work in the oil patch, I asked him. He had three McD’s dollar menu burgers. Two anemic looking, lightly toasted buns. Between them a flimsy, hard-pressed burger. He also had a box of fries. A giant cup of Cola. The man was Hispanic, from the looks of it, but I didn’t ask. None of my business.

I had a rolled up Dickinson Press in my back pocket. I tore it out and showed him the front page. He stared at it with dazed eyes. His mouth chewed his bite of burger. He ate his fries one at a time, after every bite of burger. He seemed to be saving his Coke for last.

Prostitution, I said, is running rampant in this once clean, peaceful town. Gee whiz, what’s going on? I asked. He squinted his eyes and said, “How the hell should I know?” Well, what’s your name, anyway, for starters. I write for a prominent blog, and I’m trying to get a story, but we won’t get far if you’re shooting questions back at mine.

The man wouldn’t give me his name, so I said, You’re oil patch worker #2309. Does that sound reasonable? That’s what I’ll write you up as. He was middle-aged. Forty. Forty-five. Crow’s feet around his eyes. His cheeks in need of a shave. The hair beneath his greasy blue and white hat matted and oily. In need of a cut.

Number 2309 didn’t protest my numerical designation. What about this prostitution, man? You must be in the thick of this lifestyle. But you’d think all these people migrating from Oklahoma, Florida, Iowa, Montana, California, Pennsylvania, and so on would respect a bedroom community. A quiet town with good, respectable people. The town gave these men jobs. Why are they acting like rowdy, drunken idiots with every minute they have off?

He didn’t answer, but his eyes focused on me. I was making a breakthrough, slowly.

These oil patchers stream into town from their man camps, un-showered, unshaven, and start roughing up the locals. They hire a few hookers who’ve drifted to the Northern Plains for servicing. The Dickinson cops are up to their ears in misfits and felonies. What’s the deal? I asked. Scores of scowling men hang around the parking lots of the mall and Walmart. The prostitutes stick out in this town like a martian in a police lineup. What gives?

“We work hard,” he said. “We make money. We pay it back to live here. Twelve hours a day hard labor.”

I pointed to the front page of the Dickinson Times once again. Prostitutes. In Western North Dakota, the land of Teddy Roosevelt.

“Men need servicing just as much as their machines!” he said, and dropped the last bite of his burger onto the crinkly wrapper. “We oil up trucks and pay loaders and earth movers and tractors. There are no women in this town. Men need servicing too.” His fingernails were grimy. Dirt packed beneath. He calmed down and ate the rest of his burgers.

Let me start with a paragraph closer to the ‘beginning’ of this adventure:

During my visit to North Dakota, which banged off with a grossly delayed budget airline fight, a near in-flight mutiny led by angry, disenchanted overweight passengers with a taste in their mouths and a promise in their minds of a free cocktail as repayment for the flight delay, to a sobering scene at Famous Dave’s restaurant, which is a health insurance nightmare, I’d wound up roaming in the land of big oil.

I ended up at a local Dickinson, North Dakota McDonald’s for an impromptu, mostly one-sided interview with oil patch worker #2309. While driving around, I’d listened to light pop music that the radio stations call country. Dierks Bentley and Carrie Underwood, Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney. At times I affirmed a random telling phrase from their paragraph of sloppy lyrics. Yes, I shouted. Yes, Kenny! Or, belt it out louder, Carrie! A little bit louder, please. If you read far enough between the shallow lines of any modern day popular song lyrics, at first you only see dollar signs, but then you find deeper, abstract truths that can’t be fully described in a blog about the dirtiness of America.

It’s almost impossible to stay sane in Dickinson these days. Dickinson, a town of nearly 18,000, happens to be sitting over the Bakken formation. It’s the subsurface of the Williston Basin. Within the Bakken, there is such a massive amount of oil that even good old boys from Texas gently remove their cowboy hats, bend to one creaky knee, and salute it. Geologist JW Nordquist discovered the rock unit in 1953, but only within the last few years has technology advanced and become affordable enough to blast the oil out of the formation and suck it up into barrels.

And that’s what all the hubbub is about. Tens of millions of Americans don’t have a job. Congress doesn’t seem to care about much more than getting themselves reelected, and making sure they get their vacation times. Obama can’t even get a tepid jobs bill passed, which would only, if everything worked perfectly, create about a million jobs, when really we could use around thirty. And Mitt Romney has $400 and more million in foreign bank accounts, so if he gets elected this November, he can pretty much sit back and wait out the next four years. There’ll be speeches needed, and periodic soothing about joblessness, foreclosure, and homelessness, but the speechwriters will be the ones sweating over that. Romney’ll still get his portrait painted, and have even more luxury and security than usual. Life will be good.

For the rest of us, there’s the oil patch. In North Dakota. If you’re not getting a job at Walmart, then you might have a shot in the dirty oil field. You might lose your fingers or your arms, if you’re not careful, but you’ll get paid $100,000 a year for your toiling. Hot in the summers, and extremely frigid in the winters. But, it’s six-figures. Except you won’t have a place to live. In Dickinson, like Williston (an hour and a half north), one bedroom apartments (if you can get one) run in the thousands of dollars a month. More than Manhattan.

What about the people who were peacefully living in Dickinson and Williston before this latest massive oil boom? Older folks can’t afford their apartments anymore. Landlords jack up their rent prices to the highest bidders, and there are plenty of them who have landed jobs in the field. Housing prices have gone through the roof. Crime, once almost nonexistent, has become a recurring headline. Prostitution. Assault. Drunken and disorderly. Property crimes. Burglary. Vagrancy.

The roads around Dickinson are squashed from the loaded big rigs. Traffic is steady in and out of town. Dickinson has become an ant farm without the proper dedication to order. Prosperity comes stacked with the price of unhappiness.

I’m certainly not a Bakken expert. There is a blog devoted to sharing all Bakken-related news. I have family there. That’s my only claim. The chaos, however, was astounding. The rumbling semi-trucks, dump trucks, tractors, and heavy duty Ford or Chevy pickup trucks made the scene far more intense. If you glanced out the car windows at those awkward, hammer-swinging oil rigs, you’ve tempted death with the heavy machinery rolling back and forth over Highway 22.

Back at McDonald’s, I wasn’t extracting much information out of #2309. I’m going to write an article about this, I told him, and document the need and lack of overall satisfaction here at the oil patch. A man can get a bite to eat at McDonald’s whenever he chooses, but what about the other human desires? Too many hard working men, and far too few willing women. Dear Jesus, that’s a conundrum. I should open a fake vagina shop to service the Dickinson / Williston areas.

When money’s flowing, it’s important to stake your claim any way possible. The shop would be clean. Cleaner than most sex shops you’ve probably been inside, I said. But prices would be high. I would love to grab a fistful of those fat wads of floating dollars.

Oil patch worker #2309 chewed his bite of flimsy hamburger. He blinked once — very slowly — in a signal that he understood. Or at least that’s how I took it.

I asked him, how’s this opening, for the article. I want to capture the readers’ attentions right away. I recited from the top of my skull:

Western North Dakota has turned into the land of machines and men. Machines made of steel and rubber that guzzle diesel fuel and gasoline and oil, and kick puffs of smelly exhaust into the atmosphere. The men who run and service those machines, made of much softer, perishable materials, yet hardened by the intense physical labor and lifestyle that comes with working in the oil patch. Unlike the machines, at the end of the working cycle, the men seek out the same type of intense entertainment to soothe the hardships of the working days.

Unlike machines, men have minds and physical needs. Yet, that is exploited by the capitalist class. Writes Marx, “The mechanism of capitalist production [has reproduced] the working class as a class dependent on wages” (727). Says Marx, “The value of labor-power is determined by the value of the means of subsistence habitually required by the average worker” (656). Like food, entertainment, sex. Humans are tethered to the needs of shelter, clothing, and all other forms of subsistence. The ruling, capitalist class knows this, and exploits it. Dependency on wages. To then spend those wages on living provisions, which are also provided, at a cost, by the capitalist class.

The cycle is endless, and oppressive for the majority of people…

Number 2309 held up his hand. “Enough,” he said in a short grunt. I guess you’ve gotten the point, I said, of my overall article. And my oeuvre of work. “Fly away,” he told me. I won’t every fly again, not after the last debacle I was in, I said. The state of America is constantly dejected, sorrowful, and embarrassingly needy for leadership. They are a herd of weary, wary animals. Enticed by any source of light. Any strong scent. Any promise of sensual satisfaction.

I left McDonald’s. Which pays $15/hr starting out. Because of the oil boom. A booming inflation of wages and prices, crime and thuggery, squashed roads, filth and capitalistic yearning. It’s a boon for North Dakota’s already healthy economy, but it spells trouble for a state normally unhindered by the ruffians and miscreants of the world.

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