One sweltering afternoon in July, I found myself breaking and entering into a derelict warehouse on the east side of Cleveland. I was in the middle of a crash course in metal theft from a man named Jay Jackson.
Shorty Rock on the streets of Central, the neighborhood that is the epicenter of Cleveland’s scrap trade. All photos by Peter Larson.
One sweltering afternoon in July, I found myself breaking and entering into a derelict warehouse on the east side of Cleveland. I was in the middle of a crash course in metal theft from a man named Jay Jackson. Dressed like a plumber with a crumpled blue baseball cap on his head, Jay’s muscular physique belied the fact that he was once a crackhead. These days his life still revolves around illegally acquired goods, but not ones smoked, snorted, or injected: Jay makes his living stripping copper and steel from abandoned buildings like the one we were sneaking into, selling his yield by the pound to scrapyards for quick cash.
“Scrapping is just like being an entrepreneur,” he said, leading me toward a gaping hole in one of the warehouse’s walls, which we then scurried through. “It’s just a job, and you can make as much money as you put into it.”
Earlier that day, I’d used Google Street View to map out our jaunt through the epicenter of the city’s thriving scrap trade, the neighborhood known as Central (counterintuitively located on the east side of town). But the building Jay and I broke into looked completely different from what I had seen on my computer screen. The photos on Google, taken in 2009, showed a tidy vacant office building with nearly all of its windows intact and sturdy wooden boards blocking off its many entrances. But now it looked like the aftermath of a drone bombing in Afghanistan: every window was blown out, every orifice torn open. The stinking carcass of a rodent was splayed on the floor. The drop ceiling had been ripped down, revealing empty tracks where ventilation, piping, and wires once snaked through the building. I couldn’t believe that we were only a ten-minute drive from the stadiums, skyscrapers, and fine dining of downtown Cleveland.
The place may have looked like a dump to me, but to Jay it was a treasure trove of unknown proportions. “I could bring my torches in here and cut that steel box right over there,” he said, tiptoeing as he critiqued the work of the scrappers who’d already hit the spot, rattling off a litany of different ways to dissemble the building “properly.”
Jay and his cohorts, he explained, didn’t do hit-and-runs; they worked in teams, living in an abandoned building like this for weeks while meticulously taking apart every square foot for all it was worth. A scrapper like Jay can earn a couple thousand bucks on a big haul. Metal thieves with his approach are so good at tearing things apart, in fact, that sometimes the City of Cleveland has had to replace support beams and girders of buildings after they’ve been gutted so the huge structures don’t just collapse. Jay, by his own reckoning, told me he was in the “deconstruction business”—and in Cleveland, business is booming.
Like many tangential commodities in this tumultuous economy, the good fortune of Cleveland’s scrappers is a direct result of the misfortune of the city’s home and business owners. Between 2000 and 2008, Cuyahoga County, which encompasses Cleveland, racked up the most foreclosures per capita in the country—a whopping 80,000 houses were repossessed by banks, or about one out of every eight homes. Entire blocks were abandoned or sold to financial institutions, which have in turn left these homes sitting empty.
The east side of the city, the heart of the scrapping industry and the hardest hit by the recession, in many places brings to mind the rotten mouth of a meth addict, with decaying structures in every direction and great, gap-toothed spaces where homes and businesses sheltered and provided livelihoods for thousands of Ohioans. Today there are more than 16,000 of these empty properties, each stocked with lucrative goodies that can be scrapped, such as aluminum siding, metal-laden appliances, copper wire, and plumbing, all just waiting to be ripped out of the walls.
Jay Jackson walks down a secret path to Wilkoff and Sons, one of Cleveland’s largest scrapyards. They buy most of their metal from smaller operations, shred it up, and ship it across the US and overseas. Jay said he frequently steals metal from this yard and sells it to other yards.
Due to the combination of the 2007 mortgage crisis and a roughly simultaneous rise in metal prices worldwide, scrapping has exploded in cities across America. And nowhere more so than in Cleveland, which has the highest number of reported metal thefts per capita in the country. As a result, Cleveland has become the sort of city where ten to 20 manhole covers go missing in one night and a toddler falls into one of the pits left behind; where people joke about getting electrocuted just walking down the street because the ground wire has been plucked from all the telephone poles; where copper statues downtown honoring important figures in American history have been replaced by composite ones painted to look like copper to deter thieves. The scrappers, in other words, are everywhere, boldly tearing away at the city’s infrastructure in broad daylight like vultures hovering over a pack of lemmings that followed one another over the edge of a cliff.
So it wasn’t surprising when Jay and I, after snooping around the warehouse for a bit, bumped into another scrapper on the ground level. Filthy and sweaty, he said his name was Sean. We caught him sizing up some heavy beams that Jay believed could fetch about $300 per ton at the yard. Naturally, Sean refused to be photographed and didn’t seem too happy to see us—he wanted this spot all to himself. Trying to spook us, he told what sounded like a tall tale about how he was working for the building’s owner, who was trying to salvage the place before turning it into a fish farm. “He’ll probably be here in about an hour,” Sean said. Jay didn’t think he was very convincing.
It was obvious that Sean didn’t want to talk to me, but when I asked him how much he could score in an average haul, he couldn’t pass up the chance to brag: “I’m living in a nice-ass house. You could look at where I live and you’d never think I scrap. To be a scrapper, you’ve gotta be a hustler by blood. I make money—about $200 a day. I know how to get it.”
Jay and I left Sean to his work. As we stepped out of the decrepit warehouse and into the sunlight, I turned to Jay and asked why he scrapped instead of finding a job that people might find more respectable. He looked at me like I was an idiot and flashed me a receipt for $511.
“This right here,” he said, “some folks don’t even make this in a week. If I’m working a minimum-wage job, I’m not getting this. I’m going to get maybe $300. What’s $300 gonna do you? How can you provide for your family or put a roof over your head with $300?”
I didn’t have an answer.
Towering piles of scrap at Wilkoff and Sons. The ladder on the right is used by scrappers to sneak in and steal metal.
Although I was born and raised in Cleveland, the rabbit hole I crawled down with Jay was nothing I’d seen in the 20 years I spent growing up there. The Cleveland I’m from is the one you read about in fluff pieces in regional magazines that describe at length how the city is being revived thanks to gentrification and urban renovation. There is a renewed vitality on the west side of Cleveland, and I see it when I hang out with my old friends who didn’t jump ship and move to other cities after college, like I did. They live in spacious lofts west of the Cuyahoga River, where old warehouses are being converted into alternative-living spaces for artists, and it’s not hard to catch a farmer’s market or drink a locally brewed IPA—a little dollop of Brooklyn’s gentrified renaissance sandwiched between the city and the suburbs.
Back on the east side, it’s a totally different story. There, old and abandoned warehouses and factories aren’t going to be renovated anytime soon—they’ll just continue to rot in plain view for years, maybe even decades. It’s here that the stories of metal scrapping, a clear symptom of the city’s dismal economic prospects, have become a gray-market industry.
While I was in town, I was invited to a big dinner with my girlfriend’s family, who have also lived in Cleveland for decades. Everyone at the table had a horror story about metal theft. They piled on anecdotes, from local churches and beauty salons that were hit for their air-conditioning units to homes raided for their siding and wiring.
“It’s so bad, people go around painting NO COPPER on their houses now,” my girlfriend’s dad said. “But that’s almost an invitation, if you ask me.”
After spending time with Jay and learning how scrappers strip homes and what they look for, I was curious about the other side of the equation: how they fence their goods so easily.
One morning, wandering around the east side not far from where I spent time with Jay, I met a guy who goes by “Shorty Rock.” He was pushing a shopping cart of random scrap down East 55th Street in Central and agreed to let me follow him around as he scavenged and, more important, as he sold his stolen goods to a yard. We wouldn’t have to walk far; there were countless abandoned buildings and scrapyards lining every block. If Jay is a “professional” scrapper, a master of big-money jobs, Shorty is more representative of your average hustler who just sells what he can find on the street to survive.
Shorty was short, of course, and talked fast and with a Southern drawl. As he pushed his rickety shopping cart, he explained that his game was simply haphazardly ripping whatever he could grab off a house, stuffing it into his cart, and running off with it. On his very best day fencing metal odds and ends, he said he had made $111—a rare score.
A dumping area in one of Cleveland’s many scrapyards, where scrappers can bang up household appliances and consumer items and extract their metals onsite.
On the day I met Shorty, he had been pilfering the skeletons of buildings since 5:30 AM and was on his way to cash in at the New Western Reserve Recycling Center, just down the street. As we walked, Shorty told me his story, one typical of most scrappers: he was 51, had spent eight years in the penitentiary, and hadn’t been able to land a steady job since he got out in 2002. “I’ve been out longer than I was in there,” he said. “And I can’t even get hired at Walmart.”
As a young man, Shorty said, he had never imagined he’d be covered in dirt and sour sweat in 90-degree heat, lugging stolen metal down the streets of Cleveland for a few bucks. He told me he was originally from Arkansas and claimed to have a couple years of college down in Georgia, but had been kicked out for committing aggravated robbery—the cause of his first stint up the river.
As Shorty told me about his time in the pen, I thought about Jay. Even though Jay made bigger hauls than Shorty, their backstories were similar. Jay had been to the penitentiary six times in his life—mostly for drugs. Not long before we met, he'd been involved in a violent altercation with another scrapper over who would haul in a load, the fight resulted in a case he was still fighting. And, like a lot of the scrappers I met, Jay had a history of drug abuse; scrapping had initially helped him support his habit. However, now that he was relatively clean, one of Jay’s biggest hustles was buying stolen scrap from addicts for bargain-basement rates at all hours of the night and then selling that scrap to legitimate yards in the morning at a profit.
Shorty was a talkative guy. As he pushed his cart along the street, he spun several yarns about the scrapping life. The most interesting—and one that I had no way of verifying—was about an undercover millionaire who earned his fortune stockpiling scrap from properties owned by Case Western Reserve and University Hospital—large institutions in Cleveland that sprawl across a tremendous amount of land and equipment in the city.
“This dude opened his house up,” Shorty told me, “and nothing fell out but metal. He could make $2,000 in an hour by selling that stuff.” The story was the scrappers’ version of a Horatio Alger tale—if you hit hard enough, anybody could get rich doing this.
While it’s very hard to believe that individual scrappers are making millions off stolen metal, with Cleveland’s average income at just $27,470, and one in three people living below the poverty line, metal theft beats many of the other job opportunities—both legal and illegal—in the city. Considering that the supply is endless, the risks of getting caught are low, and the ability to distribute is as easy as walking down East 55th, it almost seems like a sensible career path for many.
“I wish I knew about this scrapping shit when I was 20,” Shorty said as we arrived at New Western Reserve Recycling, a dreary little yard tucked around the corner. “By now, I would probably have my own legit company and be sitting back, married with 25 kids.”
Shorty then performed a ritual I would witness dozens of times during my trip, as he fenced items at the yard with no questions asked: An attendant took Shorty’s load and placed it on a wide cement floor scale, where he weighed it and took a photo. Then a clerk at one window printed out a ticket, which he could redeem for cash at another window. When Shorty claimed the money, they linked the load to a digital profile the yard keeps on file that includes his photo. This new feature is mandated by recent legislation designed to enable law enforcement to trace stolen scrap back to its seller—but according to Cleveland police officials from the Central neighborhood, like Vice Sergeant Heather Misch of the Third District, it’s not helping.
Part of the problem is that it’s nearly impossible to differentiate between scrap metal that isn’t stolen—when a property owner lawfully dumps off some old sinks or wiring, for example—and scrap metal that was ripped out of a vacant or occupied building. There’s also the fact that metal thefts often aren’t reported, at least in the case of abandoned homes, because there’s frequently no owner around to realize they’ve been robbed for quite some time. Criminal scrappers will also travel across city and state lines to unload hauls, or mask their metal by melting it down, banging it up, or bundling it with other scrap so that it’s harder to trace.
But Shorty didn’t have to do any of that at the local yard. He was able to get rid of his haul of siding and other metal bits, lifted less than a mile away, without hassle. When he received his cash, he flashed me the receipt clutched in his grubby palms and grinned. The result of five hours spent scrounging the streets? $5.54.
Councilman Anthony Brancatelli, of Cleveland’s 12th Ward, outside an abandoned house in Slavic Village; its aluminum siding had already been completely scrapped, save for that on its stoop.
In the past decade or so, scrapping has become a major phenomenon across the US. As with most clandestine and illegal activities, precise numbers are hard to quantify, but Gary Bush, a metal-theft expert at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) in Washington, DC, believes the increase in scrapping in recent years has been significant. ISRI created a Scrap Alert system in 2008, which has made it easier for police departments and metal yards to alert each other of criminal scrapping activity. Some police departments’ vice squads, usually tasked with investigating drug- and sex-related crimes, have also begun investigating metal thievery, and according to ISRI, metal-theft claims rose more than 500 percent between 2009 and 2012.
Meanwhile, the image of the dirty metal hustler has penetrated the cultural consciousness. AMC’s new Detroit-based crime drama Low Winter Sun features several stories that take place at the nexus of scrapping and drug dealing, and Detroit rapper Danny Brown famously flipped Young Jeezy’s drug-dealer anthem “Trap or Die” to explore the ins and outs of the metal-theft game with his track “Scrap or Die,” reimagining scrapping as a form of class warfare against property owners: “This metal crowbar’s gonna get us through the door,” he spits. “We come to take everything, nigga, fuck the landlord.”
It makes perfect sense that Detroit—America’s most vivid and stereotypical symbol of postindustrial collapse—would serve as the setting for so much scrapper mythology. The scrapper is the perfect antihero of this landscape, creeping through the shadows and sifting through the wreckage of the American economy, trying to turn a profit from it any way he can. Many scrappers got into the game to replace some other form of lost work, and now, with 14 million vacant homes across America, they are yet another reminder of the largely unresolved financial crisis and its lingering effects on American cities. What better figure to embody the resulting contradictions of this recession than these postindustrial termites. They are at once some of the most pernicious creations of the recession, literally scrapping the future of their cities, and also enterprising Americans—in the most classic of ways, as an attempt to pick up the pieces of a broken economy out of necessity and with true grit.
Although the setting for these types of “American hardship” stories in newspapers and magazines is often Detroit, Cleveland has a far more serious scrap problem than the Motor City. It’s true that Detroit is second to Cleveland in overall metal-theft claims nationwide, but it doesn’t even rank in the top ten when you break down these claims per capita. Cleveland has 73 claims per 100,000 residents, according to a study by the University of Indianapolis. The next closest city, Flint, Michigan, has 66 claims per capita; Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, also top the list. Cleveland remains number one, and scrapping here has even caught the attention of the FBI, who have recently been investigating and busting organized rings for transporting stolen metal across state lines and stealing from federally regulated electrical substations.
On a national level, most experts partially view the recent rise in scrapping, beginning around 2008, as a byproduct of skyrocketing prices for steel and copper, which was itself the result of increased demand for those metals worldwide. According to Joe Pickard, chief economist at the ISRI, scrap prices began to climb then and reached their peak in 2011, when copper was fetching as much as $4 per pound. Most scrapyard owners, law-enforcement officials, and informed scrappers believe this rise in demand was the result of a building boom in China; however, Joe told me he believes it also has to do with US mining production falling behind projected outputs. Either way, about 30 percent of the scrap that is illegally lifted out of the homes and warehouses of the United States is likely to make its way overseas; some of it is then sold right back to US buyers in the form of cheap industrial and consumer goods. And although mining production in the US has ramped up in the past two years, and the Chinese building boom has cooled significantly, the criminals who learned how to scrap between 2008 and 2011 show no signs of being thwarted—instead they’ve adapted their skills to strip abandoned homes left over by the foreclosure crisis.
This is what has made Cleveland such ripe soil for the growth of scrappers. According to Councilman Anthony Brancatelli, who is leading an effort to fight scrapping in the city, the seemingly unlimited supply of scrap made available by the city’s uniquely beleaguered housing market is another key factor responsible for the boom. And Anthony would know: his ward contains Slavic Village, a Polish, black, and Hispanic neighborhood that was hit harder by foreclosures than any other zip code in the US and is still being ravaged by metal theft.
One morning, I met Anthony at a quaint Polish diner in the heart of Slavic Village. It took 15 minutes before he could get from the entrance of the diner to the booth where I was sitting because he had to shake hands and greet every person in the place with a dad joke that was just witty enough to impress, but not too funny to offend. He looked like a consummate statesman, and even on that scorching summer day he sported the politico wardrobe of an ill-fitting blazer and lapel pin.
Over some wheat toast and scrambled eggs, Anthony explained to me how you can trace the city’s housing troubles back to the late 90s, when people were “flipping” homes en masse: buying up properties, moderately investing in them, and then selling at inflated prices. Back then, rehabs of crummy houses were going for as much as $100,000, overvalued properties that were the first wave of foreclosures to hit the city. Then, in the 2000s, the housing market became very competitive thanks to exotic financing mechanisms. Mortgages were handed out like candy and people were buying way above their price point with no ability to pay their debts.
It was at this time, around 2008, that scrapping prices started hitting record highs. The lure of these high prices have led to what amounts to organized criminal scrapping. Guys like Jay started working in teams and renting industrial construction equipment to make bigger hauls. Then scrappers were stripping neighborhoods that weren’t completely abandoned yet, and soon after that manhole covers started disappearing and even electrical substations became prime targets.
Throughout Central, manhole covers have gone missing. In most cases, they’ve been swiped by thieves and scrapped for their copper.
“It was so bad,” Anthony said, “that contractors were driving their vehicles into the scrapyard because they were getting more for their beat-up pickup truck than they than they would if they were working.”
As the rest of the country pulls itself out of the housing crisis, Cleveland’s rate of mortgage delinquency and foreclosures remains at 9.5 percent. Anthony is adamant that the creative destruction of abandoned properties is the only solution to city’s housing issues. He serves on the board of directors of the Cuyahoga County Land Bank, which buys up blighted properties and either tears them down, or, in rare cases, rehabs and sells them to new owners. Anthony told me they’ve taken 500 properties offline in the past five years.
After breakfast, Anthony took me to my first “bando,” a blighted and vacant home in his ward, a few minutes from East 55th. The place looked like it had been ransacked by Huns. The front door was wide open, aluminum siding completely torn off, and every other imaginable piece of metal, even the hand railing on the stoop, had been stripped. Inside were jagged holes in the drywall where piping and electrical wire had been yanked out. Anthony has been providing simple solutions like working with the city to cut off the utilities on homes like this. Often, when scrappers remove the pipes, the structure is flooded with water that runs for days, and when they tear up the electrical wiring haphazardly, it can lead to fires.
“I can’t push demolition enough,” Anthony said to me as we stepped out of the foul atmosphere of the derelict house, back into the summer sun. “The more abandoned properties you have, the more abandoned properties you’re going to get. Which is why we’ve got to take them off the market.”
Anthony’s thinking is that empty lots are better than blighted buildings, because the damage caused by scrappers dismantling them from the inside out makes them just that more unsellable—the wreckage someone like Shorty Rock does for $100 in scrap can cost tens of thousands of dollars to repair.
After we left the bando and drove around Slavic Village, I saw community gardens on every block and two or three house-size gaps between homes on any given street. On one block, there was a huge velodrome for bicycle races, which was built on property acquired through foreclosures. Based on the 20 years I spent growing up in Cleveland, I had a hard time believing anyone older than 13 in Slavic Village owned a bicycle, let alone knew what the hell a velodrome was, but it’s clear that residents and legislatures of Slavic Village are getting so much land through this acquisition process, they don’t quite know what to do with it.
If Anthony and locals favor demolition, though, to people like Shorty and Jay—unemployed and without many legal job prospects—demolition represents a wasted economic opportunity. As I left Slavic Village, I thought of something Shorty had told me. “You’ve got thousands of condemned homes in Cleveland,” he’d said. “What do they do with all the stuff in those buildings? They send it to a landfill. Why wouldn’t you let someone who is unemployed go into a building and get what they can get? It’s going to be demolished anyway.”
Maybe that is the paradox of scrapping: the same economic forces that created the housing crises also helped create the scrappers who survive on its wreckage. And so, while city leaders like Anthony might see scrappers as their enemies—leeches on the city’s meager resources—both parties are part of the same destroyed economy and neither will likely stop harassing the other until the city finds some larger economic salve for its wounds. They’re all on this sinking ship together.
Demolition does have one upside—the opportunity to build something new and exciting in the place of what’s been torn down. The Slavic Village neighborhood is, unfortunately, an anomaly on the east side of Cleveland, with its velodrome and community gardens. Unlike the west side of town, with its hip, unconventional workspaces for artists in old factories, the east side is looking more and more like one of those ghost towns you see in old westerns. It’s not hard to imagine tumbleweeds blowing down the middle of some streets in Central—before falling into an uncovered manhole.
Henrietta “Cookie” Kolger, the owner of Tyroler Scrap, paying out money to a scrapper for assorted metals.
While the scrappers of the city make a decent living stealing metal, the best gig in the game is to run a yard: they’re the pawnbrokers who never have to get their hands too dirty, and rarely face related charges. Curious about the ethics (or lack thereof) when it comes to receiving stolen goods, I asked scrappers and others the best place to sell hauls, and one owner’s name in particular was on the lips of everyone: Henrietta Kolger, also known as Cookie.
Jay and Anthony both alleged, on record, that Henrietta and her yard, Tyroler Scrap, is a place that would buy any piece of metal, no matter how bent, ripped, or pried off it appeared to be. Vice Sergeant Misch had it on her short list of sketchy yards to watch. And even a victim of scrapping I interviewed had actually recovered his stolen property at Tyroler.
I had been trying to lock down an interview with Cookie for weeks, but whenever I called, her staff gave me the runaround: “You’ve got to call before 3 PM, she’s never here in the late afternoon.” “Whoa, she doesn’t get in until like 2:30 PM. You’re gonna have to call back tomorrow.” “Damn, you just missed her. She went to the bank to make a deposit…”
Cookie and her associates were right to be wary. Heat was starting to come down on Cleveland scrapyards. Local journalists and the cops had been poking around lately, and the last thing she wanted was to get caught up in some mess. Eventually, after visiting Tyroler in person two days in a row and explaining to her that I only wanted to offer her side of the story, since everyone was talking about her anyway, she did concede to a sit-down to speak her piece.
Cookie’s yard is not like most of the other ones on East 55th, many of which have sprung up in recent years alongside the rise in scrap prices. Tyroler is a small mom-and-pop operation that has been independently owned since 1935. Cookie’s late husband, Robert Becker, took ownership of the yard in March of 1988. A master welder who lived to work with metal, Robert spent every nickel he had to buy it.
Two months after Robert purchased his dream business, he had a massive heart attack at 45 years old. Before his death, Cookie had worked as the manager of a hotel, but in honor of Robert, she decided to pick up the pieces and keep Tyroler up and running. The business now employs her oldest daughter, her youngest son, and her second husband.
Tyroler is set up like most small yards, with a truck scale outside for the big loads and an oversize light-blue garage that contains a payout booth and a smaller scale for the kind of stuff brought in by cart-toting small-timers. The pay booth is where Cookie spends most of her days, cracking open the cash register and sliding greenbacks through a shelf to scrappers.
After so much hype, it was a bit disarming to meet the “top mama” of Cleveland scrap metals. I imagined she was going to be a hard-edged, fast-talking, stone-cold hustler. But when I stepped into the wood-paneled pay booth, which buzzed with the sound of air-conditioning and smelled of Mexican takeout, I met someone else. Cookie is a frail, withered woman with a quivering voice and varicose veins you could see through her cool, translucent skin. She wore comfortable shoes, and had a lumbering step that would make it tough for her to just walk across the yard. And she sported the puffed-up short haircut Midwestern white women get once they start receiving copies of AARP the Magazine in the mail.
Right away it was clear Cookie had an idea of her true value within the community—that she believed herself to be a good person. “I treat these people really nice,” she told me when I asked about her reputation among her clients. “I’m not prejudiced. I never look at somebody and think they’re beneath me… I’ve been here so long, most of my customers call me ‘Mom.’ When they pull into the yard, they yell, ‘Hey Mom! How are you doing? How are you feeling?’”
She lamented the days when the poor blacks kids of the neighborhood, barefoot and dirty, used to be able to collect aluminum cans for money to buy ice cream in the summertime. The increased regulation of the industry in the past few years means that these days you have to be 18 or older to sell scrap at a yard, even empty soda cans.
When I began telling her what I had learned about Cleveland’s scrap trade, Cookie’s face turned up at the thought of scavengers ripping siding off of people’s homes, and yards selling that metal to countries like China. She told me about how she had pushed local politicians at City Hall to institute scrapping permits—but her voice was drowned out.
Like all yards in Cleveland, Tyroler matches all sales with state IDs, a practice that hasn’t curbed theft. When I asked Cookie why some of those same customers had fingered her yard as the place where they sell all of their stolen wares, she looked hurt.
“When people get caught, they’ll just say stuff to try to keep themselves out of a lot of trouble,” she said. “But you know, Richard will tell you, he runs my outside yard. Richard, do I take manhole covers?”
Richard, her second husband, chimed in behind me, his mouth half full with some funky slop: “The only way we take them is if a contractor has given an authorized letter.”
I told Cookie that one of my sources had accused her of buying stolen manhole covers.
“I’ve heard when the scrapyards are closed there are people who will buy that scrap,” she said. “They pay a lesser price for it. Chris and I are the only two who do the scale in this place.”
Then she encouraged her daughter to chime in, too, shouting, “Chris, if I brought you a truck that had manhole covers, what would you tell me?”
Chris popped her head into the booth where were sitting, and spoke methodically. “We wouldn’t buy it,” she said. “Nobody here would take them. We’re not allowed to buy that.”
I’d come to Tyroler with the name of a manhole scrapper, who was turned in only a few months prior. When I asked Cookie to check her ledger, her hands started to shake and her voice fluttered. Unlike the newer yards—which use a computer program to match images, scrap hauls, and ID profiles—Tyroler still used a paper binder for its records.
“Tell me how you spell his last name, and I’ll look it up,” Cookie said.
“J-E-F-F-E-R-Y S-H-U-G-A-R-T,” I replied.
She flipped through until she finally got to S, and we scanned down rows of what looked like mug shots. Shugart was nowhere to be found. It all seemed about right. Neither of us had much of anything else to say other than goodbye.
Leaving the yard, I ran into a scrapper who was stripping reams of copper wire with a blade. I asked if I could speak with him or let my photographer take his picture, but he balked back.
“I ain’t saying nothing,” he said.
All Photos by Peter Larson.
Special thanks to Jim Henry.
Due to the criminal nature of metal theft, some names in this piece have been changed to protect their identities.
Follow Wilbert on Twitter: @WilbertLCooper
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