Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town

Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town

by Brian Alexander


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For readers of Hillbilly Elegy and Strangers in Their Own Land

*A New York Post Must-Read Book*

*A Newsweek Best New Book*

*One of The Week's 20 Books to Read in 2017*

*One of Bustle's 16 Best Nonfiction Books Coming in February 2017*

*Best Non-Fiction/2017 Books by the Banks*

The Wall Street Journal: "A devastating portrait...For anyone wondering why swing-state America voted against the establishment in 2016, Mr. Alexander supplies plenty of answers."

Laura Miller, Slate: "This book hunts bigger game. Reads like an odd—and oddly satisfying—fusion of George Packer’s The Unwinding and one of Michael Lewis’ real-life financial thrillers."

The New Yorker : "Does a remarkable job."

Beth Macy, author of Factory Man: "This book should be required reading for people trying to understand Trumpism, inequality, and the sad state of a needlessly wrecked rural America. I wish I had written it."

In 1947, Forbes magazine declared Lancaster, Ohio the epitome of the all-American town. Today it is damaged, discouraged, and fighting for its future. In Glass House, journalist Brian Alexander uses the story of one town to show how seeds sown 35 years ago have sprouted to give us Trumpism, inequality, and an eroding national cohesion.

The Anchor Hocking Glass Company, once the world’s largest maker of glass tableware, was the base on which Lancaster’s society was built. As Glass House unfolds, bankruptcy looms. With access to the company and its leaders, and Lancaster’s citizens, Alexander shows how financial engineering took hold in the 1980s, accelerated in the 21st Century, and wrecked the company. We follow CEO Sam Solomon, an African-American leading the nearly all-white town’s biggest private employer, as he tries to rescue the company from the New York private equity firm that hired him. Meanwhile, Alexander goes behind the scenes, entwined with the lives of residents as they wrestle with heroin, politics, high-interest lenders, low wage jobs, technology, and the new demands of American life: people like Brian Gossett, the fourth generation to work at Anchor Hocking; Joe Piccolo, first-time director of the annual music festival who discovers the town relies on him, and it, for salvation; Jason Roach, who police believed may have been Lancaster’s biggest drug dealer; and Eric Brown, a local football hero-turned-cop who comes to realize that he can never arrest Lancaster’s real problems.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250165770
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 01/02/2018
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 163,974
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Brian Alexander has written about American culture for decades. A former contributing editor to Wired magazine, he has been recognized by Medill School of Journalism's John Bartlow Martin awards for public interest journalism and other organizations. He grew up in Lancaster, with a family history in the glass business. He lives in California.

Read an Excerpt

Glass House

The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the all-American Town

By Brian Alexander

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2017 Brian Alexander
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-08581-8


Glass House

December 2014

Brian Gossett worked the late shift, running an H-28 job: football-size vases, about the most difficult ware he made. A 2,400-degree lava-like ribbon of glass flowed out of Tank 3, a refractory furnace, and down a steel sluice to a pair of opposing automated blades shaped like prone V's. The two V's sliced together to pinch off a gob of glass from the ribbon. The gob dropped into a mold. Brian wore heat-resistant overalls, steel-toed boots, safety glasses over his own retro horn-rims, earplugs, and ear cups over the earplugs. Even with the hearing protection, his head filled with the hiss of air compressors and the rhythmic clanging rotation of the H-28 as it presented one mold after another to the gob feeder. Ka-chunk plop, ka-chunk plop, ka-chunk plop, each mold closed. A plunger forced the gob against the sides. Air blew into the mold so the glass was both pressed and blown. The combination made it look more polished than, say, a pressed-glass baking dish. Then the molds opened, each in its turn, to regurgitate the still-glowing ware onto a steel conveyor line.

Brian walked along a narrow platform that ringed the machine at about a foot off the concrete floor. Operators like Brian prepared new molds, reached into the moving merry-go-round, grabbed a mold from its spindle, and replaced it with the fresh one. They tried to do all this quickly, without losing a finger or a hand or burning an arm. The glass in a mold was about 1,600 degrees, and the H-28 wouldn't stop unless Brian fumbled and took too much time, walked too far around that platform, and hit an emergency body gate.

Stopping an H-28 by hitting a body gate was not a trivial matter. It meant you'd screwed up and that everybody would know it. And just because the machine stopped didn't mean the glass would. It kept flowing down the sluice, then diverted into the basement. Restarting the machine was a hassle, because some of the ware coming out of the molds for the first few rotations was sure to be flawed. Producing good ware required constant temperature and timing, along with exact gob weight, so if you had your ware running well, an emergency stop was the last thing you wanted.

Brian was the fourth generation of his family to work at Anchor Hocking. He was twenty-six years old. Some guys had a Flint Glass journeyman card by twenty-six, but Brian didn't. Technically, he was an apprentice, but there really wasn't much of an apprenticeship program — not anymore. An older man named Brant had taken Brian under his wing and helped out now and then, but Brian operated the H-28 on his own most of the time.

Like most operators, Brian started as a floor boy, the worker ant of a glass plant. Armed with a custom-made steel rake, a shovel, and a broom, floor boys collected all the broken ware that accumulated under machines during the course of a shift. They scouted for spilled fluids. They helped clean the machines. Brian hadn't been a floor boy for long when he was called to help scrape a burned man's skin from a machine.

On his first day in the plant, Brian was awed by what he saw. Giant refractory-brick-lined furnace tanks measuring roughly forty feet long by twenty feet wide and filled to a depth of about four feet with molten glass blazed a story above the machine shops at the head of the hot end. Each tank fed several shops. Each shop consisted of a machine and operators. Shop 3-3 — Tank 3, Shop 3 — could be an H-28 making a tumbler. Shop 1-5 — Tank 1, Shop 5 — might be a press to make a pie dish. In just twenty-four hours, more than 170 tons of glass could flow out of one tank. The plant could produce more than 600,000 pieces of ware every day.

The machines in the hot end were black from years of glassmaking. Standing by one of them, it seemed as if the whole plant was on fire. Flames shot out of the burn-off station (where, for example, a tumbler's rim would be given its "bead"). Blasts of blue and yellow torched ware in the annealing lehrs, where the glass was strengthened. Small explosions of flame erupted from the presses. The men were shadows silhouetted by fire.

When his buddy Swink, a fellow floor boy who had since become an operator like Brian, showed him the basement, Brian "saw all these big trash hoppers full of water, molten glass fucking streaming down, and I was like, 'This is like a water park for bad kids ...' Everything in there looked like The Addams Family, where it's, like, metal hooks and chains."

The ware made its way from the hot end to the cold end, where it was inspected and then sent through to select-pack. There it was given a quick look again before being packed into boxes. Most people called this area the sluer. Generations of Lancaster mothers, some of whom worked in the sluer, motivated sandbagging schoolchildren not with "You wanna be a ditch digger?" but with "You'll wind up working in the sluer."

Brian respected the factory in the same way a young man might respect a wise veteran. He entered it more as boy than man. But Plant 1 was a place of manly work, where temperatures in the hot end during summer months could reach 130 degrees and where dangerous machines stamped and rotated and hissed. And there was all that annealing fire.

Longtime glass company employees, whether factory workers or executives, were called "glassmen," an honorific that meant you'd spent many years in the business, making glass, selling glass. Brian was on his way to becoming a glassman.

But Brian didn't think either he or Plant 1 were being treated with the respect they deserved. That's why he said he hated his job. "The people who own the place don't give a shit about us," he said. "The whole place is a piece of shit. Nothing works in there; they just put Band-Aids on it. It's embarrassing how that place is operated."

In January 2014, just as workers were returning from the annual Christmas shutdown, Tank 3, years overdue for a total rebuild, failed. Igneous glass ate through the bottom of the tank. A tide of fire spawned flames and smoke as it made its way into the basement. Some of the glass hit a natural gas line. That was the loudest boom Brian had ever heard other than the Fourth of July fireworks at the fairgrounds. The only thing you can do with all that glass is wait for it to cool into a solid mass and then break it up with jackhammers.

"I went from the only wrench I used bein' on my skateboard to having a toolbox 'n' shit, and they hand me a jackhammer. I lugged that up there," atop the feet-deep slab. "I just had my wisdom teeth taken out, so I'm spitting blood clots out, and I about fell off the motherfucker. That place is such a mess."

Brian had a reputation as a complainer. His union boss, Chris Nagle, headman of Local 51 of the United Steelworkers — a man who spent a good part of his life listening to complaints — thought so. But Brian wasn't saying anything a lot of other workers weren't also saying.

"That place is run ... let's say jerry-rigged, to be polite," a veteran supervisor told me. "Everything is jerry-rigged."

Tank 2 had largely been torn down in anticipation of a rebuild. The rebuild never came. It sat cold and empty, the scorched, cracked yellow brick still in place. Nobody knew when or if it would ever come back to life. Body gates sometimes failed. Five of the nine air compressors powering pneumatic machines didn't function at all. Plant 1 was so decrepit it had a reputation around the industry for being a "shit hole."

Brian dreamed of one day leaving the shit hole. He'd never intended to be a glassman. He wanted to be an artist. He looked a little like a beatnik artist, too, with his neatly trimmed blond beard, his short blond hair, and those horn-rims. His mother had inherited a house on East Main Street, practically next door to a dive tavern called Leo's Bier Haus, and though the house itself was destroyed by a fire and the lot sat vacant, Brian and his parents had a deal. He'd keep the lot mowed and at least a little tidy. In return, he could transform the upstairs room of the antique wooden garage in the back, by the alley, into a studio.

The studio was tiny, a low-ceilinged room with a floor that sagged alarmingly to the west. An old drum set sat in the deepest corner. Brian sometimes practiced on it, but he mostly made art. He drew. He traced pictures to create stencils. He arranged repeated patterns of colored geometrical shapes on eight-by-ten pieces of paper. He clipped pop-culture detritus from his former teen life — anime cartoons like Cowboy Bebop, video game and book characters like Mega Man and Cosmic Camel, Pikachu from the Pokémon game, and Anna Nicole Smith — to make collages.

The collages especially were cultural commentaries. "Anna Nicole Smith is my hero," Brian said.

Brian had a lot to say about culture, though he sometimes had a rough time saying it. His mind had a tendency to jump two places ahead of his mouth. He'd trail off into vocal ellipses in the middle of sentences: "When I was a floor boy, me and Swink used to go down there and hide. You know, to get out of work —'cause if we sat in the break room too long, they called us lazy, and you didn't wanna be out on the floor, because it was clean. So we were just 'outta sight, outta mind.' So we'd go walk through the factory together, you know. At least we went together, so that way, if something bad happened, at least we were together. So we'd go exploring ... I loved exploring that factory. As soon as you found the end, there'd be another hallway. It's real neat in there. It's a real dinosaur. So anyways, we'd go down there and hide and be like, 'This would be a great place to play paintball,' because about every ten yards there's, like, big pillars, you know. It's like the Afghanistan terrorist mission on CounterStrike because of all the mortar and sand around."

But Brian's real problem wasn't organizing his thoughts. It was that he was plagued by so many of them. He thought about smartphones, TV, religion, pop music, business, politicians, capitalism, movies, America, truth. Mainly, he thought about The System. All these subtopics, and many more things, were just elements of The System. His friends seemed willing to — even happy to — buy into The System, but Brian was atavistic.

He was often annoyed to see his fellow operators sitting in chairs and looking at their smartphones instead of at their machines. When Tank 3 failed, the scene inside Plant 1 looked like Armageddon. Meanwhile, "everyone's got their phones out! And I'm just like, 'Okay, you guys fuckin' text. I'm going out to my truck. And that's when I about ran out of the fucking factory. I was just about ready to say, 'Fuck y'all, I'm going home.'" The System was corrupt. The System didn't work for him. It didn't work for his parents. It didn't work for Anchor Hocking, nor for Lancaster, nor for America. He couldn't understand why anybody would obey The System. Fuck The System.

* * *

As Brian made vases on the H-28 in Plant 1 on one side of Pierce Avenue, Lloyd Romine was moving, little by little, into a gray two-story box of a house on the other. The house stood by itself, abutting an Anchor Hocking parking lot, its clapboard siding crumbling away, the yard dead in some patches and overgrown in others. A satellite dish connected the box to the wide world of TV. An old recliner, upholstered in gray velour, sat on the concrete front stoop. Above it, a plastic sign announced to anybody who cared that the premises were under surveillance. There was no sign of surveillance: no cameras, no motion lights, nothing. The sign was a poor man's security system.

Every cop in town — and a few county sheriff's deputies, too — knew Lloyd. He was first arrested when he was eight, a few years after his father left. He hid next to a garage to sneak a cigarette. He tossed the match over his shoulder. Pretty soon his back felt hot. Lloyd turned around and saw fire, so he ran as fast as he could. But this was Lancaster, and people notice little kids running from flames. So, of course, the police picked him up, and eight-year-old Lloyd had a juvie record.

He was forty now. His record grew with him. His reputation among Lancaster's bad boys grew, too, partly because Lloyd looked the part. He acquired a lot of ink — from his neck down over his arms — and he had a dark goatee, and hollow cheeks, and a wiry frame that gave him the scary aspect of a man who just didn't care how much punishment you could inflict in a fight.

Lloyd was friendly, though. If you hadn't cheated him in a drug deal or screwed him over stolen property, he was very congenial. Cops would stop him as he walked down the street and say, "Hey, Lloyd!" And he'd say, "Hey, Jimmy!" and ask about the family, and they'd chat for a while as Lloyd gripped a tiny ball of heroin in his jacket pocket. His own lawyer liked him so much he loaned him money. Lloyd paid back every cent.

Lloyd dropped out of high school in his sophomore year, but he could be a hard worker. He sold Kirby vacuum cleaners door to door. Wore a tie and everything. He had a job in the Lancaster Glass factory for a while and liked it okay, but it was only temporary. After about six months it was over. And Lancaster Glass shut down not long after anyway. He once skipped out on bail and took off to Florida. In short order he found a job laying pipe. He got good at it. His employer liked him and started giving him more responsibilities. Lloyd even filed a tax return. Not long after he filed, a small posse of police cars, their lights flashing, the dust flying, streamed onto a job site. Lloyd was in a backhoe. The boss shouted, "What the hell's going on?" "I think that's my ride," Lloyd said.

Lloyd was agnostic about drugs. He used and sold a little of whatever was flowing through Lancaster: meth, bath salts, Xanax, Perc 30s, moon rocks, cocaine, weed, Valium, heroin. Some of his clientele already lived, more or less, at the house on Pierce Avenue, but he also had customers inside the factory across the street. Now all they had to do was walk over after a shift. The mailman who'd bought drugs from Lloyd would no longer have to go knocking on a door in a part of town where houses were close together and everybody knew everybody's business. He could come over to the west side, fifteen yards from the Anchor gate, where people came and went twenty-four hours a day.

Lloyd never made much money. He used about as many drugs as he sold, worked legit jobs now and then, living hand to mouth. But those days were about to end. Lloyd Romine was about to make more money than he'd ever imagined.

* * *

Meanwhile, somebody knocked on the door of Mark Kraft's house in the 700 block of King Street, on the east side of Lancaster. Mark was working, but Carly Bowman was there.

Carly lived (also more or less) downstairs, rent-free, in the old house. Mark stayed upstairs, mainly. They were both twenty-five. Mark's grandparents raised a family in that house. His father inherited it, then essentially gave the house to Mark.

He had a pretty sweet deal. He didn't do much to keep it up, and it showed, though the white, two-story wood-sided house fit in with most of the others on the block. They were small and modest and had seen better times. Having Carly stay there off and on provided certain benefits for a junkie like Mark. The way Mark understood it, Carly's connect was an ex-boyfriend in Columbus, some black dude named Tayvon, from whom she bought most of her dope. Every other day she drove to Columbus, paid $600, and returned with about twelve grams, almost half an ounce.

Carly shot a lot of that into her legs — about half a gram every hit, four hits a day: a pretty big payload. Sometimes Mark would walk downstairs to find Carly laid out on the floor, her exposed legs bruised and scarred from all the needles she had shoved into them. Carly was a pretty enough girl, with brown hair and big eyes, but the bruises kind of grossed Mark out.

Mark took his hits in his arms. That's why he wore long sleeves all the time, even on the hottest August days. But other than the scars on his arms and a nagging fear of hepatitis, Mark thought he had his shit together. He was painfully thin, but he'd always been skinny. One front tooth was broken and he needed some other dental work, but he felt pretty healthy. He wore his dark hair short and often accessorized with an undersize hipster fedora.

He worked for his mom and dad at a small service business, showed up to work on time, did a decent job, and had more money to carry around than a lot of the other twenty-five-year-olds in town. So he could afford to drive up to Columbus every two weeks or so, hand over two or three thousand dollars to his own connect — some Mexicans — without having to break into somebody's garage and steal their golf clubs or shoplift from the Walmart up on 33.

When Mark was younger, he wanted to be a pilot. He took lessons at the county airport and racked up twenty-eight hours in the air. He liked school, too, earning good grades, and came close to winning a student council election.


Excerpted from Glass House by Brian Alexander. Copyright © 2017 Brian Alexander. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction – The CEO

1: Glass House – December, 2014

2: The All-American Town - 1947-1982

3: The Raid – July 1987

4: Shunned - March 2004

5: Hook, Line, and Sinker - April, 2007

6: Lancaster’s Year - January, 2015

7: Shutdown - February 2015

8: Making Money Appear - March 2015

9: Pump It and Dump It - April 2015

10: The Fire - May 2015

11: A Forever Home - June 2015

12: Festival - July 2015

13: Maximum Value - August 2015

14: Fired - October 2015

15: The Future In Play - January 2016

A Note on Names and Sources



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