March 4, 2000. In the news, a brass hardware maker plans to open a 280,000-square-foot factory in Leesport, Pennsylvania. Brucie sits sipping a drink at the bar, where the Republican debate between Keyes, McCain, and Bush is playing in the background. Stan asks Brucie who he favors, but Brucie thinks it doesn’t matter because “they’ll all shit on us in the end.” Oscar enters and begins restocking the bar, listening in on the conversation. After some small talk, Stan asks Brucie how long he’s been locked out of the textile mill, and Brucie replies 93 weeks. Brucie and the other employees didn’t want to accept a new contract that would take away their retirement benefits; even after the employees offered a 50-percent pay cut, the company still won’t budge.
Leesport is located in the same county as Reading, so the opening of an enormous new factory suggests that the Rust Belt’s economy is volatile: some industries are booming, while others (like textile manufacturing, in the case of Brucie) are struggling. Hearing Brucie’s side of the story adds nuance to Cynthia’s prior conversation with Stan and Tracey—his distress (if not his substance abuse) is understandable given how long he’s been locked out and the loss of pay and benefits he’s up against if he and the other workers concede.
Brucie complains that he’s worked at the mill since he was 18, and now the company expects them to be “wage slaves” for a lifetime. Stan asks if the mill has brought in temporary workers, and Brucie says they’re bringing in Mexican laborers who are willing to work “to the bone” before being replaced by “a fresh batch” three months later. Brucie is only holding out because he hopes standing strong with the union will result in a big payout—but he also recognizes that his years of hard work have been pointless.
Brucie’s feelings of being trapped, underappreciated, and undercompensated at the mill highlight the difficult reality of being a blue-collar laborer, as he’s seemingly worked hard for his entire adult life only to be turned away and denied what he was promised. His comment about Mexican temp workers also adds insight to the racial tensions that exist among Reading’s white, black, and Latinx populations: white and black working-class people likely feel threatened by the presence of Mexican immigrants in their community, as they perceive such individuals as a threat to their own job security.
Stan sympathizes with Brucie: he says he’s thankful he got injured because it allowed him to escape the prison of Olstead’s. Three generations of his family had worked there, yet he was “nobody to them” in spite of his 28 thankless years on the floor. Brucie feels the same way, and he confides in Stan that he no longer knows what his purpose is. He recently had an encounter at the union with a white man who claimed that black people like Brucie came north to take people’s jobs. Brucie is tired of this “blame game.”
Stan’s reflection that he was “nobody” to Olstead’s again helps explain the disillusionment that most of the play’s characters feel, as they’re consistently devalued and cast aside by the very companies to which they dedicate their lives. Brucie’s experience with the racist “blame game” shows that Reading’s black residents are discriminated against in a similar way to Latinx people—and that economic strife like the union members are experiencing has a way of bringing this racial animosity to the surface.
Just then, Cynthia, Tracey, and Jessie enter the bar. Cynthia and Brucie have a tense exchange, and Tracey and Jessie encourage Cynthia to ignore Brucie’s attempts at charming her. Finally, after relentlessly harassing the women at their table, Cynthia marches up to Brucie and demands to know what he wants. He tells her that he’s in a program, but Cynthia is unimpressed since having a drink in a bar doesn’t seem to align with rehab. Cynthia tells Brucie the news about their son Chris’s acceptance to Albright, urging him to be supportive even though Brucie think tuition is too expensive and that Chris is a fool to walk away from Olstead’s.
Brucie’s unenthusiastic reaction to Chris’s pursuit of higher education echoes Jason and Stan’s skepticism: Brucie is similarly discouraging about the notion of giving up the competitive pay at Olstead’s despite his own struggles in the manufacturing industry. This once again highlights the common phenomenon of working-class people (like those in Reading) getting stuck in unfulfilling jobs, as well as the tendency for people to respond with disapproval rather than support when their loved ones attempt to break from the status quo.
The conversation then turns to the promotion to Warehouse Supervisor that Cynthia and Tracey are both going for. Brucie offends Cynthia with a joke that Olstead’s must be desperate to consider them, after which he apologizes for what happened in December and claims that he’s getting clean. He begs for another chance, but Cynthia remains skeptical—though she does give into his smooth ploys for a kiss. This angers Tracey and Jessie, who yell at Brucie to either get clean or leave Cynthia alone. Brucie becomes emotional and again begs Cynthia to take him back, but Cynthia denies him.
Again, Brucie’s rude reaction to Cynthia and Tracey’s earnest aspirations is likely based in resentment, as Cynthia and Tracey have the potential to make significant career progress while Brucie is prevented from even going to work. Meanwhile, Brucie is clearly remorseful over the choices he’s made during the lockout, yet the fact that he’s still drinking while he’s in a rehab program suggests that his internalized shame over losing his job and failing his family is perhaps driving him to keep using substances rather than making any meaningful progress.