In May 2013, Michael Patrick F. Smith moved to Williston, North Dakota, to find a job in the oil fields.
On his first night in town, he went to a bar called DK’s Lounge, where he was introduced to something he calls the Williston Hello.
All his conversations with the men there could be boiled down to two short sentences:
“What kind of work you do?” and “Man, my dad whipped my ass!”
Everyone seemed to have a violent relationship with their father, and almost everyone had a job in the oil fields or was looking for one, Smith recounts in his new book, “The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown” (Viking), out now. They came from across the country, from states like Montana, Idaho, Washington, Tennessee, California, Texas and Florida, to make their fortunes in the oil boom.
Williston sits near the center of the Bakken Formation, “a subsurface rock unit bigger than the state of California,” Smith writes, “and one of the largest contiguous deposits of oil and gas on the planet.”
In 2008, as the US economy was in shambles and the housing market collapsed, Williston’s oil boom was just beginning, with prices peaking at $145 a barrel.
Workers with little or no experience in oil drilling flocked to the state, looking for jobs. The population of Williston tripled between 2008 and 2013, from around 12,000 to a sudden influx of over 30,000 new arrivals. Between July 2012 and July 2013, “one new person arrived in Williston every three hours,” writes Smith. “Eight new people each day.”
Smith, 37, a folk singer and playwright from Brooklyn, came for the same reason anybody else did: the money. His plan was to work for three months, make $20,000, and then “get the f–k outta town.”
Less than three weeks after arriving in America’s Boomtown, he found a job as an oil field hand at Diamondback Trucking. For $21.25 an hour, he worked as a “swamper,” a truck driver’s assistant. Although most workers wore white hard hats, newbies like Smith were given green hats, a sign of a new and inexperienced employee — one likely not to know what he’s doing and possibly get himself (or others) killed.
The job could be lethal. Between 2008 and 2017, more than 1,500 oil field workers were killed from on-site injuries — everything from machinery accidents to explosions to toxic fume inhalation — according to the US Department of Labor. That’s almost exactly as many US soldiers killed in Afghanistan during the same period.
The oil boom and population explosion meant that the cost of rent in Williston could be higher than Manhattan, with one-bedrooms going for over $2,000 per month and single rooms in shared apartments as much as $1,000 per month.
Smith managed to rent a mattress on a flophouse floor in a three-bedroom townhouse, which he shared with half a dozen other tenants, for $450 per month, and he felt lucky to get it.
Despite the high cost of living, the neighborhood was anything but suburban safe.
“Testosterone-fueled young men are working 14-hour shifts at jobs that can kill them in a town without friends or family,” Smith writes. “It only makes sense that the dangerous work of the day spills past sunset as parentless white boys roar through the night.”
Smith fell into a crowd of misfits and damaged transients, looking for a second chance in Williston but just finding more trouble. People like Erwin “Jack” Jackson, a man in his mid-forties with a prison record, 10 kids from 10 different wives, six DUIs, a reputation for bar brawls, and some white-power tattoos he claims to regret.
Then there was Huck, who also had a penchant for drinking, drugs and regularly getting into bloody fistfights.
“I don’t actually like to fight,” Huck told Smith. “It’s just because I’m so big, guys always wanna start sh-t with me. But I don’t feel big. I feel small.”
Though Smith eventually left Williston and returned to Brooklyn, he learned to love working the oil fields, taking pride not just in the danger but in what his hard work provided the rest of the country.
“New York City reaps the benefits of labor done thousands of miles away on the desolate plains of North Dakota,” he writes. “They get it from me and a group of the toughest, meanest motherf–kers I have met in my life. Men they wouldn’t like, men they look down on, invisible men they will never see in a state they dismiss as flyover. They owe it all to the hands. All of it.”