16 September 2018

Disappeared (Part 6)

Those thoughts and more crowded my head during the short hike back to my car. Thoughts of a return visit lost some shine when juxtaposed against the experience of having a gun pointed at me on purpose. It was morbidly amusing that in all the time I had spent on site up to that day, the only human threat I ever faced came from someone whose job it was to protect the public. Ultimately the encounter was chalked up to random experience, one that would temper my approach to visiting the ruins but did not dissuade me from returning.

Another weekend, another visit. Destination was the upper floor of one of the older sections of the complex. The path would take me past the scene of the Gun Incident. From somewhere ahead could be heard intermittent banging noises, as if someone was striking metal with a hammer. As I crossed the floor heading for a back stairway, the noises grew louder. In between the bangs could be heard a faint hissing noise reminiscent of pressurized gas escaping from a pipe. Ahead could be seen a faint flicker of light, like fire. 

The scene upon walking into the next bay explained it all. If it was a painting it would have been titled Workman with Hammer and Torch. Silhouetted against the light streaming through a window in the back was a man with an acetylene torch in one hand and a small sledgehammer in the other. The torch was aimed at some metal bars jutting from the floor. The hammer he was using to strike the bars as he heated them up. He did not see me at first, as I stood watching.

After a minute or two, the fellow stops banging on the bars and shuts off the torch. He inspects his handiwork, then notices me standing there. He jumped a little then said “Hey, good morning!”. I noticed him glancing around behind me, like he was looking for someone. Like the policeman from earlier, he asked me why I was there. Surprisingly the camera and tripod I carried was not as obvious as one would expect. I explained that I was a photographer there to take pictures of the ruins. He explained to me that he was there “for salvage”. I wished him well, thinking that maybe I too was there for a kind of salvage. A salvage of place, memories, and perhaps myself.

Salvage was certainly possible amongst these ruins. Small tools. Industrial gas bottles. Tanks and machineries the purposes of which I could only hypothesize. Fascinating stuff, but the real attraction for me was less in the extractive value of things and more in the archaeology of things. The context elevated the things from mere debris and wreckage up to the status of artifacts. One of the earliest I encountered was a large tank sporting a wheel or valve on the side. Some long-ago urban artist had spray painted the phrase “Kill yourself” on the tank. It made for an intriguing photo op. 

One of my favorite artifacts was The Chair. It had pride of place on the top floor of one of the older buildings. A signature characteristic of The Chair was that it no longer was conducive to actual sitting. No fault of the original designers, though. Any hostility generated on the part of the chair could be laid solely at the feet of whoever had set the chair ablaze in the recent past. 

From what could be deduced from the remains, The Chair had once been a padded office chair with foam or plastic armrests and a set of wheels. The armrests were fixed, judging from the soot covered brackets on each side. A fairy ring of ashes encircled the base. Small amounts of blackened rubber and fabric clung to the frame in places, but the bulk of the covering had burned off, probably in significant amounts forming the aforementioned ashes.

That chair had me asking a lot of questions. Who brought it there, and when? Who was the last person to sit in it before the end came? What possessed someone to set it on fire? That last question I had a pretty good theory on: because it was there, because they were bored, because they could. No doubt that while the flames lasted they provided some captivating entertainment.

It was glorious. Perfect artifact to discover amongst these ruins of the modern age. Poignancy was thick in the air as amplified by volumes of soft light and empty space surrounding the chair. Its charred remains spoke of dashed hopes, despair, and life interrupted by random acts of vandalism. It was an artifact that by the laying on of eyes invoked an understanding of an intrinsic humanity. It was easy to envision a weary soul sitting down in expectation of rest or comfort only to have the whole shebang erupt in flames. Maybe they would survive it, maybe not. Either way, horrid discomfort would last until the flames burned themselves out.

One sunny day I gazed upon The Chair and saw in it the avatar of my life at that moment. Alone, burned, essentially useless. Incapable of giving comfort or receiving weight yet the frame clung to existence, its blackened bones a silent repudiation of a universe bent on destroying it. That sunny day I stood before The Chair awash in self-pity, bemused, and I laughed. The sound echoed off the stone walls to form a crowd laughing with me. It continued to the point of tears, dissolving into fits of giggling. Once I calmed down enough to stop shaking I took another picture of The Chair. The lesson learned was that even though it could not safely be sat upon, it certainly still had a purpose in the world. I meditated on that long and hard as I made my way off the site and back to home.

09 September 2018

Disappeared (Part 5)

The morning was wrapping up well. Almost three hours in the erstwhile hinterlands of the factory complex, a multi-story portion with old stone, corroded pipes and tanks, and old riveted trusses. Numerous windows and skylights created frequent instances of intriguing light events. The upper floor in particular, with its roof of high gabled trusses that opened up overhead, acquired the air of a cathedral when the sun was out.

The camera work was completed. Cameras put away, bag hoisted, tripod slung across the shoulders, I made my way down the crumbling stairs to the lower, darker level. Having shot there just minutes ago, with no others about, there was no expectation of meeting fellow explorers. Or anyone else. I was abruptly disabused of that notion as I rounded the end of the stair wall to angle across the open concrete floor back to the exposed area some yards away. I heard voices, low. A few steps on, then “Freeze!” 

It was then I noticed the large man standing about twenty feet away, arms outstretched and locked. An intense stare tracked me as I walked.

He was pointing a gun at me. I blinked. I kept walking. “Don’t move!” he shouted.

I kept walking, wondering why he was yelling and pointing a gun at me.

Pointing. A gun. At me.

Finally it sank in, what I was seeing. The gun. About ten feet away, I came to a halt. “Good morning!” I chirped, nervous as hell and acutely aware of the pistol in his hands and the enormous duffel bag at his feet over which he had been leaning when I first came around the corner. The dim light was just enough for me to see that the bag held some more weapons, most notably a shotgun and what appeared to be long rifles of the hunting and assault variety. My confidence that this was going to end well took a nosedive towards the low end of the scale.

“What are you doing here?” he barked at me. The pistol never wavered. I was still having trouble processing the whole mess. The smartass in my head wanted to point at the camera and tripod over my shoulder and say “What the fuck does it look like I’m doing here?”. Prudence won out, and I replied that I was out taking photographs.

It was about that time I heard a noise off to my left, and also noticed the other equipment boxes strewn about. And the camera with tripod near to the man. I looked to the left, at a spot along the wall where not forty or so minutes earlier I had taken a photo of crumbling masonry, broken pipes. Standing there on a brick pile, illuminated in bright light streaming through a hole in the concrete slab above, was a tallish woman. Long blonde hair and Miami Beach tan, and camo pants with combat boots. She was staring at me with what looked like mild concern. I stared back.

She was wearing a bikini top and toting an assault rifle. She said nothing.

I did a double take, then turned back to the man. By this time he had lowered the gun. In a slightly less hostile tone, he said “Oh, okay. Well, be very careful around here. Lots of homeless and vandals.”

I didn’t say “And strangers packing small arsenals?” only “I will” and then I resumed walking towards the open area. It was then I finally noticed a badge, looking remarkably like a police badge, attached to a body armor vest laying on the floor. It dawned on me that the guy might be an off-duty police officer out doing some photo work, with “props” borrowed from the workplace. Seemed a good theory, at least.

My back itched the entire time it took me to clear the area. I walked up and out past what could only have been a truck belonging to that erstwhile Dirty Harry back in the factory. Festooned with flags and stickers emblazoned with various police-related slogans. A quick peek into the back of the truck revealed more camera equipment and gun paraphernalia. My feeling at the time was that those guns in the duffel and carried by Madame Camo-kini were probably not officially cleared for use. To each his own. At least I was not the victim of an accidental shooting, although I suppose I could have photographed it as I fell to the floor.

Life as a wildlife documentary. See the deer out on the icy river. It trembles. Can we know what is in its heart when the ice splits behind, the floe drifts off in the current? Soft eyes behold the black water canyon fracturing the landscape. The forest of home recedes slowly into cottony mist as panic seeps in. The deer stares, perhaps with only an inkling of the trouble it is in and the trouble that awaits. A cold syrup of river water surrounds the floating island, offering nothing but discouragement and a brutal path back to the uncertain terrain of what used to be before winter came.

02 September 2018

Disappeared (Part 4)

Home life was no longer what it used to be. I was hunkering down in an apartment that felt like the architectural analog of a flannel shirt three sizes too large for the body. Roomy but stifling. The echoes of existence reverberated too heavily for it to be a true sanctuary. That would have to be found outside the walls that seemed to move closer in the night.

I remember an acetylene cylinder on its side. A few cast iron stanchion-like objects, on concrete pedestals, besmeared with the grime of decades. Surely they were part of a larger and more complex array of machineries, most of which were long gone. These stanchions shone in the sunlight that poured through the ruined roof high overhead, pearlescent in the manner of anthracite. The name of the manufacturer who made them plainly visible in the casting. To be the maker of things for those who made other things once seemed to be a laudable pursuit hereabouts, but you would not guess that from the surroundings of rubble and debris.

In this part of the complex, the high roof and the broad open space took on the solemn joy of a nave. A procession of columns along a broad axis leading up to an altar of fractured concrete blocks overlaid with roofing that had fallen due to a long-ago fire. Trenches parted the floor, the channels partially filled with debris and dirt. In places one could see that there appeared to be a basement below the machine area, something I later confirmed when I came upon a corroded and collapsing stair leading down into blackness. A few steps on the way down and I lost the urge to go any further. Silence and decay could not be overcome even when I did have a flashlight.

If this place was a post-apocalyptic church, then graffiti was its frescoes. It ranged from nearly illegible scribbling to full-fledged murals executed with raw power if lacking a bit in finesse. Many hours were dying and photographing the artwork in different lights, varied weathers. It amused me in my attempts to make art out of ostensible art. Sort of like sampling music, but with pictures. Meta-art. It was also in this space that I discovered what was perhaps the most edifying and delightful street art I have ever seen. And it was right there on four of the columns.

“HAPPY.” “SAD.” “ANGRY.” "INSPIRED.” Four words, one each to four columns, applied in white with the unmistakable roundness of spray can paint. The execution not particularly brilliant artistically, but charming in its simplicity and earnestness. Given the aggressive or hostile nature of much of the scrawls on the walls, those four words possessed abundant charm which pushed back against the melancholia of the rubble. Those four columns became a bit of an axis mundi in my life as an explorer. It was rare visit on future visits that I did not return to the columns, to this sanctuary that seemed of this world and outside of it.

Perhaps it is odd to think of industrial ruin as a refuge, a bulwark against a world bent on having its way with me. The oddity of it suited my life well. It offered a place of quiet, of study. Within its walls I could think and photograph to my heart's content. When things were shitty outside in the drab routine of the working world, the ruins offered a respite where the mind could retreat from itself.

This is not to say that people and the world never found a way to intrude on my sabbaticals. This was never more evident than on the day in which I found myself staring down the barrel of a pistol.

26 August 2018

Disappeared (Part 3)

Traipsing around the rooftops and decrepit, debris-laden concrete slabs of these industrial relics swiftly became a favorite pastime on weekends when the weak acid of involuntary solitude became too much to bear. Post-abandonment dilapidation birthed a fascinating scenery rich in opportunities for the eye and the lens. Therapy in an office setting has its benefits, but there is a wealth of prophylaxis in capturing broken beauty as it displays in sunlight or outlined in snow.

The plainness of that notion hit with the force of divine revelation one winter morning as I stood shivering on frosted grass. My fingers and toes were going numb after some hours of snapping pictures before the sun raced too high. The camera was behaving strangely. It was hesitating, as if critiquing my choice of composition through fits of mechanical petulance. Thoughts of getting back to the car with its heater crowded my brain. I was determined to get just one more shot. Angle was set, button was pushed, the shutter leaf unfurled. Then the camera buzzed, and died. It gave up. I took this as a sign it was time to go home, reckoning the final image of the day was in the can.

The camera was freezing. That much was obvious. It returned to life upon resting in the warmth of my apartment. As it turned out, that last frame revealed itself to be one of the best photographs of a building I have ever taken. Best by my personal reckoning, anyway. Tone. Mood. The marks of time plainly visible in the stone facade with its windows like empty eyes. The pathos and faded dignity of it, shot in black and white, touched my mind and my heart in ways catalytic to the appreciation of beauty in decay.

That slice of infinity pushed away the indecisiveness that kept me from taking a deep dive into the interior. An expedition was planned and executed.

My boots scraped across cracked concrete. A peculiar crunching sound arose, a byproduct of the rubble and debris strewn across the loading dock. A faint breeze wafted out of the black hole in the wall in front of me. The tang of machine oil and mildew stung my nostrils. To the left and straight ahead I could see almost nothing beyond the first ten feet, faintly lit by the background sunlight that seeped in under the dock roof. To my right the inside of the building glowed with soft luminescence, refulgency tinged with green. I had made up my mind that I would determine the source of that light. All I had to do was walk about seventy feet through dank, unlit space.

I had, on previous occasions, stood and stared into that blackness. That there were parallels in my life away from the ruins did not occur to me at the time. Seems obvious now. Gaping holes, darkness, surrounded by crumbling remains. My attraction to it perhaps driven by the familiarity of it. I felt at home amongst the corporeal reality of the factory. Mirrors. I stood before the black holes in the walls and gazed into mirrors. When I left the world I had known for nearly twenty years, expelled by life gone sour, I crossed the Rubicon into a new decade of despair and ecstasy, of wisdom and ignorance, of beauty and ugliness. All of which I was totally unprepared for, but there was no way to go but forward.

The basic problem was that, for all my planning, I neglected to bring a flashlight. Nor did I have a hard hat. More deference to prudence would have kept me out of the building, but curiosity was beating the daylights out of caution. I took off at a brisk walk across the concrete toward the light.

It didn’t take long before I nearly fell flat on my face. Protruding from the floor was an anchor bolt, unseen by me due to the gloom. It snagged the leading edge of my right boot. The hangup caused a stumble. I windmilled my way through the dark, in what I am sure was a hilarious parody of a bat as I flailed my arms in a desperate bid to maintain balance and avoid face-to-concrete contact. Curses echoed off the walls to be soaked up by the darkness.

I skidded to a halt not far from the edge of the glow that was my destination. I caught my breath, heartbeat pulsing in my ears as the surprise of the near-fall wore off. At this point it was laugh worthy, so I did. More echoes in the cavern of light which revealed itself to be a broad, deep space populated with wooden columns. The green tinged light emanated from above. A series of serrated vaults formed a sawtooth roof above, half of which was formed of translucent fiberglass panels. Age, neglect, and dirt had given the once white panels their green hue.

In that mausoleum light, time, pulse, and thought decelerated. I heard the susurrus of blood whispering to the vessels in my ears. As far as I could tell, I was the sole human being in the building. In a flight of fancy, I thought maybe I was the only human being on earth. There were no others, yet the traces of those had been were in abundant evidence. Industrial-era hieroglyphs patterned the walls, spray bomb celebrations of invective, insults, and crudity. I stepped forward to study them, puffs of glassy dust rising from beneath my boots. It was here in this temple that I began my rites of transformation. I was ignorant of that which waited for me in the ruined black.