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.

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"Let your laws come undone
Don't suffer your crimes
Let the love in your heart take control..."

-'The Hair Song', by Black Mountain

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