30 September 2018

Disappeared (Part 8)

If my life was California, the decision to move was the San Andreas fault letting go all at once. To call it merely disruptive would be a clear understatement of the case. It meant becoming the landlord and not the resident of the house I owned. It meant leaving behind the only friends and places I had known for over twenty years. The most profound upheaval would be inflicted on my daughter. I would no longer be geographically close, seeing her would no longer happen easily or on a frequent basis. I sweated myself to sleep many, many nights over this disruption to the blood of my blood. Meditations on leaving became knock down, drag out battles in my head. 

Ultimately it came down to a choice: remain in place with its attendant loneliness and unemployment, or venture into the heartland for a greater chance to be happier more often than not (and gamble on a job). Emotionally caught between the hammer and the anvil, the desire to not be alone and unloved won out. I resolved to relocate. Preparations for that rapidly became a time and energy sump. Less time meant fewer excursions to the river, with an accompanying lack of awareness of change in the ruins.

Meanwhile those ruins abided. The river flowed on, resolute in its near inscrutable ebb and surge. I would come to miss its green banks and polished stones. The river nearest my new home would not be as welcoming. Muddier. Wider. Stands of trees that seemed more afterthought than organic growth. I would not know much of this in full until late, when my time out on the edge of the Sea of Grass began to experience the falling of the curtain.

But that’s getting ahead of the story, this chapter of which began in an enormous outpouring of heat and light (as novas are wont to do). This light served initially to illuminate my initiation into a different way of life, one that was far from the waters, the only edges, I had ever known in life along the mid-Atlantic coast. The sky to some degree seemed bigger, the horizon much further away. These differences became a source of fascination and continuous low-grade unease. The effects were subtle, but far-reaching. I cannot say for certain they had no bearing on the troubles that came later.

Big sky. Grass. Long horizons interrupted only by the Paris of the Plains. That cornfields and soybeans could go on so far was revelatory. Revelatory but not sticky. The wonder and euphoria of new people and places flooded my senses. The flood pushed my anxieties far back into recesses that seemed so heavily insulated they would never again see the light of day. The insulation freed me up to enjoy simply existing.

The job search continued, but bore no architectural fruit. The malaise from the coast still had a grip on the middle. Necessity prompted searches in areas that never before had graced a resume. A tryout in a butcher shop provided interesting insight but no job. Interest in things culinary eventually led me to doing something I had never really wanted to do. I wound up working in a retail spice shop. Spices I adore. Working retail? Not so much. It did teach me a lot about dealing with people, nice and not so nice. A big benefit of this work was access to a plethora of spices, often free. I began to eat very well at home as a consequence. The biggest perk, crucially, was that I made some friends. Good people, as they say, whose presence, conversation, and advice I came to treasure. This would matter, later.

Back east, things were in flux. Hands invisible to me setting in motion profound changes to that which I used to know. These unseen changes as avatars of the plastic nature of memory, fluid and mutable as rivers themselves. It is what happens when you look away. The landscape alters itself out of the range of vision.

Back out on the edge of the Sea of Grass, the one constant was the search for money. As an architect I was still surplus to requirements. No call backs, no face time, no contacts. It was a small slice of good luck that my semi-pro interest and ability in photography, in combination with a friend’s recommendation, garnered me a gig doing real estate photos. An influx of revenue allowed me to push back some walls of anxiety and desperation. Not far enough, ultimately, but it bought some breathing space. I continued on, oblivious to the sinkholes forming around me.

The first big fracture: a trip back to Maryland to resolve a small legal matter. There was time between commitments for a trip back to the ruins, a brief visit during which the plan was to reconnect with a touchstone of my past life. There was eager anticipation to be grounded, to reconnect. There was hope I might even get a few photographs on my phone camera. Spirits were high as I drove out to the site.

Imagine my shock to arrive to flat ground with a smattering of rubble along the riverbank. The factory was gone. The boiler house was gone. Fish mural and storage tanks, all gone. The only visible remainder being a concrete retaining wall along the road, the fading graffiti on it visible through a scraggly scrim of weeds. Even the sluice channels farther up the watercourse had been demolished. I stared, disbelieving. Parking the car on the shoulder, I then trudged our into the middle of the site. Dust collected on my dress shoes, riming the pressed cuffs of my pants. The tie around my neck tightened without my doing. Standing alone and bereft in the hot August sunlight with only the insects as companions. Their buzz sounded overly loud in my ears. I could not believe so much history was gone. The ruins were no longer a reflection. My dislocation felt complete.

23 September 2018

Disappeared (Part 7)

Change is inevitable. The world holds still for no one. Reveries amongst the ruins were a great illuminator of that premise. Every visit revealed a new truth, a fresh perspective, a reshuffling of the rubble. From fires to flowers to walls no longer whole, time made clear it would have its due in the reclamation of that which was no longer maintained. Inevitability made for a plethora of photo opportunities, of which I took full advantage. There was comfort in routine with variety to keep things interesting.

But there is change. Always change. There came a day where the first new thing I saw was a set of signs erected adjacent to the site. Official looking and emblazoned with seals and logos from a variety of state and federal agencies. It appeared that the site had long been considered a “brownfield” and was designated to be cleaned up. How it was to be cleaned up was not made clear, making the signs an appropriate guide for the gnarled mess of my life.

Outside in the real world things were going to Hell on a bobsled. While I played Indiana Jones on the Patapsco, the mortgage crisis and big bank failures were metastasizing into a recession eating up the country. When the money dries up, people decide not to build buildings. As a consequence of not needing buildings, people don’t need architects to design things. As a consequence of that unfortunate circumstance, architects such as myself find themselves surplus to requirements. We are shown many doors, some of which do not hit us on the ass on the way out.

Two weeks before Christmas Day in 2008 was the beginning of my personal Great Recession. I was laid off. More precisely, management asked if I would voluntarily resign first. I knew full well that part of the reason they asked was so they could avoid an increase in the amount they would have to contribute to unemployment insurance. I am many things, but stupid is not one of them. No way was I going to agree to quit when the issue was strictly payroll driven and not performance. I told them I would not voluntarily quit, so they “let me go”. Off into the wilderness I went.

In the employment maelstrom of the next three years, that particular bit of black theater would be repeated twice more. I had months long blips of pure joblessness interrupted by slightly longer blips of jobs I was thankful to get, at places I thought would be long term. But the last ones on the ship are the first ones to go when the seas get violent. Good intentions, experience, and hard work don’t stand a chance against those in thrall to a balance sheet. The third time was not particularly charming. I was caught out when it hit in the fall of 2011 not long before Halloween.

There I was yet again sailing the heavy chop on the sea of unemployment. The currents were carrying me deeper into winter, with the prospect of a sparse Christmas to boot. Seeking a job can be a full time job in and of itself, and this episode was no different. My desk turned into a resume farm. Field trips began to taper off due to weather, time, and exhaustion. The ruins began to fade into the background while I concentrated on mastering the change taking over my life. Winter crept in to hold me hostage to cold and gloom.

Funny thing about change. It isn’t all chaos and stress. The light that kept me on the path was the burgeoning of a long-distance relationship courtesy of the miracle of the Internet. The epicenter of this heartquake was in the center of the country. Its shock waves upended the enforced complacency of my solitary life. The gravity of love began its mysterious action at a distance which, in conjunction with my increasingly dim job prospects at home, swiftly grew into an irresistible pull on my heart and mind. Following the exhortations of my soul, I hopped into the driver’s seat of my hot rod of change and put the pedal to the metal.

I decided to move to Kansas in pursuit of love and money.

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.