Chapter 13: Isabel
The Lehigh Valley Dairy
Isabel notices everything.
She notices feelings before they’re revealed. She notices details before they’re missed. She notices vibes before they’ve reverberated. Energies that may (or may not) be there, floating above us and among us. It can be a blessing and a curse. Or both.
And in this moment, Isabel is convinced that this room is where the mafia brings people to die.
“Or something. I don’t like it,” she whispers as we duck under the broken garage at the back of the building. “It doesn’t feel good. I know that.” The large hole cut into the bottom of the garage door in the delivery dock is either years of wear and tear — or man-made.
I’ve seen this kind of jimmy-rig before, where another All-American Ruins junky figures out how to break into one of these architectural relics of drudge and decay and leaves the gate unlocked for the rest of us. I’m usually alone when I encroach on this kind of moment, but today, my exhaustive journey isn’t done in a silo.
Today, my big imagination doesn’t run wild alone.
Today, my sister from another mother is with me on a weekend expedition to the crumbling Allentown, PA, the root of the larger All-American Ruins journey (in a sense) that has overtaken my life (in the best way) since May of 2020 when I drove through the Rust Belt and caught a glimpse of abandoned factories, accidentally falling into a moment of time travel and remembering the days from my childhood spent wandering about a dairy farm formerly run by nuns in the foothills of Colorado. At six years-old, I didn’t know that one day, there would be a connection between Colorado Springs, CO and Allentown, PA. I wouldn’t realize the inherent link between the two cities until I was thirty-three years old and discovered the Lehigh Valley Dairy, hiding out in my research of abandoned spaces scattered across the United States, collections of untold stories, locked in the walls of each location without any way to release them except through the unmitigated power of imagination.
Or, in this instance, my dear friend’s imagination. Or something else.
Whatever it is, there’s worry to support it, and it joins us, perched on Isabel’s shoulder as we enter the space, ducking under wires hanging from the ceiling and dodging droplets descending from tattered overhangs, small pieces of ice crunching willfully beneath our feet. Indeed, this eerie building is haunted, and like any other abandoned space I’ve ventured to, it pulls me in with intrigue and wonder.
In this moment, January of 2021, I’ve been at this work for nearly nine months, pouring through Internet blogs and Facebook groups and connecting with like-minded adventurers who’ve come before me, long before a pandemic put a planet on pause and instilled a festering fear of contact with — well, anyone — into my heart, a dramatic trauma response triggered by my fear of germs, of sickness, and of pain.
As such, to feel safe somewhere in the world, I’ve gone to great lengths to seek out these untouched, mostly forgotten spaces to investigate the stories behind them, namely the ones without much of a published or known history.
“Who did this to you?” is so often the question I take with me when I leave an American ruin.
True to form, the mere sight of the Lehigh Valley Dairy, a stunning, battered, and rundown art deco building on the outskirts of Allentown, PA proper invites this question with fervor.
“Who did this to you?”
A large wound has been cut deep into a substantial portion of the building, leaving the inside exposed to passersby down the hill. The elements have wreaked havoc on this enormous monument to 1930s agriculture that represents the decline of local farming across the United States — a fixture of folklore and intrigue for the community of Allentown where some roam the streets carrying sunken expressions or tossing suspicious glares as Isabel and I make our approach from where we’ve parked her car, about half a mile away from the dairy.
We hike up a steep driveway and immediately hook to the backside of the building, which adjoins another piece of an even larger complex that appears to be an active business of some sort, next door to a U-Haul franchise. It’s the dead of winter, and the sun is out, spotlighting our every breath, suspending then disappearing in midair. We are frozen in our bones, bundled up to fight the wind that surrounds us as we discover, quite suddenly, this unexpected entrance into the dairy. Isabel has already expressed her nerves, a fair way to maneuver into this building, the outside walls adorned with signs warning the public to Smile! You’re on camera. I know, however, that the eyeballs of security we spot seemingly leering down from tall under-hangs aren’t active. Not that it matters. They’ve done their imposing, fear-inducing damage, exactly as they’re supposed to, and I’m aware that I’m far more of a rule-breaker than Isabel is.
The nature of my rebellious disposition could exist for a number of psychological reasons, but I’ve learned to make peace with my knack for civil disobedience, blaming the numerous spots of concentrated Sagittarius in my astrological chart. I wouldn’t have known that I was such a little Sagittarius at heart (with a sun in Scorpio, mind you) unless I’d befriended Isabel who has been studying astrology intensely for a couple of years. She’s also a rule-breaker at heart, but with a few more runs around the sun than I’ve got, she’s learned to compromise this instinct by being more of a rule-bender. Her wisdom peeks out in various ways in certain moments like the one we’re in now, sneaking into this abandoned dairy factory.
This dynamic, to me, is one of the lovelier parts of our relationship. It allows us to communicate openly how we feel in tricky moments when the trajectory of our needs and/or wants differs, thereby creating a subsequent compromise of resolve, born out of a shared sense of rigorous honesty that has, since I first laid eyes on her at an art gallery in New Paltz, NY, always existed in a way that I’ve never shared with any other friend.
Which is why, as we clamor into the back of the Lehigh Valley Dairy, I am aware and respectful of her uneasy feelings: she has a dialed-in sonar that picks up on paranormal vibrations, some good, some bad. It’s a gift and a curse, depending on the situation. In this one, some three and a half hours from our home (she’s my housemate) in Ulster County, NY, I am undeterred by her palpable concerns about proverbial hitmen doing their dirty work, mangling and torturing unsuspecting victims who might owe them money or have information they want.
Either way, those under the thumb of these faceless mafia men wind up with grim fates, witnessed by Isabel’s trepidation as we pass from the back of what appears to be a shipping dock where an abandoned pickup truck sits, doors open, keys gone, into a spacious room where, in my imagination, I begin to see outlines of eidolons, the ghosts of plant workers; Isabel senses something far more sinister lurking in the shadows of the decades this historic building has amassed. This is a major part of the power of these ruins: they become portals back in time, doors into the deepest parts of our brains, at least for me. What is fascinating and exciting to one person might feel terrifying and malicious to another.
In this instance, as my hands run along the thick glass walls that separate the sunlit washroom I’ve entered, Isabel hones in on a storyline, be it fact or fiction, that is far scarier than the story happening inside my own head as I project five-dimensional apparitions of factory workers surrounding us on all sides. What was an empty factory when we entered has transformed into an active plant now bustling with activity of the phantoms who used to occupy this space.
I make my way into a great hall, surrounded by an upper level that stretches around the perimeter of the room, the sounds of machinery and cows flooding the space, and I close my eyes. When I open them a few seconds later, it’s no longer January of 2021; it’s January of 1935, in the heart of a recession, as union workers hustle to keep the factory, a hub of commerce in an otherwise economic nightmare, running to its fullest capacity.
“People need milk,” states the building manager who scares me when he speaks into my ear.
I jump, and he chuckles. “Relax. This way.” He leads me to the second floor of the joint, past his office which reeks of cigar smoke, a spacious area illuminated by dangerous electric wiring and natural daylight that creeps into the open skylights above. I turn around and realize Isabel has indeed, as she said she would, vacated the premises. I’m left to experience the innards of this dairy plant on my own, with the help of a ghost.
The manager has a mustache and walks with a Napoleonic pride as we reach the landing that overlooks the giant hall. The more I walk, the more ethereal the building becomes. Deeper and deeper into the maze of ceramic tiles and brick walls, towering above employees, we go. It’s cold, which is the only connection to the reality of the present I have, aside from my puffy jacket and thick duck boots that provide some layer of protection against the biting chill of January.
The second floor has far less hustle and bustle, boasting administrative offices and break rooms that represent the hierarchy of the plant. I realize the strange connective tissue between the dairy farm from my childhood and this dairy plant from my adulthood, and I find the joy in the bond between two worlds, my former self and present self, dancing through the processing and packaging of cows’ milk, spanning the ages.
The factory manager shows me a room boasting two freight elevators, sandwiched between the upper walkway we’ve just departed and another long, dark hallway that I decide not to go down. By now, I’ve created some basic ground rules for my various jaunts to these disintegrating places, one of which is “Do not enter dark spaces that have no natural light to guide you, including hallways like this one. Or worse, basements.” In fact, from the beginning, basements have been a no-no, with or without another friend to accompany me. “Don’t worry,” the manager grins. “You’re safe with me.”
By now, daylight beams down in full force overhead, lighting up the inside of the Lehigh Valley Dairy like a fire in winter, and I can see why the manager is so attracted to and proud of the grounds and the building: they’re beautiful, a true testament to the quality of construction back in the day, having slowly deteriorated over the course of the century as builders got cheaper and found far less expensive, shoddy construction methods.
But it’s the sound of the machines that grips me. They putter and whirr so brilliantly on this winter afternoon, and I close my eyes to listen more closely. I’ve never been to a dairy plant before. I don’t know what I could’ve expected. More cows?
The manager leads me up another flight of stairs to a landing that overlooks a large bottling room. It dawns on me that I’ve felt unafraid this entire time, of anything, whereas Isabel sensed something evil pacing about, and I begin to wonder how that could be. Different frequencies attract different interactions I guess. I peer over the balcony and watch folks in the middle of the workroom hear the factory bell sound. “Lunchtime. Hungry?” asks the manager. I am.
We make our way to one of the break rooms filled with cigarette smoke and the raucous laughter of employees. Everyone seems happy here, and at first, it puzzles me: it’s 1935, and the Great Recession is in full force, with no clear end in sight. “Just remember that in times of peril, the human spirit will always rise above,” remarks the manager with solemn comfort. He’s right. Good humor and cheer always seems to combat tragedy in unique ways, but laughter can only transport the human spirit so far.
Since March of 2020, in the present, I have watched many of my own friends go from starring on Broadway to filing for unemployment, from making headway in their careers at tech companies to being told in a Zoom room that they’re no longer employed, from struggling to live paycheck to paycheck to landing in an impossible situation with no potential source of income that matches their skillset. I’ve seen people I’ve known for years try to juggle two or three jobs at the same time, none with benefits, barely scraping by month to month to pay rent. Astronomically high health care, education, housing, and credit card debt looming over millions of Americans while the rich get richer then demonize the peons at the bottom for being “lazy.” A system designed and working exactly as it was supposed to. Even back in 1931, as the country began to sketch the skeleton for the WPA and PWA before FDR took the reins in 1933, introducing the New Deal to battle the mounting economic crisis.
I stare at this room full of ghosts, eating their boxed lunches and laughing, and I begin to feel warm on this blustery day. I’m with my people, the working class, the people running the country. They’re brave, and they’re tough. Though this cooperative of folks — all of whom are eventually forced to vacate the building in 1989 after an unpredictable round of layoffs — will occupy this space for less than sixty years, they’re my heroes. I admire them. I respect them, more than any politician or CEO.
The manager can sense my admiration and warmth and says, “Follow me.” We walk outside into the afternoon sun beating down on a foot of snow that blankets the landscape on the south side of the ruins, a few paces down from the large gash in the side of the building overlooking the skyline of Allentown, a resilient city of people, just trying to get by. He says, “You get to share these untold stories about people who used to call this place home,” then disappears as I lay my eyes on Isabel, her camera strap affixed to her body, photographing the exquisite exterior of this magnificent abandoned structure.
I meet her at the bottom of the stairs, and we both snap a few more photos before making our way down the circular driveway at the front of the building for one last look at its iconic facade, a local celebrity in its own right. It’s in that moment that a vagabond passes by. He’s not a specter. It’s a real person, headed up the driveway, and suddenly, I realize: he lives there, inside the ruins of the Lehigh Valley Dairy. I wonder if he sees the lighter side of it as I do, or the darker side of it as Isabel does. Or both.
We get one final look at the property in the afternoon light before making our way back down the half a mile and change to the car. In the distance, inside the building’s mega-gash, I see the homeless man crawl through, welcomed in by the ghost of the building manager. I smile. The manager turns to look at me, off in the distance, and waves.
I wave back.
I don’t think Isabel notices, but I can’t be sure.
Because Isabel notices everything.