Chapter 6: Sometimes I Pretend I’m Erin Brockovich, Part II (Or, The Practice of Playing Pretend)
This is the second of a two-part series that chronicles my expeditions to the ruins of factories that were abandoned due to EPA violations. (Read Part I here.)
My bones are thick with winter, each step along this tattered and coarse concrete a towering achievement. I haven’t stepped outside in days, let alone thought about nature or ruins or my imagination at all. I can feel my bum ankle plead with me to stretch it, even if only for a few moments, to ease back into the simple movement of walking, the human act of passing through time and space. Today I’ve already catapulted through the immediate stratosphere to reach this crumbling parking lot; “time traveling,” a dear bosom buddy calls it. “We aren’t designed to traverse that kind of distance,” she says. “We aren’t motor vehicles; we’re people vehicles.”
She’s right; I’ve rumbled forty-four miles south of my house in the Mid-Hudson Valley to Huguenot, NY, just under an hour’s drive on State Route 209, a stretch of county highway littered in abandoned spaces; the gateway to the Borscht Belt, a large chunk of the Southern Catskill Mountains that, at one point in time, was the envy of the social elite, only to evolve into dilapidated ruin; a sector of grandiose geographical grit that I’ve come to know well, ever since May of 2020 when I first ventured out into the world, mask up, guard up, after two months of full-scale isolation.
Two months of sanitizing mail as I retrieved it from the mailbox. Two months of wiping down groceries as they jumped out of my trunk, only to let them sit in the driveway for fifteen minutes while Clorox chemicals did their thing. Two months full of panic and terror anytime I inhaled oxygen in a public arena, anytime my body crossed paths with a stranger, anytime I left my four walls and ceiling.
Then summer came, and the fear loosened its grip. Caution was still the name of the game, and double-masking became a routine. I still held my ground when it came to seeing people.
Then fall came, and people forgot about Black Lives Matter. Caution began to creep in again, and not just because caseload numbers slowly began to rise, but also because the country held its collective breath as we waited for the election results to come in.
Then winter came, and that’s where I am now.
And my bones are thick with winter.
And each step along this tattered and coarse concrete feels like a towering achievement. I realize the harsh truth: I haven’t stepped outside in days. I haven’t thought about nature at all, except for how cold it is and how the chill encourages my bum ankle to act out. I haven’t thought about ruins, I haven’t thought about imagination. Just winter. And Covid-19. And collective trauma.
I’m aware of these difficult realities as my boyfriend and I have time-traveled to Huguenot, NY where we find access to an abandoned factory that I’ve passed dozens of times on NY State Route 209, or Ruins Highway as I like to call it. Like many stretches of county road across the country, there’s a highly unusual number of abandoned buildings that dot the map, up and down Route 209, which stretches almost 212 miles between Millersburg, PA and Kingston, NY — where, earlier today, Eric and I crept onto a private property to explore an abandoned mansion and its surrounding acreage, also situated on Route 209.
But the mansion is just the beginning. Today is a two-for-one kind of day. Eric and I slowly pass the abandoned factory, scoping out where we might park. I check Google Maps and notice there’s an entire back parking lot, completely out of sight, so we flip a U-turn and peel in, speeding around to the back as quickly as possible to avoid any townsfolk taking notice. As we round the corner behind the building, I spy a pool on the outskirts of the property, hidden by the dead trees surrounding it on all sides. As we park, I type the address for this crumbling building, vacant and forgotten, plopped on some ten acres of land, into the Google machine and make a terrible discovery: the factory was shut down in 2006, after having been scarlet-lettered as a Class 2 inactive hazardous waste disposal site, a serious citation from the NY Department of Environmental Conservation. For years, 1959 to 1970ish, Empire Tube Co. (the former occupants of the plant) dumped chemicals galore (lead, fluoride, barium, and cadmium) into the lagoon that we passed mere seconds ago.
This means only one thing: it’s time to step back into my Erin Brockovich fantasy. (Because I’ve already played this part once before.)
Part of the beauty in poking about these giant relics of the past has been my ability to reconnect with the kid in me, hacking into my childhood imagination and playing pretend. The act of exploring these abandoned spaces has been a safe haven, an act of healing as the world around me burns, the flames of the Covid-19 pandemic roaring everywhere I look, but more importantly, global pandemic or not, I was in desperate need of a shift in my life. I had fallen into artistic and creative despair, having allowed my fear to get the best of me — and in doing so, I had completely forgotten who I am and why I belong here: to make. To create. To channel art in everything I do. It took The Artist’s Way and a global pandemic to bring me to my spiritual knees, reconnect me with who I am at my core, and begin to learn to dispel the powerful, palpable fear that had taken over my life.
I notice a giant sign on the front of the building: C&D Technologies. No longer the Empire Tube Co. but still just as guilty for continuing to operate the plant while the ground beneath it becomes more and more toxic. My Erin Brockovich persona puts on her gloves, ready to rumble.
It’s game time.
Let’s blow some whistles and expose some bad guys.
Eric (my co-conspirator) and I stealthily maneuver into an unmanned hole in the wall on the backside of the building, next to a sign that says SHIPPING DEPARTMENT. “Budget cuts,” I joke in my head as we slip into the plant, walking by a forgotten RCA television set. I ponder stealing it and trying to fix it, but then I remember that I’m here to abide by the law, not break it. Also, I don’t know the first thing about electronics repair.
The first thing I notice when we get inside is the lack of staff. There’s not a ghostly soul in sight. Then I remember, “Oh right. It’s Sunday.” We’ll be able to collect our samples without any chance of getting caught unless there’s a security guard somewhere else inside this juggernaut. The walls are a creamy yellow and pungent blue, paint peeling off every square inch. If I can’t collect my samples here, then I certainly can swing by the ponds full of chemical sludge before we leave the property. I might also need additional proof, proof that C&D knows what’s happening in the ground below, to be able to, in my fantasy, report it to the EPA and the NY Department of Environmental Conservation.
The second thing I notice when we pass through an empty garage into another large hole in a wall is the all-encompassing lack of light, save large gapes in the ceiling where the wintry sunrays poke through. It’s dark and dingy. “Budget cuts,” I joke in my head once again as we enter a giant, open space, as big as an arena. Eric is off to the races, making his way towards a ladder on the side of a cinder block chain of office spaces sitting on the first floor.
I’m still taking in my surroundings as he ascends up the ladder to the second floor where the foreman’s office is which overlooks the entire plant. After I get the lay of the land, I follow him up, and we begin to rummage through three different offices up top. They’ve done a good job of hiding any damning evidence in these rooms. The desks are empty, except for a large, thick employee manual, tattered and torn from water damage dripping down from the ceiling and an old PC software box for WinFax Pro by Symantec, compatible for Windows 95 and 98.
The Windows 95 startup song plays in my head as Eric and I continue down the corridor to another ladder, leading back down to the main floor. I see a desk basking in a stream of light coming from a partially cracked door from the west side of the building. It looks like a time-out chair, and in the darkness, I snap a photo. Click. Evidence. All of these photographs are evidence.
I find the accounting office and peel through every desk, each of them empty. “These assholes are good,” I think, unable to locate any proof of the contamination on the property. I’m determined to get these guys, so I keep going.
When I exit the accounting office, I realize Eric is gone. I call out: “Eric? Eric!” into the dark arena. Nothing. It dawns on me: What if they caught him? But then, I snap out of the fantasy, the true, real-life fear creeping into my belly. What if something *actually* happened to Eric? I scream louder as I walk by a WET PAINT sign, which adds a bit of humor to my current state of distress.
Where the hell did he go? I continue to call out, louder and louder each time as I pull my phone out of my pocket and realize that I have zero cell service. This is not good. This is not good at all. I carry on, with one objective in mind: find Eric. I’m sure he’s fine, but it would be nice to get a visual. Then I hear clanging and rustling above me. I look up, and there he stands, climbing back down off another ladder that looks like it leads upstairs to another block of office space. I breathe and instantly relax.
As his feet hit the pavement, I hop back into my Erin Brockovich persona.
“You scared me.”
“I’m sorry, honey,” he assures back. He’s probably the only person alive who I don’t mind calling me “honey,” maybe aside from my father. He doesn’t know that I’m knee-deep in my Erin Brockovich fantasy.
“It’s okay. Let’s just stick together.”
And we do. We poke around corners into side rooms with enormous, defunct machines. They’re off, but their system lights stay on, whirring, purring, ready to go. We peer into small pools collecting water from the ceiling, wondering if they’re filled with dangerous chemicals, pollutants to the earth. It’s exceedingly likely that they’re not; the problem is in the ponds outside.
We enter a large room with a sign that says LEAD LOADING DOCK. There’s an office in the back. I step cautiously through broken glass and notice a memorandum on the wall, regarding tank and mill operation safety. “Under no circumstance is the mill to be left unattended or in a condition that may lead to a fire such as noted above.” Covering their tracks, I think. Brilliant. Show that it isn’t the company’s fault that the pools outside are full of chemicals.
We enter the main room again and B-line for the ladder on the opposite side of the room. We climb up to what appear to be the admin offices. We enter a strange room that’s like a prison. The perimeter of this bizarre space is covered floor-to-ceiling in wood paneling, yanked straight out of the 1970s, and in the center of the room is a maze of makeshift walls that don’t reach the ceiling. They’re made of plywood and flimsy chain link, so you can see right through them. If jail cells had a baby with cubicles, these would be the result. The cages are empty, save a few chairs and desks. I pour through the filing cabinets, the drawers, in search of any kind of document to prove that C&D Technologies is aware that they’ve picked up where Empire Tube Co. left off, poisoning the planet. I can’t find a shred of evidence. They’ve done a really bang-up cover-up job.
We move into the next office space. I notice a gas can on the ground and inspect it. The red plastic jug is full. Do they keep this handy in case they need to burn the building to the ground? I wonder. There are ashtrays on the windowsills looking over the main parking lot. I walk over and peer inside the small, moss-colored plastic bowls. The cigarettes crushed inside look fresh. Someone’s been smoking in here. Why would someone be smoking inside, right near a gas can?
I gravitate towards the adjoining bathroom. It has crumbling walls, torn up floors, partially destroyed urinals and toilets. I relieve myself in one. As I finish up, I catch a glimpse of a sign affixed to the stall. “NO SMOKING.” You see that, dummies?
We head downstairs and find another block of empty offices. The walls are covered in green mold, floor to ceiling. I notice a Singer temperature control dial. I turn it. Nothing happens. I shiver. It’s cold, and the sun has finally left the horizon. I peer outside a set of double glass doors and see two swivel chairs quietly resting on the pavement in the parking lot.
That’s when I hear footsteps.
The guard has decided to make his rounds.
“Time to go,” I whisper.
We exit the building and hurriedly make our way back to the car. I’m disappointed because our mission was unsuccessful. I need to come back. As I climb into the car, I turn over my shoulder peer through the trees towards the lagoons. If I’m going to get these assholes, I need to, at the very least, collect samples of the toxic water. If I can’t find a paper trail, I can certainly prove there’s poison in the ground below, but today, I’m afraid to go down too close to the ponds. Someone might see us. Though it’s Sunday and the joint was completely empty, except for that one pesky security guard, I feel as though the area is heavily surveilled. I’ll come back, I think. Another Sunday, when it’s quiet like this.
I don’t realize that it will be months later, after I’ve ended my relationship, when I return to C&D Technologies. As the car pulls away, my fantasy disappears. Yes. I will come back. I don’t know when, but it will happen.
I screech my car off Route 209, bouncing over the beat-up parking lot pavement. It looks so different in July, covered in weeds taller than I am. It’s been more than seven months since my last covert operation to the C&D plant, and on this hazy Sunday, it’s just me. Smog from the fires in Canada still glides gently across the sultry summer sky. Unnoticeable spurts of rain touch my face as I clamor out of my car. I have one destination in mind: the lagoons. I pull on my Erin Brockovich gloves and make my way through the thick brush.
I pull out my imaginary test tube and kneel down to scoop up a sample. As the contaminated water enters the vessel, I cork it and look up. The sun peeks through the clouds of haze from the dissipating smoke. I close my eyes and feel the warmth on my face. It’s been over a year since I started exploring these abandoned spaces, and I collect myself as gratitude settles all around me. As a 33-year-old living in a world that feels like it’s continuing to plummet into environmental and social oblivion, I have fallen back into the practice of playing pretend. Just as my own imagination saved me when I was a kid, it has once again been saving me, for over a year.
As the soft hug of gratitude wraps itself around my body, I hear a large metal door creek behind me up the hill. Shit. The security guard on duty is taking a smoke break. The sound of footsteps slowly approaches the outer rim of the lagoon. I don’t move. I stay completely still. My stomach flips upside-down. If I’m caught, I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know what I’ll do. The noise of shoes on gravel approaching gets closer and closer then stops. The guard pulls out a cigarette, lights a flame, sets the cancer stick on fire, and inhales. I inhale too, regular old oxygen, keeping my breath slow and steady. After a couple of minutes of stillness, he flicks his cigarette into the lagoon and goes back inside. I breathe a sigh of relief.
I rush up the short hill and hop into my car. The fantasy immediately evaporates all around me. I turn the key in the ignition and speed off, peering back at the factory in the rearview mirror one last time. It’s golden hour, and though my body feels tired, my bones are massaged by summer. It’s that nap-time vibe, pure zen and comfort, that percolates through my pores and radiates out of the open window as I speed back up Route 209, headed for home. I needed this feeling right now. There’s a heatwave coming, the second one I’ll have experienced this summer.
I think about the hole in the ozone layer, and I feel scared.
I think about the division in this country, and I feel sad.
I think about the onslaught of new Covid-19 cases that continue to pop up because folks pridefully refuse to get vaccinated, and I feel sorrow.
I don’t want to go back to another winter of isolation.
But then, like a shot through the heart, a lightness enters my body as I breathe and remind myself that I have an escape from all that, whenever I need it. I have these abandoned spaces. I have the ghosts that wander among them, the stories inside, many of which have never seen the light of day. And I have my imagination. I don’t know what will happen this coming winter, but I do know, right now, at this moment, that my bones are coated in summer.
I am grateful for the sun, the silence, and the space to dive into my imagination where I feel sturdy, safe, and secure.
There’s always an Erin Brockovich fantasy to be had.
I laugh. The sun presses through the clouds, the sky pink and purple and gold and blue.
There’s always the practice of playing pretend.