Posts Tagged 'abandoned places'



The Ghosts of Footsteps

Crisp blue and puffing chest, the glare of sunlight off the smooth flat of the Bay. My first run since a week-long flu, down along the Bay Trail, with its breezes and San Francisco views, pretty despite being directly beside a freeway.

I passed a little woodsy alcove. It’s mostly rocks and open space down there, but every now and then, beside a freeway exit, an overgrown patch of cluttered trees and shrubs is tucked alongside the trail.

I caught a glimpse between the leaves: a little stream, heavy from the rains; a long piece of wood placed over, a makeshift bridge; the dead remains of footsteps, the ghosts of footsteps, a path going in. Something was hiding in there.

I thought about the books I’d read as a kid—-Bridge To Terabithia—how kids in the country or in the suburbs, or in any event, not inside the city, would always have these places to hide. A creek or the woods, some undeveloped patch of something—a place they could escape to, along with their fantasies and maybe a stick to poke things with, to build empires in their minds where they were safe or powerful or in any event not in their own lives, some other place.

And I remembered how terribly jealous I’d be those kids—those kids in books, not real kids—because I lived in the city, and there weren’t any places like that. Or there were—under freeways, or the woods behind parks—but they were already filled up, claimed by junkies and derelicts with cardboard palaces, people retreated to their own fantasies, their own escapes, their own Not Heres.

There was a thin strip of dense trees behind the jungle gym at Children’s Playground, in Golden Gate Park. I’d wanted to go in there, to climb around, explore, find my own something magical. It was shady in there, I couldn’t see in, and I wanted to know what all mysteries lay in the damp earth and shadows.

“Don’t go in there,” my mother’d said.

“Why?”

“People live in there. There’s trash and needles and it smells.”

And I’d known, even then, that you could catch things with needles, things like death. I’d thought of sarcoma spots and sunken eyes, sick beds and the scatter of Chinese food containers, and I hadn’t wanted to go in there anymore, but I’d still wanted to go somewhere.

It was a good run. My shin splints didn’t hurt, although I did get a tightness in my chest, like a squeezing, that made me stop and walk for awhile. I stared into the open and soaked it in, and was ready to run again.

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If No Man Is An Island…

Alcatraz Night Tour—wandering around the haunted empty of an old institution, relighted and relabeled, black signs with white letters. All hard lines and sparse materials—cement and steel—littered with the footsteps of tourists, the little echoes we carry in our shoes and our voices and, in some of us, our hearts.

Because you live here, you’d never done it—because there was always some other chance, some other day, any day, it turned into no day, never. So when Nick said he was going to Alcatraz, fuck it, you said you were going too.

So you roved, like everyone else roved, wearing your headset and listening to the gravely voiced narrator of the audio tour, a well-cast choice by any measure. Former prison guards and inmates read their recollections, giving the tour more weight, more significance than it would have otherwise had.

You stopped in front of the steel doors to the solitary confinement cell, and listened to the weathered voices recall what they’d done to wait out the time in the blackness:

But if you would close your eyes—like right now, close your eyes, seal your eyes off with your hand—with a little concentration, you can see a light. And pretty soon that light will get brighter. And you’ve gotta concentrate on it—not a short while; it takes time and practice—but pretty soon you can almost put your own TV there, and you can see things and you can go on trips—and that’s what I did.

And it was an echo, the sound of a memory reverberating from some place inside. It was a night you’d stored away: summer, warm, the window open, the leaves cutting the streetlight into a thousand broken, dancing pieces. He laid on his side, held you under his arm, and you said you couldn’t sleep.

“Let me show you a trick.” And he said it softly—strangely soft, you’d thought, the way we’d whispered as kids in our hiding places, the places only children can fit.

“I used to do this when I was little, when I couldn’t sleep.” He rolled onto his back. “You put your thumbs against your eyes—you’ve got them there?—and you push. Not hard, but not light either. And keep pushing; don’t stop.”

You didn’t. You didn’t stop pushing.

“And eventually you see it.”

“See what?”

“Lights. Shapes. Anything. You go on a trip.”

And he got real quiet, and you listened—listened to the horrible silence and waited for your own show, your own little light parade. You saw only faint traces, dim colors, a couple gray buzzing lights.

He rolled back on his side, towards you. “Where did you go?”

You looked down, ashamed, though you weren’t sure why. “I don’t know. I don’t think I went anywhere.”

And he didn’t say anything, just traced your belly with the tips of his fingers—the fullest part of your belly, the part you hate and pinch and suck in in front of the mirror—and you felt so fucking lonely you thought you might die, that some part of you might die.

And it was the same feeling, standing there, alone with your headset in a silent group of wanderers. Like being a tourist in someone else’s loneliness—or rather, the ruins of someone else’s loneliness, what was left after the guards had gone and the light—now strange and harsh—had returned. Listening to their tricks, the little games they played (Your dad telling you, “Sometimes I’d bite the inside of my cheek, slowly, until it’d start bleeding and I’d play with it.”)—the ways they’d learn to escape, if only for a moment, into some place so deep inside that some piece, it seemed, never came back.

You blinked. You pushed the rewind button and the voice stuttered, restarted, and you listened again. And it was his voice, inside this other voice, and you remembered how you’d put it in a poem—or, you’d tried to put it in a poem, but it’d never amounted to anything, never quite fit, a parenthetical metaphor you weren’t quite sure related, or how it related, until right now, here, under the institutional glare of a tourist attraction, Alcatraz.

You half-smiled—what else was there to do?—and continued on with the tour, walked through the door in the steel bars into another emptied room.

Boiler Room, Angel Island

Abandoned by time but not escaped from it. Rust and debris, peeling paint and the pages of old magazines, broken glass so old its become smooth. Like some dim chamber of our hearts, we climbed into the boiler room.

Angel Island is full of abandoned buildings, the crumbling concrete and sagging frames of old military structures. A big mound in the middle of the Bay, smack in from the Golden Gate, the island is more than brown grasses and hiking trails. It was a detention center/”immigration station” during the Chinese Exclusionary Act, then an Army Post during World War II, later a missile center. Now it’s a state park, filled with picnicking families, kids on field trips, tourists on Segways.

Summer in San Francisco...

It’s nice to spend a day roaming around, out in the middle of the Bay—packing a sandwich and riding the expensive ferry and taking the long, gentle walk around the perimeter. But what I love most about Angel Island are the abandoned buildings.

Some are open to the public, stairways smashed out so there’s no chance of climbing up into the desolate upper stories. You wander around the ground level, the empty gutted rooms, staring up past the chicken scratch graffiti, wishing you could poke around the dusty remains above, crunch your sneakers through the silence.

Other buildings are fenced off, doors bolted and windows shuttered, large signs warning of the repercussions of trespassing. The grass grows up around these buildings, consuming them; sometimes you catch shadows in the broken windows and they look like your own.

We circumvented a large, fenced-off building, found a spot relatively hidden from the main path. It’d been a long time since I’d hopped a fence, wedged my toes between chainlink and landed ankle-sharp with a laugh.

We tiptoed towards the building.

The boiler room. Heavy, huffing machinery now silent, steamless, bellies swollen with the memory of a howl. Old basins and the criss-cross of empty pipes, useless and buckled. Nameless parts of an old operation. A map on the wall of where tools once hung.

We crunched around, slats of wood and indistinguishable debris, the flattened beer cans of some lost era. There’s something about crumbling places that make you whisper, a kind of reverence—not just for what has passed, but what has remained, aged and weathered and somehow still standing.

It reminds you of your own ragged heart, those places you’ve closed off, chained off, boarded up and shut. But they’re still there—forgotten, maybe, but not empty, bloodless pipes waiting, dreaming of steam.

And sometimes, something goes traipsing on in there, flicking lighters and echoing voices and leaving new footprints, in a place you swore no new footprints could go. A place you swore was sealed shut and secretly dying.

We trespassed into the abandoned boiler room, then stepped back out into the dim squint of a fog-heavy noon—our lives.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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