Been wanting to write something like this (not a story exactly, but a “moment” of sorts) for a while, finally got around to it.
The album for this post is Music for Nitrous Oxide by Stars of the Lid. A very solid ambient album, relaxing but dark.
We couldn’t have his brother drop us off too close, of course. His entire family was fucked in some way or another, but his brother was the most intense straightedge I had ever met. I would’ve said he was the exception to the rule because of that, but that’s probably just how he was fucked. Oddly enough, my family was very “normal” but I alone was about as fucked as anyone else in Ben’s family, so it was just a good fit.
But the point was, we couldn’t trust him. He never liked me, for whatever reason, and enjoyed getting Ben in trouble any chance he had.
He had offered to drive us into the city on his way to work, or the gym, or wherever it was he spent his boring existence. We just had him drop us off in a pretty central area, yet one that still wasn’t too far away from our target.
We had eyed it on rides past. Hiding behind a wall of trees and only peeking out in a few places, there sat a massive abandoned building.
Ben and I had always loved exploring any abandoned buildings we could find. Snagging anything interesting for decor, taking photos, barely escaping slicing ourselves open on decades-old broken glass, and so on. So naturally, seeing a truly massive building, abandoned and decrepit, we needed to find our way in.
Once his brother dropped us off in the city, we smoked and I dosed up on something; not something illegal, but something unknown enough that it may have raised suspicions. I kept it in a empty Sanka container in my backpack. We were going to be out long enough I wanted to have plenty on hand.
We headed off toward the building. I honestly can’t remember much of our trip there, perhaps it was beginning to kick in around that time.
Around this time it comes to mind to describe our outfits. I was wearing skinny jeans, embellished with skulls going down the legs and a rather “punk” jacket, and he was wearing long black pants and nothing but a black leather vest on his top, through which his chest-covering tattoo was quite visible. He carried a boombox and I had a number of cassettes in my backpack, playing some new wave music as we walked around.
We climbed up through the wooded hill toward the building, and saw something that we hadn’t beforehand: playground equipment. There was a cloud of that specific “deceased childhood” horror, the death of innocence and the rise of decay. Vines grew through the jungle gym and a long-abandoned wheelchair rotted to the side.
We took a couple pictures and moved on. There was a chain-link fence surrounding the building, probably ten or so feet high, but we quickly found a detached section that we were able to climb through.
And at this point it may be useful to give some setting. This took place in Philly, right around the edge of Germantown specifically. To put it in general terms, Germantown wasn’t the kind of place two skinny white kids should be exploring.
We were vaguely aware of this, but not much more than the innate risk in exploring any abandoned building. Doors and windows were boarded up, but quite conveniently there was a basement access, the door open.
It was highly likely that the building was occupied, and we wanted to take preventative measures in case. Ben found a hammer – oddly enough, a like-new hammer – on the ground and took that and we headed in, him setting down the boombox nearby the basement entrance so he didn’t have to carry it through the building.
Just as we were walking down the damp cement steps, someone came around the other corner of the building. He looked around on the ground and we heard him ask aloud where his hammer went to. We had no idea who this guy was obviously, and my eyes are entirely fucked so I could barely make him out. We decided it would be best to just go on in. What would we say, exactly? “Here’s your hammer?” Just two random kids inside a fence that, although lacking any “private property” signs, clearly was meant to keep people away? There wasn’t much chance we’d be able to do that nonchalantly.
We headed in silently, keeping an ear out to make sure he wasn’t following us or something, then turned on our flashlights and looked around.
First thing I saw, no doubt a melodramatic addition by another explorer in the past, was a spraypainted message that trailed away eerily, just saying “get out”. I took a picture and we moved on.
There was something there that puzzled me. It was like a cubical polygon, just a framework made out of metal, probably eight feet long and four feet wide. I’ve since come to believe it was a shoe-rack, due to information we later obtained.
And we began exploring. Aside from a broken half of a pair of scissors (which I put in my pocket as an emergency defense) there wasn’t much else in the basement so we began to move up via a flight of highly unstable stairs. One of them had completely fallen through which we had to step over; since it was the basement it wasn’t too much of a distance to the foundation, but it was enough that we didn’t want to have one of our legs dangling through in the dark and damp, meat set out for whatever might be living there.
The first main floor contained a large raised stage area. Vents lined the exposed height around it and the room around was mostly empty. In a nearby hall there was an elevator, the kind of elevator you see in episodes of Poirot or something, with the sliding metal grate in front of it, the kind that was dangerous enough to usually require an elevator operator to work in it. We took a couple pictures, tempted to get in and try it out but knowing that’d only end badly.
We moved up another flight of hazardous stairs. This floor was somewhat better lit and seemed, overall, much less decrepit, aside from two things: the smell and the litter. An intense odor of urine pervaded the entire area and there was a mound – and I do not exaggerate one bit, it was a true mound – of empty bags, cans, and every other kind of litter imaginable. The litter was only in the side room, but the smell choked us wherever we went. The main room of this floor was quite nice, though, very sunny and antiquated, nice enough that it could make a decent room after a bit of cleaning. There was a screwdriver on the floor that I picked up. I kept the half-scissors in my pocket, but the screwdriver seemed like much more of an effective weapon, and given the evidence of habitation here, I might need it.
The smell was so overpowering that we tried to get away from it in another side room; and we heard something outside. The squawk of a walkie-talkie and distant talking. There were few things that the former could mean.
Ben lead the way, creeping over toward a window, keeping low as possible, and we peered outside.
There were two police cars and two or three cops standing around on the opposite side of the building we had come from.
I don’t know which of us said it, or perhaps we said it in unison, but it was the resounding sentiment between us. But hey, maybe they were here for something else. We hadn’t done anything wrong, there were no “keep out” or “private property” signs, so they couldn’t get us on that. Maybe this is where they just hung out during their breaks. Right? Right. And besides, there was a third floor that we hadn’t explored yet. We couldn’t just leave now.
Another set of stairs, another potential death. This floor was where things started getting a bit more hazardous. It was in about as bad shape as the first floor, but was obviously much higher up; holes in the floor had no visible end. This area looked almost more like an apartment, with multiple small, similar-looking rooms with a bathroom or two. We kept walking down the hall, looking through at the rooms as we passed them, until we came to the hole in the floor. The entire area of the hall had just collapsed, a long drop beneath. But there were more rooms to look at beyond… Ben started heading back but I was determined. If we were going to do this, we were going to do it right. We clung to one side of the wall where a small piece of wood extended and made the jump to the other side.
There wasn’t much else on this side than another of those similar rooms, but while we were in there we looked out through a window. There were three police cars now. It still didn’t necessarily mean there was a problem, right?
As we were leaving that side of the floor I noticed a chunk of ceiling or something hanging down from a cord in a rather ominous way. I took a picture and moved on. We crossed the gap without much trouble and headed down a floor. In the large, well-lit room we peeked through a window again and saw a new arrival: a police SUV. The cops seemed to be a bit more active now.
For whatever reason – and to this day, he can’t remember why – Ben tossed the hammer out of the window on a different side of the building, away from the cops. We made our way down to the first floor, then the basement, and went toward the exit. I realized I was still holding the screwdriver and set it down on the floor before we went out. Didn’t want to give them any additional reasons to have a problem with us, after all.
We climbed out of the dark basement and into the light and one of the cops saw us and called out to the others. A couple more came over. “Good thing you came out now,” the cop said, “we were about to send in some dogs.”
A female police officer handcuffed me – Jesus, they really make those things fucking tight, don’t they? – and the first cop handcuffed Ben and started reciting our rights. I had heard them hundreds of times before – probably had them memorized, in fact – so I looked over to the woman who was leading me and said something like “There wasn’t a keep out sign.” She sighed and said “But there was a ten-foot fence.”
Rather a silly thing to say, I thought. What legal precedence does a fence set?
They led us through another gap in the fence and out toward where the vehicles were parked. The woman asked me if I had any weapons or drugs on me – my mind shot to the Sanka container – and I said no. She began patting me down and soon found the scissors in my pocket that I forgot about. Mentally swearing at myself for being so idiotic, I said I had forgotten about those. She took them out of my pocket and tossed them onto the ground, laughing to the others and asking if they wanted some broken scissors.
By the tone of the cops it didn’t seem like things were too serious; but then again, we were handcuffed. She opened my backpack and began rifling through it, asking me what was in there. A bottle of gatorade, some cassette tapes, a book, a big bag of animal crackers (I fucking love animal crackers) and, er, some “tea powder”. It was accurate enough, I suppose.
She closed up my backpack and I breathed relief. It wasn’t illegal, but I’m sure it would’ve raised some eyebrows. In the meantime the cop who had handcuffed Ben asked him for his ID and he told him it was in my backpack. The woman retrieved his wallet and gave it to the man, who then had Ben sit in the SUV and begin filling out some paperwork. They asked me for my ID, but I told them that I was just visiting and didn’t have a driver’s license. The most I had was a passport at Ben’s apartment, but I didn’t mention that. Couldn’t risk having them come to the apartment and raise hell with Ben’s family. They sighed but didn’t press the issue any more.
Throughout all of this there was someone else among the cops, someone who definitely wasn’t a cop. Ben and I realized pretty quickly that it was the guy we had seen before we went in the building.
We told them we had just gone in to take pictures and stuff, something we did pretty much anywhere we went (reminding me of a somewhat similar experience we once had in Bermuda), but that didn’t seem to be what they were concerned about.
The man from earlier, “Mr. Jones”, had apparently seen us go into the building and decided that we had stolen his hammer. We explained that we just wanted to be prepared for anything that could happen while we were in there, who knows who could be in there, right? They seemed to understand and we apologized to Mr. Jones.
“I can go get the hammer if you want,” Ben said, but Mr. Jones shook his head. Sam and I glanced at each other, sharing the same thought: why the hell did you call the cops if you didn’t even care about your hammer?
It seemed like we were about ready to go but Ben remembered his boombox and asked to go get it. An officer escorted him back toward to building so he could get it, and all eyes turned on me as soon as they were gone.
“Mr. Jones said that he had said something about his hammer,” one of the officers said to me. “Did you hear that?”
“No, we just saw him but didn’t know who he was or he came from. We wanted to be careful, after all. But no, we didn’t hear him.”
I was oddly calm despite having a number of cops staring at me while lying. But that was only one half done, and I knew how it was going to go once Ben came back.
Ben and I had done about the same amount of shit, but he had gotten in trouble a lot more than me. I was pretty careful, slick, and lucky. “Please…” I pleaded mentally as I saw Ben returning with the cop and the boombox.
The same officer who had asked me now turned to Ben. “Did you hear Mr. Jones ask about his hammer?”
I was staring intently at Ben but he didn’t look at me. “Nah,” he said, and I felt a tension leave my chest.
The female officer nudged the broken scissors with her foot again and laughed lightheartedly at me, and a couple of them got in their cars and ready to go. “You two are lucky you didn’t get in more trouble,” said a bigger cop to Ben and I. “This area isn’t that safe for guys like you. Shouldn’t be messing around in Germantown.”
We mumbled something respectful enough to satisfy him and got in the SUV. “Where you guys live?” he asked as he pulled out. We told him it was near a certain Family Dollar store and he seemed to understand. I took a selfie in the backseat for later evidence, a subdued grin on my face.
I was curious, so I asked him what the building used to be. “An elementary school,” he said.
Apparently he hadn’t understood where we were talking about, though, as he dropped us off near a Burger King quite a distance away from Ben’s apartment, but we thanked him for the ride, not wanting to bring about any more trouble, and got out.
Ironically, he had dropped us off in Germantown, more of an urban area than we had already been in. We went in to the Burger King (coincidentally enough, Ben’s straightedge brother was working there that day) and got iced tea as if nothing had happened. I ate some animal crackers with my iced tea while telling two other friends what had just happened, they began freaking out but I was just amused. We lost nothing – well, except for Ben’s driver’s license, which they never gave back for some reason – but gained a great experience.