More times than not, life gets in the way. Whether it’s putting off listening to a new album, kickstarting a new show, or paying a visit to an old friend, life does what it does best: it finds a way to disrupt. Things come and go, sure, but the curdling of your stomach grows whilst aching more than it should, and continues to do so until you climb through a window of opportunity, and most importantly, free time.
For me, that window of opportunity came quite literally; for the first time since October, I met back with urban exploration. The beauty of the city lies in the eye of the beholder (unless you’re the NFL!), which sometimes falls into the grey area of repetitiveness driving to and from. Luckily, there are unmarked landmarks – like the rooftops of collapsing hospitals, or tiny balconies thirty floors up – to not only give you a new look on local life, but the subtle, quiet movements of human nature.
Getting back into exploring abandoned buildings is nearly identical, just flipped, to going on dates after a long gap of avoiding them altogether. With new dates, you’re prepared for the best and ready for the worst; with new urban exploration(s), you’re prepared for the worst, and ready for the best. There’s a sense of urgency that pumps through your blood, an urge of confidence at bay, and a time frame to give it your best, even if you are a bit rough around the edges. “It’s okay, they’ll understand,” you tell yourself — and you hope they buy it just as much as you do.
Thus, it seems appropriate when two things – two people, two objects, two functions – fit like puzzle pieces, tight and snug and ready to continue building. Sometimes it seems too easy, other times it’s a job in itself, but dealing with the former rather than the latter makes the practicality of it all seem so much more natural.
That, in a nutshell, is what urban exploration is for me. Yes I have a love life, yes I have great friends, yes I have a great family, a great job and a life I enjoy, but some hobbies fall so smoothly and easily into place it’s like there’s no work in doing the work of climbing around the bits of pieces of everything left behind in abandoned locations. I’ve talked about urban exploration many times, that’s no secret, and it’s something I consider my second most valuable hobby. There’s lots of reasons to love it – the curiosity of what’s inside derelict buildings, the thrill of knowing you’re in a ghost of what once was, and the pushback you put yourself in to get a new look at life – but there’s also lots of reasons to probably hate it – the curiosity of what’s inside derelict buildings, the thrill of knowing you’re in a ghost of what once was, and the pushback you put yourself in to get a new look at life. I won’t lie and say that I’m definitely a little weird to get this much joy out of the unknown, but I don’t feel bad about it anymore. There was a time when I would try to defend myself from naysayers who would tell me I had something wrong mentally, or that I’m doing it for nothing more than attention. Neither are true, clearly, but those sort of comments did accomplish an eventual breakthrough with my interest in anything related to those places kicked off to the side.
I don’t just get pleasure out of breaking my own barrier of fear – I get pleasure out of being able to meet and talk with those living in those places kicked off to the side. As I’ve mentioned on a few different occasions, meeting strangers, drug addicts and Neo-Nazi’s is a trait I somehow picked up moving out on my own. Of course I’m aware of my own safety, and I gauge the conversation based on what my subconscious is telling me, but knowing that complete and total strangers feel so compelled and comfortable to chat with me, another complete and total stranger, warms me and builds confidence in both them and myself.
That said, there are three things you never want to experience while looking around an empty building: loud voices, faint footsteps and confrontation. As I knock on e-wood saying this, only the first two have happened to me, but the threat of all three at once lingers in those few moments of being caught off guard. What if it’s a gang? What if it’s security coming to give you a talk? The possibilities are endless, but there comes a time when you have to either bite the bullet and check, or simply leave the premises (if you can).
So, you can imagine my surprise last night when we had just entered a hospital and heard loud voices a floor above us, faint footsteps approaching from the hallway ahead and to the left – and my wild imagination running free with just what sort of confrontation we were about to find ourselves in.
My friend whistles for our other friends who had already been exploring before we had arrived, and thank God, that confrontation I was so expecting ended like that; our other friends, too, were scared we were the ones ready to start some shit.
“We were hearing voices upstairs,” we ask our other group of friends. Turns out, they had already met the two people we heard talking, and suggested we meet them before continuing on. (I should note this building in particular is known for being ‘infested’ with the homeless, most of which are kind and respectful if you show it back.) We shrugged, said why not, and walked up the second floor hallway where four of us were met by a couple buckling up their gear in the little sunlight still shining through a window.
The woman, Kelly, introduced herself first. She had on a pea coat, at least two jackets, and a backpack filled to the brim with blankets and a sleeping bag attached. She was kind to us, but first wanted to know why were crawling around an empty complex. She was hesitant, thinking we were looking for ghosts, but when a few of us showed pictures of other empty buildings, she became considerably less tense and was happy to talk with us.
The man, Mike, was checking her straps and asking if she had everything they need. He sported a collection of warm winter clothes, a packet of beef flavored ramen, and his cellphone. He was the quieter of the two, mostly due to his double and triple checking of his companions gear.
Kelly and Mike told us we were welcome to explore the building if we still wanted, just to avoid a few specific floors due to the ‘ownership’ that some of the homeless have over the upper levels. We happily obliged and thanked them for the warning. Maybe it was because I was still in awe that these people are so down-to-earth and nice, but there’s never been a time in my four years of doing all this where I’ve felt as welcome to explore something that’s otherwise off-limits. The couple was just so warm to us despite living in the cold.
They warned us that if we wanted to look around the entire complex, to talk to a fellow named ‘Chicago’. Based on how they talked about him, I’m lead to believe he is the sole ‘owner’ of the place. But, even with that, they’ll give him a visit on their way out to let him know we’re here and that we’re good people. Even if they couldn’t find him before they left, Chicago would ‘track us down’ before we left, but would let us talk with him, because as Kelly put it, he’s “a gentleman” and doesn’t mean any harm. (As fate would have it yesterday, we never had the chance to meet Chicago.)
As a group we thanked the two for being so generous, and in turn, they posed for a picture. (It should go without saying the picture was meant with the absolute best intention.) One of my friends gave them some money, and they were so ecstatic to receive anything, even if it was just a couple dollars. “We haven’t eaten today,” Mike said, thanking my friend.
Before they left down the end of the hall we entered through, Mike’s phone rang and, once again, gave thanks for the same act of kindness they showed us. They huddled down into the shadows, and just like four minutes before, there were loud voices echoing and footsteps in the distance.
The rest of our time in the hospital was rather boring until we reached the rooftop. Our view was incredible and the feeling of being able to just live in those few moments was definitely an emotion I had missed, but I couldn’t get my mind off of Kelly and Mike. They were good people, kind people and relatable people, living in what’s shut off to the rest of the city – and they were ones who saw a chance to give and receive, rather than just receive.
Our interest in staying waned the longer we looked around, mostly because of just how ruined the floors, rooms and hallways were. We call it a night and walk back to our cars across the street, leaving in groups. The sun was mostly set by now and the looks we were getting from people in the neighborhood grew, but I still sat thinking about those two. I was chatting with one of the guys I explored with when I glanced across the street and spotted the couple walking out of the market lying adjacent to the back of the hospital – Mike had a bag of food in hand, and an arm around Kelly. He looked in our direction, nodded, and took off to God only knows where for the night.
I’m not going to fill in their ad-lib, and I’m not going to try and guess what led them to this point; they may be happy or they may not be. However, to come across anyone, anywhere, who chooses love over confrontation and understanding over hesitation, my heart goes out to them. There’s no telling where life will take myself, yourself, or any variation of Mike and Kelly, but they’ll go their own way, even if we only cross paths for minutes at a time.
And I’ll go mine.