When we moved in to our new house we discovered that there were no officially sanctioned civic recycling bins, so my wife called the city's robots, pressed pound and eventually found out where new bins could be acquired for a small (large) fee.

So, this morning she set off to the local recycling depot. And found it completely abandoned.

Abandoned spaces are spooky.

She stood at the front desk with another man for a few minutes, waiting for somebody to appear to address their inquiries. "Hello?" my wife called out. She double-checked the hours of public service operation on the outside of the door, and then double-checked the time on the readout of her space-age pocket-telephone.

"Maybe they're at lunch," the man said as he gave up and left. My wife, on the other hand, would not be so easily turned away.

She walked around to the far side of the desk and crossed the reception anteroom. Beyond it she wandered the empty, illuminated corridors until she came to a stairwell. A sign said: OFFICE, UPSTAIRS. Up she went.

Off the corridors of the second floor she found no people but instead office after office outfitted with messy desks, worn chairs with back-relief beads, sun-bleached beige computer monitors, gun-metal filing cabinets, dry-erase boards covered in undecipherable bureaucratic jargon, faded motivational posters...

As she was coming up to the third floor my wife heard the sound of voices. She came out of the stairwell and into a wide, linoleum-floored lunchroom. There was a small refrigerator, and a coffee machine. Chairs were placed neatly before tables, a motley array of coffee cups arranged precisely on a long shelf. On the counter by the sink, the source of the voices: a small baby-sized ghetto-blaster covered in Banana stickers tuned to an easy listening soft rock station. The strains of Celine Dion reverberated tinnily.

"Well, everyone's not at lunch, obviously," my wife said to the radio.

The fluorescent light at the fourth floor landing was giving out, flickering and buzzing. My wife stuck her head into the corridor: empty rooms, torn broadloom, snack-wrappers littering the floor.

The fluorescent lights on the fifth floor were all out. By the stairwell there was a heap of garbage and dry leaves, next to a massive hole in the drywall through which the buildings dirty innards could be seen. Plaster dust and metal slugs were scattered on the stained, bare floors alongside loose sheets of yellowed newspaper. For reasons not apparent, the halls of the fifth floor stirred with a weak, sporadic wind.

She did not investigate the sixth floor, on account of the darkness of the stairwell.

When my wife came home I asked if she'd been able to snag us a recycling bin. "I'm afraid not," she said; "the depot people have been repoed."

"Sounds spooky," I said.

Abandoned spaces are spooky. There is something characteristically unsettling about spaces clearly designed to house a hub-bub of human activity being left devoid of people that calls to mind the cliche ghost town. I remember feeling it when I was deposited in a "dead spot" in a hospital recently, or when I got off an office elevator once onto a floor with the exact same layout as the place I'd been heading, but unoccupied.

There is a special kind of human-free quiet in abandoned spaces that is only intensified by incidental noises like radios with nobody listening to them or something jingling in the breeze. For reasons I cannot explain I find abandoned spaces more surreal in placid sunshine than in muttering rain.

Abandoned spaces can also be magical.

A million summers ago my Serbian friend and I were walking along a stone-walled rural canal in the countryside of the Veneto when we came upon an abandoned factory. We found a way inside through rickety wooden barricade set over the main entrance.

Inside we found a cathedral of pigeons. Murky sunlight streamed in through the dusty and broken windows, illuminating island patches of the interior of the factory. Soft, burbling cooing and the rustle of feathers came from every direction, like the last act of Hitchcock's The Birds. Our footsteps left clear imprints in the deep dust, as if we were astronauts on the moon. Every surface was covered in a grey-white matte finish of guano and feather tufts, making the rusted machinery and conveyor belts look strangely soft and furry.

The Serb and I climbed the rickety scaffolds and carefully inched our way along the guano-covered catwalks. As we walked a fine rain of dust fell behind us like some kind of allergenic pixie-dust. In only a few spots was the dust disturbed by imprints from bird feet -- it was clear that we were the first creatures to penetrate these areas in decades.

In a small corner of the factory we found a hole in the roof, underneath which grew a sprig of gay green weeds through the cracked, dusty floor-tiles in a hazy line that represented the furthest extent to which the sun and the rain could penetrate. In silence, for years upon years, a islet of weeds and a hundred million pigeons cohabitate in peace in a nest of white furry metal, concrete and glass. We tried to drink up some moments of that peace, the Serb and I.

When we left the sun and moving air and noise of the outside world felt harsh; too real and too gritty to occupy the same world as the secret haven we had just explored. We told our hosts about what we had seen, but no one in town seemed to know what we were talking about.

"There is no abandoned factory out there," declared Fortunato Fiorio the farmer in authoritative Fretalian. He then barked at his wife with startling ferocity to fetch us more coffee and gelato. "You must be confused."

And maybe we were. Maybe there never was a factory owned by pigeons, despite the matching memories of the Serb and I. (Later on we would stand on the beach at Trieste and watch flashes in the clouds reflected in the Adriatic, and it would be explained to us that what we were seeing was the war in Yugoslavia just over the horizon, which would make us feel that the world was a more surreal place than even the holy quiet of the guano factory had suggested.) Maybe my wife went to the wrong address, or the wrong dimension of the right address, and maybe what she wandered through was not a recycling depot at all.

Abandoned spaces are owned by ghosts, and they do not heed our labels.

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