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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Hospital 11, June 2015

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As my time in the Mysterious East comes to an end, we are venturing further afield. And by “Mysterious East,” I mean “New England.”

Intelligence sparse and contradictory, as always. Zero security and doors thrown open to vandals and sightseers alike? Or locked down like the Pentagon? I heard both versions. The most current and helpful information that we received boiled down to “…around to the left of that one building? There’s, like, a hole in the fence.” Seemed legit.

Complicating our intrusion, what was formerly a hospital has been (at least partially) converted to a much more profitable civic-minded business: A prison. Or maybe they just set up shop next to the psychiatric hospital for convenience. This is not an isolated case – many of the hospitals and schools we’ve explored have seen wings, buildings, or whole sections taken over by state police or prisons.

Side note: In a previous life, I volunteered in a county jail. As part of our training, we were given tours of several state prisons, including the women’s facility where Mary Kay LeTourneau was being held. We watched her playing volleyball, easily dominating her opponents with aggressive play and shouted insults. Fascinating. During the tour, one of my fellow volunteers commented that the prison looked suspiciously like a community college. “That’s probably because it was a community college,” responded our guide. The fact that schools and hospitals are being re-purposed as prisons might tell us something useful about the current state of our country. Discuss amongst yourselves.

Returning to my main story: any indirect access to the campus was blocked by either residential homes or 12-foot electrified fences topped with razor wire. I’m sure that as soon as I post this, some UE friend will pop up to tell me about a much easier way that we overlooked, but as far as we could see, the only access was through the front gate, and the front gate was staffed by a dude in a uniform. Put another way: we would have to check in with security before breaking and entering.

“We just want to drive through the campus and take some photos of the exteriors of these beautiful historic buildings,” I told Security Man. “Is that okay?” Security Man barely looked up from his iPhone. He made a sound with his mouth that – although indistinct – I interpreted to mean “I don’t give a shit what you do.” So we smiled, waved in a collegial way, and drove onto the campus.

We parked near “that one building,” walked around to the left, and guess what? There was indeed a hole in the fence. It was laughably easy. And the interior was everything we had hoped for: “Just the right amount of decay!” exulted one of my companions, and he (or she?) was right.

The place was new to us, and there was so much to shoot! Engrossed in capturing some beautiful sunlight slanting across a rotting door, I soon lost track of my two friends. Coming out of my photographer’s trance, I found myself alone, in a huge and confusing building. I had no idea how to get back to the entry point, no idea how to find my friends. I heard – or thought I heard – footsteps, far away. My phone vibrated with a text message: “Are you ok” The ensuing conversation was stilted and one-sided and left me feeling wary:

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Twice I asked where they were, and twice they evaded or ignored the question. “Are you alone” they wanted to know. Who, exactly, was on the other end of this conversation? And it continued:

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Now fully alert and frankly terrified, I hastily re-packed my camera and began searching for my friends. Stepped into a large utility room, and heard someone hissing at me from the stairwell. One of my friends, bug-eyed, beckoning me toward the basement with undisguised urgency. When we were reunited, crouching in a back corner of the unlit basement, behind a large boiler or furnace or who-knows-what, they filled me in. Carelessly stepping out of a room on the second floor, they found themselves looking at the receding back of a man in uniform. Which was clearly impossible. Security are almost never authorized to enter these buildings, for insurance and safety reasons. Was it a cop? Was it a security guard on an unauthorized lunch break exploration? Did the seemingly disinterested “just here for the paycheck” guy at the front gate actually do his job and alert the authorities? Had someone seen us through the windows? WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK?

We had to move, and soon. For one thing, we were trapped in a corner; if security entered the basement, we had nowhere to go. For another, our car was parked in a lot next to the building. How long before someone said, “Hey, that out-of-state Prius has been here all day…”

We took a guess at which outer wall we were near, and which direction might lead to the parking lot. We searched for an exit from the basement, in the dark. Incredibly, we found a broken window that opened on to a depression in the ground outside. I stuck my iPhone up through a steel grate with the camera active, and confirmed that our parking lot was nearby. We counted to three, used our combined strength to lift up the steel grate, hopped out of the hole in the ground, carefully replaced the grate, and walked to our car with the appropriate mixture of “holy christ let’s get out of here!” and “hey, we’re just casually looking at the scenery.”

Tumbled into the car, drove back out through the main gate, smiled and nodded at Security Man, who was too engrossed in facebook to acknowledge us.

NOTE: I’ve included some photos taken “on the go” with my iPhone at the end of this album.

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