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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

School 03, September 2013


Squirrel Infestation Alert

“Wait, what?”

“Yep, rabid squirrels. Hundreds of ’em. Thousands, maybe. Buncha kids got bit, had to close the place down. Damn shame.”

There are plenty of compelling reasons *not* to spend your weekends breaking into abandoned buildings. Jumped-up taser-wielding rent-a-cops, meth-addled scrapper gangs, rotten flooring, collapsing roofs, black mold, poison ivy, rusty nails, asbestos-laden air, flooded utility tunnels, hornets, ticks, etc. A swarm (or dray, if you want to nitpick) of rabid, aggressive, child-killing squirrels, on the other hand? Not as commonly mentioned. But such was the clear and present danger at [name of location redacted].

This is one of those “how did I never notice this building before?” places – not far from home, plenty of inconspicuous parking nearby, and – best of all – nobody we knew personally had ever been in there. A bit of discreet research turned up the aforementioned squirrel infestation alert, but that was it. No blueprints available online, no access tips from explore-buddies, nothing. (Okay, technically, we did receive the following helpful information from one person: “I heard there might be a way in around the back somewhere.”) So, we traipsed around the building early on a Sunday morning, found a ladder in the bushes, noticed an open window on an upper floor, et voila! WE’RE IN.

The windows on the upper floors were all open, looking out onto the trees surrounding the campus. The air was warm, but rain was falling. In a church across the street, a gospel choir was testifying loudly. When it was time to eat lunch, we sat for a while just looking at the trees, listening to a gospel singer bellowing powerfully, the audience responding in kind, the rain falling, and it was wonderful.

Although the campus is made up of just two main buildings, the place is still big and confusing (to me). It took us most of that first day to do a complete walk-through and orient ourselves. A month later, we returned to take some pictures that we missed the first time around, and it was immediately obvious that things had changed. Almost every sink on the campus was now hanging loosely from the wall, the pipes torn out by scrappers. While exploring the basement, we heard footsteps overhead. We immediately shut off our flashlights and listened intently. Whoever it was, they didn’t sound like security guards – too loud, too informal. We heard power tools. Eventually, they left the building, and we continued exploring.

As the sun set that evening, we climbed out the window and started down the ladder. To our shock, there were two guys standing there, on their way *in* to the building. We tried to reassure them that we meant no harm – “just taking pictures!” Our words failed to placate; they did not speak English. We awkwardly exchanged places with them on the ladder, and headed home, feeling unsettled.

Late that night, I received a text from my exploring companion:

TURN ON THE NEWS. [name of location redacted] IS ON FIRE.

Two days later, I visited the site once again, to take some pictures of the wreckage. Rooms that we had photographed were now exposed and visible from the street. First-floor doors had been torn off. The upper third of the building was ruined and still lightly smoking. Walking around the back of the campus, now surrounded by yellow police tape, I could see that the damage was even worse than I thought. There was no way to salvage the buildings. Nobody would ever explore or photograph that campus again. I had only become aware of this place one month ago, and now it was gone, and I felt kinda sad about it.

A young girl wearing a fur-lined down jacket, elaborately lacquered hair, and brightly-painted fingernails walked toward me at a clip. She seemed to be half speaking to me, and half speaking into her bejeweled iPhone. “I TOLD them police they shoulda torn down that muhfuh TEN YEARS AGO because all them crackheads been smoking in there since I moved INTO this neighborhood, but they don’t listen to ME and Johnny was in there – you know Johnny? Yeah because he was talking to his cousin and I heard that – you know Johnny’s cousin? They told me that…” this continued as she walked past, and I started to respond, but it became clear that no response was expected, and so the words came out sounding like I was gargling or choking on something. I pretended to cough into my fist, and walked back to my car like I knew what I was doing.

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