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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Steam and Steel Workshop, July 2013


This set provides me with a nice opportunity to continue the theme from a previous post, ergo: Why?

The Reasons Why, Continued

When Robin and I moved out East in 2007, we knew nobody here. We took a leap into the unknown, looked around, and found ourselves three thousand miles from our friends and family. There’s a longer story to be told, of course, but let me shorten it and just say this: I desperately needed to build a new community, with no ties to the old. I started volunteering at a film festival, got involved with Springfield Pride, and I pushed myself to reach out to people who seemed interesting.

That led me to contact Kate Anderson, a local explorer/photographer/author/educator/you-name-it. I found one of her books online, bought it, realized she lived nearby, and contacted her. After a few email exchanges, she invited me to join her at the Victory Theatre with a bunch of other folks. At the Victory, I met Rob Rea. On another exploring trip with Kate, I met Jim Maher. I ended up working with Rob and Jim on the Pictory Theatre exhibit, and I consider them both good friends and excellent people.

In a local paper, I saw an ad for an upcoming UE photography exhibit in Easthampton. I attended, and met the artist, Matthew Christopher. Since that day, I’ve traveled down to Pennsylvania several times to join Matthew on his workshop/tours, and again, I consider him a good friend. Not to mention an exceedingly articulate and talented guy, even if I do think he’s dead wrong about the value of religious belief in the modern world. Wrong, I tell you! (slams fist on desk)

On the rooftop of 5 Beekman, I met Joe Yunckes, and we talked about the relative merits of pacifism and violent revolution. Joe ended up helping me score a documentary that I made, and I was floored by his music and by his generosity.

Robin introduced me to one of her friends at Westfield, and it turned out that her friend’s partner, Chris Marti, was an experienced explorer and a fine photographer. He invited me to join him and his uncle Mat on a trip to (name of location redacted). At the beginning, Chris and Mat were my UE mentors, but they eventually transitioned to friends and partners in crime.

Enjoying a cigar in the morning fog with Rob, watching fireflies in the middle of the night from the window of an abandoned resort with Jim and Gio and Kate, taking a road trip to PA (soundtracked by moe.) with Jim, battling angry snakes and crossbow-wielding rednecks with Chris and Mat, alternately arguing with Matthew about the existence of God/receiving excellent photography tips, watching my documentary on the big screen accompanied by Joe’s music – those are some of my happiest memories of the past few years. (Not the only happy memories, of course, but I’m just talking about UE here.)

The Workshop

…which brings me to this set (trust me, I’ll loop around eventually and make the connection). The Steam and Steel workshop was another 100% skulduggery-free weekend arranged by Matthew Christopher. We visited three separate locations, in this order:

National Museum of Industrial History climate-controlled warehouse – probably the least interesting of the three, mostly because everything was so – how shall I say this? – clean. The only equipment in this building is stuff that has already been repaired, cleaned, and painted. Also, the place is brightly lit, so no shafts of light piercing the particulate-laden air. Finally, the stuff is stacked up several rows deep, and cordoned off. It was difficult to isolate anything in the shot, and we were not allowed to get up close to anything except the machines that bordered the walkway. There were definitely a few items of interest, chief among them being an inscrutable piece of machinery that they claim is for making guitars, but I have my doubts. I demanded that the interns prove it by making me a guitar, but they declined. They did, however, allow me to make a brass FIFI employee tag with their press-punch.

Decommissioned Pumping Station – Oh my gosh I loved this place, and that’s probably related to the fact that this was the only “secret” location. Way down an unmarked road, near a river, hidden by leafy trees, overgrown by weeds and surrounded by discarded municipal vehicles, stands this blocky, ominous building. Inside, there is a large, open room with a high ceiling. A walkway encircles the room, and in the center is a deep (30 ft?) pit. Standing in the pit and reaching to the ceiling, is a mammoth steampunk nightmare of a machine, a three-chamber pump for moving water from the river into the drinking supply (or something). You can descend to the bottom of the pit via a spiral staircase. The floor of the pit is interrupted at regular intervals by rectangular holes in the floor, through which you can see down into the sub-basement. Looking down into one of these holes, I could see the floor of the sub-basement, probably another 30 feet down. I could see the floor clearly, but the air seemed a bit murky. When I shined my flashlight down there, I realized why: the sub-basement is filled with water. The thought of that enormous concrete basement filled with water – more specifically, the thought of falling in and being unable to climb out – made me shudder. When my flashlight picked out a single albino fish swimming through the basement, I had to look away. “I can neither recommend nor forbid you to explore the abandoned house in the woods nearby…” Matthew told us. In the basement of that house, I found a wedding album which will haunt my dreams. No, don’t ask me about it. Too… horrifying…

National Museum of Industrial History “dirty” warehouse – right in downtown Bethlehem, PA, very close to the site of the yet-to-open NMIH (2014, probably). This is where they’re keeping all of the industrial artifacts that have yet to be repaired or cleaned. As you might imagine, most of us preferred this to the “clean” warehouse. Not to mention, we were allowed to clamber around on everything, open drawers, and sit in the driver’s seat of the fire engine. Excessive bell-ringing is frowned upon, however. I wish they had told us that right up front, before I made a fool of myself.

Looping Back

It took me a while to tie this together, didn’t it? Here’s the thing: Not only did I see some incredible stuff on this trip, I also met a bunch of really cool people. First of all, I volunteered to be one of the drivers, so three other folks joined me (all women, which was a pleasant change), and we were companions throughout the day. I got to hear more about why they do what they do, how they met Matthew, what they do in their “real” life, etc. Very enjoyable. Then there was Ken, who manages the pumping station. After his retirement, on his own time, he has been working to get that pumping station working again, for no reason other than he thought it would be interesting. At the “dirty” warehouse, we were escorted by Mike, who knew everything there was to know about every piece of detritus in the building. That guy was like a walking interactive kiosk, dispensing bits of information and humor throughout the day. Plus, he was good to his word, and allowed us to do (almost) anything we wanted, excepting the previously-mentioned excessive bell-ringing. Good guy, and I hope to meet him again. I handed out business cards, got a few email addresses, and I would not have met any of those people in any other part of my life.

Enjoy the pictures!

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  1. Jason, what a wonderful post! I was one of the “ladies” you chauffeured around in Bethlehem. I really agree with your recap of the day. Thank you! (I found this blog courtesy of our mutual friend, Matthew, who posted a link on his site.)

    • Hi Gail! Happy to hear I did not misrepresent our experience 😉 Hopefully I’ll see you on another adventure in the coming year.

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