The Only Factory Man – N.A. Gleason
June 21, 2021
“What are all these blacked out dots on the map?” I asked, looking over the report that I found on my desk.
Stella swivels around in her desk chair to inspect my computer screen.
“Those are all the most important vacant buildings. Remember you brought up the ‘epidemic’ that abandoned buildings are? You went on and on about it in that meeting,” Stella says, rolling her eyes before winking playfully.
Oh yeah, I did call them an epidemic. Well, I wasn’t the first to call them that.
That was what they were called in a report from the Lincoln Institute of Land & Policy.
My job is just to make sure that the number of abandoned buildings in our county doesn’t creep up over 20% and that we make every initiative to repurpose those crumbling relics.
This same issue exists in other legend cities, too. It’s not just our very own, beloved Detroit.
Like Detroit, those other places were also once bustling factory cities; epicenters of the American Can-do spirit. Beacons of unlimited economic prosperity.
Now, our city is dotted with these stubborn, rotting eyesores that drag down our state average.
Abandoned or vacant buildings have a vampiric effect on our local economy. Their depleted worth means they generate almost nothing in taxes or they are tax delinquent. Not only that, but they are anchors; dragging down the property taxes of the structures that surround them, unfairly so.
“Which one should we start with?” My boss, Mr. Hinkles had asked me after I made my desperate, impassioned plea to begin demolishing the most egregious ones.
I pointed to our biggest headache: the Millyard Factory.
It was the juggernaut of all the abandoned buildings on our radar.
The very essence of the factory is exactly the same thing that had probably saved it from being demolished on more than one occasion.
It was more than a slowly-rotting factory. It was also a monument.
A monument to a better time; to our grandfathers who built engines for the P-51 Mustang fighter planes in it during World War 2. And our relatives who built automobiles in it before and after the war.
It was a nod to old, industrial America, one that was as equally resilient as it could be fatalistically stubborn; one that boasted of luxurious innovations and the profits that would surely follow.
Now, it was a burden on the town but a burden that everyone seemed ready and willing to shoulder.
My instinct told me it soothed their sentimentalities about what the town had been and what the factory had meant to it. You would think, seeing the expansive factory in its current state of decay would be all they needed to get on board with its destruction but that wasn’t the case.
The Millyard factory, with all its busted out windows is situated on a large bed of dead grass, framed by wild-growing weeds and rusted doors like gaping mouths.
The only evidence that it had once produced automobiles was a giant pile of worn out rubber tires, aged by the sun that dotted the courtyard.
Can’t they see it’s gone with the past? And it can’t be brought back?
Even when you explained to the preservationists what the very real and true consequences were of allowing the factory to remain standing, they were reluctant to let it go.
Even if you shoved its current image in their faces, they couldn’t see the Millyard factory for what it was; they could only see what it had been.
They were indignant that it could be salvaged and re-purposed for tours or maybe even a museum of what the factory’s contributions to the town had been.
Pretty ideas that had no legs to stand on.
As a city, we had ignored the problem for the comfort of the people for long enough.
We had backed down every time they held town hall meetings, vigils and every time they hounded local politicians into letting them keep their safety blanket.
But this time, we were dangerously close to reaching 20% and if we could finally demolish the Millyard factory that would clear the way to cleaning out house.
If we could destroy the juggernaut, we could be well on our way to getting rid of other vacant buildings, too.
I knew it was like taking a pacifier from a baby; sure it’ll cry, but only for so long before it realizes that no amount of whining can save the factory from what should have already been its fate.
We needed to stop coddling the sentimentality of the townspeople. It served us no good, it served them no good. It didn’t prevent any heartache; it only postponed it.
I explained my idea to a skeptical Mr. Hinckles.
I explained that we needed to cut this problem at the head, not at its tiny tentacles.
He bellyached and groaned about the furor it would inevitably cause. The angry calls, the protests, the letters.
He finally caved; “Do me a favor, go down there and take some photographs. If we’re going to finally tear down the factory, we should at least document its decay, proof for the people that it couldn’t be saved,”. Mr. Hinckles sighed deeply before swallowing a lump in his throat.
So that is why I pulled up to the factory on that day, struggling to walk through the littered path that led to one of the rusting side doors.
It was later in the day, I figured I could stop and take the photos on my way home from work.
Proving the factory’s damage was irreversible should’ve been an easy job.
One that only required me to understand how to operate a camera.
The trash on that path resembled a kind of community mosaic. Gum wrappers, slices of old tires, crushed beer and soda cans, a used condom I made a note not to step on.
I used the sleeve of my sweater to pull open the rusted door. It groaned deeply as I managed to pull it with both of my arms, thinking only of how glad I was to have already gotten my tetanus shot.
It was strange being at the Millyard plant, it felt like a place that is only alive in memories, in stories and old photographs.
I tried to imagine what that door had looked like so many years ago, when this place had been the town’s bread and butter.
As I walked in, I tried to reconcile what it looked like now with how it must have looked back then. I could almost see the workers; in their uniforms, in their respective lines.
Once I stepped inside, I looked outside one of the only remaining glass windows.
I could almost see the courtyard tables, full of men on their lunch breaks. I could hear the playful banter; I could almost smell the cigarette smoke.
Now they were rust covered and empty.
I’m sure back then, they imagined that Millyard was on the cusp of expansion. I’m sure they believed the factory was there to stay forever, as long into the future as they could fathom.
I’m sure they imagined that several more factories, just as impressive and as expansive as Millyard would pop up. I’m sure they probably thought they were riding a wave that would only grow bigger.
Could they have ever imagined that it would look like this now?
There was graffiti covering the walls. You could tell the more artistic vandalism from the more amateur markings. “Logan loves Emmy” was carved into a wooden table, now covered with cobwebs.
Abandoned buildings also make for awesome petri-dishes of illegal, vagrant activities.
A bare mattress with various-colored stains was conveniently situated in the corner, away from the window.
I turned the corner and walked into what had been a cafeteria.
It had those awful, drab-green walls and floors you see in hospitals. A color that is meant to be cheerful but has now become inadvertently synonymous with decay and disease.
It was fitting for the Millyard factory.
I raised the camera to my eye and took a photograph. The flash and shutter almost made me jump back.
For a moment, I wondered what I would have seen had I been standing in this exact same spot, photographing the cafeteria back in 1942.
What would my camera have seen? How wildly would it have contrasted with the scene before me now?
What food did they serve here? What did it smell like?
I walked over behind the counter and in a pile of leaves and dust, I spotted a single, metal tray with three imprinted dishes in it. One for what would have been the main course, of course. And two tiny dishes for sides.
Even though it was not at all relevant to my mission, I found it interesting. I raised my camera again and snapped a photograph.
This time, when the flash went off, I heard a sudden thud overhead. The sound of falling weight. The unique sound of shuffled movement.
It hadn’t occurred to me that I might not be the only visitor the Millyard factory would have today.
Could it have been something other than a person? Maybe a raccoon or just the sounds of the building wheezing and groaning as it falls apart? I figured if I did happen to come at precisely the same time as a junkie or a curious teenager, that one of us would scurry out before the other.
People come to these buildings to be alone, for one reason or another. And the mere thought of running into another person is just as unwanted for one kind of visitor as it would be for the next.
I continued to stand in place, waiting to hear something more.
When I didn’t hear anything, I continued my tour.
I stopped in a long hallway to photograph the extensive water damage; a result of a partially split-open ceiling, where sky-lights had been.
While reading the files on the factory, I had read somewhere that the architect believed that allowing more natural light in would “maximize worker productivity.”
I could look up and see the sky above me, a bright orange from the almost-setting sun.
I could hear birds chirping, the howling of the wind as it beat against the ruins.
I stepped over candy wrappers and glass; needles and a water-logged Playboy magazine that seemed to perfectly drive home the notion that the Millyard factory, along with all of its miscellaneous contents, were just fragments; existing in a world in which they were no longer relevant.
At the end of the hallway, there was a set of skeleton stairs leading up to a drab-green single door. I tried to imagine what that room might have been back in its heyday.
Then I realized it must have been a manager’s office, conveniently situated at the end of the hallway behind the front desk, overlooking the warehouse.
I grabbed onto the banister, slick with old rain. As I pulled onto it, the first step groaned under my weight. Then the next step, but this step made more of a piercing sound than a groan.
On the third step, I felt something snap. I quickly grabbed onto the other banister with my free hand, almost dropping my camera.
I worried briefly about the staircase breaking underneath me, sending me tumbling down into a pile of debris and ash. Wouldn’t that be perfect?
Maybe it would be some kind of divine karma for even wanting to disrupt the factory. It had a soul of its own. It could allow you to wander its halls or it could spit you out.
Maybe I had enough photos to make a case. I looked up at the door. I turned around and looked at stairs behind me. There were more stairs behind me than there remained in front of me.
So I kept going. I reached the front door. As I extended my hand out to turn the golden knob, I saw a sliver of light dance across the bottom of the door.
I thought it looked like light emanating from a television set.
Before I could get creeped out enough to turn around I had already turned the knob and the door creaked wide open.
I gasped once the sight before me came into view. It took a few seconds for my brain to process what I was seeing.
There was an elderly man asleep in an old lazyboy chair, in front of an old tv situated flat on the floor.
He wore slippers, boxers, a dirty t-shirt and a hat that donned the logo of a major American automobile brand on it.
He snored softly. His bulbous chest bobbed and fell as he slept. Two cats scurried away, the ash-gray one with blue eyes peered out at me skeptically from behind a milk crate.
It was clear this room had once been a manager’s office. It was a UFO-shaped room with large glass windows that could oversee the assembly lines. I imagined some boss, standing at the windows, sleeves rolled up, watching his workers as they assembled engines.
The windows looked as though they could be opened so he could call out names and orders.
Now it was home to a what looked like a 70-something year old squatter.
I was almost in too much awe to flee.
It struck me how he had managed to turn it into a makeshift home.
A sign on the wall read “Some Old Goat Lives Here with One Cute Chick” it had a cartoon picture of a goat and a chicken.
There was a makeshift table in the middle of the room with chairs of varying styles. One was a lawn chair, another was a standard dinner table chair with the upholstery undone and the third was just a bucket placed upside down.
I noticed another cat underneath the table. A small, orange tabby, eating the remainder of a Jimmy Johns sandwich.
He had effectively carved out the middle of the room as his living space, while the outer edges were reserved for random objects and trash; a filing cabinet with all of its drawers jutting out like crooked teeth, an old phone, a bicycle, among other random, forgotten objects.
There was a can of open beer in the cupholder of his chair.
He twitched in his sleep before coughing and waking up.
He stared at me through heavy, fluttering eyelids, unsurprised by my presence as if he thought he was still dreaming.
After a few seconds, his eyes adjusted and widened.
“Who are you?” He said as he scrambled to his feet.
“I’m with the city…” I said, still taking in the scene before me. “Who are you?!” I asked, just as, if not more confused.
“I live here!” He said, motioning around him.
“You live… Here? With no running water?”
“I have a whole system worked out,” He waved his hands.
“Don’t worry about it… I’m Leonard,” He said as he noticed me staring at the tabby feasting the remnants of a half-eaten sandwhich.
I turned my eyes back to him.
“Why’d the city send you?” He asked, still reeling from the surprise but trying to recover as casually as possible. He scratched his white facial hair before he pulled out a cigarette from his pocket.
He lit it and was about to raise it to his lips when he looked at me.
In an effort to be a gentleman, he offered me the cigarette he was about to smoke.
I shook my head.
“No thanks. Well, the city is going to demolish the Millyard factory. My being here is more a formality than anything,” I lied, just wanting to say anything to get him to leave sooner than later.
I walked across the room and looked out through the giant windows that allowed us to gaze over what had been the heart of the factory.
I raised my camera and snapped a photo.
The flash scared the orange tabby. “Really?” Leonard asked as he shook his head and took another drag.
“Good luck kid but I think you’re going to have a really hard time convincing the community to tear this place down,” He said, sitting back down in his lazy boy.
I was still turned away from him, looking out at the factory, at the dust covered assembly lines.
“You can’t stop it. It’s already underway. You guys can’t stop the… Wheels of change,” I said, struggling to find the right words.
“Did you say… ‘wheels of change’?” He asked, raising an eyebrow.
“You probably don’t know this but that’s what they used to make here, cars,” He said, pointing to the emblem on his hat.
“Did you ever work here?” I asked him, turning around to face him.
Before he could answer, another cat jumped down from a book shelf and hissed wildly at me, its vivid green eyes fixated on me.
“Benji, no!” He scolded the cat.
He sat down in his lazy boy and motioned for me to sit down.
I was closest to the bucket chair but decided that the lawn chair seemed like a much better deal.
I noticed a couple of big bags of cat food in the corner. Some bird seed next to it.
“So you feed the animals here?”
He nodded without looking me in the eye. “We got all kinds here, seven cats, two dogs, don’t know where they’re hiding, the birds, sometimes even some raccoons come through here,” He said, taking a sip from his beer.
“That must be pretty expensive,” I said, wondering how he can afford to feed the multitude of animals that also reside in the factory.
“I get help.” He said flatly.
“From who?” I asked curiously.
“Kid, my being here isn’t exactly a well-kept secret. People that live around here, the ones that really matter, they know,” He said.
I stared at his hat with the car manufacturer logo, his scraggly lightning-white beard, the cats encircling the throne of his lazyboy recliner.
It occurred to me that Leonard was a living, breathing extension of the factory. He was as much a part of it as the crumbling infrastructure was.
And the townspoeple, those that knew and dropped off cat food and supplies, treated him as such.
He was a relic; but one they were more than willing to indulge because he was a part of the factory and what it symbolized. He was a victim of change, too.
“Where will you go once they bulldoze the factory?” I asked him.
I wanted him to start looking for a new place to haunt.
Maybe he has a sister or brother somewhere that he can go live with.
He stared ahead at the television in front of him. It was one of those ancient, clunky tv’s that only have the free channels; the ones that sold jewelry and vacuums or game show reruns.
On this show, a pretty statuesque blonde wearing a sequined gown pulled back the curtain that revealed the brand new SUV a family won.
The car was shiny and new, placed on a rotating pedestal.
Leonard stared at it, the car reflecting in his eyes.
“I have never thought about it. Maybe I’d figure something out, maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe I’ll just go with it. All of my stuff, all my animals are already here,” He said, motioning around to the home he built.
He was still looking at the car on the screen.
“Well, I better get going,” I said, suddenly uncomfortable with my role in everything.
Before leaving, I turned around.
“There aren’t any immediate plans to demolish the building,” I said.
He turned to look at me, his gray-blue eyes were wide.
“Okay.” He said, turning back to the tv and taking another sip of his beer.
I went down the stairs, not even careful not to rattle them. I almost ran out of the factory, down the front steps until I reached my car.
It was only once I was inside the safety of my vehicle and I turned the key, did I realize it was already nighttime.
It was truly as if time mattered not at all to the Millyard factory.
Mr. Hinckles came by my desk.
A twinkle sparkled in his eye and there was a new groove in his step.
“I thought a lot about what you said, about the Millyard being the head of the animal that is all those vacant buildings, we got to cut the head off first, not the tentacles,” He said enthused, making a chopping motion with his hand.
I squirmed awkwardly in my seat. I scratched my head,
“You know, maybe I was being too hasty. I haven’t been around as long as you all have and I may have underestimated what we’re up against. Maybe its not a bad idea to go after some of the smaller buildings first, you know? The Millyard will always be there if we do decide to take it down,” I said, lying to myself and him. The magic and zest in Mr. Hinckles eyes faded as quickly as it had appeared.
His shoulders slumped back into his normal, defeated posture.
“Yeah, you’re right. I mean, I was right.” He said, before walking away, muttering something about how nothing ever changes around here.