ABANDONEDLAND – A Mad and Murdered City

Dig if you will the picture. Darkening, grey-blue sky looms over woodland scrub, trees unplanned and unplanted. Leaden, leafless limbs encroach just so, as if written in fan fiction; as if by unintelligent design. Winter is self-evident; a red datestamp is trivial assurance of deepening chill, of daylight wasting.

Walk with me. We march parallel to Poquessing Creek separating Philadelphia and Bucks Counties. Within 1 minute, we will cross that terminus into undiscovered country, a crime scene officially forgotten: the red brick remains of a mad and murdered city.

You have walked at most 100 paces from staid, suburban row homes along Carter Road, squat and bustling with comings and goings of Northeast Philadelphia’s mostly working class. You are walking a broken trail cleft in grey ground invisible from any road, a path known by gang sign. You will walk into desolated grey gardens, silenced and silent.

Sunset’s gloom shrouds our petty criminality, further obscured by jurisdictional disputes between Philadelphia and Bensalem police. Using surplus nightvision, we reconnoiter the weekend shift change of a single security guard patrolling 130 acres just inside chain link. Nothing restrains entry into our carnival of ruins.

Aided by Sunday, abetted by night, we walk free into the fearful symmetry of Abandonedland.

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ABANDONEDLAND – Darkness at Noonday

image“We never, of course, lost hope that our story would be told: since sooner or later the truth is told about all that has happened in history. But in our imagining this would in the rather distant future – after most of us were dead.”  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – The Gulag Archipelago


GODDOG stutters, a kind of screaming laughter now, high, drunk, obscenely jovial, and quite naturally 100% in charge of the situation in which I find myself.

“Are you still w-w-wuh-WITH us, Shithorne?  How ARE you, Shitty!?  And WHY are you, Shitty? Oh, Shitty-shitty-shitty-shitty-shitty-shitty-shitty! Hall hall hall hall hall HALL HALL HALL, BUDDY!”

Huffing hard now, I cannot catch my breath to speak. 38 years old, at least 60lb overweight, the slight disadvantage of zero exercise for 2 decades are somewhat more, shall we say, readily apparent while scaling a 100 year old, near vertical, crumbling masonry wall in the jet blackness that is noon in the tunnels.

GODDOG, in his maniacal way, is looking out for me. He is my dead-end, hood-rat Scout Leader, rousting his runt. I hear the rhythmic heavy clink of his army-navy BDUs, sagging, overloaded with 40s of Colt 45. The cherry of his cheap cigarette waxes orange, twitching with each stutter, now blazing red. GODDOG‘s burning, jittering American Spirit is the light at the end of my tunnel.

I am dead last, following eight, ten, maybe a dozen people, I lost count an hour ago.  I am behind a 12 year old girl irregularly illuminated by a Maglight velcroed around the crown of my black leather cowboy hat, throwing shafts of red filtered light twinkling with bright, white asbestos.

As I begin to climb, her tattoo peeks out below sheer black lace, between sacro and iliac: BYBERRY REST IN PEACE.

I am ogling jailbait trampstamp at the ass end of a Carter Kid convoy.

Cold comfort, indeed.  On Saturday, December 31, 2005 in the frozen underground passages of America’s most infamous abandoned mental institution, it’s cold comfort or no comfort at all.

Apropos of nothing, I start to sing, at the top of my lungs, a wholly improvisational ditty, a chant sung in military cadence to fit a dark march of misfits:

“I’m back in Byberry again!
I want to be a Byberrian!
I’ll walk all the halls
and I’ll schmoke all the bowls!
I’m back in Byberry again!”

What is it about the laughter of total strangers in these man-made black ice caverns?

“So a little ch-ch-CHILD shall LEAD them, Shitty!  That’s in the GODDOG b-b-buh BIBLE! If you wanna d-d-duh DO THE CRIME, you gotta d-d-duh DO THE CLIMB, BUDDDDDDDDDYYYYYYYYY!”

In GODDOG we trust. On, up, into stuttering, toxic and tattooed black, a walk-on part in my own True Climb novel.

It’s New Years Eve in Abandonedland.  High noon, destination midnight.

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ABANDONEDLAND: Carburetion Day


In the way of dreams, it is December 31, 1977. New Year’s Eve in The Veterans Administration Mental Hospital on Cold Spring Road near Speedway, Indiana, AKA The Larue Carter. A Saturday. I am 10 years old, and I am back inside.

My mother and I go to The Larue Carter to visit my father.  John R. Feeney is committed for “depression”. Notice the utter lack of psychiatric acronyms so fashionable today. Clearly, this is a dream.

In my dream, I wait and I worry. I have a lot of things I worry about.  At 10 years old, it is self-evident to me (should anyone ask) that a man worries, but never projects an image of worry or fear. Perhaps I have the vaguest inkling that my worries and fears are expressed in anger. But I don’t really know, because I am 10 years old. Regardless, I am very sorry.

In my dream, here is the looming door to my father’s hospital room, with its small window of thick, wired glass. I only looked through that window once. John R. Feeney lays in a single hospital bed, shockingly nude, without sheets, no pillow, facing the wall with his back to the door. No friendly cowpokes wink, like on my bedroom wallpaper. In this place, even the walls are naked. I close my eyes and I hold my breath and I could hear he was crying. I never looked again.

It is December 31, 1977. New Year’s Eve in The Larue Carter. A Saturday. I am profoundly nervous. I am not taking it easy. My father was “committed” for “depression”. He is crying behind a crazy door.

My mother talks, and talks, and talks, to doctors, and doctors, and doctors. But not to me so much, really.  In fact, of all the things this dream compels me to remember, my mother talking to me while we were inside The Larue Carter is not one of them. I cannot recall a word that passed between us in this place.  A flicker of kinship with my father: No one talked to him here, either.

But my mother is not verbose. Betty J. Feeney didn’t buy the talking cure.  Lovin’ was in the oven.  In lieu of her attentions, my mother gave me money for the vending machines. Canteen, here I come.

I walk back to the canteen by myself: I know my own way around The Larue Carter. I spent a lot of time in places like the “canteen”, a World War II word for a room with vending machines and old newspapers and older magazines and even older people, seriously old people, sitting at tables, staring through wired glass. Like me, they are waiting.

A huge and heavy tube TV hangs suspended from one ceiling corner, caged on every side (including the front) in steel mesh, an innocent prisoner. If the TV could have been turned on (it never was), its picture would have been mostly obscured, its sole purpose in life blunted and mocked.

I want to watch cartoons with Cowboy Bob, because there’s good times for you and lots of things to do. But no. Every child’s sole and only friend, the warm and fuzzy tube TV, is incarcerated yet on full display, a dead monkey in a fake cage at the crazy zoo. In this place, even the inanimate is restrained.

And so I ate. Stewart In-Fra-Red Sandwiches were HEFTY! HALE! HEARTY! Choc-Ola in glass bottles was chilled comfort.  I ate and I read.  Reading fits well my little abandonments in the bowels of The Larue Carter.

I read old, castaway newspapers. I read old magazines, dumped in corners in stacks that lean, forgotten artifacts from homes of other visitors. GOOD HOUSEKEEPING. GUITAR WORLD. GOLF WEEK. GUNS.  I read old people’s faces, people who talk at me or toward me, not to me.

Who are these people, with faraway lives and habits strange? Why do I, alone, always accompany my mother to “the Vets”, as she spat the name? Where were my 2 brothers, ages 21 and 23?  Me, my family, this place, this dream. All are Russia: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

In the way of dreams, it is April 15, 1980. Tax Day in Brownsburg, Indiana. My father is suddenly released after 5 electroconvulsive shock treatments at the end of 2 years of involuntary commitment. Something worked.

When my father comes home, he says he couldn’t understand why he said and did all those things. He didn’t really know, but regardless, he was very sorry. Does this remind you of anyone?

But he is home. He walks. He rides our John Deere lawnmower and mows. My mother says he sleeps holding her hand so tight, it aches all the next day. He drives his Chevy LUV pickup.  John R. Feeney is a big man in a little truck, which he loves for some reason. “There are two authorities,” he still says. “John R. Feeney and the Lord Our God.”

Does this remind you of anyone?

In the way of dreams, it is Saturday, May 24, 1980. The day before the running of the 64th 500 Mile International Sweepstakes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Speedway, Indiana. Carburetion Day. I am 14.

At 14, it is self-evident to me (should anyone ask) that a man rides a lawnmower. I am 14 and today is Saturday and so, I mow.

And now I see Sister Amata walking toward me across our long, long front yard, framed by the rows of yellow green corn beyond State Road 267. Importantly, Sister Amata is a nun.  Most importantly, Sister Amata is the principal of St. Malachy Catholic School.  Sister Amata is my principal and she, a nun, is walking straight toward me and the John Deere lawnmower I am riding towards her.

I am profoundly nervous. I am not taking it easy.  Why is my school principal (a nun!) walking across my yard toward me? Is today Saturday? This is big trouble. I am in big trouble and today is Saturday? There is a white lady, a nun in full black habit, walking across the long, green lawn which is my mission as a man to mow. I cannot see her legs, she is floating toward me, staring at me, a white ghost in black, approaching, approaching.

I am frozen in anxiety, awe, and reflexive respect. I am so profoundly nervous, I stop the riding mower but cannot remember to turn it off. John Deere is screaming that today is Saturday, a truth held to be self-evident moments ago, in which I am now losing faith.

“I need you to be brave, David.”

Sister Amata’s Ghost hovers before me now, floating inches above this mortal coil, and must scream to be heard over John Deere, speed lever pushed all the way to Rabbit.

“I NEED YOU TO BE BRAVE, DAVID!” screams The Flying Nun.

In the way of dreams, Sister Amata is at once Father Francis Mulcahy from M.A.S.H. and Father Damian Karras from The Exorcist, each a remarkable character played by a forgotten man. Does this remind you of anyone?

The green corn across State Road 267 stretches beyond all horizons, eternally, the color of yellow embers in hot fire, like Hell on Sunday. In the way of dreams, Sister Amata is Sammy Terry, the horror host from the tube TV, she is the Witch of Endor escaped from 1st Samuel 28, a dead voice who dooms a foolish King. Her Dracula cape hovers and flows, a living thing now, a black manta ray suspended over absinthe grass, white hot high noon sun light dazzles off a holy rosy gold crucifix. Jesus Christ, when you meet the Holy Ghost, all you see are colors.


Quaking in mortal terror, I close my eyes on fresh, hot tears. I hold my breath and to myself, silently, I begin to sing a foxhole prayer: Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name! Thy kingdom come! Thy will be done! On earth, as it is in heaven. OUR FATHER, WHO ART IN HEAVEN…

God Himself screams at the top of her lungs: “DAVID, PLEASE TURN THAT OFF!”

And I turn the mower off. This brings a thunderclap of silence: Indiana spring, shorn grass, faintly whispering corn, and the immediate comfort of ritual compliance with ultimate authority.

“I need you to be brave, David.”

God bless me, I am still screaming: “I THOUGHT TODAY WAS SATURDAY! I’M VERY SORRY!”

“David, your father has passed away. Come on inside now. We all have to talk. I need you to be brave, David.”

Turns out it was Saturday, after all.

In the way of dreams, I am awake. It is December 31, 2005. New Year’s Eve in the abandoned Philadelphia State Hospital on Roosevelt Boulevard near Bucks Co., Pennsylvania, AKA Byberry. A Saturday.

I am 38 years old, and I am back inside.

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