3rd Annual Terrain.org Nonfiction Contest Winner
Selected by Christopher Cokinos
Fall in love with a blue-faced sign for Interstate 35-W in Minneapolis; ache and hold back tears because Minnesota winters are so cold and the sign has no choice but to shudder and brave the wind like a ragged prayer flag. This is love the way you fall in love with viaducts, chipped concrete with the steel veins of rebar, the way you fall in love with a telephone pole covered with rusted industrial-strength staples, the rock show posters all melted away in the weather and time. Whenever you are falling out of love, walk the alleys and find strange bits of metal from old machines and put them in your pockets and on tables and mantles.
Believe in pivot points and fulcrums. Believe in the blank hole in the middle of a wrench, in the small spaces you swing around in order to change trajectories. Believe in a wad of chewed gum on a nice old wooden desk; the gum still has some of its pink and that gives you hope. Believe in the solace of a streetscape when you are worried, slightly lost, happy, sad, caffeinated, tired, tinged with the sweetest of grays, tucked into a corner on a map.
Look left as you drive across the concrete skin of an overpass girded with mud and weeds in Columbus, Ohio. Catch in a snapshot flash the glint of dulled metal and the ocean ripple of a blue plastic tarp, a 1970s-model van and a lean-to propped up with sticks and the handle of a mop. Fear lives like Thoreau in his little cabin with the sound of rushing water where the silty mud welcomed the first brave fishes ashore. Tell your children the fairy tale of The Billy Goats Gruff, growling to imitate the voice of the troll who waits under the wooden planks to snatch the littlest goat. Envy the places where bridges are just bridges. Remember that if you are thrown out of the last rented room, the muddy and beaten arms of the river will catch you.
Feel the quiet of a burned-out steel mill on your skin. You shoot through Hammond, Indiana, heading for the bristle of Chicago’s black bouquet. Turn your head and the corrugated leviathans would never sneer at you. The long slow mills have no choice but to accept the rust, the loss of the fire and molten metal. The brown-black buildings with the rows of windows up high like the portholes on a ship let you love them in all their brokenness with warehouses and parking lots that fade to gravel and crabgrass.
A concrete loading dock doesn’t ask anything of you, doesn’t demand that you agree with its crazy stories or its lies–and that is love, after all. It will wrap you in the baked-cookie smell of rain on warm asphalt, the earth as industrial rows of monocrop corn stretching on either side of the highway. It will give you billboard-sized abstract paintings in layers of faded paint and chipped brick and colors that haven’t been named yet. You can read a philosophy on those surfaces, can vaguely make out the palimpsest of hope in the foreign language of a splash of yellow that somehow survived around those lovely pockmarked metal walls.
Look for industry in its purest form, pushing its tender shoots after a forest fire, in places like Linden, a bombed-out neighborhood in Columbus where war was never overtly declared. The rows of boxy old houses once welcomed men home from World War II to a humming economic engine kick-started with ammunition, and now bullets rains like fireworks along streets with names like Bremen and Dresden that echo German destruction.
Count the side businesses. Cardboard signs on front lawns advertise Avon and Childcare. Signs on telephone poles read “Looking for Chemo Patients. Wigs, call 891-7633” and “Clothes for Concrete Geese.” Prostitutes lean for negotiation and sales into the windows of idling cars.
Wave every day to the neighbors who eat popsicles and sing along to classic rock in the sunshine as they wield their wire strippers, mining the scrap copper from spools of salvaged wire to sell to the metal yard. They might do crack occasionally, one man says, but they aren’t crackheads. They called the cops to shut down a crack house on the next block.
Notice the two-by-four propping up the front porch roof of a house that leans slightly to the left. Learn to see it not as static trash but as a project in slow metamorphosis. Additions and rooms blurb in awkward styles and shapes from fronts and backs of houses like the new growth of leaves in a slightly brighter shade of green.
Listen—be aware of your judgment and push against it—as you stand next to the professional recycler who rides a modified a bicycle he has made into a cart with a trailer and two strapped on garbage cans, complete with a full-sized boom box powered by a car battery. He has a grabber with a handle so he can reach down and doesn’t even have to get off the bike.
Watch the fear and awe and unnamed emotion in your gut as Crystal stops in front of you. She pushes two babies in two buggies, a lawnmower twisted with wire to the handles, pulling the mower as the buggies move in a rattling parade. Her husband doesn’t want her to work. She asks if you need your grass cut. One baby keeps whipping his bottle into the street. She draws, too, shows you a unicorn that she designed and had tattooed on her calf.
See, and then do not see, what road you have chosen. The problem with your philosophy of industrial wreckage is that if you commit to loving and living in a warehouse or a ruined place, you launch a Superfund-scale, chain-link reclamation with Dumpsters and barrels. The danger is similar to loving the punk-rock boys, the weathered ones cradling their aching heads, their beat-up Converse and their wily hair, their twitching nicotine-stained fingers grabbing guitars, smashing beer cans and singing songs that burn brighter when backlit with the supernova trail of impending collapse. What else is there to love?
“Love and Industry: A Midwestern Notebook” is an essay about the neglected industrial landscape and people of the Midwest, about finding the beautiful and even the sublime in ordinary wreckage that is part of our common ground. It feels like a piece that could have been sung by Paul Westerberg. It feels like Richard Hugo, post-punk. It claims, “A concrete loading dock doesn’t ask anything of you, doesn’t demand that you agree with its crazy stories or its lies—and that is love, after all.” That is beautiful, and in a world in which we are all trying to understand what love is and isn’t, this is a piece that reminds us that it is within and without. We have what we have and we better love that, including what we pass through, what we think of as ruin, the pockmarked cityscapes that are not empty. Lyrical and exquisite.
Sonya Huber is the author of two books of creative nonfiction, Opa Nobody (2008), shortlisted for the Saroyan Prize, and Cover Me:A Health Insurance Memoir (2010), finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year. She has also written a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers: Using Your Life for Reflection, Connection, and Inspiration (2011). She teaches at Fairfield University and in the Fairfield Low-Residency MFA Program.