I was trying to squeeze my body through a hole at the bottom of the fence when the truck drove up. But my jacket got hooked on a wire, so all I could do was lie there and stare back like an idiot when the driver looked at me, then pulled away and parked near one of the abandoned factory buildings at the Gates plant. I figured he was a security worker, so once I finally freed myself, I went over to tell him what I was doing there before he called the cops.
"I'm a reporter," I said. "I'm doing a story about the Gates plant. I just want to walk around." The first and second parts were true: I was working on Westword's feature on Broadway ("Give Our Regards to Broadway," February 17, 2005) and had chosen Gates as the spot on the street that I would profile. But no one wants to read about the outside of a decaying building, so my plan was to get inside.
You can't blame the guy for not buying my explanation. I was dressed like your average scumbag (professional scumbag, thank you) and wasn't even carrying a pen and notebook. But I soon deduced that he was just some kind of subcontractor and far too lazy to waste energy chasing me away from the off-limits facility.
Gates Rubber Company
"Okay," he said. "Well, I didn't see you if you didn't see me."
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I took this to mean that if I got busted or hurt, I shouldn't say that I'd talked to him, because then he would get in trouble, too. It was a perfect arrangement.
Like so many others, I'd long been fascinated with the old Gates Rubber factory. It seemed like a great, hulking anchor to Denver's working-class, industrial past that was being cut loose by city boosters in order to establish this town as a playground for the espresso-chugging creative class. For people like me, in other words. So it was out of both guilt and an irrepressible juvenile curiosity that I wanted to truly experience Gates.
I found an open window and crawled inside.
I was on the first floor of what I would later learn was Unit 11, where the company had conducted experiments with chemicals and did other lab tests. I saw old beakers and eyewash fountains. Everything was covered with a heavy black dust, including a sign that read "Cleanliness Benefits Everyone and Hurts No One." I toured the second floor, a former electrical shop. I crossed a bridge between two buildings and entered the sprawling Unit 10, where the majority of the manufacturing was done. I could see why so many photographers love this space. The windows were dusty and kind of yellowed, and when the sun came through it created a purgatory glow, like time was suspended.
I later talked to a photographer who'd spent an entire summer sneaking inside the building for shoots. He called the feeling created by the interior's stillness and silence "a jolt of gone." For him, it went all the way down to issues of mortality.
For me, it was realizing I had a big hole in my jacket where I'd ripped it on the fence. I stood there a while, watching the light-rail trains zoom by on the tracks below. Then a sudden noise scared the shit out of me. A pigeon flew out from behind a piece of old machinery and made its escape. I decided it was time to get the hell out, too.
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