Breezewood, Pennsylvania is a small, unincorporated area where the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Interstate-70, and millions of automobiles converge. When I was a kid our family drove each summer from Wheaton, Maryland to western Ohio to visit my grandparents, and we’d often stop at the “Town of Motels,” where I’d emerge from our station wagon, stretch, and marvel at the idle rumbling of semi-trucks, the pungent gasoline smells, and the abundance of neon restaurants. The place was vibrant but finite; we’d be in the car soon. No one, it seemed to me then, lives here—people just go through. Recently, on my way home from the east coast, I stopped on Route 30 to photograph a towering M-O-T-E-L sign, rusted and leaning, inviting in its neglect and quiet assurance that no one stops there anymore. I’m attracted to places that humans have vacated and allowed to decay, leaving behind stories that I can imagine. A big-tent flea market was going on in an adjacent parking lot; a large man on a riding mower was cutting the grass on an island in front of the empty lobby. I parked, and as I approached a row of rooms, doors faded and paint-peeling, a dog zipped up to me, yapping. I startled, and walked the opposite direction to take photos of a half-filled pool.
After fifteen minutes I headed out of the lot when the man on the mower motioned me to stop. I pulled up next to him, and rolled down my window. May ask you what in the hell you are doing? Taken aback, I mumbled something about people liking to look at photos of abandoned motels. Heck, it’s not abandoned, I live here! Exasperated, he gestured to a tiny house at the far end of the lot that I hadn’t noticed. (Or, that I’d ignored.) Oh, I said. I’m really sorry, I didn’t know. I run a flea market here, not every Saturday, but…still. It seems like every week there’s someone in here taking pictures…. Yeah, well…. If you’d just asked me, I mighta let ya. But a guy doesn’t just walk into a place and start taking pictures. Yeah, I’m sorry. No, I respect that. I ain’t mad at ya, it’s just…. He shook his head in annoyance and I sheepishly rolled up my window. In my indulgent dream of taking photographs of abandoned buildings, I move as if invisible, imagining myself as a kind of noble documentarian. I also have to pretend that no one has been affected by the emptiness onto which I’m intruding; the possibly dire and disgraceful circumstances that result in a boarded-up building, an eye-sore, are of no consequence to me. I can remove the human from the tableau. This does not reflect well on me.
—Joe Bonomo is music columnist and and Associate Professor in the Department of English at Northern Illinois University. He has written numerous books, including Conversations with Greil Marcus (Literary Conversations) and This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began.