Image: “Earthy Abstracts #165,” by Alex Nodopaka, Pixel, 2018, Infinite
In Memoriam of Rust
By Alexia Kemerling
“I just have regular old fashioned music on the radio,” Mike says. “I hope that’s okay.” He adjusts the volume knob and the bass line of “Under Pressure” fills the van.
Mike Frank drives a big white van, the windowless type that’s either the sign of a kidnapper, a traveling punk band, or in his case, a carpet installer. There are a few empty coffee cups crammed into the space between the door and the passenger seat. The middle console holds a pack of gold Marlboro cigarettes, two plain black Bic lighters, and a massive pile of quarters and pennies. A Nikon D500 camera rests on the ground behind the driver’s seat. Carpet samples and tools fill the entire back of the van. A note paper-clipped to his visor reminds him to call a client back. Despite the fact that it’s raining, he keeps the driver’s side window cracked, as if he might light a cigarette at any moment, but he doesn’t.
I’m familiar with Mike’s van. When I see it pull up in front of my family’s coffee shop, I know to start pouring a medium black coffee. And Mike, he’s familiar to me, too. I know the drawn-out cadence with which he talks and how he sometimes takes his hat off and runs his fingers through his curly red hair. Though sitting next to him in his van feels a bit strange, like seeing a teacher outside of school. There’s only so much you can learn about a person through two minutes of small talk a day, but I am drawn to Mike. I see in him a reflection of Mansfield—the rusty Ohio town we both grew up in. Like many people, I have a complicated relationship to the place where I grew up. I get the feeling that Mike understands what it’s like to be both shaped and hurt by a place, and still love it wholeheartedly.
As we drive through downtown, my eyes linger on empty parking lots, sad attempts to fill vacant spaces with parallel lines. In the seventeen years that I’ve lived here, I’ve witnessed more buildings torn down than buildings built. Mike has more memories of these structural ghosts than I do, yet he still finds our town beautiful. I wanted a chance to see things through his eyes, so one morning as I poured his medium black coffee, I asked him if I could accompany him on what he calls, “free-stylin’.” Free-stylin’ works like this: Pick a direction and drive. Make two turns or three turns or as many turns as you want. Get lost by the rusted railroads and forgotten buildings. Find something beautiful in the blight—the striking contrast between a pristine stained glass window and a wall of peeling, moldy paint; a crumpled pair of jeans left on an ironing board in an otherwise empty house. Set your ISO, adjust your aperture, and take a photograph.
We start out ambitious, but the rain makes Mike wary. Walking on rotten floorboards in old structures is already a risk, and adding a layer of dampness to the situation is not reassuring. So we decide to skip free-stylin’. Instead I ask him to take me to his favorite spot in Mansfield. He chooses a nearby reservoir, a place I’ve been lots of times, but he takes a series of back roads I hardly recognize to get there. We drive past a trailer park, a pet cemetery, and a construction site which he guesses will soon be a Dollar General. “They’ll build any place they can, man,” he says.
When we finally get to the reservoir, the gravel parking lot is empty. Mike gets out of the van and lights a cigarette. Under the shelter of a pavilion, I take a seat on a damp picnic bench. Mike stands a few feet away from me and peers at a massive spider web hanging from the ceiling.
“I tell you what, Lex,” he says, “When I was younger I used to think I was unique but the older I got, I realized, nah. I’m not.” It sounds like a line you might hear from a cynical old person, but Mike isn’t old and he’s definitely not cynical. He’s 41 with the body of an athlete. His calf muscles flex with each step he takes and his blue sweater hangs off his broad shoulders. A red beard covers the bottom half of his face, and occasionally he reaches up to run his fingers through the coarse hair. He wears a block C Indians Flat-bill hat and stylish square blue glasses. He only makes eye contact a few times while we talk, but when he does I am unable to look away. I feel as though he is depending on me to listen, to absorb it all. He’s seen a lot and it shows in the cautious, but deliberate, way he moves. You can hear it in the way he talks, his voice loud with frustration, sometimes slow with regret, but always full of passion. And he doesn’t mean that he isn’t unique in the cynical sense; he’s not disappointed he’s just like everyone else—he’s relieved. Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone’s been through shit.
As a kid, Mike had ants in his pants, he tells me with a sheepish grin. (Truth be told, he still does. The entire three hours we end up talking he does not sit down once.) He’d wake up at 8 a.m., grab his skateboard, and take off down the streets behind the Mansfield cemetery. “Fuck you, Thrasher Fag,”
someone would yell from a car window, because it was the 80’s and skating wasn’t cool yet in Ohio. Skateboarding was for the outcasts, the anti-jocks, the loud mouth rebels whose skinny adolescent bodies were drowning in their baggy hand-me-down clothes. But Mike didn’t care. He had to skate, he had places to go—so he’d head right over to his friend’s house and knock on the door. “Damn Mike,” some annoyed parent would answer. “Don’t you ever call?” He chuckles at this memory, but growing up he didn’t have a phone. His only way to get in touch was just showing up.
Mike talks about his childhood with a slight smile on his face, amused by his boyhood adventures. He puffs on a cigarette and remembers days spent roaming around in the woods behind the apartment complex he grew up in. But lurking around the edge of his stories is the unmistakable presence of poverty. The fort he built in the woods with his neighbors was furnished with rubbish the landlord would toss behind the building after someone got evicted. Almost all of his stories take place on the streets or in someone else’s house because Mike didn’t really like being home. He was skinny because his cupboards rarely had food in them. He was greasy and dirty because he never had hot water, and heating bath water up on the electric stove was way too time consuming for a teenage boy. His dad never finished high school and had to “work his ass off at shit factory jobs just to scrape by.” He didn’t meet his mom until he was an adult.
Mike’s stories are also tinged with violence. He tells me with pride that he was the fastest kid in town, but he wasn’t a track star or varsity athlete. Mike knows he was fast because of how many times he left gang members-hungry to jump him-in the dust. He knows he was fast because when he committed his last robbery he ran several miles through the woods and corn fields before being caught on the side of a state route in the rain. You see, around age 15 or 16, he stopped skateboarding and started hanging around gangs and getting high. He was in and out of jail, expelled from school for fighting. “Nobody wants you, no school wants you,” his probation officer told him.
Mike faces the water when he talks and I feel like I’m intruding on a private moment, like he’s telling his story not to me but out loud for himself, or maybe for the universe. Even though I’m hearing his story for the first time, it feels familiar to me. Our adolescent years are decades apart, but I’m not sure much has changed between his Mansfield and mine. The wind blows rain in through the side of the pavilion and I shiver. Mike doesn’t seem to notice.
“I hated jail.” He turns to face me when he says this, staring at me with pure urgency in his pale blue eyes. You’d think he was in jail yesterday, but it’s been 14 years since he was behind bars. “I was claustrophobic. When I went to jail no one had my back. They don’t send you letters or underwear or socks. They don’t take care of your family.” He lights another cigarette, takes a deep breath exhaling a cloud of smoke.“Some people like it, jail. They think ‘oh man I got some time, I’m getting status now.’” I watch for his body to relax but his shoulders stay rigid; the painful memories are weaved into his muscles. “I hated it.”
Despite his animosity for being behind bars, he kept going back, unable to break the cycle. It’s hard for me to picture this version of Mike. He’s a consistent customer in the coffee shop where I work, and he’s always got an anecdote to entertain the baristas. He can carry a small talk conversation better than a grandmother in a grocery store. Often times he’ll come in with his youngest son, who has his smile lines. The skater kids who hang outside the coffee shop give Mike nods of respect. Almost all the other regulars—city professionals, poets, college kids—know and like him. Every once and a while he’ll buy a coffee for Homeless Gary, who is a staple of Main Street.
The longer we talk, the more I come to realize that this version of Mike didn’t happen overnight. It’s taken him years of thinking and years of work to come to terms with his lot in life. He carries a weight in his heart I can only begin to imagine. “I had to learn not to blame the world or worry about whose fault it was. And I gotta live with the fact every day that in the back of my mind I’ll always recall the things I stole, things that you can’t replace: family jewelry, someone’s feeling of safety. It was 23 years ago and I’m still working on amending it. I have a fine line to walk.”
To break the cycle of jail and covering up guilt and insecurity with drug use, Mike also had to redefine what freedom meant to him. Freedom didn’t mean roaming the streets doing whatever the hell you wanted, partying and scoring free cocaine in the bar bathroom.
“Getting to see out the window—that’s freedom. Going on a walk—that’s freedom. Smoking cigarettes, as bad as they are for me—that’s freedom.”
At age 27, he had a family and knew if something didn’t change he was gonna lose them. He wanted his sons to have a dad. “I wanted them to be my status.” he says. He jabs his lit cigarette in the air for emphasis. A cascade of ashes falls from the glowing orange tip. “Fuck I wanna buy ’em shoes before they need them. When they go to lunch I want them to have a fuckin meal and not have to eat their friend’s leftovers.” So after serving 30 days in jail for a DUI, he went into hibernation. He started installing carpet, taking pride in tearing out the ratty old carpets and replacing them with clean, new patterns and textures. Tediously measuring and lining up patterns, he gave each person’s home a second chance to look beautiful. In the evenings he sat in front of the TV ignoring everyone who called. He hated TV; he hated sitting still, but maintained this routine every day for a year until his old lifestyle receded to an echo in the back of his mind.
Mike also started going to recovery meetings, reluctantly at first. He’d sit in the back and judge. “That person’s old. That person’s white collar. That person’s a jock. That person’s too young.” He points an accusatory finger at an imaginary group of recovery community members in the empty pavilion around him. “I was focused on all my differences. I was good at that, isolation.” But eventually the jock’s story didn’t seem so different than his own. The old person brought up a thought he’d been meditating on himself. Maybe, Mike thought, he wasn’t unique. Maybe he wasn’t alone.
“Addiction is a feelings disease,” he says. His eyes tell me that this is important. This, I need to remember the next time I run into an old friend from high school whose glazed eyes and shaky hands give away their feelings disease. “We’re all afraid to say how we feel.” In recovery, he started telling his story, being real.
“When I was young I believed in God or somethin’. It’s natural, passed on to kids I think, to believe in somethin’,” Mike tells me. Enough time around jail-bird preachers forever tainted religion for him. If there’s one thing Mike can’t stand, it’s posers. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Now he believes in the “gut feeling,” the universal human natural intuition about what’s good and what’s bad. He’s always had it, he says, he just didn’t used to listen.
Something else changed during his hibernation and recovery meetings. He got a camera—a shitty one that came for free with a new computer his wife ordered. Mike tells me he’s always loved photography. From a young age he learned to appreciate how a single moment frozen in time could tell a story. Back in the day, he’d walk into the Dairy Mart and leave with a Thrasher magazine tucked in the waistband of his baggy pants. He’d spend hours poring over the pictures of skinny white boys gloriously suspended in air, arms extended, boards miraculously glued to their ripped tennis shoes. He took note of the lighting, the background, every perfectly preserved detail.
So when he got that shitty point-and-shoot camera, he returned to the abandoned buildings he grew up skating in. For the first time in his life, he found a way to show people the way he saw the world. His perspective mattered and people began to notice. It wasn’t long before the photos he posted on Flickr and Myspace caught the attention of the big dogs—a small group of Cleveland-born photographers who are the OG urban explorers of a movement called “Forgotten Ohio.” They knew all the best spots, and when they invited Mike to run with them, he knew he’d found his tribe.
Even though Mike’s since upgraded to a fancy Nikon, he always shoots in Manual mode. For each framed moment he takes only three photos, stopping after each shot to adjust his controls to reach the perfect exposure. Photography is a form of meditation. He’s still chasing feelings, not to cover them up, but to preserve them.
Mike’s Instagram account reflects his life in a colorful mosaic. There’s a photograph of his wife standing in front of a row of trees, their leaves a vibrant green, with the caption, “My wife is dope. She doesn’t even have to try.” The photograph’s crystal clear focus makes it look as if she could walk right out of the frame. There’s a photo of a wall of colorful glass vases, the light from the window behind perfectly illuminating them with the caption, “Fucking cute dammit!!” There’s a close-up photo of an intricately patterned carpet with a paragraph-long rant about his worst enemy, Milliken carpet, and the trials of this particular job. The post begins, “#carpetinstaller My fellow carpet brothers. This is that Milliken carpet that is…,” and ends with, “C’mon give a sister some approval. Seriously though, I’m going to burn the store display of this stuff.” And there are rows and rows of stunningly beautiful photos of run-down buildings, graffiti, houses overgrown with weeds, sunlight streaming through a broken window. This is the kind of Rust Belt shit he loves.
Exploring the way he did in his youth isn’t always easy. He approaches every situation with caution now. He still worries that one day he and his photography brothers might walk in to the wrong abandoned factory and interrupt a gang meeting. It’d be on him to fight and defend them. “Shit man, they’re all old and slow. One guy is a Catholic school teacher, another guy is a volunteer fire fighter, and we even run with a Kenyon professor. They’re just normal dudes. I’d have to step up and I’m not in the mood, man.” He worries someone might recognize him. It’s hard to change in a small town, and I admire him for having the courage to do so. He could’ve left this place behind, started over, but he chose to stay.
So, Mike pushes forward, finds beautiful things in unlikely places. But the echoes of the past are always lurking. One day while exploring an abandoned warehouse, Mike and his crew came across something they’d all anxiously joked about encountering but never thought they actually would. Mike takes his iPhone 4 out of a pocket in his cargo shorts and pulls up a photo on the small screen. We stare at it together. This photo will never be posted on social media. In fact, he says he wrestled with whether or not he should even take the picture, but ultimately he felt compelled to capture the moment.
In the left half of the photograph, Mike’s friend hovers over a spot on the ground with his back to the camera. The phone flashlight he holds is the only light source. A few dust particles, or maybe snowflakes, are frozen in its shallow beam. The background is eerily dark and forces you to pay attention to the snowy mound at his feet. Not even the opaque blanket of snow can conceal what lies beneath its surface. Animal tracks have disturbed the pristine white camouflage and exposed something more sinister. A frozen human foot—no socks, no shoes—peeks through the covering. Near the edge of the frame, three bare fingers poke through the snow, curled as if trying to reach out to someone.
For the first time all afternoon, we are both quiet. Normally, there’s always a question on my lips, an urge to know more. But in this moment all I can do is imagine how easily the body in this photograph could’ve been the body of someone I know, or used to know. I wonder if Mike is thinking the same thing. Eventually, he clicks the power button and the screen goes dark. He puts his phone back in his pocket. In an unspoken agreement, we walk back to the van. The cold rain seeps into my bones and I feel my body shivering as we trace our way back through town.