Thursday, May 3, 2007

City of the Insane

I suppose you could say that we have odd hobbies and adventures - for example, one year, Flo was closely following a local murder case and voiced an interest in writing true crime, so for her birthday, I um… procured press passes. We joined the press pool, and Flo attended the trial while I took photos outside, and managed to get a good shot of the manacled murderess while she was being led out of the courthouse for lunch. Flo's feature article, along with my photos, appeared in "True Police" magazine.

Last year, Flo said she would like to visit the Medical History Museum on the grounds of the abandoned Central State Mental Hospital, here on the west side of Indianapolis. That sounded like another unique birthday adventure, so off we went. The experience was so fascinating that we returned twice more for all-day photo shoots.

We chose brilliant, cerulean days for the best lighting, to shoot digital and video. I would love to stalk those grounds on an oppressive, foggy morning, but this was the best for imaging.

First, we took the tour of the Medical Museum, visiting the teaching arena where students from all over the world would learn from autopsies of the mentally ill. We learned that, for generations, syphilis provided the greatest population of the severely mentally ill, and was treated experimentally - with malaria. The extreme fever of malaria could kill enough of the syphilis for significant remissions.

We saw sectioned brains in jars of formaldehyde; disease, injury, genetic defects. We studied the preserved brains of the elderly, of children, of murderers. We were told the spotted history of Central State; a smattering of the hopes and success stories, the scandals and tragedies spread out over 146 years of operation.

The monstrous Gothic dormitories, once know as the "Seven Gables," are long gone; razed in the early 1970's, to be replaced by sterile brick "Borg" cubes, situated elsewhere on the compound. However, when you stroll across the well-groomed commons where the dorms once stood, the sensation is something akin to walking a deceptively peaceful Civil War battlefield, like Chickamauga. Just behind the adult eye, the imagination spins tableaus of the tales one has heard, intermixed with information from one's senses, as well as one's intuition.

Once a self-sufficient community, inmates worked and maintained the compound, even growing their own food and preparing it on site.

The ground is firm - you don't feel any physical sense of the five miles of underground tunnels beneath your feet, though you know that homicidal maniacs were once chained to the tunnel walls, never again to see daylight.

Down a gently sloping hill across from the administration buildings, a few trees remain of a grove where an inmate was savagely murdered by his peers.

And the tunnels, again… once shuttled the dead from the dorms or the hospital, to the pathology lab for autopsy, unseen by the general population.

The most foreboding structure left standing is the old steam power house, which went online in 1930, providing steam heat through the underground tunnels to all of the buildings on the 160-acre compound. It is easy to imagine the mechanical drones clanks and hisses from the building - it's something out of a Tim Burton nightmare. Generations of savage heat, and a decade of neglect have weakened the walls - as I snapped photos, bricks dislodged from two stories above me and crashed to my feet. Fleeting shadows darted around inside the power house, which I attributed to shattered windows and passing clouds.

Padlocked chains deter but do not prevent entry to this death trap - where I photographed some of the rotting industrial entrails of the building, and "Insanity, Please" scrawled in huge letters on one of the inside walls.

A pair of corroded iron doors to the power house became my current signature piece "Asylum Door," once I added my Shadow Man.

Central State was referred to in newspapers of the Civil War era, as "the country asylum," before the urban sprawl completely surrounded it. Still enclosed by tall fencing, it is now flanked by cheerless, shabby housing and urban decay; excepted only by a couple of huge, ornate churches.

We were exhausted from walking the length and breadth of the compound and almost out of digital film, when we strolled in the open toward our car, for the last time. An almost cloudless day, we were stunned as a sharply defined birdlike shadow swept across the grass and passed over us, leaving us shuddering. Not a plane, nor bird, branch or cloud in sight from where we stood offered any rational explanation for what we both saw - and felt.

For those of you who are interested, "Asylum Door" first appeared on the back cover of issue #36 of "Not One of Us," and now represents me on this blog and our web site.

My four-page photo-essay on Central State is now available in issue #2 of Razar - you can find links to both publications on the main page of our web site,

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Synchronicity and "Where's George?"

“Where’s George?” (– the Internet bill-tracking project – is generally either an obsession or a “Who Cares?” proposition. A couple of weeks ago, I was razzed by a Blockbuster employee for passing some marked Georges. He couldn’t think of anything more boring than tracking where your money goes. That is, perhaps, other than working the night shift at Blockbuster.

Curiosity seems to be the primary motivation driving the average George aficionado; though some rather ambitious enthusiasts have circulated marked bills numbering at or near 100,000.

By common standards, I’m not a rabid “Georger,” having only “EMS’ed” (Enter-Mark-Spend) a tad over 500 bills in a year and a half – more avid hobbyists will put that many bills out in a week or two, forsaking debit cards and other electronic transactions for the opportunity to circulate more green.

For me, it is an experiment in and perhaps a barometer for synchronicity. It is the odds and oddities, the stories – an initiative marker for the eerily recombinant possibilities in life.

Most “George” hits are mundane and disappointing, I’ll admit. Most bills that have been re-entered into the system have traveled a scant few miles, and been re-entered by people curious enough to login and type in the serial number, but not sufficiently cooperative to enter a note where the bill was received, nor inquisitive enough to follow the links to our web site.

Still, a few are out of the commonplace enough to keep me interested. One $1 bill left Steak & Shake here in Indianapolis, and was registered in California a couple of months later, having been picked up by said Californian on the island of Bonaire, in the Netherlands Antilles.

One left Steak & Shake only to return to South Bend Indiana when received in gambling winnings in Las Vegas. One was found on a sidewalk in Bloomington, IN. One was received in change at a fast-food restaurant in KY moments before the fellow was nearly killed by a drive-by shooter.

More prolific “Georgers” than I have astounding stories to tell, including receiving the same bill back in change months or years later; one bill I saw was re-entered by a cop who had found it on a dead body.

My fishing expedition for synchronicity paid off in pleasant strangeness only a few months after I’d begun. One evening, while too tired to accomplish anything particularly useful, I got out a box where I’d stashed the occasional silver certificate, two-dollar bill or other odd currency to enter into the online George database – one dollar that I’d received in change perhaps 10 years ago, was stamped


-not wanting to accidentally pass it on, I had tossed it into the oddity box, and it was promptly forgotten.

Out of curiosity, to see if other bills with the same serial number had been entered into the “Where’s George?” database, I entered the serial number and series info. Another bill of the same exact serial number, but different series (different year), had been entered, and less than two weeks before.

The fellow who entered that bill was unique, himself:

“Skozey Fetisch, the musical project of Mark C. Jackman, started out in Salt Lake City, Utah, and relocated to the Bay Area in 1992. Jackman is also a visual artist who is as comfortable working with oils and canvas as he is with computers and software to actualize his artistic vision.Jackman began his musical career playing in gothic bands in the early 1980's. Tiring of this, Jackman went on to do everything from composing film scores to composing and dancing to modern dance music for the Ririe-Woodbury International dance tour. Skozey Fetisch does what an artist does best: challenges and stimulates the observer. Momma:Key is for those who can accept that challenge.”

That brought me to purchasing a couple of “Skozey” CDs; the above quoted review is quite apropos. They are great soundtracks to listen to while writing.


So, this little foray into proactive synchronicity paid off, if in ways that perhaps are interesting only to me.

Some other “Georgers” appreciate the synchronicity factor, if only in quest of a sort of god.

Still, without any provocation such as “Georging,” life manages to churn out the oblique coincidence, the synchronistic pun, the ominous innuendo… and the deadly retrospective.

I have perhaps more than my fair, if not mathematically probable, share of those; something to touch upon again, in the near future.