Ghost Box is based on the true story of Emily, who, in the fall of 2012, arrived in the parking lot of a vacant big-box store, or “ghost box,” near downtown Los Angeles with 45-pound bags of cat food. She converted the otherwise vacant property into an impromptu bird sanctuary, and evaded arrest by the LAPD for months. Emerson Whitney adventures into the weirdness of Emily’s story and the strangeness of vacant urban space, writing wildness and ferocity into the strip mall.
Ghost Box is gross and wry, gorgeous and feral, a hoarse cry from abandoned city space: “we want to be beautiful too.”
Emma Kemp interviews Emerson Whitney on his new book, Ghost Box (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2014)
EMMA E. KEMP: How did you arrive at the ghost box?
EMERSON WHITNEY: I was often stuck at this light on the corner of San Fernando and Fletcher. Nearly every time I was stuck at the light, a towering cloud of birds seemed to rise from this giant empty lot adjacent to the intersection. The scene just started to seem strange, every time I passed, there were more birds and more birds. I was curious. Just before I started the project, I looked it up and found YouTube videos and Instagram photos of the lot and its birds. We were all marvelling, I guess.
EEK: Can you talk about your first visit to the lot?
EW: Well, I realised my intention was really just to work out why the birds were there. And I figured part of my reason for wanting to do so was because I was also having a lot of strong feelings about living in a space that was so dry. We just made it through a really uncomfortable hot season and I was feeling really distressed by the landscape, partially because I had grown up in a similar environment in Dallas, hot and concretized and full of strip malls with blowing trash. I grew up on the access road to a highway. There’s always been some part of me that wanted to investigate the potential beauty of man-made detritus. I wanted to know there was something I could wrestle out of the mess, something that I could love.
EEK: So you saw the birds as a guiding force, directing you to this new perspective?
EW: Yes! That’s a great way of putting it. I saw the birds as a way in. It also raises questions for me about “natural,” which is something I think about all the time. Ideas of ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ in relation to queerness and gender identity, trans-ness, is often hissed at as “unnatural.” I’m curious about the implications of “nature” as a tool used to exclude, exterminate, etc…
In other words, the lot would not have been interesting if it weren’t for the birds. They were a way for me to understand that this place was alive, and really, who am I to question its beauty? Who am I to say that’s not natural or nature? Maybe it’s even perfect.
EEK: Do you feel like you arrived at some kind of resolution in terms of your relation to space? If not, then what new questions did the inquiry propose?
EW: It did actually shift the lens a little bit, writing this made me realize that have been asking these same questions constantly and forever. Now, I feel a different level of serenity around that space and spaces like it.
EEK: I’m curious about your relationship with the ‘man with rake’? I wonder if you could talk a little about how you initially encountered him as an individual, and how over the course of time you spent with him your relationship changed.
EW: I met him one Sunday when I was sitting in my car at the lot, planning on spending some time writing, making some audio recordings.
I watched the man with rake pull up in front of me from far away. I forget the acreage, but it’s a pretty sizeable space. He got out of his car with the rake and started going at the concrete with the rake like he was trying to kill it. I knew I needed to talk to this guy, but I very much recall feeling squeamish about walking up to him because the ground was covered in fresh, wet poop–it was literally multi-colored poop because (I later found out) Emily was feeding them all this multi-colored cat food.
I think I told him I was a reporter at first, rather than a poet because I figured he’d actually talk to me if I said I was a reporter. But he ignored me and asked if I was a producer for a reality TV show, that’s when I said, no, I’m a poet. And he really wanted to talk to me about everything. He seemed so excited to have a witness.
EEK: Who was paying him to rake all day?
EW: Home Depot. Because Home Depot had purchased the lot but the actual building of a new Home Depot was thwarted by community activists, this is the thing with “ghost box” stores (I learned this term from the ‘man with the rake’) that there’s a whole network within the big box store community (is it a community?) of empty, foreclosed big boxes. Remember when all the RadioShack’s and all the K-Marts were closing? Because the floor plans are gigantic, the sale of a big box store doesn’t generally happen quickly. There’s a whole industry of folks who are paid to upkeep the “ghost boxes.”
EEK: Have you been back there since releasing the book?
EW: Yes. It’s now a fancy new Goodwill, and my partner and I have shopped there a handful of times.
EEK: Is Emily still there?
EW: I doubt it. I would be very surprised. There are no birds now either.
EEK: What birds were they?
EW: Actually, I called an ornithologist at the Natural History Museum to try and find out, the people I spoke with said the birds were a mix of seagulls, pigeons, some wild parrots, yellow finches, occasional hawks. The ornithologist said they thought it was beach. That they read the concrete as sand. And it was disgusting, wall-to-wall with poop.
EEK: It’s interesting hearing you talk about Emily in this way. At a certain point in the book, I felt protective of her, even though I never see her except as an absence, an absent space of poetics, and I feel frustrated with the man-with-rake at certain points over his relentless pursuing of Emily. Though in a way, Emily thrives from this chase because it reinforces her presence in a world where no one else but the birds even acknowledges that she exists. Its a really interesting relationship that these two solitary figures have, they have no one else to talk to but are communicating with each other in a game of cat and mouse; they each have a purpose – hers to avoid being caught and his to catch the criminal. You, as the writer, do not interfere or judge either position in any way, and I wonder if you experienced any frustration yourself?
EW: I think it reads more quickly in the book than how it felt in real life, but for some reason, the lot was vacant for 10 years and then I put my attention to it, and within three months it was over. There was a flash of activity. Even the man with the rake described it as that. He was taken by surprise by the changing circumstances that accompanied my arrival. The moment that I felt truly dedicated to this project was when I had been visiting it for like 2 or 3 weeks and then there was all of a sudden, in front of where I’d been parking, a sign that said NO TRESPASSING, NO LOITERING, FEEDING BIRDS OR WILDLIFE. I just stared at that sign for something like 30 minutes thinking about the term “wildlife,” and wondering about the power of the woman who caused someone to make this significant signage – it seemed so absurd.
Because my background is in journalism I’m much more comfortable staying out of a story and letting events unfold. I tried not to interfere in writing or in real life, aside from the impact of being a documenter, which undoubtedly has significant impact.
I have a whole bunch of projects that are similar, a kind of anti-journalism. I don’t feel like I’m doing the antithesis of journalism, but I’m taking some of the techniques of reportage and looking at the absence of story. I’m going to the cold place. I’m curious about showing up and seeing what happens and that being my work. I guess I’m interested in letting the words occupy the vacancy and animate it.
EEK: Do you own personal or moral reactions come into play?
EW: Oh absolutely, I think that’s why I wrote it. My partner’s brother was dying of cancer when I was working on the editing of this book, and I think there was part of me that felt the heft of that information that the man with the rake had, that he knew Emily had cancer but wasn’t moved by it at all. He just wanted her out of the lot.
I was also really curious about the density, the area around the lot is so dense with businesses and housing and traffic, that for there to be a vacancy seemed incredible. The building was in such disrepair. The man with the rake told me that people had gutted it numerous times, stolen the copper wiring from inside.
EEK: Can you talk about why you avoided using his name?
EW: It’s funny because when you said that thing about him seeming like this symbolic figure, when I was writing it, I saw him as this sort of weird, pastel, fuzzy figure.
EEK: Is this part of your synesthesia?
EW: Maybe, yes, but it was like watching through the camera on the first season of RuPaul’s drag race. Do you know what I mean? All the shots specifically reserved for Ru were filtered through this hazy sort-of ‘70s lense. You know? I wanted him to have that sort of haze. I wanted Emily to be in-focus and highly saturated. I wanted her to have the name.
EEK: Did you really never see Emily?
EW: Never! But she was always there. There would be cat food and bags around, I knew she had been there. I was concerned when things with the lot visibly started to change, when the birds were leaving. But by that point I was kind of disgusted with being there. It’s right next to McDonalds and so loud, so much traffic. When I noticed Emily’s departure, I felt a little relieved.
EEK: Reading the book, a part of me thought for a moment that Emily might be you. Not physically, but if Emily was a symbolic construction: performing those acts, the wildness of her doing what she needs to do in the confines of that space, against all the odds of her situation, speaks to me of the wildness in you, the wildness of self in other texts that I’ve read by you…
EW: Yes, I’m very curious about that space between a cultural reality and “difference.” So, our cultural reality would suggest that this person is mad, and that madness is wildness to some extent because she is not “domesticated,” is feral. I don’t know if that’s true, but I am always curious about the cultural ‘stepping out’ that people choose or are forced to do. I think about this a lot in my work, as someone who has moved from one gender to another, something that’s supposed to be fixed and undoable. I’ve allowed something to grow wild that was otherwise tightly controlled, this kind of move really does trip the wire a little bit, like now I constantly wonder, what else about my person (or our persons) is being domesticated without my consent?
EEK: That makes a lot of sense. The fact that Emily is in this raw, poetic, state, or, perhaps that Emily manifests in poetry, she is up against these terrible odds. And we have the man-with-rake who is designated only by a description of the utilitarian object he holds. He is frustrated, he just wants to find Emily, but he never does. In a larger sense this portrays what capitalism inspires, an endless desire for something we cannot hold, which I guess, essentially, is freedom distorted through the vessel of money. And then we have Emily who is living outside of that framework, and not that we can say that she’s happy or not, but from the way she’s written, we experience her with so much more vitality than we experience the man-with-rake even.
EW: Yes! These are the things that I hoped would be there in the text. That’s what I wanted to write.
EEK: Have you considered donating any of these books to Goodwill?
EW: Haha, yes. Someone did suggest that I take some over there. Wanna go with me?
Originally published on BlackClock.org