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‘Creative trespassing’ sets me free

What a grown man has in common with Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit

By Ethan Gilsdorf

It’s about two hours before dark on a winter afternoon.

I park my car under a railroad bridge and slip past a “DO NOT ENTER” sign. Trash is everywhere: discarded children’s toys, beer cans, takeout food packaging, a trail of Fireball cinnamon whisky nip bottles. Woody vines of bittersweet twine through a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Signs decorate the fence every 100 yards or so: “POSTED. NO TRESPASSING.” “WARNING. KEEP OUT.”

That’s when I spot it: the gap. I wiggle under the chain-link and climb a mound of vegetation and trash. A post-apocalyptic landscape opens around me: piles of debris and ruins of demolished buildings. I hear it before I see it: a man digging with a backhoe. He’s probably doing something mundane, but in my imagination, he’s burying a body. My heart leapfrogs into my mouth. Has he seen me? I duck down, then dash out of sight.

This is no childhood adventure; it’s me, a 52-year-old adult, indulging in my favorite pastime: wandering into places where I’m not supposed to be.

If there’s a cemetery crypt with a broken door, I’ll slip in. If there’s an athletic complex, that’s me ducking past the guardhouse to find the visitor’s dugout. If there’s a hospital, I’ll make my way past ancient heating ducts to where the radiology department is tucked away. Give me a derelict house, a shuttered power plant, a neglected building falling prey to its own slow motion decay, and I’ll want to enter, poke around, waste time, idle.

I call this “creative trespassing.”

To be clear, I’m no real troublemaker. I have no intention to steal or vandalize. And there’s nothing creepy, I hope, about my rovings. My intention is merely to be where I probably shouldn’t, and experience places few if anyone pauses to notice.  

I first got the taste for this subversive behavior as a kid. I grew up during the 1970s and ’80s, in a rural community surrounded by hundreds of acres of woods, two rivers, and a town sandpit where heavy equipment roamed alongside neighborhood kids. One formative experience: a summer job mowing cemeteries.

Also, my mom and dad were teachers, so I spent ample time lollygagging in empty school buildings after hours. This was the age of unsupervised “free range kids,” decades before our current parental obsession with keeping children safe, controlled, and contained, to program their every after-school movement.

Trespassing engaged my independent, and vague authority-flouting streak. I became a dreamer, inventing adventures and fantastical quests as I rambled on. And as an adult, I’ve found that I can’t stop. The threat of getting caught gives me tiny jolts of thrill, even though know I’m ultimately safe. (I admit it helps to be white, male, and wearing an L.L. Bean jacket, able to pass as someone who “belongs.”)

Like Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, slipping into Mr. McGregor’s garden, I’m a genteel bunny engaging in mildly illicit acts. But I’m also acutely aware of why Peter Rabbit was so curious. So little remains in urban and suburban life to be discovered anymore. All feels known, civilized, laid bare. As a trespasser, I seek new mysteries, hidden doors opening into other paths. All is possible, if only I loiter long enough at the loading dock behind Market Basket, or slip through a tech giant’s back door that some fool has left ajar.

I never would have seen this if I hadn’t been an intruder.

And so, on one adult adventure, I infiltrate the English Department of an elite Ivy League institution during winter vacation. I run down stairwells, eyeing abandoned stacks of books and pawing filing cabinets obsolete in the age of digital storage. All is silent. I spy one faculty member, alone in his office, setting my mind to wonder about his loneliness, his wanderlust, his dreams. Does he wish he were with his students, off on some Caribbean adventure? Or is he eerily content, marooned on the desert isle of campus during break? 

Another day finds me downtown, running errands, when I spy the studio complex of a famous art school. Each building is like its own Fort Knox — key card access only. I brazenly follow two students who’ve touched their IDs to the reader, then slip in behind them like I belong here. Soon, I’m exploring the vast workspaces for jewelry making, metalsmithing, glassblowing, furniture design. I sneak into another building and…what’s this…a stuffed bear? Antelope trophies mounted on the wall? Blowfish hanging from the ceiling? I’ve entered a kind of private natural history studio. “Excuse me,” says a voice behind me. I watch as a woman wheels in what looks like an IV stand; dangling from it is a full-sized human skeleton.

I never would have seen this if I hadn’t been an intruder.

But even for me, trespassing has its limits. Another day, on the eve of a giant wintry storm, I find the gap — there’s always a gap — in another chain-link perimeter fence. My quarry? A train station, built in 1916, condemned in the early 1980s, now boarded up, windows filled with brick, and crawling with graffiti. Its grounds are littered with abandoned chairs and couches, bags of trash, and crusts of bread. A black cat darts into the parking lot of the abutting CVS. After a few circuits around the station, I see the only way in is a dark window, reachable by climbing up a shipping pallet that leans against the exterior.

I should know better. I scramble up the pallet anyway, and poke my head into the vast interior of the deserted station. Then I turn my head. Two figures with their backs to me huddle against a graffiti-strewn wall. Maybe keeping warm. Maybe dealing drugs. Or worse. A wave of fear passes through me. They’re probably just two guys looking for shelter before the weather worsens, but I don’t belong here with them. It kills me to bail, and I ache to see more of this place consigned to oblivion, but I quickly back down the ladder, vowing to return another day.

This adventure reveals that perhaps I’m not as daring as I think. It doesn’t help that my head cooks up a worst-case scenario. That’s what I get for having an over-active imagination. Still even I, a seasoned creative trespasser, know when I’ve approached the boundary between subversive and unsafe. I almost cross it. But I slink away.

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Ethan Gilsdorf is a writer based in Providence, Rhode Island and the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.


Photo by iStock


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