4.06 / June 2009

“Incendiary, PA”

The name Centralia comes from the Latin root centralis, the meaning of which is: in the middle, at the center of things. There are actually thirteen Centralias, twelve in the United States, and one in Canada. There are fourteen Centralias if you count the largely unpopulated region of Central Australia, which is sometimes called by this name. Centralias are named as such because at the time of their founding they are uneventful municipalities between two or more comparatively happening destinations. My interest lies in Centralia, Pennsylvania, a small town on top of a big vein of coal that has been slowly burning from the bottom up for over forty years. I am from Pennsylvania, so that is part of it.

CAUTION: I am not interested in saving the Centralians from their cruel fate. I am not interested in bearing witness to their suffering and documenting it so that, perhaps, they can receive some relief. I am not interested in listing all of the failures of government and humanity that have allowed a fire that began burning in 1962 after a tiny municipal government decided to set fire to a dump that happened to be located in the pit of an old abandoned strip mine, that happened to be situated on top of one of the oldest and largest assemblies of intersecting coal tunnels in the country to explode into a full-fledged force of nature, or the mind-numbing details of gross neglect and legislative oversight that prevented the fire from being controlled or put out during the decades when many people believe it could have been snuffed under more compassionate management.

The supposed battle between right: the good citizens of Centralia who refuse to leave their homes even after being repeatedly warned they could be killed by silent poisonous gas seepage at any moment — and wrong: the bumbling bureaucrats who were never any match for a fire of such magnitude and failed to stop it in time to save an all American village — is the least interesting part of the picture as far as I am concerned. This is because I think it is also the least true story that can be told at this late date. It is not the story I want to tell, at any rate. It is not the story I want to read. Besides, books have been written about all that, and they are as dry as kindling, but available all the same.

This is what gets me hot: a forty-five-year-old fire five hundred feet high and four thousand feet wide, seventy-five feet below the ground that preps the coal in front of it with its approaching energy until the ruby rooms and amber tunnels glow fiercely in anticipation for miles before its arrival, eager to ignite or explode; a scorching bright light that may as well be invisible because it is unvisitable — buried underground, yet not so far that it cannot send its steam and smoke hissing and spewing forth to remind us, lest we forget, what ferociousness truly lies just beneath the surface, temporarily hidden, yet forever pushing up against the edges of everyday life. In the center of Pennsylvania, in the middle of the middle, the fire beneath Centralia persists. You can put your hand on the hot asphalt and feel it for yourself.

I am a hopeless atheist, but if I were to form a religion — at its core would be an inextinguishable, unseeable, human-made fire.

I want to meet the people who continue to insist on living directly above of such a fire — day after day, year after year, decade after decade — despite the federal governments’ efforts to pay them off and push them out. I want to know who they are, why they stay, and what makes them tick. There are only ten of them left.

Like many New Yorkers, and a great deal of writers, I do not have a car; and I dislike driving, because it distracts me from what I would rather be thinking about when I am on the road. Centralia has been wiped from maps, and is inaccessible by public transportation; thus, I require a reliable driver to accompany me on my trip. Enter my friend Lila, who lives in Pittsburgh, a few hours from Centralia. Lila is apprehensive about driving into the fire but game all the same. She does not want to drive too far alone though, so we agree that I will take a train from New York to Harrisburg, then find someone at the station to drive me the hour and a half to meet her in the middle.

Outside the train station, Harrisburg is an empty wasteland of a downtown.

I find an African from Africa in an orange gypsy cab who agrees to drive me the hundred miles for forty dollars. On our way out of town we pass a massive, unwieldy prostitute walking laps around a boarded-up factory.

“I know her,” the African says, with reverence. “She used to be a man. I watched her transforming.”

Forty miles from town our car catches fire. Smoke masks the windshield and windows and turns them opaque. For the first time since I got in his car, I wonder whether the African’s reverie is substance related, because I have to shout about the smoke in order for him to notice it. Fortunately, we pull over to the side of the road and jump from the vehicle unharmed. I had been expecting a big explosion, but there is none, only a great deal of smoke, and a trail of oil behind our dead car as far back as my eyes can follow it.

A baby-faced cop arrives on the scene and offers me a ride. He will take me as far as his station, then arrange for a police van to drive me the rest of the way. Speeding through the central Pennsylvanian “green tunnel,” we discuss writing. I explain to the cop that is why I am headed to Centralia. After asking me why anyone would want to travel to that “godforsaken place,” he brags that he does quite a lot of writing himself. Most of the calls the cop gets in this scarcely populated area are domestic disputes. As a result, he has to spend three-plus hours each evening meticulously documenting the marital spats of rural couples — everything he said and she said has to be recorded down to the letter. I say I imagine those reports must be fascinating. The adorable cop laughs and says they are the most boring things in the world because they are all the same.

The driver of the police van is a squint-eyed, Pillsbury doughboy of an old man with a not insubstantial developmental disability. He says right off that he still lives with his even older parents who are both sick but take care of him more than he does of them, and he very slowly asks questions out of order that do not connect with the ones that came before or the answers I provide, while staring straight ahead into the pitch-black night and not once making eye contact from the moment I take my place in the passenger seat of a van that is normally only used to take prisoners to and from jail, hence my place up front and not in the fenced-in back.

Are the only people who stay in nowhere places the ones who cannot possibly get it together to escape?

Lila and I disembark the next morning from our motel room, which bears an unsettling resemblance to the site of Janet Leigh’s dismembering in Psycho. On our way to the lobby I attempt to dial out using the rotary phone mounted on the artificial-wood wall of the elevator, but it is dead.

PA/42 is supposed to lead directly to Route 61, but the original route has been so thoroughly erased that we overshoot it on our first try and drive straight into neighboring Ashland. On a whim, we follow signs that say, “COAL MINE,” and end up at the Ashland Anthracite Museum, where you can take a tour of an abandoned mineshaft in a real coal car for four dollars. An old, rolling metal clothes rack of coats waits outside the entrance to the mine for tourists who arrive unprepared for the drop in temperature inside. The outerwear hanging at attention suggests donors of every age and familial role. Pink and pale-blue puffer jackets of a smaller scale punctuate the bulk of adult earth tones and flannels. A tiny bubblegum onesie acts as a caboose to the ghostly conga line. Lined up back-to-front, the worn, coal-tinged coats appear expectant, impatient to be put on. No one takes one though, at least not on our tour.

Wearing our own warm fall layers — mine a white leather jacket, hers a maroon hoodie — Lila and I climb into the front coal car a minute before it lurches forward. Already inside is a big guy with greasy black hair wearing a black t-shirt that says, when he turns to give us a glimpse of his back, “MY DICK SMELLS LIKE CHAPSTICK,” in bold white caps. He is holding his daughter, small enough to fit inside the onesie, and is accompanied by her mother, who looks at least five years younger than Lila and me, who are both in our mid-twenties. While Lila and I squeal at the steep pitch of the ground and the dark, and clutch each other in the damp cold as we burrow down into the center of the earth — the baby, who does not have a coat, and apparently, it was decided, did not need to borrow one, does not make a sound.

Anthracite coal is harder and cooler to the touch than common bituminous coal. It is also smooth, iridescent, and does not rub off on your hands the way ordinary coal does. Anthracite coal is actually just bituminous coal that has been under pressure from the softer, more impure coal above it long enough to condense into a more concentrated, cleaner, longer-burning version of its former self. This is why strip mines for bituminous coal are often dug right over tunnels where anthracite was mined earlier on, and anthracite coal is rarer and can only be found in parts of the world that are very, very old.

For the years between when it was discovered in the early 1800s and the stock market crash of 1925, a few key companies controlled all the mines in the Anthracite Region, which Centralia sits at the center of. These companies practiced “room-and-pillar” mining, wherein chambers would be dynamited out of the coal for the miners to mine in, but a strategic number of pillars were left to support the roofs of the rooms. During the Great Depression, the coal companies went under, and the mines were closed. Unemployed miners broke in to engage in “bootlegging.” Bootlegging, in the anthracite mining community, meant pillar robbing — entering the old mines, harvesting the pillars, and selling them to neighbors for fuel on the cheap. When the mines caught fire thirty years later, the absence of the pillars that had been removed by the bootleggers created wind tunnels that helped spread the fire, and led to subsidences — sudden, steaming, gaping holes in the earth — sometimes opening so far down that it is impossible to see the bottom as you clutch a tree root and yell for help.

Determined not to miss our turnoff a second time, we find the unmarked, dead-end Route 61, and turn into what looks more like a clearing in an inner city park than the innards of a volcano. The overgrown cement paths dividing the green patchwork of grass, wildflowers, and assemblies of saplings are hard to recognize for what they are — unmarked roads whose lines are long gone and houses have been bulldozed and carted away.

Unsure of the stability of the ground, Lila and I abandon the car and set out on foot to find the fire. After selecting a few streets that lead to more green, we follow a particularly forlorn looking road to the top of a hill where there is an accumulation of rubble straight out of a grunge music video: a paisley house dress — torn and covered with dead leaves, a young girl’s party shoe with a broken buckle and caked in dust, an overturned easy chair shot through with bullet holes, the dirty springs of a vanished mattress, twenty-foot sprays of broken glass, an inexplicable pile of snow-white seashells stuck in the steaming mud, miles from any shore. It hits me that the destroyed objects at my feet are the physical manifestations of loss. Things that, when they are dredged through the mud, used for target practice, shattered into a million pieces, burned to a crisp, remind us that nothing is a given, nothing is promised, everything we have is but a talisman that can be taken away. Between the ravaged charms of Centralians past, smoke rises in steady plumes that dot the horizon — from the crest of hill where I stand far into the houseless valley below, a valley that was known, when people still lived in it, as “The Swamp,” because of the shifting ground.

A mine fire, an infidelity, an untargeted act of police brutality — what use is it to follow a fire to wag a finger at the wreckage it leaves in its wake?

“It smells like rotten eggs,” Lila sighs, ready to return to the other side of the hill, where the grass is greener. On we walk, to see if we can find anyone to talk to us. A few false starts, and we stumble upon the intersection of streets that was once the town square. Down here, where it is green, it is easy forget what lies just on the other side. Perhaps that is why the people who live in the few houses that remain at the intersection of Park and Locust, the only streets that still have signs, have stayed so long.

There is a freshly painted, bright green bench that says, “CENTRALIA 1866,” in newly stenciled letters. A perfectly preserved cemetery sits behind the bench, its pristine state mocking the streets empty of pedestrians. Three white row houses rest behind four cars and an old pick-up — good indicators that someone is home — but when we knock the silence that greets us is final.

A menacing tree that has had all its limbs chopped off, leaving it to look like an amputee of some forgotten arboreal war, bares a homemade sign, nailed in the crotch of its remaining stubs, that says, “WOOD STREET.” We walk the length of Wood Street and knock on the door of the one house that waits at its dead end. A man with thick glasses and Albert Einstein hair answers and asks us what we want. Just to talk to him for a minute. No thank you, he says. Could I just ask then, why he stays in Centralia? The peace and quiet, he says. I like to be left alone, and I usually am. Now, if you don’t mind—. More doors, more awkward silences, though wind chimes adorn the windows amidst other signs of life.

Finally, we are at the last house. It is yellow instead of white, an omen of sorts. A bald man in his fifties, wearing a yellow T-shirt and khaki shorts opens his door and steps out onto the porch in his bare feet. He will talk to us, as long as we agree to leave when he asks. We agree. The sun is setting, and the flies are beginning to gather, so we go inside.

The man is John Comarnisky, he is from Centralia, and he is fifty-four years old. His dead grandmother embroidered the framed images that cover the walls of the living room we are sitting in and the den behind it. The largest is a portrait of his grandparents’ now demolished house perched atop the hill overlooking ” The Swamp”. This yellow house was bought by his father and later remodeled by John, when he returned home after the fire to take care of his mother, who has since passed. The rest of the decor of the room dates back to the 1970s. There is a porcelain elephant spouting a ponytail plant, and a color scheme of corals and creams that I can only guess were selected for the curtains, couches, and carpeting by the late Mrs. Comarnisky.

John has taught high school physics and math in the neighboring town of Schuykill Haven, twenty-four miles away, for the past twenty-five years. He loves living in Centralia, including what he describes as the “sweet woodsy smell,” which you can almost imagine as a big bonfire in the distance if you close your eyes and try. His father was in the air force, and he grew up traveling the world, interacting with constantly refreshed groups of strangers, always longing to be allowed to stay in one place and left alone. “I’d really have to piss somebody off really bad, or they really have to love me to come out here to see me — I don’t miss them,” John says, and means it.

He has a Harley and a gun, and he likes riding around the vacant roads and hunting the many animals that seem to prefer the quiet and the way the ground stays warm all winter.