Published: November 24, 2010
Two Dutch filmmakers stumble out of the rubble of a fallen building, led by the man Hill calls Preacher Joe. "More like Nightmare Joe," says the preacher. "I'm a nightmare, really."
Either way, he doesn't like to tell anyone his last name. "He's paranoid," Hill says. "He's kind of shy. He thinks that the FBI is after him." Then he laughs. "But maybe they are."
Joe gives the most colorful and unpredictable tours, and these out-of-towners had the fortune, or misfortune, of stumbling upon him.
"I took them boys all the way down there," says the 52-year-old, pointing down the long street bordered on both sides by the long factory. He loves to mess with people. "They were scared as motherfuckers. They go, 'What is that?' I shine my light down this hole, I go, 'That's where I throw you when you disagree with me." He pestered them for cigarettes. Then he suggested they go get beer and leave their camera behind while he watched it for them. They nervously declined. He's been known to ask for "tax" payments from explorers and he hounds illegal dumpers.
But he's also the one who composed his group's mission statement in flawless prose on a sheet of looseleaf. And he likes the kids who spray-paint murals on the walls. He even gives them fresh cans of paint sometimes. "I love 'em," he says. "This is their chalkboard."
He doesn't live here, but he shares their rough existence. "We ain't got a safe buried up under ground," he says. "We pay electric bills, water bills like anybody else, and it's tight. We're beggin' dog food down here."
They've gotten used to the cold, the solitude, even the concrete buildings that sometimes collapse nearby and shake the ground beneath their feet. They eat dinner together and sometimes watch movies, like any household. But they also get to see the riverfront fireworks from the tall roof, wander a historic warehouse full of things to do, and have 35 acres of caves and fields and rooftops almost entirely to themselves. Not a bad way to live, Hill notes.
"We've got solitude, no mortgage payment, no credit card," he says. "It's like being in the north woods. Life just goes on, you know?"
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