Some of my favourite urban sights:

  • Bricked-up windows
  • Upper-storey doorways that open into empty space
  • Staircases that lead nowhere
  • Clean, working, fully stocked vending machines in obscure and inaccessible places
  • Detailed graffiti on surfaces with no obvious spot for the artist to stand, like the underside of a high bridge, or ten metres up a bare wall
  • Machinery left to rust because there’s no use for it anymore, but it’s in a weird or precarious location and there’s no way to safely remove it

(I’m sure there’s a theme here…)

I’ve been rereading Unknown Armies again recently and there’s a part of me that wants to find occult significance for this sort of nonsense.  But then, I kind of enjoy looking for occult significance for a lot of nonsense.

I’m not convinced that there isn’t some occult significance to some of these. The vending machine in particular stems from what’s definitely one of the weirdest experiences I’ve ever had.

First, some context: I don’t know if it’s like this everywhere, but major Canadian cities tend to have a lot of underground infrastructure – particularly in their downtown areas, where train tunnels, parking garages, underground shopping malls, and hotel basements often connect in such a way that you can easily walk for miles without ever seeing sunlight. The interconnections typically aren’t public, or at least not advertised, but a surprising number of them are accessible if poke around; I once followed a maintenance tunnel in a shopping mall parking complex and emerged in the basement of a nearby casino!

Anyway, I was snooping around in the maintenance tunnels below one of the larger local hotels – legitimately, mind you; I was working for the local telecom at the time, trying to track down an errant network cable – when I rounded a bend and noticed that the corridor a few dozen feet ahead of me was brightly illuminated by something. On top of being filthy and difficult to access, the tunnel was also unlit (I’d been navigating by flashlight), so this really stood out.

I couldn’t see any obvious light fixture to account for it – the light seemed to be emerging from an alcove off to the side of the tunnel – so I went to investigate, and discovered… a Coke machine.

Spotlessly clean, fully stocked, and apparently in full working order; the illumination was coming from its interior display lighting.

In a grimy, unlit maintenance corridor twenty feet below ground level.

In retrospect, I’m kind of glad I didn’t have any change on me at the time, because I’d have been sorely tempted to buy something, and who knows how that would have worked out.

This is like those (____) Gothic posts.

Infrastructural gothic should totally be a thing.

(Honestly, working with infrastructure is a bit like living in a video game, at times. I once had to navigate an honest-to-gods jumping puzzle in order to track down a missing router, all hopscotching from beam to beam and dodging hanging bits of machinery inside the pitch-black vault of a false ceiling, with nothing but a thin layer of cardboard veneer between me and a thirty-foot drop to the floor of the ballroom below. And then there was time I installed a giant laser on top of a skyscraper and pointed it at City Hall…)

Can it be story time forever? Please, good sir, tell us more. 

Okay, sure. This one isn’t weird or creepy, but it’s definitely in line with the whole “infrastructural gothic” thing, and anybody who’s worked corporate may find the circumstances of it hauntingly familiar.

Another gig for a local telecom (though a different one from the vending machine story): I’d been tasked to track down a phantom server. It was an old database box – probably it’d been running for twenty years at that point – and it was normally administered remotely.

Well, it had finally developed an issue that needed to be addressed in person – and here’s the catch: owing to the company’s high staff turnover (to say that they had a personnel retention problem would be an understatement), there was literally no-one left who’d ever laid eyes on the thing. In fact, nobody knew where it was physically located at all!

I ended up having to work backwards, mapping out the building’s network topology, identifying the nearest router whose physical location was known, and physically tracing the cabling as it snaked through the walls and ceilings in order to find where it ended up.

(Luckily, the phantom server had been set up before wireless networking was commonplace – otherwise the little bastard could have been anywhere.)

Finally I narrowed it down to the exact cable the phantom server was using to communicate with the outside world. Nothing can ever be straightforward, though, so a new problem faced me: the cable disappeared under a baseboard on one side of a wall and simply never came out the other side. That was a big problem: if it ran for any distance inside the wall, I might have had to start tearing out drywall in order to figure out where it went.

Luckily, before anybody broke out the sledgehammers, it occurred to me that the dimensions weren’t adding up. In the absence of a floorplan, I had to eyeball some measurements, but it seemed like there was a gap of several feet between one side of the offending wall and the other, about what you’d expect if there was a closet there – but there was no door to be found.

Long story short, it turned out that what had happened is that at some point in the preceding decade, an inattentive (or perhaps simply overzealous) contractor had drywalled over the door to a server closet, without first checking whether there was anything inside. Since the phantom server was remotely administered, and it had never had a problem demanding physical intervention before that point, nobody had noticed that it was now literally sealed inside a wall, all Cask of Amontillado style.

My job was simply to find the thing, not to fix it, so I never did find out how the situation was resolved, but I’d loved to have been a fly on the wall at the resulting meetings.

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