8 Months in Cairo.
Zach, Mr. Jefferson and I drove from Gainesville to Metropolis on may 28th 2009 to sign the papers and hand over a check with all the money I could save, scrounge and borrow. In exchange, we got a huge, dirty, decaying three story building on Washington, Ave. In Cairo, Illinois. We had to do the paper work in Metropolis because there are no such services offered in Cairo. Metropolis is about one hour up stream on the Ohio river. They changed the name to Metropolis years ago in hopes to attract tourist. They've got a Superman museum and everything.
I signed papers. The owner was there. His name is Charlie. He bought about twenty five properties in the auction of 2006. You see, there was this factory that was supposed to move to town. He was making an investment in the future. He bought a lot of stuff, dirt cheap. Then, when the factory came to townâ€¦ The factory never came to town. He was doing his best to unload his amassments on anyone foolish enough to buy them. I am that fool. He was nice. He offered us various advices and gave us his phone number in case we needed anything. We got the keys and started down the rural highway through Kentucky to our new home. On the way, a rock flew off a passing truck and cracked my windshield. Welcome to historic, Cairo.
The door was unlocked when we arrived. The keys we wanted so badly, were not needed. We explored the downstairs first. It was in pretty good shape. A few years before, it was an office for an in-home health care place. It still looked like an office, white walls with blue grey carpet. The only real problem downstairs was a missing hot water heater and therefore a lack of plumbing. There were a lot of water damaged ceiling panels and light covers too. We set up camp in the downstairs. The upstairs was, up until about five years ago, the Knights of Columbus. It consisted of two very large rooms, a bar and a ballroom. There was also a small kitchen and utility room and a very small, wood panel, office for the bar business. There was no electricity or plumbing. Sometime ago, copper thieves had broken in through the fire escape and left with a lot of pipes and wire. This was a big problem in Cairo. Luckily, the price of copper has dropped. The third floor, to quote the real-estate lady, was, "were they did all their secret rituals". It's basically one long room with beautiful windows that were painted over on both sides for some reason (rituals). Then we explored the huge attic. The attic is the only truly scary part of the building. It's secured behind a very sturdy door with two locks and for some reason has a peep hole for people inside to look out. The secrets we found behind that door will remain hidden. Sorry.
My dad drove four hours from the Louisville area to help us get the downstair's plumbing patched up and the electricity up and running. It was pretty simple. We could now see without a flashlight and use the sinks and toilets. The first few days, before my dad came, were very dark. We could flush the toilets with buckets of water, but, finding buckets of water was hard enough. At one point, we went to the river and filled up a few buckets so we could poop in peace.
So, we had water and lights and could use the toaster and teapot. It was still pioneering in a way since all we brought was what could fit in Purple Rain (my mini-van). We didn't have an oven, refrigerator, microwaveâ€¦ I brought a TV and DVD player but forgot to bring any movies except for Iron Man, which would later be important. We drilled a hole in the floor and ran an extension chord up to the second floor so we could start building our bedrooms. Zach claimed the small office by the bar which was a good move because it was windows. I claimed the third floor, ritual room, for Adrienne and me.
Then, I had to leave for one month for tour. My band, Ghost MIce, was touring the east coast with Heathers, from Ireland. The tour was in the works for months and I had no idea when we'd get the building. So, randomness and bad timing put Zach into the position of being the first and only punk pioneer in Cairo. Mr. J. was there too, but he's not punk. He's a cat. Adrienne decided to stay in Gainesville and work until the tour was over, to build up some savings before relocating to the land of unemployment. I left my school bus with all my stuff in it, in her backyard. The plan was simple. I would do the tour then drive to gainesville and get Adrienne, her dog Josie and my bus. Before I left Zach on his own in a huge, empty building, we went to the store and bought enough canned food to last him for a month. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Zach was dead broke. I took a picture of him before I left, to show how brave he was (and in case something happened to him while I was gone).
During the month, Zach painted the walls downstairs. White became ocean sigh blue. He started the daunting task of cleaning the ballroom and bar. He watched Iron Man eleven times. He was invited and attended a few cook outs at the "prayer house". The prayer house is the base of a missionary group called Two Rivers. They were the first people to talk to us when we moved to town. They were very nice and helpful and offered us the use of a truck and gave us bookshelves and a piano. We don't discuss religion with them and they don't seem to want to convince us of anything. They are just happy to have a coffee shop and a place to hangout in town. A few days before the tour I was on ended, My best friend, Samantha, the founder of the record label I run, killed herself. I almost gave up. A big part of the Cairo plan for me was to build something great that Sam would be proud of and hopefully come and be a part of. I just tried to block it out and stay focused on my tasks. I'm sure she would want me to. Tour ended, Heathers went home, I dropped Hannah off in bloomington and drove to Gainesville to get the rest of the team.
Zach survived. But, he was pretty happy to see us when we finally came "home". The day we arrived we searched the building for life and eventually found it on the roof. Zach was up there with Pat and Lessly from Columbus, who had come to help us move in. The drive up was insane. The bus was overloaded with crap. We brought everything we could since we were moving into such a huge building. Driving though the mountains in Tennessee took forever. The trip took about sixteen hours. Unloading the bus took a long time too. For the next few weeks we worked and worked. My dad came up again, this time with my mom, and we completely rewired the electricity upstairs. The wire, circuit breakers and other parts ended up costing almost $2000.00, "another day older and deeper in debt". But, learning how to do electrical work was great and turning on a light or plugging in a blender seemed like a minor miracle. Pat, Lessly and my folks left and at last it was just the three of us and the pets. My original idea was to get at least ten people to move there. The first wave. Ten turned into to three. It was nearly just two. Zach was a last minute addition, thank chaos. So, we worked and waited for reinforcements. Meeting locals turned out to be quite difficult since there was no place to do it. The only people we met were the ones that worked at the super value (formerly wondermart), the post office (the coolest place on earth) and the dollar general. we thought, this town really needs a social space, so we can meet people, we should start one. Everything became a step towards opening day. Things would be easier once we opened. We kept repeating that.
Soon the calvary came. Sara Cilantro, Jerry and their friend Jen came from Syracuse. Jerry and Sara were gonna stay. Jen was just visiting an helping. We worked more, painting, building a coffee counter, making record shelves and bookshelves. A few days later, Johnny, a friend of Zach's came to town on his bike. He rode from Orlando. Johnny was a big help. He loved to work. He also made huge biscuits almost everyday. He came to stay for a few weeks. We bought a refrigerator and oven. Adrienne removed the carpet in the kitchen and put down a tile floor. Zach became a master plumber and I became an electrician. We made group dinners. We watched the Simpsons on our breaks and ate perfect fries from Shemwell's barbecue across the street. We planned on opening the coffee shop in late August. We painted the sign on the front and hung the letters, announcing the birth of the ACE OF CUPS.
Then, on a perfect day, huge clouds formed with a quickness and we ran upstairs to close windows. On the way back down we felt the building shake. Then, water started leaking from above. Zach ran into the attic to get up on the roof and check it out and yelled to me, "the roof is gone". I raced to see what the hell he meant and looked upwards in the attic and could see the sky through the boards on the roof. Water was pouring though. We climbed the ladder but couldn't get the roof hatch open. The rubberized roofing material had peeled back and was amassed on top of the roof hatch. We brainstormed in the darkness. We tried to borrow a ladder to reach the roof from the fire escape in the back. No luck. Then we realized we could just cut a hole in the boards and make a new "hatch". We finally made it on the roof and found that about 1/3 of the roof had been pulled back and there was nothing to stop the water from running into the building. We tried in vain to pull the roofing back into place but it weighed way too much. We called local help and they came but even with nine of us we didn't stand a chance. In the distance we could see a huge dark storm approaching. Our help fled in terror of the coming doom. We stayed up there trying to pull a huge mass of wet rubber over thin wet boards. Then the lightning came. Bolts were striking nearby and eventually we gave up and retreated downstairs. The building looked like a waterfall. We killed the power since there was water everywhere. We got flashlights and headlamps and started trying to move anything we could to the few dry area of the building. Everyone's bedrooms were in danger. I had just built a bookshelf in my room and filled it with comics and books. I found it just as water was starting to drip onto it. I threw all my books into a rubber crate as fast as I could in the darkness, standing in a pool of water. Things were crazy. The day had been so nice, we were all relaxed and we were all so proud of the sign. I ran downstairs to start moving hundreds of boxes of CDs and records (the plan-it-x inventory). The first floor was taking a lot of water too and the ceiling panels that we had replaced became soggy sponges, then broke and fell in clumps onto the carpet. It was chaos and water and darkness. The storm lasted for three or four hours. People used buckets and mops to try and stop as much water as possible from going all the way down to the first floor. The task seemed hopeless. All that we had worked on so far was getting ruined. Welcome to historic Cairo. It was late, the rain was dying down, so I drove to Sikeston, Missouri to buy sheets of plastic. I was soaked and the store was freezing. I returned with the plastic and the rain stopped. We slept a worried sleep. The next day we could really see the damage.
We stapled the plastic to the roof and started cleaning up the mess. We called some roofers and got some quotes. The best deal we could get was $8,000-$10,000. We had about $1,000 total and I was already in debt with a friend and my parents. Things looked bleak. I wanted to quit, really. It seemed like a dark sign from chaos. The day we announce ourselves to the city by mounting our name out front, a storm comes to warn and threaten us. Maybe Cairo really is cursed. Maybe this was an attack from some supernatural force. We stalled a few days then figured out we would have to do the roof ourselves. Even if we decided to quit and pack up, we'd have to fix the roof if we didn't want the building to fall to ruins. So, I got advice from my dad and looked up roofing online. We bought the materials and for the next few, very sunny, very hot, days, we all worked on the roof. It was hard and the materials alone totaled $1,100.00, totally wiping out the last of my savings. There was no way we would be able to open anytime soon. Things were bad.
Things moved on slowly. Johnny left to continue his bike trip. Sara surrendered and returned home to NY., Jerry shorty followed. Zach went to CA. to stay with his dad for a while. Adrienne and I started a new band called, Imperial Can and in September we went on a two week tour with our friend Gerd, from Germany. We got back on October sixth and we had our "grand opening" on October 10th. It was a lot of work, but we pulled it off. Ken Freeman, Tyler-strike-riot (from Wisconsin) and Anthony (from Lexington) came a few days early to help out, which was really great of them. We opened at 10:00am on October 10th. (10:00/10/10). A lot of friends came from Bloomington and Columbus. We had snacks. We had an open mic that night. The local attendance was small but present. A small handful of local people stuck around and watched Matty Pop Chart, Paul Baribeau, Eric Ayotte and others play. It was fun. A lot of people came in throughout the day to check us out and see what we were doing. People brought in boxes of books to donate and coffee cups. We sold coffee. It was great. At last all this work was making sense. Our goals were being reached. Ken got sucked in and decided he would move to Cairo to be a part of our team. Things were looking up.
A few days later, Imperial Can left for two more weeks of tour. Before we left, Gerd gave Zack $700 and told him to go to the city auction for him and buy a house. He did. Gerd now owns a two story home in Cairo. It was $610.00. Zach, once again, was on his own. At least this time he had a coffee shop to run and potentially people to talk to. Things were slow but steady. On the average day, if there was such a thing here, about 4-10 people would come in. We had a few regulars forming: some older ladies who came in to drink tea, some high school kids, some parents and their children and a drunk guy. We got back in mid September and Gerd went back to Germany.
The fall here was perfect. The upstairs windows allowed the cool breezes to blow in. Of course, depending on the direction of the wind, this can be a bad thing, since, if the wind is coming from the south, it smells like raw sewage. You see, there is paper mill in Kentucky and it smells really bad. But, you get used to it and it only happens every once and a while. We continued to work on the building and got the kitchen moved upstairs behind the bar. At last our living situation was improving. It was starting to feel like home. People knew who we were now and would ask us about the shop whenever the saw us outside. I became a regular at the post office.
The winter has been hard. We spent $150 getting the furnace working downstairs. There is no heat upstairs. It's freezing. We had some pipes freeze and break and we had to replace them. We spend a lot of time downstairs. The gas bill is pretty bad too. The first one we got was $600. Thankfully, we were able to pay that because of a very kind photographer from chicago. He stopped in the shop while visiting Cairo and really liked our place and dream here. A month later he was a part of a benefit art show, in which all the art sold would go to benefit a charity of the artists choice. He picked us and all of his stuff sold, so he sent us $1000. It was a real life saver.
We don't really make any money here.
Ken moved to town and built his bedroom. Troy from Cincinnati came and helped out for a few weeks. Other people came and stayed a day or two. We started hosting events in the coffee shop. Adrienne does crafts for kids:
We've started having punk shows:
We also have karaoke, open mics, board game nights, quiz show nights and art shows on a monthly basis. The attendance is usually low but word is spreading and more people are starting to come to things. The used books are really popular. There is nowhere in town to buy books and people come in regularly to check out the new arrivals. We get a lot of book donations, which is great.
When we came here we decided that we would dabble in coffee/books/records and see what the community really wanted/needed. One thing that has came up that we were not expecting was the need to a place for the children of Cairo to hang out. We have a pretty big group of young kids that come in on a regular basis. It gets pretty hard to deal with sometimes but it's fun. It's really great when a few kids come in at a time. Then we get the chance to really connect with them, playing chess, playing music or just goofing off. The kids here have nothing to do and a lot of them are living with their grandparents who may not have the energy to give them the attention they need. We often don't have that energy either, but, we are trying.
Some plans we have for the kids include music lessons and tutoring.
We really want to reach out to the community and convince them that we are a community space and we are here for them to use. it's slowly starting to work. A few groups have started having regular meetings here and a lot more have came in and asked about it. Things move very slow here.
One of the biggest problems we face is the lack of a way to earn any money. Although we bought the building and I've nearly paid everyone back now that helped out, we still have to buy food and pay bills. There is NO way we could find a job in town and even if we could, I wouldn't want to take a job away from someone who might need it more. I manage by running a record label and being in a touring band. Adrienne makes crafts and sells them online. Ken sells skateboards. Zach has not been so lucky. He doesn't have a project like ours that can support him. He's currently in Orlando working at his old job for a few weeks with the plans of coming back and having enough saved to live for a few months without worries. To solve this problem we plan on starting some sort of business that exports its product. The best idea we have so far is to start a silk screening company. That way, all of us could work and all of us could hopefully make enough to pay our bills. With silkscreening we'd be able to do "business" with punks and other people. We would have course be cheap and fair. The only problem with this plan is getting the money needed to buy the equipment. Um, "it takes money to make money". Sounds dumb but it's true I guess. I've also been selling guitars and books and anything else I can part with. Hopefully something cool happens before we run out of stuff to sell.
Overall, I feel like we are doing pretty well. We are doing what we set out to do and people are slowly starting to come in and take advantage of what we offer. We still have big plans and big dreams. We hope to eventually operate a FREE SCHOOL and house a small food co-op. We want to have regular movie nights as soon as we get a video projector. We want to start serving some healthily foods and smoothies. We want to have tourist information (yes, tourist come here regularly to see the town and the rivers). We would love to be successful enough in our businesses to hire local people to work. We would like the coffee shop to become an open collective and allow outside community members to be an active part of what we are doing. RIght now that's hard because we have no clue what we are doing.
Cairo is a very unique place with a wild history. It's way to complex to explain in this update. I suggest you read about the city to get a bigger picture of what it's like here, i'll include some links you should check out below. There is a strange mixture of failure and hope here. It is not hopeless. It's hard. It's very real. Cairo is unique in many ways but not because it's poor and struggling. Our country is filled with places like Cairo and with poor, struggling people. Capitalism creates this situation. When you are born poor, you might not got to school and then it's hard to get a job. Of course, maybe you didn't go to school because it cost so much and you can't get a job to pay for it. Everything is far away and you need a car. You can't buy a car without a job but you can't get a job because you need a car to get to work. We don't make any sense. I'm learning a lot about the real people of our country here. I know why people might choose to shop at walmart instead of their local shops. When you are poor, saving $1 on a jar of pasta sauce can make quite a difference. People have families to feed. It's all very complicated. Punk rock can only teach you so much. Don't get me wrong, I love punk and I'm very thankful that I found it. But, there is more to learn.
I can't say anything about the future except that we are here and we are trying our best. It's hard, we don't know what we are doing, but, we are doing our best. We are not trying to "save cairo". We are just trying to do something positive and make a life for ourselves at the same time, a life we can be proud of, a life without rent or bosses. We hope more cool, creative, hard working punk kids will move here and be a part of this place. We hope that more local people will become involved in our movement too. We weren't born here but we live here. We work here. This is our home.
For further reading:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cairo,_Illinoishttp://www.illinoishistory.com/cairoscenes.htmlhttp://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5031980http://www.topix.com/city/cairo-il
Wisconsin PunX save the day by driving to Carbondale to buy last minute coffee shop needs:
German Punk paints in a weird little shirt:
Anthony, I mean, Lexington Punk, chills out!:
Newest resident of Cairo, Ken Freeman:
Gerd took the photo's above, this is Gerd, German, PunX!: