I had an unnerving experiance the other day. I’ve felt it before, the best way I can describe it is the “unseen bulk syndrome”.
My job is in a large industrial building, a warehouse really. It has seen previous owners, and when my company moved in lots of the infrastructure was left in place. There are large pipes and huge ducts snaking across the roof, probably more than twenty years old. I guess it costs too much to pull it out and throw it away.
The layout is almost like a castle. The exterior walls are lined on the inside with rooms, surrounding a central large open space. The rooms on the walls are offices, workshops, labs, and storage rooms. Above the ground level roooms are a second level of rooms, mostly used for storage. Imagine a wall two stories high, seen from inside the main area. On the ground level there are some doors and windows, and then about fifteen feet up there are a set of double doors (three sets actually, around the warehouse), flush with the wall, reachable only by rolling ladder. If you want to get into the second story, you have to climb a ladder and then open the door with one hand before you can step in, since there is no landing. I’m mildly acrophobic, so this is always a little harrowing. There are no windows in the second story either, so it’s really dark unless you can find the light switch.
Monday I was tracing some ducts for a machine I’m working on. They went into the roof, so I went back into the warehouse and climbed a nearby ladder to the second story. Above me (and a little to the right) is a monstrous duct, probably four feet tall and ten feet across. It goes straight into the wall, but I don’t really think about what this implies. I get to the top of the ladder. The door opens easily.
I step into the darkness.
What I see in the gloom shouldn’t be frightening. Nevertheless some deep part of my wants to scream. I find myself turning against my will to scramble back down the ladder. I stop myself, and once more face the dusky sight. It’s an airconditioning unit! A big metal box, probably with a heat exchanger inside. It carries air. It won’t hurt me. I know this!
It’s the same feeling you get while swimming in murky water and you see something below you, or feel a brush on your toe. It’s the feeling of looking over the side of a rowboat, and seeing something huge rising from the depths beneath you. It is the knowlege that behind a facade lurks something massive; something unseen. Something, if not alive, then at least with an unstopable motion, or capacity for motion, or merely an unstoppable stillness. It is the sensation of uncertainty in the presence of some unknown object much more massive than yourself.
So, it would have felt better if there had been a rhinoceros. It would have been startling, but in a different way. I know what a rhinoceros is, and what it is likely to do. The metal box though, it stretches from floor to ceiling, from four feet away to where it vanishes in the darkness. I know there is something inside, but I’m not sure what. Has it been gutted? Are the workings still sitting there, sleeping in the dark, ready to awaken? Insulated pipes and giant ducts stretch throughout the room. What parts of the room aren’t filled with ducts are stacked with cardboard boxes. I search for the light switch, but I cant find it. Are there even lights in this room? I look up, and see an old sign, peering down from between a pair of steam pipes. Only part of it is visible, but I think it reads “Warning, never use this room as a storage area”. Like a prophet with an unpopular message, it has been set behind bars. Also like a prophet it somehow continues to convey that the present circumstances are unacceptable. I have no flashlight. I wait a bit, to see if the sense of dread will subside.
Yesterday I returned, with a flashlight this time. The flashlight helped to see, but the whole time I was up there poking around the same sense of terror weighed on me. I found the main circuit breaker (it was off), that’s good. I found the heat exchangers, sweet. I found unused ducts, discarded equipment, some small motors (still running, probably recently installed), some electrical power supplies. I even worked up my courage and opened the access door to the big metal box. There is a massive blower inside, very cool. The discoveries and understanding do nothing to decrease my trepidation.
So now you’re probably thinking “What? It’s an airconditioner. You’re an engineer, you design these kinds of things right? What’s the deal?”
Yeah. That’s what I’m wondering too. What, of all the weirdness, is the deal? I suspect I’d feel the same way if I were swimming up to an oil tanker. Maybe it’s just a visceral response to being near something which might fall on me. Maybe it’s a healthy fear when around machines which I suspect could suck me in and churn me into salsa. Maybe I’m just afraid of the dark. Maybe I need therapy. Maybe I’ll ignore it and get on with life (after writing a criminally long personal post about the experience on a group blog).
Oh, and I never found the ducts I was tracing. Maybe the big metal box ate them.
Here’s another post about bulky things.