Evansville, IN (TFC) – I walk out of my apartment. The remnants of a small patch of trees and shrubs surrounding a sewer runoff cast a mangled gaze of confusion in my direction. What once was a small habitat for several raccoons, opossums, and even a magnificent hawk that once flew directly at me while I was smoking a cigarette on my porch is now a twisted mound of broken twigs and overgrown crabgrass. The city maintenance crews threw multiple pounds of green life into a woodchipper because their limbs were threatening to the lines of wires pumping man-made power through the crumbling municipal streets of Evansville, Indiana or as I like to call it, Little Detroit. This is the birthplace of an equally deplorable but lesser known set of Koch brothers.
I take a step and breathe. My lungs protest with several phlegm-filled coughs. I don’t smoke anymore. The fumes from the Barry Plastics petrochemical factory a few blocks away are stinging the nodules in my lungs with sociopathic disregard. Evansville is in the heart of the Ohio River Valley. The Ohio River is the most polluted body of water in America, seven years running. Five counties – Spencer, Posey, Pike, Warrick and Gibson – in Southwest Indiana produced 57.6 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the Ohio River Valley in 2007. That is one-third more than all the industries in New York City, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Indianapolis, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Diego combined, according to John Blair, president of the environmental group Valley Watch.
“We have distinct problems down here with neurological diseases and we are under assault from almost every kind of toxic chemical there is,” says Blair. The AK Steel refinery and Rockport Power Plant emit 30 million pounds of toxins into the environment each year by themselves. Rockport has less than 20,000 people and 1 in 12 of those people will be diagnosed with a neurological disorder like Multiple Sclerosis or Autism in their lifetimes. “A lot of that [pollution] goes into the water. The bulk of it goes into the waste water, which goes into the Ohio River, which I drink,” says Blair.
The Ohio River Valley used to be called “Plastic Alley.” Barry and GE Plastics, along with many other toxic industries went through most of the 20th century with virtually no regulation. In the mid 1990s, an entire 13 person research and development department of GE Plastics was promptly shut down out of nowhere one day when the employees arrived to work. They were all assigned to new departments without explanation. Within in one year, all 13 were dead from some form of cancer.
I walk out of my apartment complex. I see where the sewer runoff connects with the ditches that lead to the city’s waste treatment facility. I am reminded of how Indiana has failed to properly report water toxins for years. Green and orange hues of unknown scum cling to the surface of the water. I don’t want to breathe but I have to. As I continue down First Avenue, I pass the partially broken ground for the still yet to be built Hotel and Convention center located to my right. A circle of immobile, heavy machinery rests in the same place it did 12 months ago when I first moved here. $20 million worth of taxpayer money still sits in Old National Bank bonds.
The Kochs that bought the Republican party are not the Kochs that have destroyed Evansville. Those Kochs run Koch Industries. A different set of Koch and balls run Koch Enterprises. Like their names, their approach is strikingly similar. Philipp Koch emigrated from Germany with his wife to Evansville in 1843. He had 5 sons. One of those sons, George Koch, started Koch Tin Shop on Franklin St. in downtown Evansville in 1873. George’s son Louis and his 2 brothers, Albert and George W., joined the business and changed the name to George Koch Sons in 1903, when papa George died. Nowadays, Koch Enterprises is a multi-billion dollar marketing consultant and manufacturing conglomerate.
I walk a while longer, past the $20 million vacant lot, and see a giant Koch staring me in the face on the front of Koch Enterprises’ corporate headquarters. Its board of directors owns every aspect of local government, banking, construction, law, healthcare and education. President and CEO, Jeffery A. Bosse is also treasurer and member of the Board of Directors for the Evansville Bar Association, board member of the Southwestern Indiana Mortgage Bankers Association, and Corporation for Housing Opportunities. Another board member, Alan Braun, is on the board for Old National Bancorp, the bank withholding $20 million that dug a hole instead of building a hotel. Other executives of Koch Enterprises are on the boards of the Public Housing Authority, Deaconess Hospital Systems, Chambers of Commerce, Evansville University, Fifth Third Bancorp and one even worked as a management consultant for BP. Another was a consultant for KPMG, the firm that produced a report outlining the profit potential of launching an invasion of Western Africa to build an oil refining network.
I close my eyes momentarily. My mind is flooded with thoughts of the oil industry, Ukraine, the World Bank, corruption, genocide, killer cops, and the impending invasion of Africa. I open my eyes expecting to scream but instead I cough up more phlegm and spit it violently into the disgusting water in front of me. It looks like a swollen red rose glistening with dew compared to the filth in which it floats.
I lose track of how many abandoned buildings and factories I encounter before I finally reach the congested and murmuring heart of downtown. I see the giant Ford Centre with a scrolling marquee advertising some shitty Christian band opening for Toby Keith. Across the street sits the giant courthouse and police station. Hundreds of squad cars and swat vans line the parking lots and overflow into the fractured blacktop streets. Smirking cops with steroid eyes and bud light bellies stand confidently around me, knowing they are invincible. The day I moved into my apartment a man was shot and killed by police. He had an argument with his girlfriend and was wielding a knife. He was more than 20 feet away when he was shot.
My face is contorted with misdirected rage and I change course for the one redeeming aspect of this toxic, dystopian bouquet of Koch and moldy stone: The Library. Amazingly, Evansville has one of the best library systems in the country. Eight different branches with over 1 million books are the reason it ranks in the top 1% of American libraries, according to the Library Journal. I couldn’t count how many books, graphic novels, and dvds I have checked out from these libraries.
Desperate for fresh air and something pleasing to my retinas I walk through the underground parking garage to the entrance. On my way in, I spot the two city police squad cars and one SWAT van that remain parked in the garage every single day. I passive aggressively give the finger to the SWAT van as I traipse through the revolving doors.
Once I climb the stairs to the lobby, I see the magnificent upside down sculpture hanging from the ceiling. It’s a massive 15 foot tree made of recycled scrap metal sprouting from an equally massive sculpted book. More sculpted books extend from the branches of the tree, creating a beautiful web-like weaving of recycled metal that rewards me with new details each time I see it.
I turn right and enter the adult fiction section. I browse through the impressive selection of comic books in the back of the room. I smile when I see all nine volumes of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. I grab a random volume and decide to go sit down and read for a bit. As I walk towards my chair I see a man I assume is homeless sleeping in a nearby seat. The Rescue Mission Shelter is only two blocks away. As I begin to read, a cop comes up to the homeless man and shakes him awake. He tells the man he can’t sleep here and has to leave. The men make eye contact for a brief moment. This cop is not a bully. His lips curl downwards as the homeless man lets out a deep sigh. It appears as though they share a mutual moment of humanity clashing with reality. The man rises without saying a word and disappears into the tall bookshelves. The cop walks away with his head down, possibly wondering why it is part of his job to tell people they can’t sleep in chairs at the library. I no longer feel like reading.
Evansville has a population of about 180,000. Of them, about 1000 are homeless. Other than the Rescue Mission, there are extremely limited options or resources for these people. Fair market value for a one bedroom apartment in Evansville is $583. Based on the Housing Authority’s estimates, a person receiving disability SSI benefits of $674 can only afford a monthly rent of $202. A working person must work 74 hours at minimum wage or get paid $13.41 an hour to live in a two bedroom apartment. Obama raised SSI to $714 this year in Indiana but minimum wage is still $7.25. Thank you, Obama, O sweet savior of the poor and marginalized.
I leave the library and attempt to shake the stinging acid from inside my head. Cyclical progressions of deafening thoughts cause my neurons to misfire, leaving me anxious and desperate to be anywhere else but here. I take different streets to get home and pass by one of the project neighborhoods. Elderly men and women sit on lawn chairs in front of the graffittied 12-story building, chatting and laughing the way old people do. A dead goose floats in the stagnant sewer-pond adjacent to the building. My head is full of too much noise to interpret the metaphor.
I arrive back at my fair market value apartment. I cross the tepid creek and catch a glance of the property manager’s Escalade parked next to the office. As I follow the procession of identical rows of old bricks to reach my door, I take notice of the polished aluminum sign proclaiming the safety of the complex due to constant police surveillance. As I finally ascend the stairs and reach my door, a folded piece of green paper is stuffed inside the handle to my screen door. I unfold it and discover I have been charged $25 for having a sheet over my front window. I resist the urge to use the sheet of paper as a wick for a molotov cocktail to be hurled through the window of the manager’s Escalade. I put on music and the chaotic noise in my head subsides. My cat twirls and purrs in front of me like an acrobat with brain damage. My girlfriend stands smiling in the frame of the bedroom door. There exist luxuries that no amount of corruption or bureaucracy can take from me. In this moment, I am a king.