A couple of years ago, I ventured into Detroit for a scouting expedition for what I thought was going to be my first feature film – a gritty, crime drama using Detroit as a backdrop. We were in search of the most run-down, decrepit locations imaginable – which is something Detroit has an unfortunate abundance of. Accompanying me on our mission was an international crew of immigrants and fellow Americans – a Polish storyboard artist, a British director, an American location scout and my fellow American producing partner.
It was a dangerous undertaking for four white suburbanites, venturing deep into inner city Detroit and into abandoned structures in various degrees of decay, ranging from neglect, to arson. Many were clearly currently being used as halfway houses and crack dens. Although it may have looked like we were traversing on a grand-scale, post-apocalyptic movie set, we know full-too-well that we were miles away from a Hollywood ending.
Well past midnight, we ventured into the infamous, virtually desolate Delray “neighborhood” of southwest Detroit, running concurrently along the Detroit River. We approached the entranceway to the man-made, industrial wasteland of Zug Island, which resembles the skyline of Gotham City (which Detroit later was used for in Batman vs. Superman. Although I was vaguely familiar with the island, I had no clue what actually happened there. I was naturally curious and rolling in the safety of my “crew”, I decided to take the plunge and see for myself.
“Let’s go check this out,” I chirped, turning onto the gravel driveway leading to a one-way bridge leading to the island.
“What is it?” my director asked.
“Not really sure,” I said. “But just look at it. We have to have this in our movie!”
“Yeah, but it says no trespassing,” said the storyboard artist, referring to the enormous “NO TRESPASSING” sign posted on the bridge.
“Guys, think about it,” I began. “What do you think we’ve been doing in all the other places we went to tonight?”
“Well, this isn’t abandoned,” said the director. “And they didn’t have ‘no trespassing’ signs on them.
“But it was still trespassing,” I said, holding serve. This point seemed to do the trick, as everyone finally agreed to “Fuck it” in the name of art. And when it was all said and done, in the face in of stupidity.
We traversed onto what resembled a post-apocalyptic, industrial wasteland of an island, we observed what was at least 100 cars in the massive parking lot wrapping around the endless Habitrail system of a factory. Despite the cars, there wasn’t a single human soul in sight. It seemed unfathomable that any human life could possibly survive – let alone work – on such a God-forsaken property. For those fortunate few who somehow managed to escape from the island had one possible outcome: death by cancer. This, theory, of course, assumed that there was any human life on the island at all. It was becoming increasingly apparent that we were in the human-less domain of robots – soulless cyborgs – hell-bent on destruction, programmed to wipe out any sign of life.
As we drove deeper into the abyss, none of us said a word, as though in mutual fear of voice-activated robot snipers. Or, as was more likely the case, we were paralyzed with the realization that robot snipers were already targeting our car.
From a distance, the flaming towers of Zug Island resembled an enormous, scrambled pipe organ. Up close, the island resembled the gateway to hell, as enormous flames gushed out of industrial smokestacks, accompanied by the cacophony of various clicks and clanks, bleeps and bloops of whirligigs, gremlins and what-not overlooking an industrial wasteland devoid of human existence.
“Welcome to Cyberdyne Systems,” my co-producer said.
“Cyberdyne?” I asked.
“You know … where Terminator and its ilk are manufactured. Skynet and shit.”
“Oh, yeah!” I said, realizing, as flashing lights approached us from behind, seemingly out of nowhere. I couldn’t help but think of mind the driverless police cars in a Ray Bradbury story. A human voice (or something programmed to sound human) commanded: “Pull over at once. I repeat, pull over at once.”
Since it was clear we were the only humans in sight (clearly, the police were robots), we had no doubt that the command was intended for us. Since we were traversing across a parking lot, there was really nowhere to “pull over” so I just stopped the car, awaiting my final moments on earth.
The cop car’s spotlight was blinding and nobody was coming out of the vehicle.
“What the fuck is happening?” the Polish storyboard artist said with genuine panic in his voice.
“Great idea, Bob,” my producing partner said. “If we go to jail because of this…” His voice trailed off.
“I’m sure we’ll just be asked to leave,” I said, trying to remain calm as any captain of a ship should, simultaneously shitting my pants.
“What is this place?” the British director said.
“Zug Island,” I said. “That’s all I know.”
“But I mean, what goes on here?”
“I honestly don’t know,” I said. “But I have a feeling we’re about to find out.”
The fact that we didn’t find out only deepened the mystery and intrigue of our trespass. After five excruciating minutes, a figure finally emerged from the vehicle, swallowed by shadows. If it weren’t the cop from Terminator 2, it would be Robocop. This was Detroit after all.
Finally, a grim-faced, human-looking security officer approached my window, draped in a jet black security uniform, adorned in a red shield on his shoulder that read “Zug Island Authority Patrol.”
“May I ask why you are trespassing on the premises of Zug Island?” the officer asked, with a steely gaze and eyes that seemed incapable of blinking and emotion.
“We’re scouting locations for a feature film. We come in peace.”
“IDs please,” the soulless officer said, not buying what its programmer downloaded into his memory as a bullshit excuse.
We produced our IDs and Officer Android disappeared back into the blinding light of his vehicle. We waited 10 minutes for him – it – to process our data.
Once again, nobody said a word. We were frozen with fear.
While we waited, it dawned on me that in my car was a Polish national and a UK national. On the surface, nothing overtly suspicious, but just off-kilter enough to alert at least some suspicion.
The droid officer finally returned.
“Do you have any cameras on your person?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Two, I think. Right guys?”
“Please hand them over.
We turned our cameras in and I felt deep despair in the pit of my stomach, as I thought about that hundreds of personal photos from various vacations and family events that I would probably never see again. This was before the days of the Cloud and Dropbox.
The cop pocketed out cameras, before handing us back our IDs and issuing a stern warning.
“If you come back onto the premises of Zug Island again, you will be arrested. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes,” we all replied in unison.
“Now go. Leave the premises of Zug Island at once,” leaving me fully convinced that we were communicating with an automaton.
“Can we get our cameras back?”
“No. Your cameras are now the property of Zug Island.”
“Just curious,” I began. “What exactly goes on here … on the premises of Zug Island?”
The cop simply glared at me with his beady, soulless robot eyes, before heading back to his car. It was clear to me that he wasn’t programmed with a response to this particular question, which made perfect sense. He then proceeded to follow us right off of the island until we were safely back on the mainland of inner city, abandoned Detroit.
“Well, that was fucked up,” the British director said.
“Yeah, probably a dumb idea on my part.”
“You think?” said my producing partner.
“But so worth it!”
“Was it?” the director said.
“I think so.”
I would later change my tune on this assertion. At that moment, however, I assumed that this ordeal was over at that point. I also knew sure as hell that I
would not be returning to the premises of Zug Island … ever … again.
When I returned to the safe confines of my domicile, I immediately Googled Zug Island in an attempt to uncover just what exactly was so top secret about it. The only thing I could find was a vague reference to “top-secret government projects”, which – in its ambiguity – clearly explained the tight security and confiscated cameras. The lack of specific details was even more confounding.
A few days later, my theory that it was all over was proven bunk when I received a phone call from my mom, which served as yet another reminder why being named after your father has its disadvantages.
“The FBI left Dad a message on his work phone,” my mom began, filling me with dread. “They want to interview him about his trespassing incident on the premises of Zig Zag Island … or something like that. Do you know anything about this?”
“As a matter of fact,” I told my mom. “Yes.”
“What did you do?” she asked.
I explained to her what happened. She questioned my judgment, then gave me the number to the FBI Special Agent awaiting my phone call.
I’m not quite sure why they contacted my father to begin with. Sure, we shared the same name, but not the same address. Yet somehow, they tracked him down at his workplace.
Shaking in fear, I called the number, already envisioning my future life on Guantanamo Bay.
“Hello, this is Robert Fox. I’m calling about trespassing on the premises of Zug Island. You guys called my father, but it was actually me.”
“Oh, yes. Mr. Fox. We need to talk.”
“Am I in some sort of trouble?” I asked.
“We would like to question you regarding your involvement trespassing on the premises of Zug Island. Can we come to your place of residence at your earliest convenience?”
My convenience? Are actual terrorists given such courtesy? I definitely hoped not, while simultaneously grateful in this particular instance. Realizing I really had no choice, we arranged a meeting for the following afternoon, imagining myself slowly turning into a character out of a Kafka story.
The FBI had me pegged me as a terrorist suspect. This was my new reality.
I immediately called my international “crew” to see if they, too, were contacted. They were not. I was sure that it was only a matter of time.
“What do you mean by the FBI?” my co-producer asked.
“What do you mean, what do I mean?” I asked. “The F-B-I. The one and only.”
“This is the last thing I have time to deal with.”
“Well, hopefully, I can clear the air and everyone else will be off the hook. “
“Just like you said we wouldn’t get in trouble for trespassing to being with?”
“Yeah, well ..”
He had a point.
“Right now, it’s only my fish to fry.”
“It better be.” Click.
Subsequent conversations with the rest of my crew followed a similar script. I scratched my head over this, asking myself repeatedly … why just me?
And then it dawned on me. I lived in Dearborn, Michigan. Dearborn is home to the largest Muslim population outside of the Middle East. Not only did I live in Dearborn. I lived in east Dearborn, where over 90% of the largest Muslim population outside of the Middle East called home.
Having a (now ex) wife from the former Soviet Union certainly added to the suspected international espionage. However, if that was the case, then why weren’t my international crewmembers also being spoken to? The only explanation I could discern was that I was the driver. My passengers, on the other hand, could have been held captive, against their will, for all the FBI was concerned.
I decided it was probably a good idea to let my wife know that the FBI was planning on stopping by.
“What?” she asked, flabbergasted.
“The FBI. They’re coming to talk to me.”
“Why? What the fuck did you do?”
“On the premises of Zug Island.”
“Where’s Zug Island?”
“In Detroit. I’ll explain later.”
“Why does this type of shit always happen to you?”
I had no clue what she meant. Nothing even remotely close to this had ever happened before. But I didn’t have the time, nor the energy to inquire further.
“Everything is going to be fine,” I said, suddenly realizing that this conversation was in all likelihood wiretapped. It was only a matter of time before I would hear the whirring of a helicopter.
“I have to get back to work,” I finally said to my wife, realizing that I was now more afraid to tell her about our confiscated camera more than I was the FBI.
I continued to feel a growing sense of paranoia, despite my rational self being fully aware that I had absolutely nothing to incriminate myself with, aside from a simple trespassing violation. Yet, somehow, I couldn’t help but feel that I was a marked man. That my top-secret life as a terrorist was so top-secret, that not even I knew that I was a terrorist. These are the overriding thoughts one has when the FBI IS COMING OVER TO INVESTIGATE YOU!
After work, I rushed home and prepared to meet my maker. I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I somehow guilty beyond a simple act of trespassing – that I was truly a terror suspect. It was similar to the irrational feeling I get in airport security lines. I am overcome with the paranoid sense that security is on to me and therefore, I start looking guilty, which only makes me look even more suspicious, giving them an actual reason to suspect me, rather than the imagined one in my mind which kicked off the whole thing. It’s a vicious cycle.
As I was straightening up my flat, I reminded myself that acting nervous and jittery wouldn’t help my cause, but this thought was only making me more nervous. No amount of deep breaths or medication could help me now. And then it dawned on me that it probably didn’t help my cause that my walls were all bare in preparation of a paint job we were about to do, creating a sense that my living space was simply temporary, a terrorist cell awaiting activation So I did the only thing I could think of to neutralize the situation: I put a nail into an empty hole and grabbed my crucifix from my bedroom. It was my only defense.
With over an hour to spare, I sat down in my La-Z-Boy and turned on Fox News to appear as patriotic as possible when the SWAT team arrived. I tried to take a nap, but it was no use. Time continued to trudge on in a slow drip.
My hour of reckoning finally arrived when the doorbell rang, alleviating my fear that their entrance would be heralded with the abrupt, crashing of windows. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad, after all. Maybe I would live to see another day – that I wouldn’t be stripped of both my freedom and my dignity.
I let the two agents in, trying with all my might to appear as calm as possible, despite my rattling nerves. I politely offered them a seat, as well as something to drink. They sat down, and politely declined my drink offer, likely fearing a ricin attack, or an apartment full of explosives.
The two agents seemed nice enough and far more “human” – not to mention humane – than the emotionless, droid officer from Zug Island. Agent #1 was tall and thin, with an almost scholarly demeanor. Agent #2 was short and stocky like a prototypical blue collar beat cop and probably reported to Agent #1. Neither agent fit the profile of the stereotypical FBI agent that I envisioned, nor did I resemble the stereotypical profile of a terrorist. Then again, my olive skin tone from my half-Italian heritage might lead one to suspect that I was of middle-eastern descent.
Once we were settled, the interrogation process began. I tried to remain as calm as humanly possible. Other than the uncontrollable, repeated wiping of sweaty palms on my pants, I think I did okay, considering the surreal, nerve-wrecking circumstances. If I was this nervous being an innocent man, how does an actual suspect keep it together?
Agent #1 did all the questioning, as agent #2 scribbled down notes.
“So, what were you doing on the premises of Zug Island?”
“Scouting locations for a feature film.”
“A future film?”
“A feature film. And, I suppose, future film.”
“A gritty crime story set in Detroit.”
“Have you ever been involved in terrorist activity?”
“Are you affiliated with a terrorist organization?”
“Are you aiding or abetting a terrorist organization?”
“Have you ever conspired with a recognized enemy of the United States?”
“Okay, I guess our work here is done. Thank you for your time.”
The agents stood up, in perfect, synchronized unison.
“Wait, that’s it?” I asked, realizing that I sounded disappointment that my interrogation was over so quickly.
“Yes. We had to interview you as a formality, but we weren’t really worried,” Agent #1 said, as he handed me his business card. And then he threw me for an even bigger loop:
“By the way, since you live here in east Dearborn,” Agent #2 began. “We’d appreciate it if you could be our eyes and ears around here.”
And just like that, I was no longer a terror suspect…I was a quasi-FBI informant. God bless America.
“If you see anything suspicious,” Agent #1 began “Let us know immediately. And whatever you do, stay off of the premises of Zug Island.”
“I can assure you of that,” I said. “But what exactly goes on those premises?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know…” Agent #1 said.
Yeah, no shit. I do want to know.
“Any chance I can get my camera back?”
“We’re afraid not,” Agent #2 said.
And he meant it.
As I led the agents to the door, I still couldn’t believe how easy I was let off the hook. I was never more relieved, despite the lingering paranoia the whole experience left behind.
I never saw anything suspicious lurking in my neighborhood, so I never had the need to call. But it sure felt pretty cool to have a direct connection to the FBI. I still have the business card till this day. Despite the unfortunate misunderstanding, I continue to experience minor inconveniences at the airport, but nothing that leaving early doesn’t rectify. Call me paranoid, but I’m pretty sure my brush with the FBI has at least a little bit something to do with this.
Regarding the future, feature film that was indirectly the catalyst for this experience, it is still yet to be produced, but I remain as determined to get it made, as I am to get off of the FBI watch list. Of course, if I had my druthers and had to choose one outcome versus the other, my dream takes the cake.
R.J. Fox is the award-winning writer of several short stories, plays, poems, a memoir, and 15 feature length screenplays. Two of his screenplays have been optioned to Hollywood. His most recent publication is a travel memoir entitled Love & Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine, published through Fish Out of Water Books. His website is http://www.foxplots.com. Or follow him on Twitter @foxwriter7.