New Jersey explorer, writer, photographer, filmmaker, welder, artist, skateboarder, avid Passaic River canoe traveler, graffiti lover, urban anthropologist, prankster, high school dropout, WFMU listener, Weird NJ contributor, and as he calls himself "run of the mill trespasser" are all titles befitting Wheeler Antabanez who will be a guest on WFMU today (Nov 20th 3-6pm) on Put The Needle On The Record when he will talk about his passion - New Jersey, especially the rundown abandoned funky parts - and take phone calls from listeners on exploring the abandoned buildings of the Garden State. But in the meantime, as a primer for his WFMU appearance, here are a sampling of video clips of some of Wheeler's adventures plus his interview with Beware Of The Blog (BOTB).
BOTB: Are you NJ born and bred, and when & where did you first start your explorations?
WHEELER: I grew up in Caldwell, which put me in easy bicycle range of the abandoned Essex Mountain Sanatorium. My friends and I happened upon the hospital while we were exploring the woods in North Caldwell behind Matarazzo’s Farm. The first thing we saw was the entrance column with a huge swastika spray painted across the front. It was in the peak of summer, the buildings were completely overgrown, and Overbrook, which is what we used to call it back then, was the scariest thing I had ever seen. It didn’t take us long to grow the balls to enter the building. By the time I was 15 or 16 I knew the layout so well it was almost like I owned the place. In those days I had an M17 BB gun hidden in the rafters above the auditorium. When I walked the halls with that weapon in my hand, I felt like nothing could hurt me, even on the darkest midnights. Looking back, I was lucky to have never been shot by the sheriffs’ officers on patrol, because the gun looked real. The best part was the innocence of our destruction. We found the place long after it had already been trashed by generations of teenagers, so it didn’t seem like a crime to break the windows, or smash the toilets. Over the years I’ve worked many construction jobs and smashed up plenty of plumbing. Somehow demolition has never seemed like much fun compared to when I used to run wild through the sanatorium.
BOTB: Is NJ truly a haven for all things weird and funky and abandoned?
WHEELER: New Jersey is awesome if you love graffiti, music, public libraries, and skateboarding, which is pretty much how I grew up. Concrete and decaying brick can be a very beautiful thing if you look at it right. I haven’t traveled much outside Jersey unless you consider all the books I’ve read. I feel like I know old-time London like the back of my hand because I’ve been gobbling up Charles Dickens for the past 9 months. Books teach me about strange lands. They serve as time machines, capable of revealing the past and future. Between the Passaic River and my library I don’t feel the need to ever get on an airplane. I have everything right here to keep my imagination well oiled.
BOTB: What would be five of the most engaging places in NJ you've discovered?
WHEELER: The Essex Mountain Sanatorium made me the man I am today. Overbrook Mental Hospital taught me how to elude the cops. The Hilltop Nursing Home showed me the power of fire. The Colt Mill in Paterson taught me fear. The Essex Generating Plant in Newark was the sickest, darkest hole I have ever encountered.
BOTB: What was that miniature tree house project prank all about - can you briefly explain?
WHEELER: That was just a little fun I was having. My neighbor was throwing out this dead tree, which stands about 3 feet tall. I thought I could bring it back to life, so I grabbed it and put it near the window in my office. One day, I was painting a picture and had some leftover red on my pallet. Soon the tree was bright red with black polka dots. Next, I built a little platform in the tree made of toothpicks. This soon blossomed into a gazebo and on and on it went. I ended up spending two weeks on the tree house, documenting the entire process with still photos. When it was finished, I took the whole tree, pot and all, outside to take some pictures in the sunlight. The best shots were the ones from underneath, showing the real trees above. From some angles, it actually looked real and I decided to see if I could fool some people. I wrote up a bogus little story about it and posted a section on my website, along with specific pictures and a fake MLS listing. The website that covers local matters around Montclair, baristanet.com picked up the story. Before I knew it, people were driving past my apartment, looking for the tree house supposedly looming above Lackawanna Plaza. The whole thing basically started as an arts and crafts project, but ended up as an amusing joke. Check it out here…
BOTB: What have you done to date with the Weird NJ folks and how great are those guys and what they do?
WHEELER: Mark Sceurman and Mark Moran have been awesome to me. Having your own Weird NJ special issue is a rare honor and from the beginning I took it very seriously. I owe them so much for letting me do my own thing when it came to Nightshade on the Passaic. I kept them updated on my adventures and occasionally asked a question or two, but for the most part they didn’t even read the manuscript until it was almost complete. Having total freedom allowed the story to tell itself and made Nightshade the most satisfying writing assignment I’ve tackled so far.
BOTB: What are your plans for the future?
WHEELER: Right now, I’m looking for other guerilla filmmakers to help me with a full length Nightshade on the Passaic movie. The plan is to shoot the film in a year, write a book while we’re filming, edit the movie, and use the extra footage for a television show. If I can find a few seaworthy people with cameras, this dream will become reality. I’m also trying to attract the attention of a certain Soft Skull Press for the publication of my novel Matt and Jess Forever, which has been sitting on my desk for years and needs to be in print.
For more info on Wheeler Google "Wheeler Antabanez" and you will find links to everything he's ever made public. Then there is his MySpace, while Luckycigarette.com has a couple unpublished novels he's written and a bunch of the press he's garnered over the years. And Weirdnj.com has the nightshade stuff and while his youtube channel has many engaging videos of this modern day NJ explorer like the one of the Passaic River above and the one of the abandoned pumping station near the Rahway River immediately below.