Every town has a place like this. In Charlottesville, Virginia, it’s the coal tower. A squat, concrete bunker roughly the shape of an enormous thermos bottle, it stands shaggy with kudzu on six ponderous concrete legs next to the train tracks that run east and west through downtown. A few coal and gas trains still run along these tracks, rumbling between mines up in the mountains and power plants dotted around the Virginia Piedmont, but now that all the revamped warehouses have gone electric or solar, the tower serves no purpose. Its steel-reinforced walls are too sturdy to dynamite, and so far no developer has imagined a way to turn it into condos. At one point, years ago, a sculptor built a 20-foot tall dress frame atop the tower, then draped a giant’s white cotton dress on it, naming the work in honor of Thomas Jefferson’s slave mistress Sally Hemings. He meant it to be a thought-provoking, lovely memorial and provocation, and it did serve — if nothing else — as a middle finger aimed at Monticello, the Founding Father’s hilltop home.
The artist was surprised, however, to learn that the dress would not stay on. He’d get a call at his studio in Staunton and drive over the mountain to find the yards of fabric that made up the sculpture’s dress stretched across the honeysuckle thickets, torn and dirty, as if blown off by the wind. He’d unstitch it into washable sections, have it laundered and resewn, then spend a whole day with ladders, tools and a couple university students precariously fitting the dress back onto the frame. Two days later, he’d get the call again. This happened three times. After that, he bought a thermos of coffee and parked his pickup behind some scrap lumber by the tracks and waited. Woke up with a start to find the dress gone again, but this time it was nowhere to be found. He looked everywhere it could have blown, then noticed something, a crack in the coal chute door. The door was carved into the face of the tower ten feet off the ground, but he was able to straddle a rail siding in his pickup and hoist himself up from the cabtop. To his surprise, the door was not sealed at all, just blocked by a flap of plywood that he easily pushed aside. You couldn’t see much in there, but his flashlight revealed that someone had found a use for the coal tower after all. A rusty ladder bolted onto the interior wall stretched down to a circular room littered with squatter’s treasure: blankets, pans, an old mattress and piles of other debris. Crumpled in one corner, like a deflated hot air balloon, lay the torn and coal-streaked dress.
The artist climbed down inside the tower and retrieved the dress. He then notified the police and personally sealed the coal chute door with an old oaken tabletop that he bolted into the concrete. But he gave up on the dress, leaving the skeletal frame atop the tower, having convinced himself that the sculpture was more interesting that way. But really, it would have been such a hassle to dismantle it, and nobody cared anyway. When he left, as far as anybody knew, the kudzu took over. The sturdy monstrosity squatted ugly and forgotten along the tracks.
Except not really. It had taken all of five minutes to pop the door bolts with a crowbar. The squatter’s camp was back in business in a week. A seasonal refuge, largely abandoned in the summer and winter, but cozy during the rains of spring and fall, it serves a transient population that the proud, go-getter town does not even imagine.