A few 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 set in Detroit. 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 co-writer.
What could possibly go wrong?
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.
Just 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 (incidentally, Batman vs. Superman was partially shot in Detroit).
Though I knew of Zug Island, I had no clue what went down there and was curious. Protected by my “crew”, the time had come to finally see for myself. My crew was skeptical, but I was driving so I turned onto the gravel driveway and over the one-way bridge leading to the island.
“It says no trespassing!” my director shouted, as we passed a giant “NO TRESPASSING” sign posted on the bridge.
“How is this different than all the abandoned houses we trespassed?”
“It’s very different,” the director said.
I convinced them it was worth it…in the name of art. As it turned out, it was actually in the face of stupidity.
We traversed onto what resembled a post-apocalyptic, industrial wasteland of an island dominated by an endless Habitrail system of a factory. Despite a handful of cars in the enormous parking lot, there wasn’t a single human soul in sight. It seemed unfathomable that any human life could possibly survive – let alone work there. However, it was becoming increasingly apparent that we were in the human-less domain of robots.
As we drove deeper into the abyss, none of us said a word, as though in mutual fear of voice-activated robot snipers. If it wasn’t already too late.
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-writer said.
And then right on cue, flashing lights approached us from behind, seemingly out of nowhere. I couldn’t help but think of the driverless police cars in Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian”. 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, 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.
“If we go to jail because of this…” my co-writer began.
“I’m sure we’ll just be asked to leave,” I said, trying to remain calm,
“What is this place?” the director said.
“Zug Island,” I said. “That’s all I know.”
“But I mean, what exactly goes on here?”
“I honestly don’t know,” I said. “But I have a feeling we’re about to find out.”
But we never found out, thus deepening 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, humanoid security officer approached my window.
“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 the individuals in my car were not overtly suspicious, but just off-kilter enough to alert at least some suspicion.
The droid officer finally returned and handed us back our IDs, 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.” I was fully convinced that we were communicating with an automaton.
“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. He then proceeded to follow us right off of the island until we were safely back on the mainland of inner city, abandoned Detroit.
Nobody said a word, but the tension could certainly be cut with a knife until I humbly admitted:
“Yeah, probably a dumb idea on my part.”
“You think?” said my co-writer said.
I naturally 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 anytime soon.
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. 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 – 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 happed. She questioned my judgment, then gave me the number to FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper 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? If so, I was especially grateful in this particular instance. Realizing I really had no choice, we arranged a meeting for the following afternoon.
The FBI had me pegged me as a terrorist suspect. This was my new reality.
Just like that, my life morphed into Kafka.
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. But their time never came.
I scratched my head over this, asking myself repeatedly … why just me?
And then it dawned on me. I lived in Dearborn, Michigan – home to the largest Muslim population outside of the Middle East. Not only did I live in Dearborn. I lived in east Dearborn, where the vast majority of the largest Muslim population outside of the Middle East called home. Bear in mind, this was just a few years after 9/11.
I decided it was probably a good idea to let my then 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 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 constant whir of a helicopter.
Aside from trespassing, I knew I did nothing wrong, yet 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 (teaching 1984 of all things), I rushed home and prepared to meet my maker. I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was somehow guilty– 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 tidying up our 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 ESPN to appear as “American” as possible when the SWAT team arrived. Time trudged 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, but politely declined my drink offer.
The two agents seemed nice enough and far more “human” 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. But surely they did their homework ahead of time.
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 being called into duty as an FBI informant. It was now my “patriotic duty”.
“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.
And that was that.
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 never had the need to call. But it sure felt pretty bad ass to have a direct connection to the FBI. I still have the business card till this day. Call me paranoid, but I continue to experience minor inconveniences at the airport – but nothing that leaving early doesn’t rectify.
Regarding the future, feature film that was indirectly the catalyst for this experience, I scrapped my plans to make it myself, but it has since been turned into a novel and currently in development as a film by individuals I hope will be wiser than me when it comes to location scouting. 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.