“Blackbirds” by Cecy Villarruel


“BP’s Whiting refinery in northwest Indiana was established in 1889, before the advent of the automobile. Today, it is the company’s largest and most modern refinery in the world. At 1,400 acres, the Whiting refinery … can produce up to 9 million gallons of gasoline every day.” –BP U.S. Economic Impact Report 2015




Birds on a Wire

There’s an image I saw somewhere online: two or three dozen blackbirds are perched up on powerlines. All are on the highest powerline except for one; on the bottom wire, there’s a lone blackbird smack in the middle. A caption reads, “Who did you notice more?”

I’m unsure what the point is. Be different? Be bold? Be noticed? I think that might be it. But what struck me most was that I didn’t immediately see the cluster of birds on the top line.  

Why did my eye zoom in to the one that was alone, different?

Three Cities for Soup

I jump in my 2001 Ford Crown Victoria, a preloved giant handed down to me from my boyfriend’s sister. Some stranger once joked, “You got a license to park that boat?” It’s big; a gas guzzler, for sure—a fact that didn’t bother me too much because I live right over the Indiana border. A one-minute drive gets me out of my home in Chicago and into an oasis of cheap gas: Go Lo, $ave, Fuel Zone, Luke’s, BP, and Shell’s Gas-A-Rooo!!  

I’m on my way to Johnel’s to pick up two quarts of navy bean soup. Johnel’s is a family restaurant next to a small Ramada Hotel just off the Indiana Toll Road. It’s only about a ten-minute drive, but I go through three cities to get there: Chicago, Hammond, Whiting. Because Hammond forms a sort of L-shape around Whiting, I pass it twice: Chicago, Hammond, Whiting, Hammond. I motor east on 108th and Avenue F, Avenue E, Avenue D; in the distance there’s Jane Addams Elementary School and dozens of small family homes with semi-manicured lawns, a mailbox on a corner, and some dad in sweats walking his teeny tiny dog. Avenue C, Avenue B, and finally—no, it’s not Avenue A—State Line Road. I’m out of Chicago.

In Hammond, the first business I see is a gas station, then a gas station, then a gas station, then Big Cheap Bombs (a fireworks store), Walmart, Horseshoe Casino, and another gas station. A little further on, there’s a trailer—a small, perfectly rectangular cigarette shop—painted like a Newport carton with a drive-up window for express service, and finally, right before exiting Hammond, there’s an abandoned gas station.

I drive south on Calumet Avenue. I pass the golf course and the oil tankers. Almost there. Then, I see a short Latina woman walking along the slim shoulder and I gasp. There are no sidewalks out here, not for miles. She could get hurt. There are lots of trucks getting on and off the toll road, and there are buses loaded with senior citizens heading to the casino to, slot by slot, spend away their pensions. She could get hit. I slow down and wonder if I should offer her a ride. Her brown hair is in a tight ponytail and she walks with her head down, with purpose. She’s got a plastic bag with what looks like lunch. I assume she works at the Ramada next to Johnel’s, so she doesn’t have much further to go. I drive on. She’ll be fine, I tell myself.

I pull into Johnel’s parking lot, just across the road from the Marathon Petroleum Corporation and the Exxon Mobil Oil Bulk Plant, and pick up my navy bean soup. As I walk back outside, I scan the large parking lot shared by Johnel’s and the Ramada to see if I can spot the woman from the road. I feel bad that I didn’t give her a ride. I should have. If I ever see her again, I’ll stop.


That was five years ago. As I drove back home, I looked for her and wondered why there were no sidewalks out here. It was the first time I ever really wondered about infrastructure, all those gas stations and oil tankers—was it us who needed the refinery or was it the refinery that needed us?

That woman, I never saw her again.  

Maybe she got a car.  

Maybe a car got her.

Whiting, IN, and Chicago Soot

Whiting, situated between Chicago and Hammond, is a small city of about 5,000 people. The charm of Whiting is remarkable. There are old-timey lampposts and an old-timey movie theater. A lovely maroon sign welcomes you and informs you that Whiting was established in 1889, when Standard Oil built up the refinery. There are cobblestone streets and the image of Herbert “Pop” Whiting, the city’s founder, decorates a storefront. You pass Winey Beach Café and Sunrise Diner and Indy Perk and even though it’s only a few minutes over the Illinois border, you feel a world away from Chicago.

With the state-of-the-art baseball field, Oil City Stadium, donated by BP, street names like Standard Avenue, and the Whiting Community Center built with money donated by the refinery and by John D. Rockefeller himself, it appears that the refinery and Whiting are a match made in heaven.

But that wasn’t always the case.

When Whiting was a village, still small and hardly populated, they wanted to become a town and eventually a city, but Standard Oil fought against this because they didn’t want their taxes to go up. And when workers started to flood into Whiting to build and then work at the refinery, they weren’t treated well. Many men were often drunk when not working because it was hard to get clean drinking water and Standard only provided one faucet. Local resident and historian for the Whiting Public Library, Anthony Borgo writes, “Large families were crowded into small dwellings or tarpaper shacks. In addition, due to the lack of sewers and pure drinking water, epidemics of typhoid fever ravaged the community from time to time.”[1]

However, when the town kept growing, it became clear that it would need to be incorporated as a city to have access to sewers, drinking water, firemen and police, etc. The neighboring city of Hammond, seeing the growth of Whiting, wanted to take over Whiting, but Standard didn’t like this idea. “The Standard Oil Company… and the citizens of Whiting joined together in a long and bitter fight with the City of Hammond. This new band of brothers formed a legal partnership which was funded primarily by the Standard Oil Company. The oil company felt that they would receive more favorable financial treatment in the hands of Whiting instead of Hammond”.[2] In other words, you scratch our back, we’ll scratch yours.

        But it’s a different story on my side of the border.

        A few years ago, the refinery stored uncovered petcoke—a byproduct of the oil refining process—in my neighborhood. When I drove over the 106th street bridge, I saw slick, black tire marks that stretched for blocks; the petcoke blew freely with every breeze, onto our cars and bodies, into our lungs. People who lived right across the street from the sooty black hills had trouble breathing. Children complained of burning eyes and chest pains; some parents asked that their kids remain indoors for school recess. Petcoke covered homes, toys, and fingers.[3]

The Protest

I am not a protest person. I don’t really like crowds or screaming. And while I can appreciate a poster board in the air with someone’s strong belief expressed cleverly and/or concisely, I’m much more comfortable with my hands in my pockets. And yet in the summer of 2016, I found myself at a protest against the BP refinery in Whiting. My first protest, just three minutes from my home. Honestly, I don’t think I would have gone—even if I did believe in it—if an old teacher hadn’t asked me to join her

The protest began at Lakefront Park, just beyond Oil City Stadium. I was surprised to find police cars blocking the entrance; their presence dissuading people from going any further. And as the day went on, their barriers seemed to stretch further into the town. The people of Whiting didn’t even seem to know there was a protest that day. As I drove down the main business street, the city seemed calm, unaware. I had to go around several one-way streets to enter the park from another side.

Once inside, I found hundreds of people gathered around a small pavilion listening to environmental speakers and activists including Tara Houska, an Ojibwe tribal attorney, and environmentalist and author Bill McKibben. All the speakers stressed the importance of keeping our water, land, and air clean. There were cheers and chants and a genuine earnestness in the audience to fight for a cleaner world. Scattered on the grass were nearly as many colorful signs as there were people: Keep it in the Ground; A Solar Spill is a Nice Day; Stand up to Big Oil; Break Free from Fossil Fuels.

After the speakers, we marched. People grabbed their signs and drums and papier-mâché pipelines and took to the streets. We walked through a few residential blocks. On the first block, a man stood on his front porch with a thumb in the air yelling, “Oil rules!” On the second block I saw the image that has most stuck with me from that day: a girl who couldn’t have been more than 13 years old stood in front of her home holding the sign, “We support BP. How did you get here?”

It’s a common argument: you protest against oil, yet you use gasoline to get around in your cars; you’re hypocrites. The girl looked irritated and proud. She was equal parts innocence and apathy. She had blond, frizzy hair; she swayed side to side and looked straight ahead, avoiding our eyes. I stared at her hoping she’d look at me. I don’t know why I didn’t go up to her. Part of me wanted to ask her questions, but part of me assumed she wouldn’t really listen to me—that she’d just repeat arguments she’d heard her parents making, like most any 13-year-old would. Barely a teenager, she seemed to have her mind made up that this was how the world worked: we use gasoline to get to where we want to go. Simple. We support BP.

As I marched on, I had imaginary conversations with her in my mind. I pictured walking up to her, smiling and saying something in a friendly voice like, “That’s a logical fallacy, you know: Tu Quoque.” I shook my head: wow, that would be annoying. Then, I imagined explaining how it wasn’t us who dug for oil, or built roads, or manufactured cars. It’s not that we want to drive cars, it’s that we inherited a world where we have to.[4] I shook my head again. I imagined my 13-year-old self and how I might respond; I don’t think I would have heard it.  

But I might respond to a story. So, I imagined asking her to sit with me for a while so I could tell her about John Sears.

He goes by Mule, and he’s been walking the western US for about 30 years. He’s got three mules, Lady, Little Girl, and Pepper, and they go with him everywhere. He’s got no home. He says he’s been homeless even before “homeless” was a word. Mule is a nice guy; he loves travelling with his mules, sleeping outside, and meeting people along the way. When he passes through neighborhoods, kids get excited to see the mules and ask to pet them. He likes times like those, when people are happy to see him and his mules; he wishes it could always be that way.  

But it’s not.  

It’s often hard for him to travel with his mules. “Space is disappearing so fast,” he laments in one article. “They’re building highways and roads, and everything is engaged in nothing else but for the good of automobiles.” He tries to go from one place to the next, sometimes walking and sometimes riding one of the mules, but he gets hassled. He’ll be walking around Beverly Hills or somewhere with his mules and gets stopped, told to take his animals away, arrested. He’s been arrested dozens of times and has had several court cases brought against him. He’s even been put in mental hospitals. There’s a ton of articles about Mule—how he’s not allowed to cross the Golden Gate Bridge, how people call the cops on him when he and his mules camp along the side of the road, how he’s an oddball public disturbance. A policewoman once said to him, “This is not okay. Maybe in the gold rush days, but now we have cars.”[5]

I would tell that 13-year-old girl all about John Sears. And I would answer her question about how we got there with another question: how else could we have gotten here?  


After a few short residential blocks, we were amidst the refinery. As the crowd of hundreds pumped their fists and bright signs in the air chanting things like Solar power, wind power! and We are unstoppable! Another world is possible! we walked on, flanked on one side by massive refinery machinery and on the other by colossal oil tankers. In front of us and behind there were police cars. I was expecting us to walk down Whiting’s main street or more residential areas so people could see us, so more of the community would be engaged, even if that just meant more teens holding signs on their porches. But after two or three blocks, the march was solely within in the streets around the refinery. Being a Sunday, hardly any workers were around. It was us, the cops, and the refinery. Access to any other streets were blocked off by several police vehicles. A mile in, seeing nothing around us but officers and smoggy steam rising from the machinery, I wondered who would even know we were there. I wondered if this made a difference at all. Did the hopeful chants for a cleaner earth even reach the edges of the 1,400 acre refinery?

Close to a refinery entrance gate, we stopped. I was far back in the crowd, so I wasn’t sure what was happening. Along the way, we’d stopped and started several times to allow everyone time to catch up, but this stop was much longer than the others. After about 15 or 20 minutes, I tried to see what was going on in front, but there were too many people and I couldn’t see anything. People around me started to question if the march was over and complained of pain in their feet. One couple tried to call a friend who was closer to the front to figure out what was happening, but nobody answered. I was tired of standing around and debated whether or not to leave; after about an hour, I did leave. I started to walk back the way we came, but I could feel a couple of blisters on my feet and the sun was scorching. I looked all around me; aside from the protesters and cops, there was nobody in sight. Police not only lined the march route, they used their cars to close off roads several blocks down. Giant oil tankers were on three sides of me and the refinery on the fourth. There’re no buses out there, no Divvy bikes, no trains. I felt stuck.

I called my boyfriend and asked him to pick me up. It should have only taken him 5-10 minutes to get to me, but because of the blocked streets, the tank farms, and the refinery, he had to go several miles out of the way. It took him nearly an hour to get to me. I sat on the ground, hot, tired. I watched more rally goers slowly leave, confused about what the holdup was. I looked off in every direction, the miles of concrete road, the acres of tanks and machinery. I would have given anything for a bike, but then again, there are no bike lanes.


The next two days, I searched online for articles, videos, or pictures from the protest. I was shocked to discover what was happening on the other side of the crowd. While I and many others waited patiently for the crowd to start moving again, while we slumped on the ground and dropped our signs and drank what was left of our bottled waters, while we got tired and frustrated and walked away, some had formed a circle, held hands, and danced. They were surrounded by officers in riot gear. Local NPR reporter Michael Puente tweeted a picture of the officers with the caption, “Military-style police tactical unit ready to protect BP’s Whiting, Indiana refinery near Chicago from protesters.” Protect? Protect from the handful of bohemians sitting crossed legged on the ground, singing? The peaceful protesters—about 40 of them—remained until they were dragged away by the policemen, cuffed at the wrists.

I was there so long, waiting for something to happen, waiting to keep moving forward. But we got stuck. So, I left. Yet so close there was another experience. I was right there, a stone’s throw away, and I missed it. My feet were sore and I was tired, so I jumped in my boyfriend’s truck and joined the river of cars streaming down Indianapolis Blvd.

The Nature of Birds

That lone blackbird on the wire—why did my eye zoom in?

Maybe it’s like when the bus tour guide tells you to look at the charming cafés to your left, not the lone woman on the slim shoulder to the right. Ooh and aah at the state-of-the-art baseball field while an old man with mules is hauled off to prison. Be awed by the charm of Whiting and let the gas stations and all those oil tankers fade in the background. If we marvel at the beauty of Lakefront Park, that refinery becomes virtually invisible. So, we go along for the ride hardly giving a thought to the real wonder of the roads beneath our tires or the desperate need to keep us on them.

That lone blackbird on the wire—it’s just a picture.

It was one mundane moment that someone tried to turn into something poetic and meaningful with a caption. But there’s nothing poetic or meaningful about where birds stand on powerlines. They were probably just taking a break before continuing south for the winter. I’m sure seconds after that picture was taken, all the birds fluttered off in their flock. That lone blackbird, too. I’m sure, without even thinking, it joined in as soon as the others took flight. Because, after all, it can’t survive alone. So, they all soared, indistinguishable, to some warmer place where they could live, together.


Cecy smooth-3
Cecy Villarruel is a PhD student in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is also a writing tutor with the City Colleges of Chicago. While in the Peace Corps in Namibia, she was co-editor of IZIT? A Magazine for the Namibian PCV. Her essays and fiction have appeared in Oyez Review, CAF Review, and anthologies of Chicago writers Alchemy and Paper Atrium.



[1] Borgo, Anthony. “It was the best of times, It was the worst of times.” Whiting Public Library, whiting.lib.in.us/local-history-articles.

[2] Borgo, Anthony. “Stolen History.” Whiting Public Library, whiting.lib.in.us/local-history-articles.

[3] Evans, Terry, and Elly Fishman. “Mountains of Trouble.” Chicago Magazine, 27 July 2015.

[4] From Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2015): “Which is very tough to do: the handy thing about selling natural resources upon which entire economies have been built—and about having so far succeeded in blocking policies that would offer real alternatives—is that most people keep having to buy your products whether they like you or not” (131).

[5] Lukach, Mark. “There Is a Man Wandering Around California With 3 Mules.” The Atlantic, 11 Sept. 2013.