THERE’S NO MORE SEAT IN THE TRAIN TO DESPAIR
There are so many mysteries in this world. So much urban legends, some are real, some are fake. Alligators in the sewer? Yeah, this one's true, an article from the New York Times dated from the 10 February 1935 reported that« several teenage boys were clearing East 123d Street by shoveling snow into an open manhole when they saw something large and alive in the water below». It turned out to be a two meters plus alligator crawling in the sewer. Numbers of stories like this one are real but the city got rid of them quite quickly. This is rare but it happens. As you may know, I've always been fascinated with underground culture, and the real subject I’m going to talk about IS fucking underground. What the most underground thing you know? What could perfectly represent the underground? Well, sewers my man. Intriguing, dark, scary and weird. Everything can happen and y'all have heard some strange stories about sewers, tunnels or old abandoned subway stations. People living below the ground surface was one to me, until I discovered the truth about it. Not that I was astonished, because our modern world is a fucking nightmare, but it is still shocking to think people are living under our feet. Real 'crazies' like in Escape From New York.
New York, the Big Apple, the city with skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty. It also hosts a parallel world made of 468 abandoned subway stations, kilometers of disused hallways and tunnels, where men and women find refuge for about 40 years. Sneaking, crawling, surviving in the bowels of the city that never sleeps. For the ones living above, people under are part of an old urban legend. They're the Mole People, the castaways of the American Dream.
In 1973, Vietnam veterans started to settle in the guts of New York City. All the benches were already squatted and when the rain came it was a living hell. Isolated, disparaged, denied, they took hold in Manhattan under Riverside Park, in a wide five kilometers tunnel along the Hudson River, from the 125th to 172th street. In the first half of the 90's, it was estimated to more than 5000 people living like this in the guts of the Riverside, under the Grand Central station, Hell's Kitchen (Manhattan) and the Bronx. They even counted families and children. People up and down lived together since 26 February 1993, when a bomb exploded in a World Trade Center parking. An attack planned by a group of radical islamists, which resulted in six deaths and a thousand of injured. This incident took Rudolf Guilianni to the New York city hall, who claimed himself spokesman of tolerance zero towards criminality and declared war to the inhabitants of the tunnels. Police crackdowns, violent arrests, they're now accused of « quality-of-life crimes », the Big Apple is definitely rotten to the core.
You have to go down to the abyss to meet this people of darkness. You have to sneak through fences, through cracks in the walls, to avoid rats, broken needles and sharp bottle shards on the floor,
« When I first came down in the tunnel, it was looking dangerous man, real dangerous, 'cause even in the daytime it was dark, and like, I was scared. I'm sayin', somewhere down the line, it can't be bad as it is on top. Because on the streets, you had kids fucking with you, you had police fucking with you, I mean anybody can walk by you while you're sleeping on a bench and bust you in the head. At least down in the tunnel you won't worry about that, nobody in their right mind gonna come down here. »
Near the Hudson, a hidden place looking like a post-apocalyptic subterranean world is called the « boneyard », because in the middle of this wasteland full of trash, cans and wreck cars, some little holes are dug in the ground, so mole people can breathe and see a bit of the daylight. They're living under the ground but no way they're gonna be begging for money or anything. They live. They survive. They try to build their home and some do it well like Tommy, a young man who lives in the tunnel for years and constructed a little place by himself. Some got running water, hooked up electricity, and they sell some stuff they find in the streets or in the garbage, like CDs, books, shoes, clothes, or cans they collect.
Living there is not a game, it's not Christmas every day. You have to live with fear and struggle on a daily basis. The tunnels, sewers and abandoned subway stations are not only taken over by homeless people living there, but they're also the playground for graffiti artists who bring a little color in these dark hallways. Most famous place invested by graffers is the Amtrak Tunnel under Riverside Park, renamed « Freedom Tunnel » by Chris Pape. A tunnel created by Robert Moses in the 1930s to expand park space for Upper West side residents, but which wasn't used for long. Homeless people used to live there for a while but then most of them left the place, only graffiti artists are still zonin' in the area, painting all over the huge galleries. They coexist with the mole people; some eventually became friends and help them. They're both creatures of the night, living in the shadows of the city, seeing in the dark as easily as we see in the daylight. But, what you have to know is that most of the people living down there came to escape from their life in society, to escape from the modern reality. Terry Williams, a journalist who came down and lived with homeless people for 4 years in the first half of the 90s, wrote a line that defines everything: « This tunnel is like an asylum with concrete sky, a sanctuary from the chaos above ». You can meet whites, blacks, asians, hispanics, crackheads & dope fiends, insane, mystic people, or intellectuals who want to live in margin of society. Some can be tracked by Police State, like Wilfredo « Chicago » Rodriguez, cofounder of the Latin Kings, a powerful latino street gang, waiting in his unhealthy and creepy place the call of 'white death'. Graduated with a master degree in Science, he's addicted to heroin and chose to retire from the world, from all the gang wars and the police, all the responsibilities he used to have. Just wandering in the dark tunnels until the day he'll die « still as a Latin Kings ». Drugs – especially crack – is a real disease there, that's why most of the mole people set up traps in front of their 'apartments' to be warned of an eventual intrusion. Brookyn, who lives under the ground for 22 years, since she has 17; puts some empty bottles and a basketball in the way. Or like Julio, who thought about a trap made with a pencil under pans hooked to a string to be woken up if someone dodgy comes by. Crackheads are always searching for something to steal everywhere to everyone, even people they know well – even friends – to sell it on the street to buy their rocks, or sometimes just to break into someone's place to smoke quietly. In the documentary « Dark Days » (take a look at the end of the article for the sources), a man tells a story about a guy addicted to crack who sold his own coat for this shit while it was freezing 20 degrees minus outside. Besides living there, crack is a real danger and everyone knows it, because most of them came down first because their lives were falling apart due to their addiction (heroin, crack mainly). When you're touching the bottom, society shows you how you can be downer than Hell.
« I want dignity and respect that's all I want, and I pay my rent with blood and sweat. I don’t have tears no more »
To feed themselves, mole people do their shopping in supermarkets’ trash, which get rid of an amount of products still edible, and sometimes even of great qualities. They take them and get back under the ground, walking in the darkness, making their way into the abyss of the earth, far from the rush of the typical New Yorkers.
« The train doesn’t bother me, rats don’t bother me, but people do bother me. Y'know what I mean? I hear somebody walkin' and it wakes me up! »
Often looking pallor and dirty, you surely ask yourself how do they wash themselves or do their laundry? Well, they just throw their clothes away and find new ones that people have thrown, tons and tons apparently, in good state, sometimes just like new, especially around universities, and they use water and soaps, here and there, it's not hard to find according to them.
What's really hard is when the weather becomes icy, freezing cold. Mole people make woodfires on the ground or in barrels. The same way they do to heat up food.
Hell's Kitchen, the most dangerous tunnel in NYC. Gray, a mole people dive into a hallway, long salt and pepper beard, hood on his head, he's 47 but looks like he's 70. He lives thirty meters under the ground in a strange house made of red bricks and with condemned windows, made at the beginning of the 20th century to house workmen who were building the first tunnels of New York city. He lives there with groups of 4 or 5 persons.
« Herrr, I don’t like here. It’s dark, cold, damp...... I'd like to have a nice place to live. I'd like to have a nice place»
Some don't like living in this shit, but don't like uphere neither.
Jose, 'the tunnels' prowler', lives in Hell's Kitchen too, and says he always lived like that, hustling, just surviving. He doesn't want to fall into the easy way made of robberies or murders, and doesn't want to go to jail. He considers himself as a reject, society never accepted him as he is and will never trust someone like him. Hard times. He knew that during his whole life. Jose never knew his father and his mother died from heroin overdose when he was a kid, so he ran away when he was 10. Then he was « raised by pimps, prostitutes, and players. Those are people that taught me my survival rules in the streets of New York. »
Unfortunately a usual scenario for those who live down there, most of their parents were dope fiend or dead, who didn’t give a fuck about us, so they ran away and lived in the street before coming down in the tunnel. Some only comes out at night, because of fear, shame of what they are, because of the noise, the light... They don't belong to this world outside anymore.
But it's not the case for everyone. Some by working all day in the good spots, searching for things to sell, can earn 40 to 70 bucks and as Tommy likes to say be « crackin rich », and spend the week end chillin, seeing some friends and partying.
That's not always bad times because like up here they're living with each others and some are close friends for years. Like in « Dark Days », there is a scene with Roger and Lee, two neighbors in a tunnel, showing up their favorite past and present pets, cats and gerbils, hilarious scene. About the gerbils, « This is my precious flying babes man! Wanna talk about an airplane? This is Mrs Bleecks man. When she flew around she used to fucking... the papers, and the clothes, and everything went flying, the rats, everything...Everybody went flying when Mrs bleeks got out of her cage man. I should have never kept her in a cage, and for me keeping her in a cage, she got killed. But Mrs Bleeks was the BEST, man, not the best but close to it, cause Roger was... ». They look like the real Cheech and Chong, man. Lee is so fucking funny, with his intense eyes and his crazy smile. Too bad he died few years ago hit by a train…
Down in the dark, filthy, moist tunnels, you're alone. Alone with your misery, alone with your thoughts, alone with your anger, alone with your hunger. Alone with rats, harassing you when you're trying to sleep, eating your food, carrying diseases. Some have dogs or cats to scare them, some have traps or poison, but you have to face it and live with them. Just another problem in this subterranean world where there are no laws, no police, no justice (except for some parts of the city, according to Jennifer Toth in his book 'the Mole People', where she claims to have met a real subsociety with a mayor, schools and everything, but I didn't see that in documentaries or in any other videos so I don't know what is the truth and what is just another urban legend...). You have to live by the rules of the street. So, if there's a mess with somebody you're alone. You can go to the police because they don’t want to fuck with this kind of shit, who wants to come all the way down there anyway? You can see your friends but hey, you're under the ground.
« I guess you heard about the homeless guy sleeping down at the end of the tunnel who was burned to death by a bunch of kids. They just poured gasoline over him and lit a match. You know the kids are at fault, but don’t it make you wonder what kind of parents they have to do such a thing? And I bet they will just say they were having fun.»
If someone wants to cut your stomach open or burn down your house he'll do it. As it happened to Dee, a woman who had a problem with a fellow living in the tunnel. She saw his handmade home go up in smoke and the only thing left was her eyes to cry. But she found a temporary solution sleeping at Ralphie's house for a while until she finds some boards to build another hut. Ralphie looks like a nice person, really kind and sweet, but he feels so fucked up inside. He was addicted to crack for years and spent a lot of time in jail. He spent like ten years in the joint while he just stayed two months outside. When his daughter was born, he was behind bars for a robbery. In 1976, he was still doing time and when she was 5, she got raped, her leg and her arm were cut off and she was burnt. Damn, such a shocking story told by a man feeling dead inside, all the words going out his mouth without any emotion. « That made me feel fucked up... because part of it, I think, is my fault... because I should have been there instead of being in jail and doing what I was doing... robbing and all... I wasn't taking care of her. ». Dee spent time in jail too. One day when she was watching TV a report on the news showed that two kids got burnt in a fire. She recognized her sons and from this point run amok. They lived with regrets on their minds. It's not a real suprise for you to learn that Dee is also a serious crack addict now....
September 11, 2001, New York City is striken again by terrorists and the World Trade Center is falling down. NYPD investigates all the old abandoned subways stations, all the sewage tunnels, railroads and underground 'neighborhoods' of the city, and soon begins a chase towards the tunnel dwellers, accusing them to have been infiltrated by terrorists. Is is true or wrong? Who knows. It can be possible if you think about it for a second. Anyway, the thing is that all the population living under New York had to leave and find another place to live. But when you have nothing, what is something else? From this day most of the mole people have been placed in small decent apartments, others live in the streets and some who don’t want the nightmare of the street again or shelters are still living down there.... Yeah, there's no way like the American Way.
Dark Days (2000) - Marc Singer
Dans les Entrailles De New York (2008, French) – Chantal Lasbats
Outside Society (1994) – Steven Dupler
Voices In The Tunnels (2008) – Vic David
The Mole People : Life In The Tunnels Beneath New York City – Jennifer Toth (Book, 1993)
Voices From The Tunnels – Terry Williams (Diary published in Grand Street Magazine, 1995)