Voices from the Tunnel

Prior to the arrival of the railroad in the mid-1800s, the Hudson River area of New York City was a community of squatters. By the 1930s, when city parks commissioner and master builder Robert Moses covered the New York Central railroad tracks, creating a 2.5-mile-long tunnel under the promenades of Riverside Park, it had evolved into a shantytown. Eventually the tunnel was no longer used for rail traffic, and current residents began moving into the space as early as 1974.

In 1990 approximately 113 tunnel residents were found by Amtrak work crews, who were renewing track in the abandoned tunnel for passenger train service between Pennsylvania Station and Washington, D.C. Sensationally depicted by the media as “mole people,” these residents refused interviews with the press and other representatives of “topside” society. They designated a spokesman, “Glaucon” or “the Lord of the Tunnel,” to speak for them.

An estimated 5,000 people live beneath the streets of Manhattan in this dank underground community. For four years author Terry Williams studied one pocket of this mysterious population, revealing a terrifying, yet strangely tranquil world. Part anthropological study, part political statement, the journal he produced paints a clear-eyed portrait of urban flight by society’s most dispossessed members.

Journal entry (April 1989)

Each venture into the tunnel brings about the same feelings: As soon as I hit the stairs and start down into the darkness, I feel that I am entering something dangerous. I suppress this anxiety, fear, and hesitation partly because I am getting to know the people there, and partly because I know that I am writing this. Even when the tunnel residents become my friends, the fear is still present every time I go down. I realize now that the fear is not of the tunnel per se, but of something inside me. Entering the tunnel evokes a primal state in my being. My antennae are suddenly alive. I am acutely aware of all that is around me: the rats underfoot, the rocks falling, the strangers who might jump out of the darkness at any time. There are points of sheer darkness where I can’t see my hands–momentary derangement of the senses far removed from what I felt five minutes ago as I walked through Riverside Park. That’s when I develop this notion that the tunnel is the unconscious mind of the city.

Early research plan

The environments in which I hope to conduct research include tunnel spaces where the homeless sleep, eat, and/or stake out a claim. I will investigate three research sites: the 168th Street subway tunnel, under Grand Central Station, and 72nd Street to 125th Street below Riverside Park. I intend to map out territory behaviorally, to interview tunnel residents and photograph their dwellings, cardboard homes, rafter homes accessible only by ladder, and burrowed homes under train platforms. Over the past four months I have established ties with seven tunnel residents, one church, two police precincts, and several social welfare agencies serving the tunnel areas of West 72nd Street and Grand Central Station.

Field notes: First descent into Grand Central (April 1991)

We began around noon making our way down into the many levels at Grand Central Station. We put on those orange train reflector vests that the engineers and workers wear and started walking toward the tracks. It is clear that one needs to wear the things because there are many trains moving in all directions. I crossed 21 third-rail electrified tracks during the two-hour tour and many times felt totally bewildered by the sheer complexity of the mazelike structure. We encountered the loop of circular tracks where trains can turn without having to back up. We moved down from the second level, and about 25 feet above the tracks there was an extended bridgelike structure, a grate of some sort just hanging there with newspaper, magazines, and cardboard covering it. The sergeant calls it a “nest.”

Field notes: Nesting

The “nests” can be dated by looking at the newspapers and magazines that line them. Most are only several days old. Some are built in “colonies,” where clusters of people live together in groups of 20 to 50, men and women but no children. Plastic-filled garbage bags act as pillows. One nest we see, spread out under one of the steel pillars that supports the.Waldorf-Astoria, is made up with almost military precision. The blankets are smooth and their ends are tucked in. At the head of the bed is a small metal chest that holds toiletries. Ten feet away from the spot is a private elevator made by the Secret Service for Franklin D. Roosevelt. Apparently he was brought from Hyde Park, New York, in a private train car, then wheeled into the elevator and up to the hotel.

Tunnel resident’s dream (April 1992)

“Dream tonight was about a mushroom tea that a friend told me to take so I could be healthy. She said it would help my kidneys, help my heart, help my liver and other parts of my body. The tea is called kombucha. It tasted like vinegar but I wanted to try it by myself so I went home and this is where the dream really starts [to get] crazy. When I came into the tunnel the whole place was bright and full of light, not dark like I know it is. My place here was bigger, with rooms all over, and I tried to get some sleep but I felt like the mushroom had gotten into my body because I touched it early that day. I felt the tea pulling me out of bed and it was a powerful force like I never felt before. When I got up in my dream and went to the kitchen I could smell the tea all around and I saw this bright light come in through the window that I don’t have. The tea materialized into a woman with powerful hands and small feet. She walked up to me, kicked me, and patted my head. She said she was sorry and kissed me passionately. At that point two dogs arrived on a postcard with this inscription: Tunnel dogs.”

Metro North official (April 1991)

“People tend to think or believe that there is some vast underground chamber and that people are lost down there. Every nook and cranny has been searched by us. We know every place a person can hide. We’ve heard the beauty-and-the-beast stories, the alligator-in-the-sewer stories, but this place is more labyrinthine in myth than reality.”

Journal entry: Descent below Riverside Park

Jumping over a four-foot brick wall, I walk down a sloping dirt-covered incline with evergreen shrubbery on both sides, next to a winding S-curve in the West Side Highway. I squeeze through a short fence before passing through a hole in an oval, latticed iron gate in Riverside Park and from there into an almost infinite black expanse. Inside I see a platform structure extending down a pipe-fitted banister with rickety steps. A few steps down I hear a man say, “Watch out for the next step.” It is the person I will call Glaucon, a 37-year-old black man from Florida. “Walk along the edge,” he instructs. “Grab hold of the steel pipe and jump over the next step.”

A tall, dark-brown-complexioned man, he refuses at first to say his name. He says that what people call him is of no consequence. “I don’t live there [in society], I live in this dark community. None of us have any real need for names. We are no-names. This whole space down here is the land of the unforgiven.”

I walk the remaining steps onto thousands of hard rocks, scattered against miles of glistening rust-colored tracks. Autumn leaves, yellow and brown with specks of green, are falling through a grate directly in front of me. In the fall, people begin moving from streets and subways to tunnels. This tunnel is like an asylum with a concrete sky, a sanctuary from the chaos above ground.

Glaucon speaks in a professorial manner, forming words carefully, educating as we move along. He speaks intelligently about art, science, and poverty. He refers to Shaw’s celibacy and Melville’s fidelity as though rationalizing his life underground. He tells me he has Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, Kafka, and other books cased in the cartons in his bunker. And his biblical allusions are too numerous to mention. “Hezekiah,” he says, “who was the 13th king of Judah, lived and built tunnels in 700 B.C. He built them right in Jerusalem. By that alone we are in good company. We have no reason to be ashamed of our tunnel existence.”

He takes me to meet other residents: a Vietnam vet and a woman with whom he shares his bunker; his friend Alibi, a spiritual man who believes his crackhead wife is into magico; his con-man friend Kal, who spent half his life traveling the country as a short-order cook; the Cubans at the south end; and Kovacs, the oldest man in the tunnel, who hates blacks and was once offered a movie deal for his life story. These are only a few of the more than one hundred dwellers in this community, and only a handful of the more than 5,000 documented tunnel people in this city.

Tunnel resident (April 1991)

“‘Hello’ is the worst, worst word in the language because the minute you say hello, you invite grief.”

Field notes

Many underground residents do not consider themselves homeless. They are, as one woman put it, “temporarily without shelter,” and they consider the subterranean chambers of the tunnel a safer housing alternative than city shelters. Inhabiting a harsh ecology, deprived of water, natural light, food, electricity, heat, they struggle constantly to protect themselves against cold and dampness. Some live in the cinder-block structures originally used by railroad personnel that can be found along sidetracks. They live high within tunnel embankments, inside wall niches accessible only by 30-foot ladders, or build freestanding structures in the tunnel’s dark recesses.

Pet cats are highly valued as predators against rats. There is a communal kitchen in this tunnel, where meals are prepared on a fire spit positioned under an air-vented grate. Water, food, and firewood are gathered outside the tunnel from construction sites and barges along the Hudson River. The setting is visually powerful, the horror of these living conditions lit by a cathedral-like shaft of light. Graffiti extends throughout the tunnel. “Home of the Queen,” at the 83rd Street and Riverside Drive entrance, is a reflection of the gay activity that takes place there. “Donnie 3-10-90 Rest in Pice” records a tunnel resident’s death from AIDS. At the north end of the tunnel: graffiti replicas of Dali’s clock, Michelangelo’s David, the Venus de Milo. Much has been vandalized, not only by teenagers, but also by Amtrak workers to assert their dominance.

Journal entry by Glaucon

I am 37 years of age and have been a resident of Riverside Park’s tunnel for six and a half years. On May 17, 1985, I asked myself what I considered to be the ultimate question that one would ask of oneself in life, and the answer was simply that I know myself completely and totally and that I seek and make true contact with the universal mind known as GOD. Being one to allow logic and reasoning to govern my existence, the task seemed very simple. I must simply dare to be myself. With the understanding according to the word of GOD that I am nothing and that I know nothing, logic would be my key to all understanding. It is truly my belief that it has become the nature of man to be stupid because he refuses to deal with the simplicity of things.

On June 7, 1985, I descended the staircase of the tunnel and felt vibrations of an alien nature. Listening to the inner voice, I turned to my left and walked about 500 yards north and observed some concrete structures, eight in number. I decided that this would be home. Knowing that this level of existence was truly new to me, the inner voice said, to get where you want to be you must first accept where you are. And what appeared to be my lowest point was truly my highest. So my mission began.

Field notes (August 1993)

In the first four months in the tunnel Plako and Bobo never slept without interruption for more than five hours at a time. But of the 24 hours in the day, 16 at least and sometimes more were spent in sleep, with 3 of those hours spent dreaming. In the last six months of being in the tunnel, they slept 12 hours on average with 3 hours of dreaming.

Life story by Robert Kaliroki (“Kal”)

I was raised in Chicago, Illinois. I am one of six children. I have two brothers; one is a cop and one is a priest. My mother went to church every day for over 50 years and my father worked at one job for more than 42 years ever since he came to the United States. I never got along with my mother because she was always on my brother’s side–the priest. And my brother the cop, well, we had nothing in common, he was much older. But the only good thing about my younger days is my father [who] always took me to the zoo. That was my best times, to get away from home. I would feed the pigeons, he would drink. But he could hold it more than anyone I knew. But my father would never go against my mother about me. They would fight every day but they were married 52 years till my father died. I did not know about his death till six months after he died. I don’t talk at all to any one of my family. At age 19 I got married to a girl from Ireland. She was something else. But as everything in my life, it did not last very long. My wife’s family had money and she was the only child. One day she said to me that we were going to go back to Ireland. I said I did not want to go. So she took the child and went back by herself. I really was not in love at that time. After that I joined the Air Force. It was then that I started drinking and doing drugs. I loved the feeling of being high. I was always one step in front of the next person. After I got out of the Air Force I started cooking. But by that time I could never hold a job very long, because if I was high I just wanted to party. After a while I gave up the booze but started doing pills twice as much. All I wanted to do was stay high no matter what it took. I would stay up two to three days at a time, sleep for six to seven hours, and start all over again. People did not want to be around me because I could be very warm and then very cold.

After 10 years of pills I started to travel. From New York to L.A. or San Francisco every six months. I lived in every city in California. I lived like that for 25 years. All this led me to become homeless. I became homeless in L.A., then I found the Salvation Army. Being a cook, they put me in the kitchen working. I was doing very well but always thinking about the pills. One day the captain came in and told me he was going to put me on the payroll. I did not want that so I left. I started selling diet pills. I had 25 doctors to get them from. No one ever knew where I stayed and I did not trust anyone. I never sold to kids. I only sold to bartenders and owners. They paid the most. Things started getting bad for me so I went to six drug programs but never finished. Maybe I did not want to stop. I came back to New York. I started cooking at a soup kitchen where I met Glaucon. We became friends. We cooked together for about six months and he told me that anytime I needed a place to come and see him. Well, one day I did. In the winter 1986 at 11 p.m. All he said was here is a bed, it is yours. I’ve been there for six years.

Journal entry

Glaucon spoke about seeing somebody crossing the tracks. I looked over his shoulder, saw nothing. A few minutes later, he mentioned another image, coming up the tracks. Again I turned to see nothing. It was now clear to me, after six months, that he was suffering from hallucinations.

“Did you hear about my old buddy Rick James? I’m not one for gossiping but I knew about the coke thing from way back because I used to deal to him. He’s gone overboard with this base thing. He’s probably done all those things they say he did. And Michael, he’s always had an identity problem. Not knowing whether he wanted to be a boy or a girl. Again this coke thing; people don’t realize what they’re doing with this drug.”

In a city as vast as this one, there are many realities, many truths. What I put down here is true to my observations. It is the trick of perspective that I speak of here. It holds fast until someone else comes along and orchestrates a different look-see at the people who colonize the night. My night eyes see and decipher the rhythms of street life and offer a slightly different focus than others, just as my diurnal eyes occasion a new truth.

Conversation with Glaucon (April 1991)

See rats again, a pigeon nesting near the top of the girders, think I see a bat too. I meet Glaucon near the 90th Street entrance and walk into the darkness. Can’t see much for a few minutes. Finally, we sit down at the fire spit area and converse on a range of topics from God to Nietzsche, neither of whom I know much about. Glaucon does most of the talking. My grandmother said once that I had two ears and one mouth–so talk less and listen twice as much. I guess that’s what I’m doing today. The weather is on the cold side but the tunnel is quite serene. I’m beginning to enjoy coming down here. It is less chaotic than above ground. Glaucon goes into his house, which he has not allowed me to enter yet. I have not asked and he has not offered. He keeps saying his place is a mess. I end up counting the insects in the earth, looking for Spirobolus marginatus (millipedes). I stop digging when he comes back out. He wants to talk about the kids who have been in the tunnel for the past few days causing problems.

“I can say without hesitation that the only ones I hate are the kids who come down here and paint on the walls and deface the nice work that Zane and Chris have done for us. The kids have tried to destroy all of that art and that’s why I’m going topside tomorrow and buy some paint to have it retouched. 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.

“My place was set on fire too last year. It wasn’t kids that did that. I know who did it. It was jealousy that tried to burn me out. I know where the person is and everything and when I get myself together they’re going to get theirs. You mark my words.”

Field notes (May 1991)

On the wall at the far end of the tunnel two blocks away from Kal and Glaucon’s place is what they refer to as their living room. Several graffiti pieces appear on both sides of the tracks. One is a modern Mona Lisa and the other is of Ted Williams. Both have been marked by anti-artists. A bright orange penis has defaced the mouth of the Mona Lisa and a machine gun is sketched near Ted Williams. The space is near the entrance where gay men meet to consummate sexual acts. Kal and Glaucon have taken to cleaning up the pieces and want to do so with the help of anybody who can give them a dollar for spray cans.

Journal entry by Alibi, a windshield cleaner and ATM panhandler (April 1991)

My name is Allen but everybody calls me Alibi and I’ve been down here two years. I came from North Carolina and I’ve been in New York for 31 years. I know you want to know how I ended up here in the tunnel and without a home on topside. Well, I was like everybody else topside. I thought I was immune from any bad things happening to me. I had a job working in an office and I got married to a younger woman. She was very pretty but about a year into our relationship she started using crack. One day I come home and she’s getting high and I tell her it’s me or the crack. She said she didn’t need me as much as she needed the drug so I was all fucked up. I was devastated by that shit. I went to my job and took all my stuff out of my drawers and started walking. I walked around for days and I ended up talking to a friend who said people were living underground here and I could go down and see what was happening. I did that and I ended up spending the night. I went to look for work, but after a while I couldn’t say I was living [at home] anymore and I couldn’t say I was living down here, so I started selling books and other things on the street. One of the things we do down here is look after each other.

You see how I came over to check you out because I’m also a little pissed off at the journalists because they put my name in the paper and they said I live down near 72nd Street. Well, if they say that then my friends topside will know that’s me, because how many Alibis could you have around 72nd Street? You tell me.

Journal entry (July 1991)

Saw Kal’s place today and it was an awful sight, filled with cups and cans, broken glass, and a small table with drug paraphernalia. Glaucon took me there. He was angry at Kal because he said he stole the tape recorder I gave him to record his life story. I’m not always inclined to believe people when they say these things. I guess if he stole it he sold it for money to inch his habit along. Glaucon says Kal is strongly addicted to crack, cocaine, and amphetamines. At any rate, they both play such games I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they are in tandem with this little charade. After all I gave Glaucon another tape recorder after he replaced the first.

The other week Glaucon called me to say they needed a lock on the east entrance to counter the Amtrak officials who had sealed the entrance shut with a padlock. Kal called the next day to say they needed money for a lock and chain. The money is never much to speak of so I don’t see the necessity of such contrivance. But the $17, which is insignificant to me, may be more to them, particularly if they are putting together many such small-scale scams.

Conversation with Kal (March 1991)

“You got good guys and bad guys down here just like you got everywhere. When we first came down here the people who were here didn’t create any problems and we in turn let some people stay down here. One person we let stay was a woman who was raped by two guys we knew but didn’t know. You know what I mean? I mean we saw ’em down here but we didn’t have much to do with them. We just met ’em once or twice. But the fucking guys come down and rape this woman and then try to get away and we caught them and turned them over to the cops. That was our good deed for the day. Naw, for the fucking year. Those two fuckers are in jail and we helped put ’em there.”

Tunnel Resident “Nature Girl”‘s Note to Me (May (1992)

You are a CooL or a GooD con man. I am Puerto Rican woman, 28 years old, 5’6′ height, 130 weight, 2 children, dancer. My name is Doreen. My real name is Ada Lus Roman.

Conversation With Kal (March 1991)

As he talks I feel the cold wind burst through at us. We move closer to the outside area called the kitchen. The floor of the dirt kitchen compound extends about 130 by 30 feet and is a pot, pan, and can environment. The spit, a steel divider from a stove, is fitted over bricks and is blackened by wood smoke.

“A lot of good meals come out of that fire. A lot of good meals.” Kal’s face is etched with a thousand wrinkles, not so much from old age, he says, but from stress. A train zips through, on its way to Washington, D.C. Dust flies all over us. Kal squints, holds up his middle finger, and says, “There goes my dignity, man. There goes my dignity.”

“The train,” says Kal, “is the worst thing that could have happened to us because it brings so much of the outside world into a space we have considered our own for a long time. We get along with the park police from the 24th and the 20th Precinct. The police, they all know us. But the Amtrak police started coming around and bothering Glaucon one day. They had nothing to do but try to make things bad for him and me. They would come around [at] 1:00 or 2:00 p.m. and make all kinds of noise. One put his hand on his gun.”

Research Notes

Some people initially acted crazy to avoid talking or interacting with me or anyone above ground, only to later act sane when they learned through the tunnel grapevine that I was OK to talk to and wasn’t somebody “crazy from topside.” In many instances they apologized.

The growing literature on homelessness has excluded systematic study of tunnel populations and the impact their harsh environment, mental problems, and drug abuse have on how they survive. In many ways, tunnel residents are pioneers in an urban frontier of time and space. In the transformation members of this community must go through from life above ground to tunnel life, there is a spiritual bonding. Tunnel residents have joined with the underground.

Tunnel Resident’s Note to Me (March 1992)

It’s cold here: This is the way I feel some days. ‘Cept I can’t find a black dog whose ass is bigger than mine. Any idea? Hope Europe is a gas. Just don’t bring back any greasy-looking sandals like the dude on the left and no high-water poly pants like the dude on the right. Also, don’t catch any social diseases and by all means don’t fall in love with anybody your mother wouldn’t approve of. R.

Journal Entry by Kal

The tunnel was not easy. Every day to get water you had to go half a mile to get it and half a mile to bring it back. Glaucon and me used to get five to seven days’ worth at a time because you did not know when it was going to rain. Another thing is food. We had a school three blocks away that gave us the food at the end of the day that the kids did not want, but summer was the worst.

Also the media. Some were good and some were bad. The worst was the Daily News, who said we were “mole people.” I don’t look like a mole person and neither does Glaucon. CNN helped us I think the most. They helped us to stay where we are at now.

I know everything will come to an end within one or two years. After all this is over I am planning to go back to Chicago to live. I have not been home for 30 years. I need to find love again. But will not know what to do with it when I find it. I will have to adjust to being up top. I think I will be a better man. I grow a lot. I respect people. My life is what I made it. Nobody got me here and no one will get me out but me. When I do move I will be a lot more real than I was for over 45 years.

I hope no one will ever have to go through what I did to live. I will try to live one day at a time, do one thing at a time. Writing this has helped me look at myself in a mirror. I never hurt anyone but myself. That was big for me. I hope God will let me live a few more years so I can go back to my past instead of running from it. Writing this I feel all alone. Maybe because I am.

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