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But those who did go down called it home, and it became a haven for the destitute to unwind without fear of getting arrested or attacked like people on the streets often were. Most who lived here did not consider themselves homeless.
One day, three men asked Isaac for a toll as he came by the 125th Street entrance to the tunnel. As word spread of the tunnel, a growing number of graffiti artists came to paint the seemingly endless walls that flanked the train tracks. The ground is littered with discarded books and magazines. ” says a voice behind me, making me jump with fright. “I didn’t mean to startle you.” I recognize Raúl, an undocumented Dominican immigrant of about thirty who has been living in the tunnel for a year. His clothes are spotless, regularly washed at a nearby laundromat.
The mouth of the tunnel is wide and dark, swallowing the light and all that breathes. Their eyes have adapted to the constant night that cloaks them from the topside world. “I thought it was the Amtrak police,” he later says while opening a beer, his legs dangling off the edge of the wall. The expansion of extensive sewers and steam pipes systems had brought a newfound fascination with what laid below the streets.
Rubble is scattered along the train tracks, bordered by retaining walls covered in numerous layers of graffiti. Here by the parkway with the blasting trucks and the roaring cars, near the filigree arches of the Riverside Drive viaduct, here with the gravel crunching under my feet as I run down the railroad into this hollow mouth. They’ve always been there, resting low below the rowdy streets and the carving avenues, gulping the air from inside the earth, crawling through holes and cracks, living off the grid and off the books. Don’t you know they’re eating rats and human flesh? And one day they will spill outside and burn us all alive, and they will reign over our flatscreen joys and our organic delights. “They been coming less, lately, but you never know. From Jules Verne’s 1864 novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth” to George Gissing’s 1889 book “The Nether World,” literature was brimming with tales of people living in isolation or trapped under the surface, peaking in 1895 with “The Time Machine,” in which H. Wells described a fictional subterranean species called the “Morlocks.” But it was only in the 1990s that the first widespread depictions of real-world tunnel residents appeared in New York.
He laughed at them and said “Do you know who you’re talking to? ” The three men never bothered him again, and Isaac’s nickname “The Lord of the Tunnel” was born. One of them, Chris “Freedom” Pape, had known the place for quite a while before. A broken crack pipe has been left on a cinder block. His badly decayed teeth and scrawny figure are the only hints he’s a drug addict. She’s always singing out loud, it’s annoying.” Raúl still has family out there. He rents an apartment from a friend when his kid comes to visit, a clean studio in a gray Washington Heights building. ” I nod and he goes into an abandoned service room, returning with two mugs.
“Jon,” I repeat, and he appears, his head cautiously peaking up from his house, a relieved smile on his face when he sees me. I can see rats scouring for food and drinking from brown puddles in the tracks ballast. The city growls over my head — a distant growl muffled by the concrete, almost a snarl, like something cold and foul spreading over the long stretches of stained walls, like a dark and wild beast curling up around me and breathing on my neck. * * * Stories about underground dwellers were already flourishing when the first New York City subway line opened in 1904.
Every noise is threatening in the tunnel, and I find myself constantly looking over my shoulder, ready to face something too awful to name.
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“This is not a place of perdition,” he often said about the Riverside Park tunnel when we talked together during his shifts as a maintenance worker in Central Park. A place to find peace and take a break from the chaos.” He would then reminisce about his old life, his eyes would light up and there would be the crack of a smile, and whatever place we were in would be filled by his presence.
Isaac was at the very center of the Mole People legend.