Who needs SF/Fantasy when an alternate universe exists right under our noses? Provided you live in New York City, that is.
An extraordinary book by an extraordinarily brave young woman: 24 year old Jennifer Toth, who explored the sub-culture living below the streets of Manhattan in disused (but also in currently operational) subway tunnels, closed/abandoned Metro Stations, in caves and natural caverns underground. She went into the tunnels for 2 years – a dangerous project, which she stopped when Blade, a tunnel dweller, threatened her life. Two common threads emerge in the book: drugs as a frequent cause or reason to drop out, and it sounded as if the majority of Tunnel Dwellers (aka The Mole People) were black – a big indictment of the American social and educational system.
The Tunnel Dwellers should not be confused with the street-living homeless, who live aboveground.
Toth interacted with the Metro Transit Police, – often mostly policing search, harassment and eviction operations, down in the tunnels. Other NGOS, and Social Agencies, had projects with the Mole People. But Toth found them to be ineffectual, or in the case of NGos, sometimes self-surviving. The Metro Transit Police ‘s methods and attitudes she found to be questionable. Official estimates of the numbers of tunnel dwellers ranged uncertainly between 4 000 – 6 000. In short, nobody really knew.
Below ground are established, organised communities, some with ‘Mayors’ as community leaders. The Mole People care and look after their own, one community even had a designated nurse, and a teacher!
Apart from the groupings, she found singles, pairs or trios. Some dwellers are completely mad (literally chucked out by the Health & Welfare system). There are the drunks, the druggies, plus the plain dis-functional, who are unable to live in ordinary society; criminals on the run, refugee children , for Heaven’s sake, fleeing abusive families or the awful Child Welfare/Adoption system. And then the Libertarians who reject taxes, Government, and every aspect of society and want to do it “their way.’ Jennifer Toth also met a couple of PhDs, living underground with their small store of treasured books. Go figure.
Some Mole People even had low grade jobs above ground, e.g. in the fast-food outlets, or janitorial work, but chose to live rent free underground, because they could not afford the rental on even the most modest accommodation in NYC.
Toth met the Graffitti artists, who choose the tunnels or walls of embankments on which to inscribe their art. Yet another, different semi-underground group.
A darker group were a formal Gang who undertake contract killings (sometimes for as little as $20! How bizarre is that?)
America is definitely not the land of golden opportunity that we might assume it to be. The book will feature on my 2015 Top Reads, that’s for sure! Read it if you can. I read it, wide-eyed, counting my blessings.