Tag Archives: NYC

THE MOLE PEOPLE  by Jennifer Toth


Book Review

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.

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RECENT READS # 15 : OPEN CITY by Teju Cole


OPEN CITY – Teju Cole

I read the rave reviews about this debut novel, & bought it on-line, with some reservations.  On-line purchases are always a calculated risk.  It’s written by a Nigerian,  who is pretty de-tribalised, but hailed in the US as a Black Writer.  He was born and raised in Nigeria and came to the US in 1992;  he’s a writer, photographer and professional historian of early Netherlandish art.  And his roots show in his novel – some of it is pretty autobiographical. His protagonist Julius,  is a psychiatric resident completing his training in a NYC mental hospital, yet makes comments about the art of Vermeer etc.!

I enjoyed the book, which is very different in structure – I don’t know that we can talk about a plot, in this instance. Cole has his man endlessly walking through NYC, partly for contrast to his work, partly because he doesn’t seem to have much else to do when he isn’t working. His girlfriend has moved to San Francisco.  So we get his take on the city, little nuggets of history as he strides around. We meet the old Japanese professor with whom he has a friendship.  We meet a new friend (another academic, a 70 yr old fascinating woman who lives effortlessly between USA & Europe, something which I don’t think he has mastered yet) who he meets on the plane when he takes a three week holiday in Brussels, ostensibly to track down his very old German grandmother and catch up on his past; but he makes such half-assed attempts to find her that nothing comes of it.  He meets two Muslim Moroccans who may – or may not – be al-Qaeda members. They have deep impassioned debates about life and Israel and the Palestinians.

The novel has these periodic vignettes scattered throughout his journeys on foot through NYC, Brussels, and his memories.  We hear about episodes in his school days at a horrible military school in Nigeria; later there is another entire story about a Liberian man’s  long struggle to enter America, & when he finally  gets there he’s imprisoned for two years, as an illegal alien.  There’s also quite a long piece about bedbugs in NYC, and a surprisingly powerful short episode about a Chinese marching band in Chinatown!  So its many disparate stories encountered  by the central character.  Something that struck me forcibly was his perspective on life and his city through the eyes of a black man. All the greetings of solidarity with the various Brothers he meets in NYC and in Europe. Because they’re black they’re automatically Brothers.

I got fed up with Julius’ indecisiveness about the important people in his life – his girlfriend, the old Japanese professor, missing out on his Ouma*. And I never understood what happened between him and his mother – if there was a rift, then why?

His walkings allow him time to reflect on his life, but he seems more of an observer than a participant.

I found the last pages completely baffling; a girl from Nigeria accuses him of raping her, when they were both teenagers, which he neither confirms nor denies. He evades the issue by relating some complicated story about an ancient Roman and the effect the story had on Nietzsche ?!!??  I didn’t get that bit.

It’s not a novel to hurry through,  and the more I think about it and ruffle through the pages to write this report, I realise how concentrated it is, and it probably warrants a second read-through.

P.S.  Since writing this review, I read a recent article which christened Teju Cole as “the next Jack Kerouac”.  In certain quarters this practically canonizes Cole!  In my younger days I loved Kerouac’s books, and Cole certainly does not enthuse and inspire me the way Kerouac did.  Age and cynicism may be contributory factors in this verdict, but I still prefer Kerouac.

*Dutch word = grandmother

 

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