Saturday, October 3, 2009

Urban Subterranea

When I first moved to New York I lived in Park Slope, which has come to be a rather desirable and expensive neighborhood. At the time it was well on its way up, but I was living with my girlfriend in a windowless, 10'x6' room in a basement apartment. Yes, the rumors are true: In New York you can rent and live in a closet. Actually, this was probably more along the lines of a converted pantry, as it had inner closets and such, each rather narrow and the opening of which meant you had just robbed yourself of at least 20% of your maneuverable space. We were subleasing, of course, and it was one of those subleases that reach back so far along a chain of people that the "property" probably fell under some 18th century law that qualified it as a commune, or coven. In New York, "underground" has many implications.

The F train is the one that most readily runs to Park Slope, and it is famous for being the last of the horse-drawn subway trains. (I once heard a very coherent monologue -- from an otherwise very messed-up and deranged homeless man -- on the F platform at Broadway-Lafayette about the history of the F train, by way of explaining or perhaps excusing the train's lateness that evening. It was coherent, that is, apart from being SHOUTED AT THE VERY TOP OF HIS LUNGS.) One day not long after moving into my pantry, I rode in the front car of the F on my way home, late at night, from a rehearsal or some such thing. On the older train cars, the only window at the front of the train is a small square one, at average eye level, fit into the front sliding door. Very often, this window is blacked out, presumably either to prevent ogling at the outside world or to trick people into thinking there's more train to walk through and laugh merrily at them as they break the rules by sliding yet another between-car door open and plunge to their grisly death. I place even odds. At any rate, this window wasn't blackened, and I slouched into the door and observed our forward progress.

Before too long I realized that I was looking at really very old structures. It seemed almost anachronistic, as I listened to my headphones and saw steel girders giving way to a wooden crossbeam here and there, and the concrete walls growing knottier with age and disintegration. The train lights carried detail after detail into view, and I realized that we were in the section of the train that runs from Manhattan to Brooklyn, under the East River. Under the East River. There's a school of thought that says we take our lives in our hands every day, that even getting out of bed, much less crossing a busy street is risking a chance of death. When I realized just how old the tunnel through which I was hurtling was, I was thrilled. For the first time it occurred to me that there are centuries-old hidden tunnels and chambers and disused passages laced throughout New York's famous bedrock and, odds are, no one person knows everything of what's down there.

I'm very pleased to be joining the enterprise here at Subterranean Design. It's a little like discovering an enthusiasm I had forgotten I have. From time to time I'll be contributing information about Manhattan's underground network -- probably a bit of research, but hopefully quite a bit of personal exploration. The modern world has hidden depths, and it should be great fun to sink to their levels.

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