Life Underground: Part 1

Good and Cold

A Tale of the Freedom Tunnel

The Riverside Bridge spreads over 125th Street in a tangle of gray steelworks. Clangs and shouts from the nearby construction site are covered by traffic noise, trucks blasting on the parkway and crosstown buses looping around St Clair Place.

I exit the Fairway market and walk along the old brick warehouses topped with billboards. The Hudson is looming in a watery glare behind the overpass.

Bright day, slow afternoon.

The opening is still there behind the trees. I stride over a pile of refuse and get to the tracks, walking briskly along the railroad, head down and hands in my pockets, gravel crunching under my feet, cars passing by on the other side of the fence.

Ahead of me is the tunnel.

Designed in the 1930s to expand green space areas for the Upper West Side residents, the tunnel saw freight trains going across it until to 1980 when operations stopped after a decrease in railroads use. It quickly became a haven for New York’s graffiti artists who started using it as their personal art gallery. Homeless people discovered the place soon after and established complex communities, pirating electricity and seeing their number steadily grow before Amtrak decided to reopen the tunnel for commercial use in 1991. Taggers and vagrants alike kept occupying the premises nonetheless, and strong bonds were created that eventually led to the painting of graffiti masterpieces made for the enjoyment of the tunnel’s squatters. After years of evictions and arrests, the homeless were granted housing thanks to local organizations efforts and left the tunnel for good in 1995.

The place is now mostly empty, visited by the occasional curious teenagers and graffiti amateurs.

On the wall near me, blue and black and white graffiti, some new and some older, written over each other in numerous layers of spray paint. A baby blue FOE and a KAZ. A few BRUZ and JA in the middle parts of the surface, covered by more recent JZUS. Two untouched DART and TRAP probably painted in team at the same time are surmounting a mound of torn papers and wrinkled pages.

I stop in the shade of the tunnel’s entrance. ORIGINAL AMTRAK (FREEDOM) TUNNEL has been written in hurried white capitals on a girder above me.

I lean against a wall, making sure no train is coming.

“Jon!” I call. “I’m here!”

Something moves further down inside. Jon, a homeless who’s been living out for almost twenty years, lowers his ladder from the ledge he’s standing on and motions me to join him.

The ground is littered with trash. Discarded plastic pieces, ancient electronic parts, unwound cassette tapes, broken glass and garbage bags all along the way.

“You good, man?” Jon asks.

“Not bad. How about you?”

“Not bad. I couldn’t sleep.”

I climb the ladder and sit with him on top of the support wall. We stay here in silence for a moment, listening to the outside noises and to the dripping water we cannot see.

Jon is in his late fifties. He’s always wore the same khaki parka for as long as I can remember. The same parka all year long, in the coldest winter months and in the blistering August heat. He makes sure to trim his graying beard every week. His rounded glasses have been repaired countless times with duct tape and Krazy Glue. He’s the tunnel’s gatekeeper.

“What you got today?” He asks.

I give him the grocery bag I’ve been carrying from the market. He nods and smiles as he picks into it. A turkey roll. A tuna sandwich. A pack of macaroni. A bottle of orange juice. Instant coffee.

“Shit man, you got me stuff for weeks.”

“I’m not coming back for a long time,” I reply.

He keeps digging into the bag, pulling out cheese crackers and cereal bars that he puts on a makeshift shelf behind us.

“Where you going to be?”

“I don’t know yet. Outside.”

“Outside the city?”

“Outside the city.”

He reaches to put his old Sony ghetto blaster on and starts wiggling to Pharrell Williams singing Happy on the radio.

“Thanks for the food, man,” he says.

“Sure. I hope you’ll enjoy it.”

“You bet I will.”

He starts eating his turkey roll as the music quietly fills the tunnel and echoes against the concrete struts.

This is his home. This is his life.

Jon often tells different accounts of his story. He used to be a gang member in the Bronx River Houses. He used to be a family man, a father of four working as a furniture salesman. He used to be a pastor spreading the good word. The FBI is looking for him. Donald Trump was his friend. It doesn’t matter which version is true anymore. His real story has been buried long ago under thick layers of improvised memories, the tales growing more detailed by the years, the man slowly becoming a collage of himself — like a ghost trying to grab a hold on reality.

“How long will you be gone?” He asks.

“A few months.”

“Good. Good.”

I take a sip of orange juice.

“How come I never saw you collecting cans?” I ask.

“That’s my secret,” he answers, laughing. “I don’t do that no more since I got buddies with a couple of joint owners on Broadway. They fill up their recycling bags for me so I just have to pick them up and return them straight at Duane Reade. Pays for a cheeseburger and a coffee in no time.”

“Sounds like a nice gig.”

“It helps. Every joint near the Grant Houses, they know me. They go ‘Jon, how you doing’ every time they see me.”

“Do they offer food?”

“The pizza place does. The others not so much. Lots of Asian people who don’t speak English there. They’re afraid of black men like me, you know what I’m saying.”

I eat a cracker, looking at Jon covering his groceries with a blue tarp under which a few kitchen utensils lay next to a propane heater. A pigeon coos somewhere near us.

“When is the next train?” I ask.

“About twenty minutes. Last one went by an hour ago.”

“Want to take a walk?”

“I’m good here, man. I think I’ll sleep a little.”

“You got any booze left?”

“Only Thunderbird.”

I grimace in pain as he grabs the cheap bottle of wine from behind a crate used as a nightstand.

“How’s it sold?” I joke.

“Good and cold,” he replies. “What’s the price?”

“Thirty twice,” I answer.

We both laugh in the dark. Ah, Thunderbird, nectar of the bums! Exquisite liquor! A drink known for its expressive Kool Aid aromatics, its quenching radiator coolant texture entwined amongst supple layers of Nyquil flecks, and its signature diesel gas hints on the finish. A sensory sojourn into the depth of America’s gutters. Delicious with scavenged McDonald’s fries and chicken strips.

I take a gulp from the bottle under Jon’s amused eyes. We both know it’s awful but none of us says anything.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” I tell Jon.

“All right, man. Watch out for the police.”

I go down the ladder, jump on the tracks and start walking.

A shopping cart has been left near a colorful AKM25 psychedelic graffiti whose warm patterns contrast with the tunnel’s bleakness. A burst of intricate orange and red tones that seems to be exploding in the dark. A tag on a load-bearing pole reads Everyday it’s a Struggle To Follow the Way.

There are all kinds of debris down there. An absurd amount of stuffed animals. Teddy bears and plush dogs laid in the dirt, ripped open by rats and raccoons.

From creepy dolls with no legs to spilled out Samsonite suitcases, everything here reminds of what stands upstairs, recalling the failures and the lost ideals our civilization was built upon.

Trash as a witness of lives long gone.

Trash as a foundation of the future.

The air is still. The temperature and the humidity drop as I go further down the tunnel.

Service stairs, every inch of metal covered in signs and cryptic letters — SANE SMITH 1984 on a dim lit back wall. Emergency exits locked by the authorities — a painted tribute to 9/11 by DYRECT with DIVIDED WE FALL written in Star-Spangled Banner colors over tall-standing towers. Street numbers on white plates — futuristic pieces from the legendary MAYHEM crew, spreading over long wall stretches like entangled bowels of alien typography, green on black, gold on black, rainbows on black, otherworldly types from CHIP7, NACE, SACE and MIZE.

I can sometimes hear people shouting overhead through the ventilation shafts that lead to Riverside Park. I figure children running in alleys, couples holding hands, teams playing basketball.

Some names, locations and details have been changed to preserve the anonymity of the characters involved in this story.

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