Life Underground: Part 2
I’ll be Dreaming Soon
A Tale of the Freedom Tunnel
Juan is smoking a cigarette right under a black and white HOME SWEET HOME inscription.
“Look who’s there,” he says.
We shake hands and he invites me to come in, leading the way up his house set in an abandoned control unit and shielded by a locking grate door. A makeshift cinder block partition separates his bedroom from his kitchen.
Juan illegally immigrated from Cuba about twenty years ago and got hooked on crack heroin soon after his arrival. He was living in the tunnel with his girlfriend until they broke up in 2002 and she was accepted for a public housing apartment. Then he just stayed here alone.
“Have you heard about Bernard?” I ask.
Juan sits on an executive chair and looks down on the floor, nodding silently as he hands me a cigarette.
“I heard. May he rest in peace,” he replies, crossing himself.
“I was told his family was by his side when he passed.”
“That’s a good thing. Not being alone when you die.”
I blow my smoke up to the ceiling where it lingers before vanishing in blue curls. I keep quiet.
“He taught me a lot of things during his years down here. He cared for his people. He really did,” Juan says.
“That’s why he was such a great man.”
“The Lord of the Tunnel,” Juan adds.
He gives me a photograph taken during the shantytown demolition in 1991, when the authorities came to destroy the tent city built while the tunnel was disused. Bernard stands in the foreground, looking at mountains of rubble being pushed away from the tracks.
Bernard Monte Isaac was a legend. Kind and articulate with a great sense of humor, he awarded himself the title of Lord of the Tunnel when he started running things in what probably came to be the longest standing New York homeless community. He served as a link between the outside world and the underground, delivering messages and working with various non-profit and governmental associations to provide housing for those who wanted it.
“He gave instructions on how to use the keys,” I say, referring to the #102 locks used to open the condemned emergency exits distributed across the underpass.
“He lasted 60 years, can you believe it? Hijo de su madre. And he managed to get out of it fine somehow.”
“He always said he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. That having been here was the best thing that had happened to him.”
“May he rest in peace.”
Back in the days, Juan had a pet rat he used to call Mickey. Mickey Rat was as big as a cat, roaming the tunnel for food and dead birds. Juan liked his rat very much and talked to him like one would talk to a child. You could sometimes hear him whisper in the dark, comforting the animal in a soft voice as he told him about his day. Mickey Rat had his own house hidden in the shade of an abandoned service area — a crate with a pissy blanket inside and a rattling toy he played with in the core of the night. Juan didn’t mind the noise. He was accustomed to the rodent and welcomed his presence as if they were old friends who didn’t need to talk to acknowledge each other.
Juan kept bottles of stolen Tide detergent in his place to trade against drugs, a 150 ounce bottle going for about $10 worth of crack at this time. One day, he came back in the tunnel high on Hydrocodone and cocaine after an afternoon spent in a Washington Heights crack house.
When he went to lie in his bed that day, Juan discovered the rat had munched on the Tide bottles, piercing the plastic lids and letting the detergent spill out on the floor. On the five bottles he had saved for his next drug trade, only one was left intact, the equivalent of a daily dose. The rest was pooling into a Mountain Breeze scented puddle.
Juan called Mickey Rat and left a bowl of Fruit Loops near his crate. He waited for the critter to come by and eat the cereals. Then, he took a concrete wire mesh and bludgeoned him to death, yelling “Bad Mickey” over and over as he beat him to a pulp.
Once the anger fell, Juan sat on his armchair and lit a can fire in his drug-induced haze. He took the rat’s smashed body, put it into the can and left it to roast until the fur caught on fire. Then he pulled the charred carcass from the fire and held it in his arms like a baby before curling up around it and passing out in tears. “He was the only friend I had and now he’s dead” he said to me when I found him the next day. Juan never touched any drugs after that.
“You going to stay for the night?” He asks.
“At JR’s old place,” I answer.
A train suddenly rushes by, coming out of nowhere, headlights lighting the walls, blurred faces in the yellow-lit car windows, gray metal diving into the depths of the tunnel…
I thank Juan for the cigarette and head outside to continue my walk towards the southern part of the tracks.
Openings sometimes allow the daylight to come in, streaking the tunnel from side to side in radiant dust-filled beams.
I almost step on an empty syringe when I get to Chris “Freedom” Pape’s famous chiaroscuro auto-portrait showing a spray paint can in place of his head, faintly illuminated under an overhead grate. Not far from it, a gray Dali clock from the same artist is melting into what was once a SPAIR graffiti. A Venus de Milo’s bust. MAVEN and DART pieces. More portraits. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album cover — you shout and no one seems to hear.
Freedom and Smith’s reproduction of Goya’s The Third of May 1808 painting still stands in a space recessed from the tracks, tarnished by vandals and water damage. Retitled The Third of May 1992, the mural was made at firelight during the massive expulsions of homeless people living in the tunnel, when the rail company evicted the last dwellers and bulldozed their makeshift homes.
Bernard often recounted about how he helped whitewashing the wall to prep it for the paint and how cold it had been that year.
What used to be an improvised camp is now a place populated only by beer bottles and beach chairs and cigarette butts, and cinder blocks and condoms and overturned buckets.
I stay still, listening to my breathing in the dark.
The heart of the city.
Where humanity’s roots come to die and be born, bathed in pale white light. A womb muting the world and withering the days — a soft womb to lull the fallen, nurture them and make them one with the city’s insides, make them one with the bones of the forgotten and the soul of the streets.
There is a noise behind me. I recognize Lee’s cough and turn around to see him climb over a mound of crushed rocks.
“I was wondering who the hell it was,” he says as I give him a hand to help him reach down. “It’s been a while.”
“I thought you were living uptown now?” I reply.
“Well not anymore.”
We stand in front of the Goya reproduction, under a metal chandelier dangling from the ceiling, waiting for another train to pass by with rhythmic waves of sound saturating the hollow air and gently fading out as the wagons roll away.
“I had a falling out with Outlaw last week,” Lee says. “He told anyone who would listen about how I tried to abuse that girl Sherri and that I was a cheater and a liar, things like that. They can all go fuck themselves, I don’t want to have nothing do with them again. I’m better off by myself anyway.”
Lee currently lives in a community located near the river, in a Harlem dead-end street, and ran by a single man since the early 2000's. Homeless communities are like families. Some are incredibly kind and supportive. Most are dysfunctional and violent. All are based on mutual help — wretched families but families nonetheless, fighting but eventually forgiving each other and sticking together no matter what in order to subsist.
“Was it any true? The Sherri girl thing?” I ask.
“Outlaw sure believed it was, but it wasn’t. It ain’t the first time the bitch pretends getting raped to get more drugs from him. I don’t blame her, though. It’s just not fair for me.”
We go back to the tracks and walk along the wall.
“Have I always been an angel with women? Hell no,” Lee adds. “I’ve done stuff I ain’t proud of, but the world is already fucked up enough without me adding my own shit on top of it. No need to shoot on an ambulance, right? And the girl ain’t even my type!”
“So you left.”
“I was going to get hurt if I didn’t, so I figured — I figured it was best to go back to the tunnel, you know. At least I can sleep good here and there’s no flooding or police busts.”
Lee is a chronic homeless. He grew up in the neighborhood and went to PS186, a now abandoned school in Harlem. Lee had his first knife injury at twelve and his first probation at fifteen for robbing tourists in Times Square. He enrolled in the army at twenty but was discharged for insubordination after only a few months. He went on collecting odd jobs, briefly working as a cook in a 2nd Avenue restaurant, participating in clinical trials to make up for the scarce money and pay up the bills until he lost his rent-stabilized apartment in 2004.
Lee has been living on the streets since then, selling books in Central Park and staying in various places across the West Side. He doesn’t worry about paying bills anymore. He can be seen dragging trash bags full of aluminum cans in Morningside Heights, three or four at a time in his Fairway cart. He often helps Broadway booksellers loading their stock in hope they will give him a meal or a couple of unsold novels. His backpack is always full of dog-eared literary classics discarded by Columbia students.
“What have you been reading lately?” I ask.
“I just finished Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. There’s some mad good writing in there. I loved it.”
“It’s a sad story.”
“That’s why I loved it,” Lee says. “That poor Lennie guy. And George, too. Having to live with having killed his best friend,” he adds, referring to the novella’s two main characters.
“Out of love.”
“Out of love.”
“You should try Grapes of Wrath next,” I say.
“I actually saw the film version with Henry Fonda at an outdoor festival not so long ago,” he replies.
“I’ll bring you a copy next time.”
“Also found a self-improvement book. Got big laughs out of it.”
“Why is that?”
Lee smiles and coughs. He removes his baseball cap and picks a cigarette from inside of it. The glowing flame of the lighter blurs his face for a second.
“Hippie bullshit trying to make people feel good about themselves and finding big meanings everywhere,” he replies. “You’re the best, it’s the others’ fault. You’re so special,” he adds in a falsetto voice. “But we ain’t special. There ain’t no big meaning. More often than not, we ain’t worth shit and our lives ain’t worth shit either.”
“So why keep living, then?”
“Because we still have to try getting all the love we can, man.”
We sit on the first steps of a service staircase. EXISTENCE IS FLAWED, an inscription says behind us.
“It’s another world, this tunnel. It’s something else. It’s good for me because I like being alone. Going by my own rules.”
“It’s important, having rules.”
“That’s what you do to keep control on yourself.”
We throw little rocks onto a plastic folding chair. The thuds reverberate in the suite of empty corridors around us.
“Does it work?” I ask.
“Depends if you believe in it or not. For me not so much. But I ain’t going to stay a bum forever anyway.”
“So you have plans,” I say.
“I do my best. But I won’t go back with Outlaw. I don’t want this life anymore. It hurts, you know? Just thinking about it, it hurts.”
“I cannot imagine.”
“Seeing the world going round while I’m down here.”
He holds his cigarette out. I take a puff and feel the smoke burning my mouth.
“When I’m with people. That’s when it hurts the most. Not here underground, but on the streets with people,” he says.
“Because you get to see them thrive.”
“They have everything and they still ain’t happy. Always wanting more. It makes me want to die, seeing them like that. But that’s how it is, right?”
“People don’t know the value of what they have until they’ve lost it,” I say.
“You speak the truth, man. They don’t. And that’s why I’m here. I can’t endure them having everything and wasting it all. And I don’t want them to endure seeing me like that. Let them dream, I say. Let them dream while it lasts.”
“It’s all a dream,” I say smiling.
“Except I’m still awake. But I’ll be dreaming soon, man. Soon it’s going to be my turn.”
We part ways near an OBSOLETE MACHINE graffiti. There is a giant hungry rat painted by Philadelphia artist CURVE not far from here that makes me think of Juan and Mickey and all the track rabbits roaming around.
A hooded Unabomber portrait by ESPO looks at me through his black sunglasses. “This is for my peoples,” he says in a blue haze, empty spray cans left on the gravel.
Someone has left a bag with belongings still inside. Countless bottles of water, a coffee mug, a hair brush and rolling tobacco. An old bomber jacket. Papers and pens. HELP I’M NOT REAL in white characters on the grimy concrete.
All those writings, hidden from sight, secretively spreading over miles of walls. The forgotten words. The grief and the hope. The power in being nameless and buried.
Freedom’s masterpiece remnants stand under a thick layer of gray paint. I can still see glimpses of what the piece looked like before 2011, when Amtrak agents raided the tunnel to clean it from the graffiti and buffed the most famous works. I can still see the iconic cop in is yellow coat saying DROP THE GUN, MOLE. I can still see the Coca Cola sign replica. I can still distinguish the THERE IS NO WAY LIKE THE AMERICAN WAY inscription lingering between the newer work of newer artists.
Someone has written FREEDOM FOREVER under the drawing of a hand by GAIA — The Hand that Creates and Destroys. A charcoal-style portrait of Robert Moses, the urban planner who designed the tunnel, stands where the original Buy American mural began.
I decide to keep walking some more to see if Chip is home. Chip was a construction worker. He had been taking LSD and K2 synthetic marijuana for years before he jumped from a scaffolding thinking he could fly. When I met him in the neighborhood, he was limping across Riverside Park with his toolbox in hand, coming back from a demolition site on 71st Street.
Chip lives in a manhole, under the underground. He settled in a rounded alcove at the top of a drain service access going down into the earth. The concrete pipe section he sleeps in is lined with tarps and blankets to isolate him from the cold. He can sit and crouch there and has high-capacity batteries lamps to help him see when the manhole cover is put on.
Today, the cover is slightly off. I knock against it and squat in the dust. There is ruffling inside and the cover suddenly moves, displaying Chip looking up, eyes squinted because of the daylight. He seems relieved when he recognizes me.
“I was sure it was the Amtrak police.”
“Sorry I startled you.”
Chip has company in his house. A frail blond girl with needle marks on her arms and dark marks around the eyes emerges from the manhole, silently looking at me.
“This is Fawn. She got into a fight with her father in law and bailed out last month. I share my place with her.”
The girl keeps quiet and lowers her eyes when I greet her.
“We haven’t been upstairs for five or six days because she got a wound that prevents her from walking good.”
Chip tells Fawn to stay inside the conduit and stands up, inviting me to walk with him.
“I was high, she was high, we played a little and she — I’m behind her, see, and next thing I know she’s bleeding from down there, like crazy bleeding, man. At first I think I’ve been going in too rough but it can’t be that, so she panics, I panic, and I’m like ‘what do I do, what do I do?’ with all the blood on my hands. In the end the bleeding stops and it turns out she had a blister near her pussy where she’d been injecting, and the blister popped right up when we went at it.”
“Did she get it checked?”
“She went to the ER but didn’t stay because she was afraid the nurses would call her family. They gave her penicillin.”
“Do you need any help?”
“I think we’re good. We got alcohol and bandages from the hospital. It’s the pain that’s bad. She injects in the thigh to stop it from hurting, but you know the thing with crack, making you all horny and shit. So she wants to fuck and then we fuck and when we’re done she’s even more sore than before and so she does more drugs to kill the pain, and it goes on and on… I’ll bring her back to St Luke’s if it doesn’t get better by tomorrow,” he says.
The blue rounded letters of a KUMA are slashed by a stylized exacto blade, a trail of blood left behind. We stop in front of the chaotic and sharp lines of a faded SANE piece.
“I guess you know about Bernard,” Chip says.
He doesn’t see my nod but it doesn’t matter. Bernard is the reason we’re here looking at this piece.
“Modern society is guilty of intellectual terrorism,” Chip reads on the wall. “That quote was from him, you know. He used to have tea with David, the kid who wrote it. They often talked together. Lots of painters coming down here.”
“Bernard was fond of them.”
“He did. There was the one the tunnel was named after, going by the alias Freedom. He tagged for himself at first but then bums started to move in and saw his work, and it was — it’s like he suddenly had an audience, right? So he kept painting for us instead. It was our own private gallery.”
“And there was SANE.”
“And there was SANE. SANE/SMITH, really — David and his brother Roger. Those boys left tags everywhere they could, even got sued for doing the Brooklyn Bridge. But David was special, man. He had something in him.”
“He was incredibly talented.”
“He was human. He felt things differently. A sad person, too, very sad. Very deep.”
We turn around and start to go back to his place. He shrugs and puts his hands in his jeans pockets.
“That’s probably why he killed himself.”
We get back to the manhole in silence. Chip pulls the lid, Fawn’s marbled and yellowed legs moving in the den, one of her hands reaching up a small shelf to grab a bicycle chain.
“I’ll be around if you need anything,” I say.
“Take care, alright?”
He disappears under the surface, his voice cut by the thick layer of concrete structure I’m standing on.
Some names, locations and details have been changed to preserve the anonymity of the characters involved in this story.