Life Underground: Part 3

Safe Nowhere

A Tale of the Freedom Tunnel

It’s already getting late and the sky is becoming darker by the minute. I start walking towards JR’s old place to prepare for the night.

JR was a friend of Bernard I met through a homeless living in a shelter for people with AIDS. When JR died, his place was left intact and I kept coming for the occasional night, drawn by the coolness of the tunnel during New York’s stifling summer months.

I find the rusted door and open the lock with the small key JR gave me a few months before he passed. I leave the door open to let fresh air enter the small windowless room. Metal flakes are sprinkled over the floor and water is dripping on the decrepit walls.

My sleeping bag is still there, rolled up inside a large tarp also containing a plaid cover and cut out cardboard boxes. I search for the gas lamp I left last time I went here and light it up.

There is a clunk behind me and I stand up to see 2-Ways coming at the door. I greet him but don’t shake his hand because he doesn’t like to be touched.

“Jon told me you were going to be there,” he says, looking intensely at me while I push my things in the back of the room to make some space.

“It’s important. Having a roof over your head,” he adds, motioning around. “You’re nothing without a roof. Even animals, they dig holes and stuff. You ain’t human without a roof. You ain’t even animal. You’re just dirt.”

“That’s why here is better than the streets.”

2-Ways earned his nickname after he got run over by a car on Lexington Avenue. He was high on Ritalin and went straight across the street without watching for cars. His body was flung into the air when the cab hit him but the drug had made him so relaxed and loose that he just landed on the ground like a ragdoll and went back on his feet like nothing happened. He’s always been repeating “look two ways, look two ways” out loud before crossing a street since then. “Look two ways,” turning his head right to left, left to right and making sure the path is clear.

“You ain’t got no roof upstairs. You ain’t got nothing. You get harassed, you get beaten, you get your shit stolen,” he says. “Every time the dark man is here I hear him saying things in my voice. Last time on 110th I got spit on by a group of kids and they just laughed at me like I was a dog or something, and they started kicking me in my stomach. Just dirt. Dirt. Dirt.”

“What did you do?”

“Scant tree underbelieve between roach into came back from the church my stuff was all trashed. Smashed my stereo, torn my sheets, bottles broken mine, no shit. People are fucked up, man.”

Doctors failed to diagnose 2-Ways’ schizophrenia until he assaulted a jogger in 1997, biting his ear off. The jogger was hospitalized for a month and still has as scar today. 2-Ways often sees him. They wave at each other from the distance. 2-Ways grandmother sent him into an asylum after that, but he was released early when the institution closed its doors by lack of funding.

“I don’t do no harm or anything. Just let me be already! I got ribs broken. I got a concussion. Hit my head on the curb. They do that for fun, la-la-la. Sometimes the police beat me too and remove my things and put it all in the garbage.”

After he was evicted from his grandmother’s Section 8 housing, 2-Ways, who still went by the name of Michael at the time, went to live in various uptown shelters. He soon got into a fight that almost cost him his life, repeatedly stabbed in the stomach by a Washington Heights drug dealer after he refused to pay for fake Duramorph pills. When he woke up the next day, he was cuffed to an hospital bed. The police had found him bleeding with used needles and the bag of fake morphine pills in his jacket, and had brought him to an emergency room. As soon as he was strong enough, 2-Ways removed his cuffs and headed for the tunnel.

“Why are you staying here? You with him?” He suddenly asks, seemingly anxious. “You want my roof?”

“Him who?” I ask.

“He puts things in my voice! Who are you, man?”

2-Ways sometimes loses track of his thoughts. He has memory losses. He has paranoia issues. During his outbursts, he flings things to people, thinking they might hurt him if he doesn’t defend himself. His mind is an intricate net of bad experiences, of blocked pain and burnt synapses.

“You’re safe here,” I say.

“I ain’t safe nowhere. You with him.”

I slowly move back and wonder how long it would take me to get that brick over there should I need it. My body tenses up.

“I ain’t safe nowhere,” 2-Ways repeats as he disappears in the dark.

I open my fists and close the door as softly as I can, quickly locking it from the inside. Soon there’s only silence.

A constant in and out flow, the city breathing through the tunnel’s gills, waiting underneath the surface since time immemorial, its last plan being to remind past lives, to retell its own story through wall-written words.

I wiggle into my sleeping bag and turn off the petrol lamp, my senses vanishing in the pitch-black room as I lie on the cold ground.

I gently drift to sleep, thinking of things extinct, knowing that though the shantytown is gone, the tunnel is still alive in spite of everything that happened — brothers lost to rivers, fathers to drugs and sons to drunk drivers, but still alive because legends are forever, carried across America, painted on freight trains, graffed from unreachable heights, inked on the flesh of wanderers and living eternally — for MAVEN, KUMA and SHOW, the show’s down now, no one LEFT OUT from the caves, crews crawling down walls for DEVS, for SACE and NACE who left this place with names but no faces, for king JA hitting up an A, try to DISS THIS, DISS THIS if you dare! For Cope2 4ever on the 4 line, for REVS and SANE/SMITH on the Bay, try to DISS THIS, DISS THIS if you dare! For Lady Pink Queen’s Queen, DAZE like a GHOST baby, CRASH and REVOLT from top to bottom for a throw-up MIN, for KET and TFP, and remember IZ is THE WIZ! For KYLE and 156, upside-down PARTS and SLAVES on uptown trains, for the ones who left early and the ones who remain — it’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a COMET motherfuckers, bombing style with BLADE, bombing flair with WORM, it’s a call for FLIP6 and TAKI, a call to 183, the king of New York, the king of New York, all crews IN, all boroughs out, daring you to DISS THIS, DISS THIS if you can!

Marks on the bricks, messages and memories lost in the bowels of the city down under, down under, down under…

I don’t dream that night.

A ray of daylight weakly filters under the door when I wake up the next morning. I have a bad taste in my mouth.

I open the door and eat a cereal bar. I pee against a wall and pack my stuff, rolling it in the back of the room like it was before I arrived yesterday. I lock the door and start walking towards the north entrance of the tunnel to meet Jon for breakfast.

Something doesn’t feel right but I don’t exactly know what. Maybe that Dixie Iron Fist tag made by hobo team NOVA — are hobos even supposed to travel on the Empire Line? Maybe the way that train conductor waves his hand at me in a flash of yellow light. Maybe the smell of mold and rust.

I walk, thinking of the days to come.

I go to Lee’s place to say goodbye before leaving, hoping he hasn’t already returned in his community to try to make things work with them.

Children are playing in the park upstairs. A kite is flying in the sky through a ventilation grate.

I make sure to make myself known as I approach Lee’s den.

I see his ripped blue comforter. I see his head turned on its side and facing the wall, hair sticking out from his baseball cap, eyes closed shut. I see his shoes at his feet and the burnt book pages.

I see the empty Fentanyl bottle.

Lee’s mouth half open.

It doesn’t take long for the tears to stream freely down my face.

I keep looking at him, trying to catch a glimpse of life even if I know there will be none, and all I can do is standing near and looking at him, his skin already turning to gray, and it’s so dark here, so dark and so cold suddenly, and I feel so alone, my watery eyes watching the dead body of a man whom I wasn’t able to help, a man who called me his friend.

I think of running out and dialing 911. Of covering his head. I think of our last conversation.

I think of his last words.

I’ll be dreaming soon.

I cry, I cry in silence because I don’t want anyone to hear, my hands shaking until I sit on the floor right by Lee’s side, right where I should have been, right where I should have been, and I curse myself and I hate myself for not having listened and not having heard.

I’ll be dreaming soon. I’ll be dreaming soon. I’ll be dreaming soon. I’ll be dreaming soon. I’ll be dreaming soon.

It only strikes me now how much this place looks like a grave. A cathedral for the dead and the fallen.

There is a half burned page near me, a page from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men with sentences underlined in blue ink.

“Guys like us got nothing to look ahead to,” says George to his friend Lennie in the middle of the page.

I laugh uncontrollably, gathering the pieces of the book and putting them together in front of me until the whole novella is assembled again, browned by Lee’s lighter flame but still mostly intact.

I stay there for a while.

Then, I start reading aloud.

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

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