Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Mole People: beneath New York CIty's streets

"Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before"--The Smiths

When I first came across this story, I had to do a double take.

Turns out that there really are mobs of homeless people who live in the subway tunnels beneath New York City.  It all was detailed in a 1993 book called The Mole People by journalist Jennifer Toth.  Having studied literary non-fiction, I can tell you that such texts do require a a fair amount of skepticism.  It is not always evident where the writer's reporting gives way to the tools of the novelist, but that is a matter for my other blog.  From what admittedly little searching around I've done on the Internet, it does appear that Toth was dead on the money.

At the time of her writing the book in the early 90s (ahh halcyon days), there were an estimated 5,000 people living in the tunnel systems beneath the city.  The majority of these homeless people were mentally ill, alcoholics, addicted to drugs, or otherwise afflicted.  My jaw nearly dropped, however, when I read that several of these people have collected themselves into enclaves that function like actual communities.  Each one has a "mayor," a social strata, nurses, and teachers.  As implied, they're even raising children in the tunnels.  Hot water is available through steam pipes.  This allows for cooking, showers, and laundry.  Electricity is siphoned from underground wires and cables.  "Runners" head for topside to scavenge for food and other needed items.
It's not just in New York, either.  The same sort of situation is going on in Las Vegas, right beneath even the town's glitziest casinos.  People living in the storm drain system in many similar respects to the ones described in NYC.

This, I will admit, blows my mind.  It's like Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, a book that is currently in my to-read stack but entails an entire culture that lives in the sewer tunnels and abandoned subway tracks of the London Underground.  I also see a bit of the hustlers from My Own Private Idaho in all this, the way that they lived together in abandoned buildings as semi-communities.  I must confess, there is a certain romantic appeal to this.  Living on the edge, away from society and off of "the grid."  Oh the stories that this sort of thing is just ripe for.

But you'd be homeless.  Bottom line.  You'd be dealing with the same unfortunate souls that approach you for help every time you leave the trains at Union Station.  The schizophrenics and the addicts, living off of enormous rats that they've hunted and cooked.  They're basically living a criminal lifestyle, fending off attacks from other homeless who are bent on survival at any cost and sometimes taking criminal jobs of either burke or blade just to get something to eat.  It's undoubtedly an existence that is at best desultory and at worst harrowing.

So I must ask, in the end, what is more shocking: the fact that we have "mole people" beneath the streets or that this kind of poverty exists anywhere in the United States?

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