April 13, 2010

There is truth in all their stories

Bernard's Tunnel

"(Bernard) Isaacs graduated from the University of Maryland in 1975, he says, with a major in journalism and a minor in philosophy. He initially worked as an editorial assistant at CBS in New York for a short time, then went into modeling, and then into dealing drugs. He claims to be drug and alcohol free now, at least most of the time. Periodically, he admits, he slips back." (p. 98-99).

"Most members of this Riverside Park community are tunnel veterans. They have established communication networks that quickly pass around new information on where and when hot meals are being handed out. They know when a grocery store is throwing out slightly wilted produce or damaged cartons of macaroni. They know which restaurants and delicatessens give the days' leftovers to the homeless. They also know which restaurants throw ammonia on their garbage to keep the homeless away." (p. 103).

"The most important truth about underground people, Bernard also advises, is that there is no single truth about them. 'They tell many stories and there is truth in all their stories. You just have to find it. "We had one guy down here who was sometimes an ex-Navy Seal, sometimes a Green Beret, sometimes the king of an island, sometimes a pastry chef,' one homeless man recalls. "All I know he was a decent man who used to share everything. When the police asked if I knew this guy, and showed me his picture and told me a name, I didn't have to lie. I said no, I don't know that guy. I don't care what he done. He's a good guy and if he wants to start over down here, he can. That's the beauty of the tunnels." (p. 117).

I had to write a response paper about this book so I found a few more I wanted to post. I searched for Bernard's picture online but couldn't find one. Toth uses one by Margaret Morton in the book. Shame, it's a really good one.

April 09, 2010

I saw a city invincible to the attacks

"City of Friends"
"I meet George on the street and when he asks why I haven't visited, I'm embarrassed. I say that my last conversation with Sam was very disturbing, but George believes I'm repelled by the physical environment. "It got too much for you didn't it? he asks gently. "I know. It's OK though, kid. I wish you could understand how it is. It would be easier for you. See, no matter how ugly the camp seems to you, it don't matter to us, we don't see it that way because we're friends, and that matters more. For most of us, it's the first time we ever had a real friend."

He smiles brightly at the thought. "We're a city of friends. That's what Sam says." He winks at me and walks away without saying good-bye.

The phrase sounds familiar and I find it in Walt Whitman:
I dream'd in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks
of the whole rest of the earth;
I dream'd that was the new City of Friends.
(p. 211)

Jamall's Story

"Whether Jamall's birdlike people are real, natural caves are likely to run through the Manhattan bedrock of schist. Geologists describe schist as crystalline rocklike granite that has a folded structure and cleaves along parallel planes or slabs like the layers of mica. The shifting earth leaves gaps between slabs, which rain and spring water widen into huge caverns. The schist almost reaches the surface under the grass of Central Park before dropping a hundred feet or more below the surface elsewhere on Manhattan. Workers digging the subway tunnels early in this century are said to have found a ten-thousand-year-old standing forest buried deep under the Upper West Side, presumably inundated in a mud slide and driven into a cavern by an Ice Age glacier.

More plausible than Ghost Cliff is the huge underground room "with a piano and tiled floor and mirrors all around" that Jamall says he found. An elderly homeless woman later described to me a similar room in which about fifty homeless people live. She added a fountain to the decor. "Fantastic," she said. "It was just beautiful." The two compartments could be the same although Jamall and the woman placed them in different regions of the city, one in lower Manhattan and the other in Mid-Town on the West Side. These rooms are probably remnants of compartments dug and drilled out more than a century ago as part of the subway and rail systems and long abandoned and forgotten.
Jamall has come across communities in the tunnels that he has felt uncomfortable with, but he adamantly believes that no one in the tunnels should be evicted.
"They make a life for themselves," says Jamall. "They take care of each other better than up here. They sleep in places everyone up here has forgotten, and that's not stealing; that's being resourceful and surviving. Why take them out of there? They're not hurting no one. Give them some space and some time to heal." (p. 235)

Jennifer Toth's ethnography was truly fascinating. I've lived in New York City all of my life and had no idea that homeless people lived in the subway systems... I wasn't even aware that the underground reached such great depths. In some parts, Toth talks about some people living miles and miles underground. It's unbelievable. I was also surprised by the wide variety of people Toth encountered in the tunnels - many were drug addicts and criminals, yes, but many were also graduates from college with Ph.D.'s. Many of them were very smart. Some had minimum-wage paying jobs (McDonald's, etc.) but just lived underground to avoid paying rent. And I was surprised at the ways in which they survived. Some of the communities even had mayors! And nurses. And runners (their jobs were to bring back food). I think one community even had a teacher. I don't know, it's just all really incredible. Toth published The Mole People in the early 1990s, and I think by now the city might have removed many of them from the tunnel, but I'm sure that many continue to live there. The whole concept is just so interesting, and some of the characters were very memorable (Bernard!). I wonder what's happened to them.

"What drove him underground was red tape."

J.C.'s Community
"We descend through Grand Central Station, which is spread over forty-eight acres, making it the largest train station in the world. It also goes down six levels beneath the subway tracks. There is no complete blueprint of the tunnels and tracks under the station. Many tunnels were begun but abandoned. Some were built but forgotten. Some were sealed off, but underground homeless people have broken through, either directly by hacking a hole through the wall or by circuitous routes, to inhabit them now." (p. 192)

"It was to explain all this, he says, that he invited me to visit his community despite the opposition of his advisers like J.C. He wanted someone "from the outside" to tell the world that he and his community are "better off" than those aboveground, those who are sick. The mayor may see himself as Brown's "Manchild," but he is much more the "underground man" in Irving Howe's "Celine."
"A creature of the city, he has no fixed place among the social classes; he lives in holes and crevices, burrowing beneath the visible structure of society ... Even while tormenting himself with reflections upon his own insignificance, the underground man hates still more -- hates more than his own hateful self -- the world aboveground." (p. 202)

"City of Friends"
"What drove him underground, he explains, was "red tape. All that fucking red tape," he begins, with voice rising and face reddening. "How can you help anyone when there's that red tape? Kids would get abused to death in foster care and you couldn't get them out without that red tape. Two of them were killed before I got through the red tape. How can you live with that?" he demands, angrily waving his arms.
"How can you live in a society like that? he asks, more quietly now. "The rules don't make sense. They're not based on human needs or caring. The laws and the rules, and what they call morals, are logical and warped. They are based on money, not right or wrong. They might as well have come from a computer. No one really cares up there. Down here this is basic survival. We make our own laws. Our laws are based on what we feel, not preconceived notions of morality. We call it the 'human morality.' That's what we live by." (p. 209)

I think one of the most surprising things I learned while reading this book is that, many of the homeless people were perfectly happy living in the tunnels. They didn't consider themselves homeless, per se. They bonded over a shared animosity of the world aboveground.

April 02, 2010

When I go down there, I can't wait to come back up

The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City by Jennifer Toth

From chapter: Bernard's Tunnel
Like Bernard, Bob earns what little money he needs by "busting," or returning discarded cans and bottles to redemption centers. For 600 empties, they can receive $30, or a nickel each. A major problem is finding groceries to redeem the trash, however. Despite the law requiring stores to take up to 250 empties from any one person, storekeepers often refuse in an effort to discourage the homeless from entering their premises. A few nonprofit redemption centers exist, notably "We Can" at 12th Avenue and 52nd street, which was begun by Guy Polhemus when he overheard homeless at a soup kitchen complain about their difficulty. However, these centers tend to be inconvenient and very crowded, with long lines and long waits.
This has led to the rise of middlemen, also called two-for-oners although they should be one-for-twoers. They buy two empties for a nickel, half the price at regular redemption centers, but offer "no waiting, no sorting, no hassle," as Bob says. Some middlemen have become full-blown entrepreneurs, like Chris Jeffers, a twenty-year-old who was sleeping in Riverside Park just two years earlier but now makes $70,000 a year. He rents an empty theater at Eighth Avenue and 50th Street and keeps it open around the clock for the homeless to bring their cans and bottles; it pays half the price, but it's convenient. Jeffers, who says he took some college courses in finance in Tampa, Florida, resells the empties to "We Can" for the full redemption price, earning thousands of dollars a day. Most of the collectors go through the trash at night when they are less visible to the public. Many are addicts of one kind or another, Jeffrey says, and often want to redeem their cans after hours to feed their night needs. "I know some people will say I'm exploiting those with alcohol and drug problems," Jeffers admitted to a New York Times reporter. "But tell me, how is what I'm doing any different from what commodity traders do when they buy crops at low prices from farmers in distress? (p. 107)

From chapter: Tunnel Art
"When I go down there, I can't wait to come back up. I keep promising myself that the next mural will be my last. I hate the danger, I hate risking my life each time for something so stupid. But I get an idea in my head for a piece and I can't get rid of it, and I have to do it because, if I don't, no one else will." More than a decade ago, when trains wore graffiti, Chris gave designs to graffiti gangs eager to prove their daring by executing them. He was far less interested in braving the dangers than in seeing his concept completed and appreciated." (p. 123)
Perhaps his most famous work is the mural that took up the side of an entire subway car, a photograph of which almost got to the Museum of Modern Art as part of its "High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture" show. The exhibit featured great masters, their impact on street art, and in turn, street art's impact on them. Freedom's work was a version of Michelangelo's Creation, an ephemeral hand reaching down from a white cloud to touch fingertips with another from below. Across the bottom he scrawled the words "What is Art. Why is art." The photograph of the car with the mural was incorporated into the sixty-page catalog, but in the end the museum chose not to display the picture for fear it would alienate trustees and donors who might interpret it as an endorsement of graffiti. (p. 125)

My thoughts about this ethnography when I finish the book.