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.

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