A subway ride through the underground portion of the New York City Transit system can reveal far more than most might anticipate. And if you find yourself on a train passing through lower Manhattan, you might pick up images of abandoned stations or long-lost passages through the windows of the subway car, forgotten with time as relics of the City’s storied past. The system itself is truly is a modern marvel that continues to be renovated and upgraded. But there are still many parts that remain hidden, known only to workers of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and possibly others who have dwelled in prohibited areas far removed from the sight of strap-hangers. In the 1980s, the City saw a rise is the number of people living beneath the sidewalks, in crevices, tubes and tunnels buried far below the surface. The total number of underground dwellers will most-likely never be known. But their existence is a telling sign of the extremes some people go to when living on the streets. Jennifer Toth, stepped into this world, largely unknown even to those that live in New York City. Some may call her foolish and others may feel that she was courageous. I believe that she had a mix of many things as she covered the lives of those she met as she explored a completely unknown and different world that could only seem to exist in fiction.
There is a section in the book where one city worker describes the dwellers as a CHUD or Cannibalistic Underground Humanoid Dweller. The name sounds ridiculous but was probably taken from the 1984 B-grade horror film of the same name directed by Douglas Cheek and starring the late John Heard (1946-2017) and a young Daniel Stern. In the film, a court injunction has prevented the removal of radioactive material currently sitting under New York City. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is unable to transport the material out of the City. The homeless soon become exposed to the toxic sludge and are transformed into cannibalistic monsters that come above ground at night to hunt. Highly imaginative and campy, the film is a fun ride for those who are aficionados of 1980s horror films and the movie holds a place in my own collection. The majority of the film is purely imagination but the people who lived underground was quite close to reality. And in this book, Jennifer Toth shows what the movie did not explore for obvious reasons.
Some of the people she interviewed for the book gave their real names while others preferred a pseudonym. Geographically, their locations were spread out across the city with the majority of the scenes taking place below Penn and Grand Central Stations. Seville, Black, Brenda, Blade and Bernard are just some of the many dwellers that Toth encountered in the course of her research. Other figures who cast a darker tone are mentioned briefly in passing sections. Shockingly, some of them came from good homes, graduated from college and possessed advanced degrees. Abuse, drugs and dysfunction at home proved to be the common link between many of them and fueled their decision to go underground where it was “safe” from above. In the interviews they are highly articulate, aware of their surroundings and should be productive members of society. And even more surprising, some of them preferred to live underground. But there also exist, another group of people, who ended up underground as an escape from lives that could be classified as hell on earth.
Each person has their own reason for moving underground but what emerges in the book, is an underground network of tunnels, caves and passageways akin to a city of its own where surface dwellers are not welcome and those who come down below are seen with the highest level of suspicion. It is a world many of us could never imagine living in, let alone raising a child in as can been seen in the book. The descriptions of the tunnels are graphic and those with a weak stomach will need a strong resolve to make it through some chapters. Life underground is gritty, dirty and beyond dangerous. It is not for the faint at heart. But miraculously, Toth was never seriously injured while conducting the interviews. She may have had someone watching over her combined with an unusual amount of good luck or perhaps she did on the one thing that many above ground could never do for the people below and that is to simply listen. Whether some of them embellished their tales is a strong possibility. Drug addiction and mental health issues are largely prevalent in many of them and could possibly have played a role in the accounts that they give. But what is accurate is the former existence of a large number of underground dwellers beneath the City.
The book was completed in 1993 and to my knowledge, there is no follow-up to the story nor would I expect there to be. Her experience with Blade as detailed towards the end of the book is beyond enough to make anyone think twice about returning. Some of the characters may still be alive today while others may have left the tunnels or died along the way. In recent years, I cannot recall any discussion of the mole people and most of them have probably been relocated by City officials as the tunnels were cleaned up and the underground squatters permanently removed. Some of them may still live underground, firmly hidden from prying eyes, but the number is probably far lower than the 1990s when the epidemic reached its height.
The book is revealing and sure to leave many readers in a state of shock. New Yorkers unaware of the mole people of the 1980s and 1990s will find this book to be eye-opening about the city they call home. The book shows the ability of humans to adapt to nearly anything and the lengths people will go to in their efforts to survive. This is a haunting look at life in a city beneath a city.