Under the Ground

Deep below the sidewalks of New York, the basement storage rooms of apartment buildings, the electrical cables, water pipelines, and sewers, lie miles and miles of subway tunnels. The tunnels rarely matter to anyone. People stand on the edges of platforms and lean way over, staring into the yawning maws of these caverns and search for the lights of a train to take them away, back above ground, back to the real world, as quickly as possible.

From the safe haven of the warm, brightly lit subway cars, the tunnels seem like ghost towns, inhospitable alien planets devoid of life. For long stretches all you can see is the dirty yellow railing that runs above a narrow walkway along the walls of the tunnel. Blue and tungsten lights strung up on the ceiling punctuate the darkness intermittently. They illuminate the trash and detritus littering the tracks and bathe an open doorway with a sign reading “EXIT” in a golden glow.

Most eerie are the old stations that remain dormant, that trains just roar on past. For a few seconds, the narrow walls of the tunnels open up to reveal a platform with pillars and benches and graffiti that covers every inch of its walls. Hooded teenagers with spray cans peeking out of their sweatshirt pockets must jump over the red “Do not enter or cross tracks” signs at the end of platforms. They walk along the causeways next to the tracks, and arrive at the abandoned stations to immortalize their tags among the dripping and the filth and creatures that dwell in the dark.

* * *

In the dingy labyrinths beneath Harlem, a work light threw into sharp relief a pile of clothes, blankets, and garbage. It dawned on me that it was arranged in a sort of nest. I whipped around in my seat and craned my neck as the train passed, hoping to see something—any clue that could explain this mysterious evidence of what was clearly a home in such an inhospitable place.

There was someone actually living in the subway tunnels, I kept telling myself over and over. There must be others, hiding in the shadowy recesses, in the subterranean bowels of the city. Who would live in such a disgusting place though? Overrun with rats and cockroaches and trains barreling down the tunnels every few minutes. The streets above must really be an awful place to live in order to drive someone down into these depths.

If you’ve got nowhere else to turn though, the tunnels could be comforting in a way. They could shelter from the rain, the cold, the snow. It must be a relief too, not to worry about police always coming to kick people off stoops, park benches, out of the train cars, to be able to make a home somewhere while being homeless.

There might even be emotional shelter provided by living in the subway system. The dehumanizing stares and judgments of passerby on the street could prove unbearable after a time. Or even worse, those that pass by without a glance or second thought. The solitude, the separation could come as a soothing alleviation to the world above, to a world someone might not be a part of.

A thought had slowly been creeping up on me, something that I had known deep down the second I saw those blankets on the ground with that human sized indent in the crumpled cloth. That it was even possible that someone might choose to live down there. Not because of poverty, or drug abuse, or trouble with the law. That it was entirely possible that someone would prefer exploring the forgotten passages of the urban underbelly to the disappointments of relying on anyone or anything in the human populated areas of the Earth. You see, if you were underground, you would know from the start that you were utterly alone, and would not have to feel the bottom of your stomach drop out and that empty hollow feeling every time you realized all anew that you were alone. Every time you realized that parents must have favorite children and that you were not his, and every time the mother you love yelled out that you would burn in hell, and all those other times she thought it, and every time you thought you’d be better if only you could pull up your grades and then didn’t, and every time you knew that the boy had only been kind because he wanted to have sex with you, every time you knew you shouldn’t have said it but did anyways and now you’ve hurt another person. Life couldn’t get screwed up underground, there wasn’t enough light for that.

Emma Handte
Age 17, Grade 12
Stuyvesant High School
Silver Key

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