Beneath the City

By Andrew Looney

The heat came down from the blazing sun, broiling the skin and melting the asphalt. It was 4:37 on a hot July afternoon in New York City, and the heat wave that had begun the previous week had still not abated. The air was thick and hazy, moist with humidity and gray with pollution. Waves of heat radiated up from the hot pavement and from the roofs and hoods of cars as they inched slowly up the streets. Sidewalk vendors languished in the tiny circles of shade cast by the umbrellas mounted over their carts. Ice cream vendors did a brisk business; hot dog salesmen did not. As the afternoon wore on, both the hot dogs and the people who sold them developed a hard, leather-like skin due to sitting too long under the heat. Air conditioner repairmen worked like slaves but became wealthy in the process.

I exited the air-conditioned lobby of the lower Manhattan office building in which I work, and entered the superheated world outside. The heat washed over me with such intensity that it seemed like I'd been wading in a cool mountain stream and had opened the door to a blast furnace. Instantly the heat pervaded my entire body. Every pore of my skin began to sweat, and very soon big beads of perspiration began rolling across my forehead and down my face. The collar and armpits of my shirt began soaking up sweat as I joined the ranks of people who trod sluggishly up the sidewalk toward the subway station.

The entrance to the underground appeared before us, and I followed the rush hour crowd into a hole in the ground. With each step I could feel the temperature drop, and once down on the platform, the oppressive heat was gone. Being underground, we were subject to the unchanging coolness of cellars and caves, though the crowd of people still kept it fairly warm down below. The air was musty and had a dirty smell, and I was jostled and elbowed constantly, but this was normal for life in New York, and it felt good just to be out of the sweltering heat above the surface.

I was waiting on the platform for my train. I had walked all the way down to the end of the platform, to the point where the trains emerge from the tunnel. I usually did this, since the crowds thinned out on the edges but one could still board the last car in the train. Standing here, I saw a glint of metal on the floor against the platform wall, and, thinking it was a penny, I wandered over to retrieve it.

I always pick up pennies when I see them. Most people in today's world don't bother with picking up pennies; a single penny is such a small amount of money that most don't consider it worth the trouble of bending over. But I always do, because I enjoy reflecting on the value of my time when I am laboring in this fashion. The act of stopping to pick up a penny takes about one second, and during that one second I am earning $36.00 an hour. If I had a full time job picking up pennies, I'd be making $74,880 a year, over three times my current salary.

However, it wasn't a penny, it was just a rectangular slug of copper. I tossed it away, with some slight annoyance. Then I noticed something odd. Standing here, all the way at the edge of the platform, I could see a very narrow doorway in the back wall, leading into a narrow tunnel. It puzzled me that I had never noticed it before, since it was clearly not new; the stonework in the tunnel and its entrance were smeared with the same thick layer of dust and dirt and grime that covered everything else in the subway station. But walking back up the platform a short way, I realized that it didn't look like a doorway unless you stood all the way back against the end of the platform. From further away, it just looked like a wide black mark on the wall.

I was filled with a sense of curiosity and fascination. "Where does this tunnel go?" I wondered. The door was so well camouflaged that I couldn't help but imagine that this had been done intentionally. I looked back at the crowd on the platform. They all looked exhausted and downtrodden. Most of them stared dismally down at the floor. No one seemed to be looking at me. So, trembling with excitement and fear, I ducked into the doorway and disappeared down the narrow tunnel.

Initially, it appeared that the tunnel would come to a dead end after about ten feet, but when I got closer and my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw that it made a right angle turn and continued. After the turn, the tunnel became so narrow that I had to turn my body ninety degrees and take sideways steps in order to proceed. The tunnel sloped down at an increasingly sharp angle, and as I descended, I became more and more nervous about what I was doing. The thought of turning back became very appealing, since the tunnel was now very dark. But I could see a very faint glimmer of light ahead, and decided to keep going.

The tunnel made another sharp right angle turn, and leveled off. Up ahead, I could see that the tunnel opened out into a large, dimly lit room. I peered through the doorway and saw that I was at the edge of another subway station, in a tunnel hidden against the edge of the platform just like the one I had entered.

But this station was completely empty. It was lit only by a single, dirt-smudged lightbulb; all of the others had burned out. The mosaics in the walls and ceilings gleamed in the dimness, and I read the name of the station on the wall: "City Hall". This was weird because the station I'd entered was called "Brooklyn Bridge - City Hall", not just "City Hall". And then I remembered the article.

It was a feature I'd read some years ago in "Smithsonian" magazine that described the maze of tunnels that exist beneath the streets of New York. It told how, as the city evolved, the landscape under the city had also changed. Nowadays it's become a major challenge to shoehorn yet another water line or gas main into the spaghetti of tubes, tunnels, and passages that already exists beneath the surface, and those who dig under the city frequently stumble upon other digging projects that were unmapped or had been forgotten. In particular, the article pointed out that many new tunnels are dug and then abandoned, that a new subway link might seem like a good idea, would be partly dug, and then be rerouted and the existing work sealed up and forgotten.

I specifically recall reading that the original City Hall station had been closed in the forties, but that it still existed somewhere down in the complex maze below the surface. And suddenly, without even trying, I had stumbled into this monument to change.

I was puzzled by the fact that a light was on, but by dredging up some other memories, I was able to come up with an explanation. I recalled being told by a friend of mine who was into caving that there are groups of cavers who, in addition to exploring natural caves, also do a sort of "urban spelunking". They crawl around in forgotten and disused urban digging projects of the very sort described in the Smithsonian article. So I theorized that some of these groups made the old City Hall station a regular stop, and also made a point of bringing along the occasional replacement lightbulb. Power for the old station must still have been supplied by the city.

Once I'd managed to work out to my satisfaction how the station could still be lit, I found another mystery to puzzle out: the new doorway. The main entrance to the station had been sealed with rubble, but just to the left of the old entrance was a small, low doorway. Through the doorway I could see a flight of roughly hewn steps leading down. It was clearly a recent addition; unlike the rest of the stone in the station, this new doorway had a clean, freshly broken appearance. Even in the dim light I could tell that this stone had not built up the thick layer of dust, dirt, and smoke that existed on all of the rest of the concrete.

Furthermore, it seemed to me that light, very faint and dim but light nevertheless, was visible at the bottom of the new flight of stairs.

At this point I lost my nerve completely, and ran back to the secret tunnel at the edge of the platform. I slipped into the tunnel and up along it to the new City Hall subway station, just in time to hop onto a train heading uptown.

At work the next day, I was totally unable to concentrate on what I was doing. My mind was completely preoccupied by what I'd seen the night before in the subway station. Around lunchtime, I made a firm resolve, that I would go back and further investigate the place I'd discovered.

When I left work I went immediately to the subway station, and walked directly back to the edge of the platform. The secret passage was still there. I waited until there seemed to be no one watching me, and then slipped into the narrow, dark tunnel.

As soon as I had moved into the secret passage, I again became nervous and my resolve began to crumble. I might get lost down there, I reasoned. It could be dangerous, I could even get killed. I realized how totally unprepared I was for such a mission; I had no flashlight and no food and no water, nothing but the business suit I'd worn to the office. I felt rather foolish.

After another moment, my curiosity again got the better of me, and I shook off my fears. The lack of provisions did, however, continue to bother me. The thought of being lost below without anything to eat or drink until I found my way back out did not seem very attractive. So I emerged again from the tunnel, and strolled back up the platform to one of the underground newsstands. There I bought four Hershey's chocolate bars (with almonds), a packet of honey-roasted peanuts, and two cans of Coca-cola Classic, all of which I stuck into various pockets in my suit. Now properly provisioned, I returned to the secret tunnel and plunged into the darkness.

I found the secret subway station exactly as I had remembered it. The single, incandescent lightbulb swayed back and forth on its electrical cord, casting a strange dim light into the forgotten corners of the abandoned station platform.

I chose not to linger here, fearing that if I didn't press ahead, I would lose my nerve again. I looked at the roughly hewn flight of stairs. Yes, they still looked newly carved, and yes, dim light still reflected up from whatever chambers were hidden below. I gulped once, then plunged down the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs was the start of a tunnel. This tunnel also had a newly-dug appearance, and was very rough. Unlike the straight, tiled walls of the subway station hallways, this tunnel was crooked and uneven, with jagged, rocky walls. The tunnel was also very low, and I had to crouch as I made my way along it. The dim light I'd seen from above was cast, I now saw, by long fluorescent lighting tubes mounted on the floor at intervals, strung together with orange extension cords.

This tunnel ended by opening at right angles into another tunnel. This next tunnel was an old tunnel, apparently another abandoned subway works. This passage went both left and right, but the more recently installed fluorescent lighting was only present in the right hand portion of the tunnel, making it easy for me to decide which way to proceed.

The new tunnel sloped down at a very steep angle and as I moved along it, I could hear a distant thrumming noise, as of machinery grinding and pounding. At first I thought it was a passing subway, rumbling through a tunnel somehow near me in the dark underground; but the sound continued with a steady drone, growing louder as I moved along the passage. Then suddenly I emerged into a large chamber, within which was an enormous machine. It was huge, and looked like it had been built in the thirties or forties. It was a mass of rounded metal, rotating gears, steaming pistons, and chrome-plated knobs. It was, in its own way, quite beautiful, and seemed immensely powerful; yet I could not figure out what it did. Steam poured out of a funnel at the top of the machine, and escaped from the room via a slotted steel grate mounted in the roof of the chamber.

Whatever it was that the machine did, someone seemed to think it very important. I could tell by looking at the thing, as it labored away on its mysterious task, that it was in excellent condition. Someone, no doubt whoever was responsible for the newly dug tunnels and the fluorescent lighting, was keeping the machine well oiled, replacing worn parts and performing preventive maintenance as needed.

Behind the machine was a low doorway leading into another, smaller chamber. Abandoning all my fears and common sense, I plunged ahead into this next room, and saw that it was clearly living quarters of some kind. There were several mattresses spread on the floor, and a card table and chairs were set up in the center of the room. There were plates and utensils on the table, the plates still half full of food, and everything had an interrupted appearance to it, as if the room had been occupied a few minutes before and suddenly vacated.

And I suddenly realized that I was probably in considerable danger. This, I now saw, was probably the secret home of a gang of criminals. They had obviously dug special tunnels beneath the city, linking up some old abandoned subsurface structures, enabling them to live within the heart of the city in absolute anonymity. No doubt they committed crime after crime, returning to this secret place to wait for the heat to die down. They could easily elude numerous police searches, yet I, an innocent and clumsy oaf, had stumbled right into their hideout.

I saw that there was another, even smaller doorway in the corner of this room, leading out of this chamber and into some other unknown locale. Clearly, the gangsters who lived here had an early warning system of some kind, and when I approached, they went running, fearing I was a cop.

I figured my best plan was to act innocent and casual, then quietly leave. I lingered to examine the room a little more closely. I noticed that there were about a dozen picture frames mounted on the wall, each displaying a newspaper clipping. About half of the clippings were articles dealing with recent UFO sightings; several reported on the rash of airline disasters that have occurred in recent years; and the last two were scientific articles about the destruction of the ozone layer and the prediction that the greenhouse effect would heat up the Earth and someday make it unlivable for humans.

I turned around and casually headed for the exit, but as I started to go, I noticed a pair of bluish-purple eyes regarding me from the escape doorway. The eyes were attached to a strange, molelike animal with large white fangs and shiny purple fur. It and two others emerged from the tunnel and ran toward me. They walked upright like humans, but were certainly unlike anything native to this planet.

I screamed and ran toward the door, the hideous purple beasts hot on my heels. I ran past the big mysterious machine, terrified, hardly daring to hope that I might escape from the underground with my life. I looked back, and saw that the beasts were almost upon me, and that one of them was holding in its paw a strange metal device. My lungs bursting, I ran toward the door, and was suddenly jolted by what seemed like an electrical shock. I collapsed, and passed out.

When I came to, I was sitting on one of the stone benches in the Franklin Street subway station. It was two o'clock in the morning. At first my adventure beneath the city seemed like a dream, but as I became more conscious, I realized it had actually happened. I immediately caught a subway back to the Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall station, but there I found that the secret tunnel entrance was gone. It was blocked by recent masonry work.

Needless to say, I have had no luck in getting the authorities to believe my story.

This story appears in My Secret World. Copyright © 1985 by Andrew Looney.

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