dark days

Excerpts from the NYC Tunnel Community during the 1990s.

The Freedom Tunnel is the name given to the railroad tunnel on the West Side Line under Riverside Park in Manhattan, New York City...

The mouth of the tunnel is wide and dark, swallowing the light and all that breathes. Rubble is scattered along the train tracks, bordered by retaining walls covered in numerous layers of graffiti. This is where it all started. Here by the parkway with the blasting trucks and the roaring cars, near the filigree arches of the Riverside Drive viaduct, here with the gravel crunching under my feet as I run down the railroad into this hollow mouth. This is where they live, deep into the depths of the city, way underground, lying in the dirt. Sure, you know about them. Of course you know about them. They’ve always been there, resting low below the rowdy streets and the carving avenues, gulping the air from inside the earth, crawling through holes and cracks, living off the grid and off the books. Here in the tunnels. You’ve heard the rumors. Their eyes have adapted to the constant night that cloaks them from the topside world. Don’t you know they’re eating rats and human flesh? Don’t you know they want us dead?

And one day they will spill outside and burn us all alive, and they will reign over our flat screen joys and our organic delights. Of course you know about them. The lost ones, the hidden ones. The broken and the ill, the wandering, the gone. The Mole People. Marc Singer’s Dark Days (2000) records the lives of several “homeless” people living in subway tunnels underneath New York City. As this documentary enters the “domesticated” underground, where those who have very little struggle to make a home, it traces the inhabitants’ lives using what we call a narrative of adaptation. We see little houses that have become homes with domestic comforts like electric lights, hot plates, and coffee pots. Like Flaherty’s subjects in films like Nanook of the North, Singer’s homeless have adapted the environment to meet their needs. But also like Flaherty, Singer shapes his subject romantically: He further transforms his subjects’ context both by physically altering it and by manipulating stories into a traditional narrative.

Singer interviews subjects to reveal back stories, and they both build narratives out of individual tales of environmental compromise. To construct this narrative, Singer and his subjects create a world where the city is a dangerous place, a wilderness, and the homeless seek shelter where no one else will go. Singer and his subjects work together to alter the underground landscape to accommodate filmmaking, as well. Singer seems to have constructed this above-ground city as a “wilderness” the homeless must escape because they cannot tame it. And they only reenter this “wild” urban world to acquire subsistence. Below ground, however, domestic life flourishes in a world the homeless, according to Singer’s perspective, have adapted to serve their needs. In this paper, we focus on the lives and stories of a number of the characters that Singer lived with and learned from, during his two year span underground. We discover how ingenious and adaptable this small shanty community was, and what their world view was like. We hear about trials and tribulations, tragedy, and new beginnings. Each person has a narrative...


I looked around and shit and started noticing shit. I started building this shit man. And that shit just became into like a little project. At first I took it as a little camp for two weeks. And then this fucker became like home. After, I start building, found stuff that I could use. Clothes, tv, lamps, got power…
And look at me now I’ve been down here for fuckin’ five years goin’ on six. Who knows its been that long. You know? It’s been that fuckin long. I just forgot completely about the damn time…
Man yall still here? Yall must wanna hang out with me or something. Bet... yall thing you can keep up? Common cuz I’m getting ready to get paid right now. I bet you I’ma come back with 10 dollars. I’m gonna get paid, aint no doubt ‘bout it... At that time the only reason I came down here was to get out of the public eyesight... but you know whats the purpose of me building this place right?

Shit I got real comfortable down here in this fuckin dump and shit man, I mean, lets face it man. I mean, like down here i didnt have to pay no bills no nothin, I mean I’m shaving, im using power right now, and I ain’t got to pay no bills and shit. I mean that’s part of comfortability you know what Im sayin? Turn the tv on, leave the tv on all night…Aint gotta worry about payin ConEd…you know? In the winter time I don’t freeze. In the summertime I don’t burn up... All they don’t got down here is running water. Of course I got fuckin comfortable man I got too goddamn fuckin comfortable. Thats why I got really pissed off at myself man cuz I like, lost five, six years of my motherfuckin life being down in this mother fucker. You know, I don’t consider myself homeless... cuz a homeless man ain’t gotta home...


“Now it feels like i never was in there... but see that was the most saddest part of my journey through life. Those were dark days. But during the time, it didn’t bother me at all. But once i sit back and think about it, i ask myself how could i have done that, let myself go like that. You don’t realize until you get out of it. and you say, damn i used to do that, that used to be me?”


Trash as far as the eye can see. Clothes, glass, bike parts and Styrofoam boxes, plastic toys and rotting food carpeting the dirt ground, frozen in the tunnel’s perpetual dusk.

I mean we homeless people but if you know how to cook right it helps...until it comes you cant deal with it. Deal with it day by day. I regret so many things that i may have done. I didn’t have no right to lose my children. Sometimes I ask, why it couldn’t have been me? I like that responsibility of being a mother, somebody a little one could look up to. Sendin’ em off to school. They get the education they need. I miss all those things. I do.


Then we got the most famous gerbil, Miss Peaches. She had 12 kids man, Miss Peaches had 12 kids.
She was alright man, Miss Peaches was all right. She, uhhh, like four of them died, and she ate the rest of them... man...


I ran away from home when I was sixteen. My father was a dope fiend, an alcoholic. My mother she didn’t give a fuck she let my father beat on her, beat on me and my sisters. She wouldn’t say anything, wouldn’t do anything. I haven’t spoken to them in ten year and i don’t intend to. They had 16 years to love me and treat me like a son and much less treat me like a human being and they couldn’t do it. They gave me life, and that’s enough and that’s all I’m thankful for. If your homeless in the street, some of them just have what’s in they arms or what’s on their back. If they got caught in the rain, they ain’t got shit.

Just like simple as that. These are my doggies this is ladybugs and mommy, I’ve had her about four years, and these are her little kids this is her little boy, this is junior, the other two are little girls, this is princess Oh yeah I got a job, comin’ up $8.50 an hour. Start making like 7 or 8 meals a week… once we start these jobs ain’t gunna be more fried chicken shit like that. Gunna be straight up fillet mignon every night. We gone gain about 400 pounds a piece huh? Gunna miss the freedom though, the, this is mines and I can do whatever i want to it.


I will never go homeless again. That was like a nightmare, and i walked out of it, I’m staying awake. Being homeless is all types of problems, you never know what lies ahead. Can’t plan shit, being really homeless, mmmmhm. You get to the point where sometimes you feel like crying. Because I was so damn selfish with myself, with everyone around me, it was all about me, I didn’t care about anybody, it was fucked up. I don’t know what that is, I only eat what I’m familiar with. See they got all this stuff I ain’t never seen before. This is one of the safest spots you can eat from, you know? Cuz the food is clean, its kosher.

There goes the chocolate. I got a whole fuckin’ bag of donuts look at that shit. Just go with the flow. Going with the flow is what got me down here... “You can actually make a good life here when you’re broke,” he says. “I never got a problem eating what I wanted. The streets are full of opportunities if you know where to look. I deal with what I have.” He shows me a box of cupcakes he found in a garbage can, almost untouched. His dessert for the evening. “I do what I got to do, you know what I’m saying? I’m just a normal guy who minds his own business. This is who I am. And I never ate no fucking rats.”


I got to get paid. I got to get that almighty dollar...I got to do my normal man I got to go out, try and find me something to sell. First I got to find out what I got here from last night. I got these off of 75th street. CD’s you know what I’m saying? I can sell these to my man on 82nd street. And these some good CDs, plus I got a couple of books. You know, hey I’m gunna get paid brother, you know how us homeless guys do it. We got to make the dollar. Free enterprises.

What people throw away, other peoples can use. And by them can use it, I get paid for it, because I find it. And half of the time it be in perfect working condition, you know, be just like new, you know? Everything that you got, that you paid for, 9 times out of 10 I can go out and find it and it be in perfect working condition and I sells it. That’s the name of the game, hustling.


Ironically, the tunnel’s community support was in many ways more efficient than the one offered by municipal programs. In the encampment, the dwellers had a familiar place to be, watch TV, read or smoke. They had autonomy. Rules were simple but strictly enforced. Respect for privacy. No yelling. No stealing. No stupid behavior or you’d be kicked out. Some, like Isaac, were at home in the darkness, and would not have lived anywhere else.

Most who lived here did not consider themselves homeless. In a 1990 Los Angeles Times article, Isaac explained that the small community lived as well, if not better, than the average people “up top,” as they commonly refer to the streets. “I’ve had the opportunity to get jobs,” he said. “I don’t choose to be a robot within the system… We’ve done something that one out of every 1,000 men in creation in their lifetimes will do. We dared to be ourselves.”

A heart attack forced him to try his luck with the public housing system in 1994. He too returned in the following months. The sense of belonging simply was too strong. The tunnel was a better place for him to be alone in freedom. Another who attempted to go to the surface was Bob Kalinski, a speed addict known as the fastest cook east of the Mississippi, who could fry twenty eggs at a time when on amphetamines.


Our first response, because of the long relationship we’ve had with our clients, was to immediately go to court. Previous to Amtrak’s decision to evict people out of the tunnel, we had just sued Amtrak on the grounds that they could not kick people out of Penn Station. So when we found out that Amtrak was gunna come in, we immediately pushed a lawsuit because we knew we had to stop them from throwing people out of the tunnel, who had called it their home for ten, fifteen, twenty five years. We met first with Amtrak officials, who were at first very abrupt, they wanted everybody out.

Had to be a few days, they were gunna fence it and put in security guards. So we worked out a plan, we were gunna assist people into moving into temporary shelter. And we worked out a plan to temporarily assist people. But soon thereafter we learned about a program led by the federal government, a Section-8 program. And we guaranteed Amtrak no one would be left in the tunnel. The Section-8 program, the housing program here in New York City, is a great ticket to housing. It guarantees someone an apartment, helps pay the brokers and the security fees. Its the perfect chance, and i think amtrak knew that.


New York’s homeless shelters are a lucrative business. The incentives paid by the Department of Homeless Services to landlords renting out shelter units far exceed the ones given for providing tenants with permanent single room occupancy lodging. In 2014, the average stay was 352 days at the Freedom House, a homeless shelter on West 95th Street managed by private company Aguila Inc. The city paid Aguila $3,735 per month for each 100-square-foot room occupied by a homeless person. Conditions are appalling inside the Freedom House. Garbage piles up in the courtyard for rodents to feed on. Aggressive panhandling, drug dealing and violent outbursts are commonplace in the shelter’s vicinity. Sometimes a TV is hurled out a window, or the police close the street after someone is stabbed in a fight.

The NYPD regularly raids the place looking for people with outstanding warrants, targeting domestic abusers and failing to arrest the major dealers or car thieves roaming the area. “Why would anyone want to stay [at Freedom House]?” asks Jessica, a former resident. “I can’t count the times my stuff was stolen from me. One day I was assaulted in my own room and the guards didn’t do anything!” She adds, sitting on a rug in her new spot, inside a man-made cave near the Lincoln Tunnel entrance. Jessica was evicted from Freedom House in late 2014, after DHS came to an agreement with community boards and nonprofit organizations to cut the shelter’s capacity in two from 400 beds to 200 — a step toward its conversion to a meaningful permanent affordable housing facility. The 23-year-old knows enough about shelters. She will never go back. She was sixteen when she got pregnant with her daughter Alyssa.

She briefly lived with the baby’s father until he tired of dealing with a needy toddler, leaving never to be seen again. Jessica was then diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder and admitted to transitional housing in Brooklyn. She says that within a month, social services was badgering her to place her three-year-old in foster care. She says. “I was devastated. I called my sister and begged her to take care of Alyssa until I found a place of my own. This was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life, leaving my baby. But it was the right thing to do. At least she is with family. When she grows up I will explain it all to her.” She looks away, tears rolling down her face. Once her daughter was in the hands of her sister, Jessica was sent to the Freedom House where she stayed for seven months until Aguila notified her of her imminent relocation.

She began sleeping in a subway tunnel after transit authorities made her leave her spot in the Herald Square station corridor on 34th Street, dragging her by her feet when she refused to stand up from her mat. “At first I was like ‘I’m never going down there.’ But then Hurricane Sandy came and I had no place to stay, and I didn’t want to go to a shelter again with all the crackheads.” She spent about two months living in a recess by the subway tracks of a Midtown station, protected from the elements and from harassment. She wrote a long letter to her daughter there. She never sent it. “I hope you think of me sometimes in your dreams,” the letter ends. “You are the light of my life. I miss you everyday. I love you so much.”

Jessica then moved to her current place, closer to the McDonald’s restaurant where she works. The subterranean area she’s living in is part of the same railway system as the one going through the Riverside Park tunnel, and is home to a couple of other homeless people trying to avoid shelters. “I obviously don’t tell my colleagues I stay here. But it’s better than anywhere I’ve been before. Here I can have my dog,” Jessica says, petting a small mutt snuggled on her lap.

“Plus it’s a temporary situation. I’m eligible for Section 8 housing. In less than a year I’ll be in a real apartment and I’ll have my baby with me again.” On the floor of her makeshift house is a plastic box full of donated kid’s clothes. Soon she will give them to her daughter. “The thing is, single mothers who go to shelters with their kids never keep their kids for long...”  -Jessica


I soon reach Bernard Isaac’s old den, where I will spend the night, as I sometimes do when I want to taste the solitude he liked so much. The whole place feels like a grave. A cathedral for the dead and the fallen. Nothing is left from the former shacks. Even the smallest pieces of debris are gone. I try to imagine how it was sitting here with him, watching the flames dancing in front of Pape and Smith’s reproduction of Goya’s “The Third of May.” I realize there is a certain power of being nameless and buried. A raw, burning power that some, like Isaac, will seek their whole life.


“Modern society is guilty of intellectual terrorism,” he once said, while talking about Nietzsche’s philosophy with graffiti artist David “Sane” Smith, the younger brother of Roger Smith. Sane immediately sprayed the quote on the wall. It encompassed Isaac’s entire way of thinking.

When Amtrak decided to reactivate the Riverside Park tunnel’s train tracks in 1991, about fifty residents were evicted from the shantytown and received vouchers for temporary housing. This first round of evictions wound up largely ineffective and the population quickly grew back to its initial size, as people from up top encampments went straight to the tunnel when they were swept up by police during Mayor Giuliani’s effort to clean up the streets. The Empire Line trains rushing through didn’t stop them from coming down here. Amtrak Police Captain Doris Comb started calling for more enforcement, effectively pushing the homeless out of the active railway. Different times were looming ahead. Safer times. Sterilized. Hygienic. “We try to offer the homeless a variety of social services,” Comb would explain in 1994. “The problem is that most homeless are completely isolated. They feel rejected and decline assistance.”

Bernard Isaac still held a grudge against Comb eighteen years later, for having seized the #102 universal key to the exit gates an Amtrak employee had given him. “It was clear in my head that I didn’t want to go,” he told me in 2012, sipping a tea on the Hudson River Greenway. “We were ready to brick up the entrances if needed. We knew that we would have to leave eventually, but we didn’t want to accept it just yet.” The tunnel residents weren’t quick to fill the multitude of forms requested by the Social Security Administration. Some flatly refused to cooperate and gave up all hope of being granted Section 8 apartments. In 1994, U.S. Secretary of Housing Henry Cisneros visited the dwellings and, realizing the urgency of the situation, released 250 housing subsidy vouchers and a $9 million grant to help the squatters move to appropriate accommodations. Unfortunately, Department of Housing Preservation and Development policies

the Mole People were not considered “housing-ready” even though they had already created homes from nothing, complete with furniture and decorations. It wasn’t until Mary Brosnahan, director at the Coalition for the Homeless, negotiated with Amtrak to temporarily delay the evictions, that the vouchers were distributed to the tunnel community. The dwellers eventually received permanent housing, leaving the tunnel mostly empty for the first time since the mid-1970’s. Margaret Morton would later write in a 1995 New York Times article that this solution had been by far the most economical for the city. “It costs more than $20,000 a year to keep a person in a cot on an armory floor,” she wrote. “It costs about $12,000 to keep that person in the kind of supported housing being made available to the tunnel people.”


When I First came down in the tunnel. It looked dangerous man...looking real dangerous...cuz even in the day time it was dark... I was scared. I said, somewhere down the nine, it can’t be as bad as it is up top. Because, out in the street there are kids fuckin with you... you have the police fuckin with you. I mean, anybody can walk by. you sleeping on a bench and bust you in the head. At least down in the tunnel you ain’t got to worry about that, cuz aint nobody in their right mind gunna come down there, so you aint gotta worry about someone comin down messin with you, cuz they not. They gunna be too scared to come... You’dbes-u-r-p-r-i-s-e-dwhatthehumanb-o-d-yandhumanm-i-n-dcanadjustto.


Heumann , Joseph, and Robin L. Murray. “Dark Days: A Narrative of Environmental Adaptation.” “Dark Days” Text Version, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 2006, https://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc48.2006/DarkDays/text.html. Singer, Marc, et al. Dark Days. Dark Days, Picture Farm Productions. Taille , Anthony. “The Truth about New York’s Legendary ‘Mole People’.” Narratively, 29 Oct. 2015, https://narratively.com/the-truth-about-new-yorks-legendary-mole-people/.