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That’s why they make up these stories about cannibalism and stuff.
“Unquestionably.” * * * I keep walking along the tracks. 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. “I hope you think of me sometimes in your dreams,” the letter ends. 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 catch myself wondering if Raúl can hear us from his place, cursing at us for breaking the no-noise rule of the premises.
Jon must have passed out drunk, now, somewhere behind me. “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. Brooklyn might be the oldest resident of the Riverside Park tunnel.
The tunnel was known by homeless people since its inception in the 1930s, when it was used by trains to bring cattle to the city before the freight operations ended. The legal limit of returnable cans is 240 per person per day, so Raúl has to go to several supermarkets to earn more. 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.
Its population, limited at first to about three or four individuals, quickly grew at the time Isaac settled in, evolving into small tribes of vagrants who built thriving shantytowns in the newly abandoned space. “It often scared grown men easily,” recounted Isaac in 2010 as he showed me his old hangout places. Some, like Isaac, were at home in the darkness, and would not have lived anywhere else. “You can actually make a good life here when you’re broke,” he says. The streets are full of opportunities if you know where to look. 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.
But those who did go down called it home, and it became a haven for the destitute to unwind without fear of getting arrested or attacked like people on the streets often were. Most who lived here did not consider themselves homeless. I deal with what I have.” He shows me a box of cupcakes he found in a garbage can, almost untouched. Finding drugs has never been a problem either for Raúl, who tells me he once spent $150 on crack each day to feed his “pizzo” — his pipe — with “cheap Mc Donald meals in-between the smokes, and hard fucks with Puerto Rican whores because crack makes me horny as shit.” Heroin prices have gone down lately, so that means Raúl’s consumption has gone up. The city paid Aguila $3,735 per month for each 100-square-foot room occupied by a homeless person. Garbage piles up in the courtyard for rodents to feed on.
One day, three men asked Isaac for a toll as he came by the 125th Street entrance to the tunnel. As word spread of the tunnel, a growing number of graffiti artists came to paint the seemingly endless walls that flanked the train tracks. The ground is littered with discarded books and magazines. ” says a voice behind me, making me jump with fright. “I didn’t mean to startle you.” I recognize Raúl, an undocumented Dominican immigrant of about thirty who has been living in the tunnel for a year. His clothes are spotless, regularly washed at a nearby laundromat. It’s for a deck of brown heroin, making it cheaper than most other drugs. The worsening quality of the local drugs means accidents are now more frequent than ever, with 420 overdose-related deaths in 2013. As soon as I find a real job, I’ll stop, no doubt,” he says. Aggressive panhandling, drug dealing and violent outbursts are commonplace in the shelter’s vicinity.A heart attack forced him to try his luck with the public housing system in 1994. “After so many years in the streets, they kind of lose faith in humanity,” said Audrey Lombardi, a volunteer at the Holy Apostles soup kitchen in Manhattan. “The thing is, single mothers who go to shelters with their kids never keep their kids for long,” she says. I called my sister and begged her to take care of Alyssa until I found a place of my own. When she grows up I will explain it all to her.” She looks away, tears rolling down her face. 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. “I have to keep faith,” she says in the half-light. Clothes, glass, bike parts and Styrofoam boxes, plastic toys and rotting food carpeting the dirt ground, all frozen in the tunnel’s perpetual dusk.“They can’t help it, it’s so deeply ingrained in their lives, it’s like they want to go back to the only thing they know,” she explained, noting that hurt and loneliness often became the steadiest part of a homeless person’s existence after hitting bottom and going further under. ” Isaac said in a video interview, one of his last ones, a year before his death in 2014. This was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life, leaving my baby. 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. I love you so much.” Jessica then moved to her current place, closer to the Mc Donald’s restaurant where she works. Here I can have my dog,” Jessica says, petting a small mutt snuggled on her lap. Brooklyn’s voice echoes in the room as she starts singing Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” I accompany her with a beatbox rhythm, hands cupped around my mouth. ” she says enthusiastically, snapping her fingers along.“This is not a place of perdition,” he often said about the Riverside Park tunnel when we talked together during his shifts as a maintenance worker in Central Park. A place to find peace and take a break from the chaos.” He would then reminisce about his old life, his eyes would light up and there would be the crack of a smile, and whatever place we were in would be filled by his presence.Isaac was at the very center of the Mole People legend.In 2000, director Marc Singer released his acclaimed documentary “Dark Days,” filming the same people followed by Voeten and Toth in their respective books. They all showed simple human beings who were in no way comparable to the legends that had been told, and they all included a man named Bernard Isaac.