End of the Line
“I remember reading E.B. White before the planes hit: ‘All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation.’”
One Sunday in May 2008, after signing a dubious waiver, I followed my wife and two friends down a ladder into a manhole in the middle of downtown Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue. Traff’ic was diverted around us by some orange cones and two striped sawhorses erected by a large taciturn tattooed man wearing a knit cap. A small portable generator snaked a power cord into the hole. Onlookers gathered on the corner by the bank.
We dropped into a short trench dug out of sandy rock. The air was close, claustrophobic. Through a hole in the far wall, we then descended a long makeshift stairway that led to the tunnel floor. The tunnel was twenty-one feet wide and seventeen feet high—a vast chamber that stretched into the darkness. Thick blue stone walls gave way to a stunning brick arch that barreled above us. It was warm, humid, and deathly quiet. We were stories beneath the busy street.
Built in 1844, this half-mile passage can be considered the world’s first subway tunnel. Steam trains—two abreast—shuttled passengers through downtown Brooklyn between South Ferry landing and a station of the Long Island Railroad. The Atlantic Avenue tunnel was sealed in 1861, after steam trains were banned within Brooklyn. But the dishonest contractor—paid to fill in the tunnel—only capped the ends, one of which I had just stepped through.
I carried a flashlight. My friend wore a headlamp. We could see patches of the original whitewash on the vault. A chain ladder hung on a wall. A wheelbarrow held trash and pieces of wood. We stepped around blocks of masonry, the remnants of street-level ventilation shafts that, during demolition, had fallen to the tunnel floor. On one block sat an old black telephone with a red label: speak loud. Dark specks dotted the bricks on the ceiling—150-year-old soot, our guide told us. The rails were gone, but the dirt floor held telltale mounds and hollows, faint footprints where the ties once ran.
The tunnel had been lost and found many times. A search party organized by a newspaper couldn’t find it in 1911, but the wall bore graffiti from workers who broke through the roof in 1916—either G-men chasing rumors of subterranean German saboteurs or a telephone crew laying cable, depending on whom you asked. Two decades later, the police—tipped off by anonymous note—went looking for a gangster’s body thought to be stashed in the tunnel, but they never found a way in. The tunnel was rediscovered in 1980 by train enthusiast Bob Diamond, who went down a blank manhole cover marked by a blue dot on an old map. He eventually dug his way seventy feet to a wall and broke through to the main chamber.
Bob was our guide. Wearing jeans, a black T-shirt, and work gloves, he led our group into the dark. He told stories as we walked beneath some three city blocks between Court and Hicks Streets before hitting a bricked-up bulkhead, behind which he believed might be buried an antique locomotive. Lights swept across some debris. A camera flash illuminated the vault. Constellations of mold clung to the ceiling; spindly multi-headed fungi sprouted from cracks in the walls. In 1844, while the tunnel was being built, a man named Collins and his horse were killed by a cave-in; an Irish laborer shot his overseer; and a pedestrian fell into tunnel construction and died. Two years later, police were forced to investigate complaints of an underground ghost. In 1893, decades after the passage was closed, the New York Times ran a fictional story about a gang of river pirates hiding loot in tunnel. Over the years it has been said to house bootleggers, mushroom caves, counterfeiters, overgrown rats, and—in a 1925 short story by H.P. Lovecraft, who lived a block away—demons and devil worshippers.
Bob sat on a stone block as we clambered up the dirt piled against the far wall. He was desperate to break through or tunnel behind it. Four years later, he would learn engineering consultants using electromagnetic sensors had remotely identified a twenty-foot-long “subsurface metallic anomaly” beneath the street at that end of the tunnel. At last, his locomotive! But by then the Department of Transportation—citing safety concerns—had ended his tours and closed the tunnel once again. Agents of the city would weld his manhole shut.
But that day, we surfaced, blinking, happy, enlivened by mystery, and went on with our lives. Looking at the photographs I took, I’m caught a little short. My wife and I don’t live in Brooklyn anymore; we left three months after that underground trip. My friend and his girlfriend—who mug for my camera—moved away, moved back, moved away again. He got sick; they broke up. He went to Texas. Now my wife and I live in St. Louis, and we worry about him from afar, since he’s not the sort to dwell on the details of his health and treatment. To this day, Bob cannot go back into his tunnel. We cannot go back either.
Summer of 2000: I was twenty-three years old when I moved to New York, to a rundown residential hotel on the Upper West Side. In those early days, everything seemed “underground”—hidden, secret. There were underground economies—why did the cashier at the bodega wink when he slipped me a free bagel—underground parties—was the cute girl at work (whom I later would marry) kidding when she said she went to an SNL cast party at a club in a subway station?—underground art—was it lame to be moved by Macbeth performed by inch-high plastic ninjas?—underground etiquette—do you acknowledge it when a stranger sneezes on the train?—and even more underground economies. I remember a would-be actor friend who took an apartment that—in exchange for cheap rent—required him not only to feed but to spend a certain amount of time playing with his landlady’s cat. As my friend crouched on his knees, waving his hands at the disinterested feline, the woman told him, “Feeding Catmandu is only half the job; the other half is loving him.” At the time, it seemed like a fair bargain.
I was even luckier than my friend: within a few weeks of moving to town, I got a job at a magazine. I remember my first assignment, to interview a fading socialite. I took a cab to the Upper East Side, giddy with the idea of being able to expense this ride, double-checking the batteries in the tape recorder that I had just spent more money on than practically anything else in my underfurnished apartment. I remember sitting on the family’s impeccably tasteful and (as I would learn in the coming years) perfectly predictable period French furniture, the white molding in the ceiling as straight as the piping on the doorman’s jacket, and listening to stories about the Kennedys and dazzling island parties where everyone always ended up in the ocean. I remember the dog was named after an old screen star—I don’t recall which—and the bookshelves held faded copies of Life magazine. And I remember learning a new phrase—“the royals”—which rang as startling music to a boy like me from Texas. It was the socialite’s grown daughter who said it—she who had been no more than knee-high during the family’s golden age—and she said it with such sadness: “I missed all the celebrities—I was born afterwards. But I remember the royals . . .” I can still hear her voice trailing off. I had never before heard an ellipsis spoken aloud.
Not long after the closing of the Atlantic Avenue tunnel, Walt Whitman mourned its loss in the Brooklyn Daily Standard:
The old tunnel, that used to lie there under ground, a passage of Acheron-like solemnity and darkness, now all closed and filled up, and soon to be utterly forgotten, with all its reminiscences; of which, however, there will, for a few years yet be many dear ones, to not a few Brooklynites, New Yorkers, and promiscuous crowds besides…. The tunnel: dark as the grave, cold, damp, and silent. How beautiful look Earth and Heaven again, as we emerge from the gloom! It might not be unprofitable, now and then, to send us mortals—the dissatisfied ones, at least, and that’s a large proportion—into some tunnel of several days’ journey. We’d perhaps grumble less afterward at God’s handiwork.
But Whitman’s silent solemnity doesn’t quite match a report from the Brooklyn Eagle, which, upon the tunnel’s opening, described the inaugural trip taken by railroad and political dignitaries:
The sonorous puffs of the engines; the clattering and echoes of the cars, reverberating through the cavern; and the deafening and uproarious shouts of the company—it might safely be characterized as an underground swell … The darkness and smoke were so intense and pervading that no one but an emigrant from “Pluto’s dark domain” could have seen a foot beyond his nose.
Thus a choked, tumultuous journey is smoothed out in the cold light of memory.
Johannes Hofer, the Swiss doctor who first named nostalgia in 1688, called it a “cerebral disease of essentially demonic cause”—the “continuous vibration of animal spirits through those fibers of the middle brain in which impressed traces of ideas of the Fatherland still cling.” Nostalgia was historically understood as a kind of physically debilitating homesickness—sufferers simply wasted away. The cure: bring the patient home. (Not surprisingly, this remedy was attractive to soldiers fighting abroad, many of whom, when diagnosed, were allowed to return from the front.) While Hofer studied the symptoms in Swiss mercenaries, it was a Russian army officer who, in 1733, is said to have curtailed a nostalgic outbreak among his troops by burying one suffering soldier alive.
But recent psychological studies have pointed out nostalgia’s positive effects: the afflicted feel less lonely and bored, more happy and generous. Chinese researchers have found that cold temperatures can bring on nostalgia, which makes you feel physically warmer. Nostalgia thaws something inside you. Of course nostalgia is predicated on a large amount of forgetting.
Walter Benjamin wrote, “The delight of the city-dweller is not so much love at first sight as love at last sight.” What does it mean to say goodbye to New York? That question has spawned its own genre, the Leaving New York Essay, which follows its own formula: 1) evoke a bygone, breathless “scene” that cannot be reclaimed but in memory (downtown, the East Village, the Lower East Side, pre-gentrified Brooklyn); 2) express a frustrated desire to stop time and stake your place; 3) indulge in nostalgia, however covert, 4) insert disillusionment, 5) distance yourself from New York (emotionally, if not physically). Deep down, these essays—and there seem to be anthologies published every year—are not really about a specific city but about lost and romanticized youth. Blink—I grew up! Of course, this piece is my own contribution to the genre, for it was at that first magazine job that I gave my wife-to-be Joan Didion’s archetypal leaving New York essay “Goodbye to All That,” which we read along with Variety—like young Didion—while working late and waiting for the copy desk to call. Also like Didion, I would stay at the Fair for eight years.
Is it just nostalgia, then? The narrative can be so simple—from happiness to despair to (if you’re lucky) a different kind of happiness—though for me the point of “Goodbye to All That,” which my writing students sometimes miss, is that Didion is romanticizing her flight to dreamy Los Angeles in the same way she first idealized New York City. She has traded one romance for another, and my students are crushed when I tell them she ended up moving back to New York.
Innocence lost, a less-dazzling adulthood gained—the lament of the sad old man at the bar, the stuff of clichés. I remember the editor who assigned me that first magazine piece: brilliant, exacting, an arbiter of taste, architecture, and design with a disdain for the false, indulgent, and sentimental. Blunt and opiniated, he commanded—some might say terrorized—the big glossy magazines. A fiercely private man, but a real city creature, his choice in office chairs would appear in the gossip column of New York magazine. I slowly got to know him, and we worked together on two magazines that both folded. He would assign a piece saying, “Be poetic and brilliant” and then—as the impossibly short deadline neared—send goading emails: “I’m facing a blank screen”; minutes later, “No rush, really. Just any time.” He would then edit the piece into, if not poetry and brilliance, at least better prose than the subject—a recent runway collection, a hidden Tasmanian resort, an appreciation of the espadrille, some fresh Hollywood face, the latest passing fancy—might deserve.
Then, improbably, impossibly, he sold his elegant and airy pre-war Greenwich Village apartment and left New York: moved west, where he volunteered his time tutoring high school English (none of us could imagine this—he who edited so ruthlessly!), then moved back east, settling in Boston, in what must have been for him a dullish self-exile. When my wife—who also worked with him—gave birth to our daughter, a package arrived on our doorstep in Minneapolis, site of our own New York exile. It contained a carefully wrapped set of antique girls’ clothes—the white linen faded to parchment—a curiously sweet outfit. The note read, “I found these in a little French antiques shop, and, though absurd, I thought your daughter might not be so jaded yet.” Maybe sentiment finds us all.
The next correspondence came six weeks later in the form of an email from a lawyer. Two lines, without salutation or sign-off, stating that my friend had died the night before. There would be no funeral or memorial service. There was also no obituary, no notice in the newspapers and magazines that had once tracked his moves and whims with such glee. To put it in phrasing he surely would have hated, he disappeared without warning, without a trace.
Afterward, a New York editor and I emailed about how we wished someone would write about our mutual friend and his many contributions—we both had learned so much from him—but we were crippled by the knowledge that he would have hated to have people gossiping about him once again.
In The Colossus of New York, Colson Whitehead writes, “You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.” To be a city dweller is to conduct a love affair with a past that is being endlessly eroded, to inhabit a string of vanishing cities stretching down to the bedrock, to be a captive of loss. On the flip side, Whitehead warns, perhaps more sensibly, “New York does not hold our former selves against us. Perhaps we can extend it the same courtesy.”
Three more stories about the slipperiness of memory:
In the weeks leading up to my daughter’s third birthday, she became gripped by nostalgia for her own infancy. She began insisting she was a baby—she needed a crib, not the big-girl bed she had begged us for; she made us carry her around while she cooed in a made-up baby babble; she sighed and asked pensive questions about the particulars of her past (“Did I sleep with this blanket when I was a baby?”).
In April 2001, I cut out an article from the New Yorker about the intended demolition of El Teddy’s, the landmark downtown restaurant. I underlined this sentence by the writer Adam Gopnik: “New York has always been a place where it is possible to have memories without the experiences that conventionally precede them.” The year before, when tasked to think up a date night for my office crush/future wife, I told her I thought we might begin—as countless young romantics before us—by meeting under the clock in the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel, which, I was subsequently sorry to learn, had been gutted two decades earlier and turned into a bank. It was early in the relationship. We went tango dancing instead.
Researchers have proven that mice can pass down memories—in one experiment, an aversion to the smell of cherry blossoms—through at least two generations. The mice’s children, and their children, inherited the fear—a genetic memory—despite never having encountered the smell. Trauma slips through the ether. Going further, we can even create false memories in mice by activating specific parts of the brain, making them later “remember” that they had been shocked in one location when it was really elsewhere. The process turns out to be relatively easy. One article noted that, in terms of the cognitive mechanics in play, we are quite similar to mice. That the brain is wired to deceive us—to conflate past and present—seems to be an evolutionary advantage.
In 1854, a man “about 5 feet 6 or 7 inches” wearing “greyish pantaloons” was run over by a train in the Atlantic Avenue tunnel. Witnesses saw him leap from the first car and run beside the train before slipping under the wheels. A daredevil? A suicide? The train was coming from the racetrack. According to the Brooklyn Eagle:
The unfortunate man was cut in two, the upper portion of the head being completely severed. Assistant Captain Brown, and several officers of the First District Police, who had come in the same train, took up the body, and had it conveyed to the Dead House, in a cart.
I was once on a subway train that ran over a jumper. I was in the middle car and happened to be talking to the conductor when the train screeched to a halt. The intercom crackled. “Fuck, fuck, shit,” the conductor said. “Twelve-nine, person hit by train.” I must have looked shocked, because he added, “I see this four to five times a week.” I didn’t think I believed him. We were between Delancey and Second Avenue. Most of the train had stopped short of the station, and as we were evacuated out of the tunnel and onto the platform, I heard a witness tell the police, “She flung out her arms.” Flashlights played over the tracks. At the edge of the platform, a little girl stood, stone-faced. She must have seen everything. They gave us free transfers, but I went to the surface and got into a cab that was playing “Here Comes the Sun.”
I also remember the collective denial of standing in a late-night crowd on a downtown platform and watching a homeless man jump down to pick a quarter off the tracks.
Then again, I remember returning from a trip down south and being sad to be back in cold and rainy New York until I sat down on a train next to a tall fortysomething man in a dark, expensive-looking suit who happened to be wearing an enormous pair of pink fluffy bunny ears.
I remember having a free birthday party at a bowling alley because a friend had gotten beat up in the ladies’ room the week before and didn’t press charges. I remember having to move the pickup street-soccer game in Central Park further down the asphalt so the drug dealers could have their usual spot next to the roller-disco party. (“You gonna keep me from feeding my family?”) After a nasty tackle, one player broke a beer bottle on the curb and went after his opponent with the jagged neck—the guys on the sidelines separated them while we kicked glass off the “field.” I remember the sweet stench of Icelandic poppies rotting in a two-foot brass Indonesian vase sent to me at the magazine from a desperate publicist. I remember trying out for a game show again and again, which seemed like smart financial planning. I remember spending a night acting as a “traffic light” at a dance rehearsal, which meant it was my job to say “green,” wait sixty seconds, say “yellow,” wait sixty seconds, say “green,” wait sixty seconds, and so on for three hours, there inexplicably being no “red”—all for $80. I remember holding the door for Kurt Vonnegut, who was wandering out of a screening as I walked in; a few minutes later a woman rushed up and gasped, “Did Kurt just leave?” Celebrities dropped by our office; I remember leaving the toilet seat up on Salma Hayek, who went after me into the unisex bathroom. I remember standing forever on First Avenue at 4 a.m., waiting for an off-duty cab to take me uptown on the way to dispatch. I remember doing that a lot. I remember going to my first piano bar (Rose’s Turn, now gone). I remember New Year’s Eves spent at parties, in bars, walking the streets. I remember climbing a rooftop in Queens to watch Fourth of July fireworks, but that year they were in a slightly different location—and just out of sight. (The colors lit up the undersides of clouds.) I remember being surprised to learn the chimp in a photo shoot made $800 a day, which meant in about a month it could earn the yearly salary of us young editors and perhaps even the finance assistant, who told me she didn’t know whether to itemize the chimp as a model, prop, or equipment. I remember setting my VCR to tape the start of the war before going out for pizza. I remember the anonymous joker who would stencil a silhouette of a young Bill Murray on the ubiquitous blue construction fences that were always stamped “Post No Bills.” After a long night with some friends, I remember telling a bartender in an East Village dive that 4:45 a.m. was no time to be closing a bar in New York City. The guy didn’t look up but just said, “Come on, it’s Sunday.” I remember boiling lobsters on a hotplate in my kitchen, which had been converted from a hall closet. I remember early days riding the subway, opening my jaw slightly to feel the hum in my teeth.
Ian Frazier once wrote in the New Yorker, “The urge to tunnel is partly an urge to disappear, and its product, no matter how monumental, is visible only from the inside.” But what about things buried, that exist under pressure—don’t they want to erupt into the light?
I remember reading E.B. White before the planes hit: “All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation.” In those days, I got dressed in the mornings with the TV tuned to NY1. That Tuesday, there was a fire in one of the Trade Center towers; witnesses said a plane had hit it; strange for such a clear day. Then the second tower exploded. My mom called, crying. She asked where my girlfriend was. I said she was in her East Village apartment. From the other room, my roommate (watching a different angle on another channel) said he saw it—definitely a second plane, not just an “explosion,” as the newscaster claimed. I hung up and left a message on my girlfriend’s answering machine, telling her to turn on the TV, on which a voice was wondering whether the second tower might have been hit by a news or police copter. I caught a downtown C train since the 1/9 was closed, the idea being to get to the magazine’s office in Chelsea as fast as I could. There we would make sense of the news.
At four o’clock on the afternoon of February 19, 1916, 28-year-old sandhog Marshall Mabey was working below the East River on a subway tunnel to connect Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights to Whitehall Street at Manhattan’s tip. River tubes were being cut using the “shield method,” in which a sharp steel plate slowly carved through the bed of the river. Sandhogs removed earth at the head of the shield, which was advanced by hydraulic jacks 26 inches at a time—at which point another steel ring would be added to the tube growing behind it. Ahead of the rings, wooden planks propped up the loose dirt, but the real work of keeping the soft river bottom from collapsing down on the miners was done by the compressed air pumped into the tunnel—on that day, 24 pounds per square inch, or three times the pressure of an NBA basketball. Under such compression, miners would get the bends, and it was impossible to whistle.
Mabey was some 600 to 700 feet from the Brooklyn shore. The shield was ready to be forced forward, and he and three others were removing the boards shoring up the front of the tunnel, when a rock twice the size of a baseball fell out of the ceiling. Mabey’s partner tried to plug the widening hole with a sandbag, but—with a sudden crack!—the man disappeared. Mabey lunged for the pipes pumping air into the tunnel, but couldn’t grab hold as he, too, was sucked toward the roaring breach in the ceiling, which he estimated to be about eighteen inches. He later would tell the Times, “As I struck the mud it felt as if something was squeezing me tighter than I had ever been squeezed.” He blacked out as he was shot through twelve feet of riverbed and then through the East River before being launched twenty-five feet into the air.
A front had blown in—the thermometer read 18 degrees, cold even for February. Witnesses along the waterfront and the Brooklyn Bridge were shocked to see three men suddenly erupt from a two-story geyser before splashing back into the river. Mabey came to. “I am a good swimmer,” he reported, “and I kept my mouth shut and came up to the surface.” His rubber boots weighed him down and his left leg felt numb (it was later found to be broken), but Mabey swam to a rope thrown by men on a tugboat. The two other sandhogs shot through the hole were not as lucky. Fifteen minutes later, someone spotted Mabey’s partner, who was dragged by a boathook onto a sand scow. He died soon after, having had struck his head on the bottom of a barge. The next day, harbor police found the body of the third man, who had drowned.
It was the longest, quietest subway ride of my life. The car was full but not packed. I didn’t have a seat, but I remember leaning against one of the poles after about an hour. Stopped in the tunnel, there was nothing to see; the windows were dark. Nobody spoke or made eye contact as the voice repeated again and again that we were being delayed “due to a police investigation at Chambers Street.” I remember being grateful for the silence, because it seemed that if anyone spoke—that is, acknowledged whatever it was that was going on—panic would break out. Eventually we were evacuated into Grand Central Station, though I have only my notes from that day to go by, as I don’t remember this at all. Penn Station seems far more likely. I remember surfacing, the streets overflowing with people walking against traffic and lights, stopping to huddle around cars stalled in their spots, radios blaring, windows down for everyone to hear. Crowds were plastered to the windows of electronic stores. Lines stretched from pay phones. People were crying and carrying gallons of water. Sirens. Smoke. An indescribable smell that would linger for months. My cell phone briefly got service; from my mom I learned the towers had fallen and the Pentagon had been hit. At the sound of a plane, all civilians looked up.
I walked south to the office, where you could get a phone call out every third try. I remember someone on the business side of the magazine saying, “It’s going to be a motherfucker for the economy.” He claimed to have called his broker the minute the first plane hit and exhorted everyone within earshot—mostly young assistants trying to call their families—to do the same. We had run a story on bin Laden a year earlier, and one of the editors was frantically trying to dial the U.K. to get in touch with the writer of a follow-up piece that recently had been scrapped. Most people ignored her and gathered around the TV in the conference room. I heard my boss’s line ring, and I ran and got her—I remember her tears at the sound of her boyfriend’s voice. I had a message from my girlfriend, who had walked to work and then taken a number of displaced coworkers back to her apartment. Everyone was going home. The whole city, it seemed, was out walking, steering itself by a pillar of smoke hung in the sky. On my way to the East Village, I watched two kids pose with it in a picture.
It goes without saying that my 9/11 was overwhelmingly benign compared to so many others’ that day, but I want to say it anyway. There were those who died or lost loved ones. There were friends who had to pick their way through glass and fallen bodies. There was the former college suitemate who slept through his alarm and didn’t show up to work on the top-floor offices of Cantor Fitzgerald. I remember crowding onto the couch in my girlfriend’s tiny living room, listening to the TV doctor say again and again he didn’t think chemical or biological weapons had been involved—“as far as we know”—and glancing at her roommate’s bag, still covered in white dust on the floor. No one said anything or looked at the roommate. He’d come home hours earlier, after ducking under a car when the debris cloud rolled through the canyons of Wall Street. (“I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.”) After a shower, the guy seemed fine, but he got drunk at dinner—at a barbecue place open around the corner—and drunker at home over beers with another roommate and his friends, who were already back from being turned away at the blood bank. As it grew dark, makeshift monuments sprung up, candles flickering on empty doorsteps. We slept with the windows open. It was quiet except for emergency vehicles, which were in a way comforting. The city was closed to traffic below 14th Street. I had never noticed how wide the streets were without the parked cars.
Mabey returned to his Long Island City home a day after the accident, saying he hoped to be back to work in a day or two. His wife told the paper, “His job is a good one and I’m glad he has it.” The tube remained partially flooded, though the air pumps stayed on and water bubbled four feet above the surface at the point of the break. A blanket of hundreds of tons of clay would be dumped from above to reinforce the riverbed. Natural weaknesses in the bed were to blame, according to Times, which stated, “As yet engineers have found no way to discover these flaws until they reveal themselves.”
Mabey spent the next twenty-five years on the job. Two of his five children would become sandhogs too. The Montague Street Tunnel opened for business on August 1, 1920, and continues to be in use (by the R train). It flooded again during Hurricane Sandy, but reopened last September.
In the following days and weeks, we worked a lot. The staff spent most of its time at the magazine. One day we made vats of pasta and sauce in the company kitchen to deliver to the searchers. We ripped up the issue that had just been sent to the printer. Photographs came in from the rubble. We were trying to turn a photo spread that had been about the “power tribes” of New York into a portrait of human resilience. Of course this made no sense—seemed blasphemous, really—but we pursued it with such zeal. It was easier than thinking. Keep moving. We interviewed socialites, financiers, photographers, artists, chefs, filmmakers, schoolteachers, firefighters, writers, doctors; we collected stories, stories, stories: Where were you? Someone got Chelsea Clinton to write an essay. But my interviews were strained, my notes nonsensical. I remember cold-calling the family of a beloved priest who—after administering to victims and firefighters—rushed into one of the towers and was crushed by debris. My hands shook as I dialed; someone picked up before I knew what to say. I remember interviewing the Chief Medical Officer of St. Vincent’s, the closest hospital, about how his staff was 100% mobilized and ready for patients—that is, survivors—that we both knew would never show up. I remember before this happened it was summer, and then it was fall.
The inventor of one of the earliest tunneling shields was Alfred Ely Beach, editor of The Scientific American. After his proposal to build an underground railway was denied, Beach applied for and was granted permission to create a subterranean pneumatic mail service in downtown Manhattan. Cleared to bore two four-and-a-half foot mail tubes that would connect to the main post office, Beach petitioned to excavate a larger passage ostensibly meant to house both tubes—his eight-foot subway tunnel, built partly in secret, thanks to his newly devised shield, which did not disturb the surface. (The earth was carted away at night.) A classic bait and switch—Beach dug the subway he had been denied.
The pneumatic railway was unveiled on February 26, 1870. From the basement of Devlin’s Clothing Store—at 260 Broadway, across from City Hall—Beach had built a 294-foot iron and white brick tunnel that began beneath Warren Street and curved twenty-one feet below Broadway to Murray Street, a block away. A fifty-ton mechanical blower dubbed “the Western Tornado” forced the eighteen-passenger cylindrical car to the end of the tunnel—then sucked it right back.
I can almost recall the feverish paranoia of that time, a dizzy, slow-burning haze. Days of strange men handing out envelopes on the subway, of contagion in the mail, of walking past contaminated office buildings, of discussing how you might seal up your apartment windows with trash bags, if needed. We heard in the office just before it hit the news—Tom Brokaw’s assistant had anthrax. The media was being targeted. (We were co-owned by a company that was owned by Disney, which also owned ABC, which had received a poisoned letter.) I was sent a stash of Cipro and iodine pills (in case of a dirty bomb). At that point our office mail was being irradiated and steamed; what letters survived the process arrived hopelessly late and nearly illegible, the clear plastic return address stickers in the upper corners shrunken into hard fossils, like the Shrinky Dinks we used to color and put in the oven as kids. Assistants opened mail for their bosses, who wondered if they should invest in gloves and masks. (The more humane editors began handling their own correspondence.) There were rumors, incidents, hoaxes, and scares. Some days, taking the train felt like an act of defiance, while duct tape bravely sold out in the suburbs. We’d check the TV for street and subway closures before heading home from work. I sent my parents short emails that were meant to relieve them. Two days after the attack: “Getting to work was a pain—again. They closed my subway line south of 42nd Street because they're worried about structural damage. I heard there was another bomb scare in another building—they evacuated Grand Central—and this morning they closed Staten Island. (The bridges were closed briefly again early today.) It's still very crazy. But it was nice to get home and change clothes, etc.”
Then again, I remember the Midwestern cheeriness of the guy from the credit card company who—on a routine call—broke script and asked how things were in New York. He had been there once and had paid a guy thirty dollars to take him from JFK to La Guardia and said I should come to Missouri now that turkey season was ending and deer season about to begin. I remember the John Denver look-alike in Central Park having a bigger audience than ever that first Sunday after, how the people on the lawn closed their eyes and swayed together to “Peace Train.”
The “atmospheric railroad” literally went nowhere—there was only one station—but it was a hit. Visitors flocked to pay 25 cents a ride, which—because the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company wasn’t officially chartered to ferry passengers—was donated to the Union Home for the Orphans of Soldiers and Sailors. Riders waited in an opulent saloon outfitted with Greek statues, damask curtains, a chandelier, a grand piano, and a fountain stocked with goldfish. The entrance to the tunnel was flanked by bronze statues and crowned by red, white, and blue gaslights. The car was luxurious—plush seats, oval windows, bright zircon lamps—and, traveling on wheels, topped out at about ten miles an hour. When it wasn’t running, visitors walked the length of the tunnel, where Broadway traffic could be heard trundling overhead.
Legislation was vetoed to extend the pneumatic line to Central Park, the financial crisis of 1873 delayed the company’s effort to raise capital, and by the time Beach secured a franchise for a private passenger line, the elevated railroad had taken hold. The tunnel was sealed. The Devlin’s building would burn to the ground. Beach died in 1896, eight years before the Interborough Rapid Transit Company opened Manhattan’s first subway line, which ran from City Hall to West 145th Street.
A few weeks later, eight of us would head to Vermont to a friend’s cabin. The leaves were not at their peak, but I was shocked by their color. The house had no electricity, water, or heat. Just a place to stay on a thin strip of land. We hiked a mountain and read by a lake. I remember how calm we were; escaping the city felt like breathing again after not realizing you’d been holding your breath. There is a picture of everyone on the porch, all goofy smiles.
The windows were boarded up, the bedroom pitch-black and cold. It must have been after midnight when the screaming began. It sounded faint, far off. In my half sleep, I burrowed deeper under the covers to escape the noise—was it squeaking bedsprings, the sounds of love? Fighting? Crying? It went on all night. In the morning, my memory foggy, I lifted the shade on the darkened window, which had been boarded up from the outside. I shouted: squeezed between the pane and the planks was a vibrating throng of bats—hundreds, it seemed—eyes shut, bodies twitching, a thick jostling mosaic of fur and ears and wings huddled together blindly in the dark. They had no idea I was watching. It seemed they could never wake up.
Six weeks later another plane crashed, this time into a neighborhood in Queens—at work, we shared the uncomfortable déjà vu of gathering around the conference-room TV. Six months later, I was still having dreams—airships descending on the city, chunks of the island crumbling into the water, bombs in the subway that always went off.
Some have claimed Beach’s curiosity to be the city’s original subway, but we know better. When the pneumatic train debuted, Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue tunnel had already been sealed for nine years. In 1912—eight years after the arrival of the IRT and 42 years after Beach unveiled his marvel—the subway was finally extended beneath lower Broadway. Contractors found Beach’s tunnel intact, along with the remains of an original car. They took souvenirs, and, at last, the tunnel was destroyed. Mail, however, would be delivered pneumatically through Manhattan—just not in Beach’s tubes—in canisters traveling thirty miles per hour through twenty-seven miles of pipe four to six feet beneath the street until 1953.
In time, fear would give way to anger. We would be lied to. We would go to war. I was furious at our leaders, who seemed intent on squandering whatever international goodwill had arisen out of the horror. I became irrationally proud to have written the intro to a silly photo spread that got our magazine banned from the Bush White House.
Already something of a worrier, I became more imaginative in my fears, an expert at anticipating worst-case scenarios. My wife bore this patiently even after we left New York. Years later, I would keep a sleeping bag, a flashlight, and a granola bar in the trunk of the car. A spring storm would have me heading to the basement about five times in the night to check for flooding, my only comfort coming from the realization that—should the giant silver maple in the front yard blow down on our house—my wife and I would be crushed, but the baby’s room would be spared.
The subway holds so many ghosts: abandoned stations at West 91st Street, East 18th Street, Worth Street, and Myrtle Avenue; the gilded City Hall station empty but on view as the downtown 6 train turns around at the end of the line (just stay in your seat); the sealed lower levels of Bergen Street, Nevins Street, and 9th Avenue, where graffiti blooms in the dark; and the Cortlandt Street station buried beneath the towers.
I don’t usually take the C train when I’m back in New York—recently the Straphangers Campaign rated it the city’s worst line (dirtiest, most breakdowns, longest wait between trains)—but I found myself on a C the last time I was there. Weekend service was disrupted; the train was running off-schedule on another track. The car was surprisingly empty for a Sunday in SoHo, only four other people. An ad next to the window read: get outta town. Brooklyn-bound, we had to get off unexpectedly at Second Avenue, the station closest to my wife’s old East Village apartment. She was sitting next to me; I imagine we were both surprised to find ourselves there once again. Over the speaker, a woman’s voice: “Last stop, last stop.” The brakes let out a loud, final hiss. Passengers looked up, but no one moved. Then the conductor shouted, “This train isn’t going anywhere.” So we crossed the platform, got onto one of the newer F trains, and went on our way.
Earlier that morning, I visited the Atlantic Avenue manhole that we had climbed down six years before. Another spring Sunday; the trees bloomed bright white. Back then they had been green and leafy, having already lost their buds. Now there was a Barney’s down the block; on the corner where we had lined up stretched a ramp to a no-longer-new Trader Joe’s. Standing in the middle of the street, I could see the still-shiny welds that held down the dull cast iron cover. The crosswalk beeped at me. I thought of Bob. I thought of old friends.
Traffic slowly turned onto Court Street as an Italian grandmother banged her shopping cart up over the curb, not heading to Trader Joe’s. The day before, I passed my old landlord on the street; we didn’t acknowledge each other. Today there was a guy selling records out of crates and a bunch of shops I didn’t recognize: wine, organic burgers. A rundown Mexican place I’d been meaning to try for about a decade had gone out of business. A construction permit hung in the window. As she approached the grocery store, a young woman—hip, dressed for brunch—stopped at the corner and chirped to her companion, “At last, here we are!”
The September 11 Memorial Museum at Ground Zero finally opened last year. Nearly all of it is buried beneath the footprint of the towers, embedded in the Manhattan schist 70 feet below ground. Sections of the original foundations have been excavated. The concrete slurry wall—that bordered the site and miraculously kept the subway system from flooding that day—is exposed in “Foundation Hall,” where it still holds back the Hudson. In an alcove below the ghost of the north tower stands a heavy fragment of impossibly dense strata—the contents, walls, and furnishings of many floors compressed and fused into a few terrible feet. The museum estimated 2.5 million people would visit in its first year, myself not among them. I am unnerved by so much history pressing overhead.
Most likely the longest I’ll ever spend belowground will be that September 11th. I think of that ride often. The mute black tunnel. The fluorescent car. I wonder about my fellow passengers, where they are, what they’ve moved on to. I still picture the train, one of the ribbed stainless-steel R32s, dating to 1964, the oldest still in use. Few remain in service. Most have been “retired,” meaning they left the city—they said goodbye to all that. Some have been sunk off the eastern seaboard and now sit at the bottom of the ocean, where a black sea bass weaves through the open windows and barnacles cling to what’s left of the seats. A cunner fish bumps a tautog, two commuters looking for some room. Mussels crowd out a newly arrived colony of coral. The car weighs 18 tons; it doesn’t roll with the swells, but sits undisturbed, finally at rest. It is used to the darkness. The reef grows new life. One day divers might visit.
But for now I’m still stuck slouching against the pole, staring at the drab speckled floor. Passengers shift in their gray molded seats. Someone coughs quietly into a fist. Her neighbor stares at the same folded newspaper she’s been looking at but not reading for the past twenty minutes (“No Margin for Error Left, But the Mets Still Play On”). We are all thinking the same thing: something about wanting to go home, something about saying goodbye. We haven’t yet realized we will be leaving part of us behind in this tunnel. We know we should be moving, but everyone just stands or sits, not talking—wondering when, if ever, we’ll be coming up for air.
More in this series
Misfits, outliers, drifters have always lived by the sea and at the mercy of the elements.