Tuesday, March 23, 2010

[Mythos IV] Who Seeks May Dread What They May Find

Perhaps you'd like to read the introduction and beginning of the story, or perhaps Part II, or perhaps Part III?

Underground lifestyles are nothing new.

Way back in the dawn of time, Neandertal and anatomically-modern human beings both spent a lot of time living in caves. Some of the better known sites were inhabited for hundreds, if not tens of thousands, of years. Even in Wisconsin, North America, we find "deep cave art", although it's generally accepted that no Neandertal were native to the Western Hemisphere. In any case, no cave art is accepted as being of Neandertal origin. It seems that only anatomically-modern humans ever did cave art, and even then, only since about 30,000 years ago. Before that? Nobody did it. Since then? You just try to keep people from drawing graffiti. Good luck with that.

Even in the modern day, graffiti can be found far underground. A friend of mine reported, some years ago, that as a teen he had been exploring the storm drains in a part of Washington DC best described as "sort of Chevy Chase". He came upon a large underground brick chamber, a confluence of large concrete drain culverts. There were signs of habitation; a desk, and a chair... and graffiti. He claims the sign read "Welcome to Rat City".

Then again, he also claims that he was looking for new systems to explore, and was poking around at the end of a large storm-drain culvert way down towards the "R Street Cemetery" along Rock Creek. He said he stuck his head into the culvert, turned on his flashlight and started to enter, and heard a voice fiercely whisper in a tone of clear threat: "Get out. This is mine."

I used to think that this was just so much unadulterated bullshit, but a good spooky campfire story nonetheless. I still think it's spooky, but whether I doubt the details of my friend's tale, I don't at all doubt the concept of extremely territorial people living underground in the storm drains.

Once, in Austin Texas, I had been miserably homeless for a while, due to a misdiagnosed medical condition that sent me over the brink into incompetence for a while. Yet, with a proper diagnosis, proper medication, and a stipend, my recovery was progressing quickly... but I still found myself floating around on the upper strata, as it were, of the society of outcasts, drug abusers, alcoholics and actual Sterno-drinkers, assorted deeply psychotic veterans of foreign wars, the down-and-out, the illegal migrant worker drifters, general ne'er-do-wells, scamps, scaliwags, and other people best described as more or less "sketchy". As in, "awfully thin file folder on this guy/gal".

Somewhere in the vicinity of Red River Street and East 8th Street there is a park with a stream in it. Like many of the streams in this part of the Texas Hill County, such water as was in it was mostly seasonal, and ran in a bed of white chalk or limestone, which looked a lot like very old eroded concrete that had been bleached bone-white by the merciless summer sun. Yet joined to this natural watercourse was a massive man-made storm drain tunnel, mostly dry for much of the year, yet capacious enough to vent the massive deluges that occasionally descend, not to mention the endless drizzle that passes for weather in the miserable south Texas winters. The corrugated galvanized metal pipe was oval, about 8 feet high, and about 15 feet wide. Downtown Austin is a huge pile of very large office buildings, mostly not quite skyscrapers, built on a jumble of fairly small but rather steep hilltops. Thus, this tunnel ran fairly flat and straight back for at least a quarter mile, and was fed by smaller pipes from various drains which themselves might be rather lengthy.

The place was practically packed with "sketchy types", most of whom had dragged fairly large pallets into fairly large arrangements of decking that left a dry upper surface suitable for their cardboard-box huts, for those that were lucky or competent enough to find suitable cardboard, or mean enough to steal it from other undergrounders. There were some sad cases in there, from the guy who had stabbed himself repeatedly in the ear with an ice-pick trying to get "the chip out my brain", and who was nursing an astonishing ear infection compounded by a constant weeping of cerebrospinal fluid from where he'd managed to penetrate his own skull. There was the Sterno drinker, and the 'Nam vet in his wheelchair, oxygen tank and all. There had to be easily 60 or so people in there... and that was just the ones I could see in the last glimmers of natural light coming in from the entrance some 250 feet distant. Reflections and flickerings of cigarette lighter flames from farther in let me know that I might be seeing only the tip of the iceberg.

But please don't think that it's only the down-and-out of Austin that live a life underground! The Texas Capital Extention is "a four-level underground structure which was completed in 1993. It was built to provide the Capitol with much-needed additional space without detracting from its appearance and historical importance. It is connected to the Capitol by three pedestrian tunnels. [[... ] Carved out of solid rock, the 65-foot-deep site provides the Capitol with four floors and approximately 667,000 gross square feet of new space. The Extension includes state government/legislative office space, conference rooms, 16 Committee Rooms, an Auditorium, a large Cafeteria and a Gift Shop."

Interestingly enough, if you plot out the course of the massive culvert full of derelicts, one end of it is probably right at the edge of the Capital grounds... maybe even right at one wall of the Capital Extension.

Think about it... that chalky limestone is tough, but easy enough to excavate with a pick-axe and shovel. Can you imagine the madness of the scene that could erupt if a bunch of the deep-tunnl derelicts were trying to carve out a refuge above the reach of any sudden inundation by flash-flood, and broke through into the Capital while the Legislature was in session?

Well, evidently Austin wouldn't be the only US city where this might reasonably be a concern.

New York City, evidently, is concerned about an eruption of CHUDs.

From "The Coming C.H.U.D. Wars", New York Press, August 2005:
f you think all the security measures the city has instituted in the subways these past months are simply about the threat of Islamic terrorists, you're dead wrong. New York is at war, yes, but what exactly we're battling is something city officials refuse to admit, be it out of ignorance or fear. My guess is the latter.

In 1984, writer Shep Abbot, producer Andrew Bonime and director Douglas Cheek made a docudrama concerning the federal government's role in the accidental creation of a race of mutants living in the sewers and subway tunnels beneath New York City. "Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers," they were called—or, as they were known more colloquially in the New York of the late 70s and early 80s, "C.H.U.D.s."

Although a quarter century ago C.H.U.D.s were publicly considered little more than an urban legend, a number of eyewitness accounts and a growing amount of physical evidence quietly convinced most people that they were much more than that. Dozens died or simply vanished underground—some yanked right off the street, through manholes.
[ ... ]
"Walking down the tracks at Delancey," one of them said, "you know where they open up?" The other cop nodded. "Well, over to the left, there's a hole in the wall. That's where they hide."

It was immediately clear to me that he wasn't talking about rats, albino alligators or track workers. There was something in his voice, an undercurrent of fear, that made it obvious that something evil was down there. And although the word "C.H.U.D" came to mind, I dismissed it. After all, the MTA had killed them all off in 1982.
[ ... ]
Yes, the spike in the number of dismembered bodies found in the tunnels shows that they're not averse to the "snatch-and-maul" techniques of the old days. But there is also increasing evidence that they have come to a better understanding, not only of their subterranean environment, but of our world as well—and they didn't like it. Nor did they like our continual intrusion into theirs.

The annual number of people who "jumped" or "fell" on the subway tracks continued to climb through 2003 and 2004.

In January of 2004, Jodie Lane was electrocuted by a manhole cover while walking her dog in the East Village. People blamed Con Ed's incompetence and a collapsing infrastructure, but it was clear that at least a few C.H.U.D.s were not only gaining an understanding of the city's electrical power grid—they were also venturing closer to the surface.

It was only after the A and C lines were shut down for 10 days that city officials admitted, in their backhanded way, that they were confronted with an increasingly organized and militant C.H.U.D. population.

Initially, the story was that a homeless man in the subway had started a bonfire in a shopping cart. The fire spread into a control room, destroying a switch box.

During a press conference in which he dismissed that story, claiming the whole thing had resulted from a simple short circuit, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, for some unknown reason, felt compelled to make the following statement:

"There's some notion floating out there that there are communities that live in the subway… That's simply not the case. There may have been 10 or 15 years ago, but that's not the situation now."
[ ... ]

Well, the article is more than a bit satirical, but the fact is, the Tunnel Dwellers are real enough to have documentary films made about them.

There are even well-received and scholarly books about them, such as The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City (Toth, Jennifer, ISBN-10: 155652241X, Chicago Review Press, 1995). From one reviewer:
It's amazing how much space there is belowground. So many abandoned tunnels for trains, gas lines, and water. One can still wire electricity, and some abandoned subway stations still have working bathrooms. Cubbies built to house maintenance workers now house the homeless. One community got water from a broken pipe where they showered and washed their clothes. Another even had a microwave. One wonders if any of them have Internet access.

Of course, in the modern day of 2010, fifteen years after this book was published, they most likely do have internet access, on their 3rd-generation cellphones, though how many bars they have on their network link display is anyone's guess.

In 2007, the FOX News local station broke a story from right across Veirs Mill Road from my neighborhood. You can see a video clip of it entitled Mole Man Living in Mud Hut in Wheaton.

Yet this wasn't the first such in this neighborhood or vicinity. Local underground "party places" are something of a tradition hereabouts, though nobody -- so far as I know -- actually lived in those.

In the early-mid 1970s, there was one such in the vicinity of the infamous Cloverleaf to Nowhere in Aspen Hill, which had a room about 8 feet by 8 feet by 8 feet, with the roof being about 6 feet underground. Additionally, off of Georgia Avenue across from the intersection with Heathfield Road once stood a house known to locals as "the House on the Hill". It was razed, or burned, sometime in the late 1960s, but I have heard rumors that the basement had been at least partially excavated by local kids and turned into a "party place".

Further, in addition to the previously-mentioned "wind tunnels" under Parkland Junior High, there was the sub-basement tunnels under the former Robert E Peary High School, now the site of the Melvin J Berman Hebrew Academy. The Hebrew Academy people took over the building a decade or so after the County schools closed it down due to declining attendance, and by the time they secured the lease and then completed renovations, the place had been infested by vagrants and homeless for most of that decade. I should note in passing that since the restoration, the place looks better than it ever had, since 1970 at least. I should also note in passing that the renovation was significant; they had lots of damage from both neglect and vandalism to repair.

The sub-basement tunnels were extensive; you could get from one end of the school to the other, and there were a variety of entries and exit points to both the interior and exterior of the building. One presumes that by now, the very security-conscious Academy people have long since festooned these areas with alarms.

Then again, there had been alarms there "back in the day" and they were easily either avoided or defeated while being left in a condition that would indicate they were operative but not detecting anything. That was then, and this is now; alarm technologies and sensors have evolved, but then again, so have the skills of burglars. I realize that the following idea is less attractive to the Academy staff than would be a nice dinner of lobster au-gratin with a bacon milkshake, but until they've checked their alarms on the sub-basement and the sub-basement itself, for all they know they are trying to keep kosher one floor above a lair of homeless Salvadorans and their Santaria shrines. Hell, they might go down there and find out it's been excavated and enlarged to where it looks like the crypts of Castle Dracula.

Lord knows there's enough homeless encamped nearby, and probably most of those are former construction workers.