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Burrowed Frontiers

Our past hopes for space exploration have begun to look quaint. The notion of finding alternatives on distant planets has been exposed as a daydream.
Richard Singer

Issue #17, November 1994

Until the last couple of decades, our civilization (i.e., the so-called Western World) had expansionist or ascensionist frontiers. Ever since the Renaissance, we've longed to discover distant lands. Our real motives might have often been uglier, but the myths in our history books and literature offered such new worlds as the embodiment of hope. For those of higher means, distant exploration implied the chance to become cultural pioneers. For those less fortunate, it simply meant the chance to find a more tolerable alternative. These dreams of exploration prevailed for many right up through the late 1960s and the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Most of our science fiction literature had been an extension of the sea-faring literature of the past, time and again offering up 'spaceship' travel as an extension of ocean travel and distant planets as our new frontier.

More recently, however, our past hopes for space exploration have begun to look quaint. The notion of finding alternatives on distant planets has been exposed as a daydream. On a more metaphorical level, our society has retreated from fantasies of expansion and large-scale progress. For those of us who crave or badly need alternatives, it has become clear that our hopes must be located in some other way. Not surprisingly, then, many of us have done the opposite of reaching for the stars. Metaphorically and now even literally, people have been looking underground.

The underground has functioned as a particularly powerful metaphor for disaffected youth. The term 'underground' has acquired a mysterious and romantic quality that we might have once invested in outer space. Being 'underground' has acquired connotations of being a pioneer. 'Going underground' has been an alternative for those who need to hide from the mainstream. And now the underground, in the most literal sense, has become a home for some of the alienated homeless, who are forming alternative communities under the earth.

The literal example is probably the least recognized among new underground cultures, because it is so disturbing and because it is so new. The documentation of such a culture has been confined mainly to New York City, via several newspaper articles, some TV news coverage and a book by Jennifer Toth. But Toth's book, The Mole People (Chicago Review Press), has been very effective in terms of describing the underground communities and showing how its people — often thought of as less than human — actually share motivations with many of us. If their plight as residents in New York's underground tunnels seems like a horror story, it is also something of a parable, providing a literal illustration of our metaphorical quests.

Perhaps the connections among undergrounds are best understood through an examination of recent history. This writer, for instance, remembers the popular conception of 'underground' as something that emerged in the late 1960s. Perhaps its first incarnation during that time was as a continuation of the revolutionary underground movements of the past. Certainly, we can remember what it meant in the late '60s when famous political activists decided to 'go underground.' It seems perfectly fitting that these movements 'underground' occurred around the time of the moon landings. The Apollo 11 missions represented a culmination rather than a beginning, embodying an optimistic notion of human progress that would soon become obsolete.

Political progress in the old sense also was also beginning to seem obsolete. While some of our dissidents did need to avoid exposure or detection because of their mounting legal troubles, most of those who 'went underground' reflected a growing disillusionment with the notion of being able to effect global change. At this point, it seemed that the only way to create an alternative world was to go someplace hidden from the main one.

Even those who are much too young to remember are familiar with Timothy Leary's directive to 'drop out.' The drug culture was a perfect vehicle through which one could hide oneself from society. This culture, by necessity, involved withdrawing from the public and hiding from the law, while the drugs that it emphasized enhanced one's ability to become submerged into personal thoughts. Fittingly, this withdrawal into self was mirrored in other aspects of culture, such as the 'new wave' of science fiction and its emphasis on 'inner space.'

Yet retreating underground means more than withdrawing in isolation; it also means finding a community that one can't find in the surface world. Thus, through the '60s and early '70s, we saw various subcultures with underground connotations that actually lent one a sense of community based on alienation. Via underground newspapers, underground comics and, later, underground music, people found a way to discover a different kind of New World.

A late '60s rock band called the Velvet Underground presaged the most entrenched and self-conscious cultural underground of recent years. By the time it fully exploded on the King's Road and at CBGBs, the '70s music underground exemplified everything (both right and wrong) that we could find in an underground. Like previous undergrounds, it did at first foster hopes of global revolution, typified in Richard Hell's 'Blank Generation' and the Sex Pistols' 'Anarchy for the UK'; yet this 'punk' underground quickly began to romanticize its own irrelevance to mainstream society. Perhaps because it took such glory in the negation of mainstream values, it soon equated hipness with being completely removed from the mainstream.

Punk music abounded with signifiers of its underground status. Beginning with X-Ray Spex's song, 'Let's Submerge,' punk lyrics themselves often became odes to an underground. (We might also note The Stranglers' rather prescient suite, 'Down In The Sewers,' the Jam's personal and political 'Going Underground,' the Jesus and Mary Chain's post-punk ode to withdrawal, 'My Little Underground...'). In addition to these lyrical references, the actual architecture of punk venues implied submergence into some buried world. CBGB's, for instance, resembled a narrow cavern. Most known punk clubs — as well as the fictional clubs depicted on TV or in movies — were located beneath a series of steps. The ideal atmosphere of a punk club was dark and dank.

In retrospect, this romanticization of everything underground seems somewhat pointless. But the music underground also provided a sense of community that could not have existed in the surface world. Here in the punk world, thousands of young people could use their alienation as a basis for forming bonds. Moreover, this culture emphasized a level of equality not found in the mainstream. It didn't matter if a band didn't know how to play music, since a lot of people were starting from scratch. Sometimes, it didn't matter if a band singer plunged into the audience or members of the audience decided to join a band on stage. Musical hierarchies, like other traditional standards, were being eschewed, enabling those who had once felt powerless to have as much power as anyone else.

Yet most underground bands, while glorying in their lack of commercial status, were underground by necessity. Once the music could be popularized as 'new wave' or, later, 'alternative music' and 'grunge,' it eliminated the necessity of many musicians to remain underground. Not coincidentally, this musical culture lost its ability to engender participants with as much of a sense of community, or as much exhilaration, or that sense of discovering some new, hidden world.

Current middle-class youth can find something of an underground culture in that medium known as 'cyberspace.' While this culture may be cloaked in a metaphor of expansion (taken from a novel be William Gibson that in many ways built upon '60s SF's 'inner space'), its characteristics are undeniably underground. To find the various groups and networks participating in cyberspace, one must go through a sort of excavation, unearthing subcultures that have been hidden within structures constructed by cryptical pioneers. The amount of immersion needed to join these networks necessitates considerable detachment from the visible world. Moreover, the Internet and other networks have long contained many vocal participants who liked to maintain a revolutionary fervor, or at least a subversive air. And there is no denying that these networks do provide an alternative kind of community to compensate for a deteriorated sense of community in mainstream society.

We could argue that cyberspace is not a true underground because its people are not sufficiently alienated. Most of the participants are affluent, as a certain amount of disposable income is usually requisite for 'pioneering' into cyberspace's lesser-traveled areas. But since an overwhelming number within this community value it for its underground qualities, it is clear where their aspirations lie. While we not so long ago imagined our affluent young people venturing out to the planets, now they seem more likely to explore less visible spheres.

On the other side of the economic spectrum, the hidden worlds are not quite so comfortable or so abstract. Thus, we come back to the new phenomenon of the 'Mole People' as revealed to us by Toth's important book. The Mole People documented in Toth's book are the people who live in gas pipe tunnels, old freight train tunnels, abandoned subway tunnels and various caverns or bunkers far beneath the streets of New York. They have only recently been accepted in this city as indisputable fact, although estimates of their numbers vary widely (from 5,000 according to Ms. Toth's informal 'research' to 25,000, according to some transit workers). Throughout the '80s, some believed in the Mole People's existence while others considered them a myth. Most who did accept their existence thought that they had to be deranged and isolated loners with no ability to function in a group. Yet Toth's book not only proved this last idea false; it showed that the situation was completely the opposite: the farther she went underground, the greater sense of community she saw.

As Toth tells us, those people who live near the surface, at tunnel entrances or under subway tracks, usually are loners, often crack addicts, who do not seek the company of others. But the residents of the lower tunnels tend to form communities, with a clear purpose of creating some more tolerable alternative to life on the surface. It is clear in Ms. Toth's interviews and described encounters that the 'Mole People' share a bond based on alienation. One elected leader, merely referred to as 'the Mayor,' defiantly asserts his faith in the underground world and his lack of need for the surface life: 'You see we're a clean and healthy community,' he says. 'We're healthy individuals who have chosen an alternative.' Later on he says, a bit more angrily, 'Fuck the people on top! They want to exterminate us. We'll do anything to survive.'

Another leader, Sam, says of our 'surface' world, 'How can you live in a society like that? The laws and the rules, and what they call morals, are logical and warped... . We make our own laws. Our laws are based on what we feel, not preconceived notions of morality.' One can imagine this statement coming from a leader of a '60s political 'underground,' or from the mouth of a performer in a late '70s punk rock band. Instead, it comes from one of the most alienated homeless, a type that has not traditionally been acknowledged for having coherent ideals or goals.

The most famous tunnel leader is a man named Bernard, who has been featured in newspaper articles and has appeared on NBC News. Sporting flashy Rastafarian braids and a cool, eyes-on-the-(under)ground pose, he could easily be the next revolutionary poster boy. As shown in his interview on NBC (conducted in his tunnel deep underground), he speaks in a quietly persuasive tone while arguing his preference for the tunnels. His argument is compelling for its candidness and realism: 'And there's peace in the dark,' he says in Toth's book. 'I sit here at night at the fire with a pot of tea and just the solitude of the tunnel. I think what I've discovered here is that what one really seeks in life is peace of mind.' Toth asks, 'You're happy down here, then,' to which Bernard replies, 'Sure, whatever happy is. I understand that I can't change anything from the way it is, except for my mind.' And this increasingly seems to be the message in our underground movements: Once 'underground' meant the place where revolution was fermented; now it means a place of refuge from that which cannot be changed.

One can't help but wonder if the Mole People might eventually become cultural heroes. While our media hasn't traditionally had much use for the homeless, these new tunnel dwellers can offer enough sensationalism to win ratings wars. Especially if the TV crews can locate spokespeople as photogenically underground as Bernard....It is unlikely, though, that the Mole People's surroundings will ever appear desirable. Living among ancient refuse in dark tunnels is nothing that anyone truly aspires toward, and most individuals still can rest assured that they'll never have to meet such a fate. Nonetheless, we cannot overstate the symbolic significance of the tunnel communities. They embody many of our dreams as well our nightmares.

This past summer, I saw two fascinating news images: One, in celebration of the 25th anniversary of Apollo 11, showed Neil Armstrong in a bulky government-made uniform stepping out of a shiny billion-dollar space capsule onto the soil of the moon as he declared a 'giant leap for mankind.' The other showed Bernard sporting a sweat suit and dreadlocks, sitting by a campfire in his deeply buried tunnel, talking about how happy he was to have escaped society. Both men have ventured into remote and barren-looking places where most of us probably will never go. Yet given our current social and economic environment, I can't help thinking that Bernard is the more pertinent pioneer.

Richard Singer was once exposed as a member of the 'new science-fiction underground.' He has contributed to sundry magazines including Pig Iron, New Pathways, Processed World, and Op. Most recently, he co-edited Airfish: An Anthology of Speculative Works. He lives above ground for now, in New York.

Copyright © 1994 by Richard Singer. All rights reserved.