Sunday, June 06, 2010
Tom's New York: On the Down Low
"That trap-door," says my hostess for the day, "Some people say that's where the Mole People come and go." She's pointing at a small grate in an artificial rocky mound on the south end of Central Park, somewhere between the big silver Atlas at the foot of the park (Jack Donaghy got the gold one, a few blocks south) and the FAO Schwartz where you can see the staff recreate the famous "big piano" scene from Big, then try your own hand (foot) at same and realize just how rubbish you are at absolutely every skill necessary to play a big piano.
She tells me about how the Mole People live below the city of New York and have their own societies and mayors and electricity and running water (maybe this is where all the electricity and running water and organizational capacity from my hostel went!) and are the lords of the subterranean world, one that swallows regular humans who try to venture into it but where cave-dwelling people can survive and prosper. There are twelve levels to the subway; regular people, rather precisely, are said never to get below Level 4. (Maybe that's where the first mini-boss is).
Of course, the Mole People fiction is not unique to the world of non-fiction. Every subway trip I take, I'm reminded of Midnight Meat Train, an ill-advised feature-length adaptation of a one-joke Clive Barker short in which an ill-advised Bradley Cooper plays a photographer who becomes ill-advisedly obsessed with trailing Vinnie Jones into subways, believing the Marceau of the Soccer Hooligans to be a subway serial killer. Spoiler! He's right: Jones has been tricked into riding the subways for an eternity, bludgeoning people with a huge hammer and feeding them to a race of cave-dwelling demons on whose home New York is built and who demand appeasement in the form of ill-advised subway travelers. That's why (in a fascinating and unexplored implication) New York, within the movie's mythology, gets its power from a Faustian bargain written into the city's very topography, and also why (in a marginally interesting and underdeveloped subplot) the vegetarian Cooper develops an obsession with eating bloody steak as he gets closer to his quarry.
But you don't have to be spinning crazy extrapolations onto New York's subways for them to be one of the most evocative places in America. This is the chrome-and-graffiti cave that folks go into as a meek observer and emerge from as a fierce avenger: so says The Brave One, but it's just lifting a scene from Death Wish and/or the legend of Bernhard Goetz. "You don't look that bad," sneered Goetz in December 1984 as he stared down a would-be mugger he'd just shot on the subway, "Here's another." Then he shot the guy again at point blank. Bernhard Goetz looks nothing like Charles Bronson, but it's impossible to imagine that line being spoken by anyone else.
Once you leave daylight on the subway, everything blends. The oily musk of sweating steel is so thick you might as well be walking through gaseous metal. The reality of moving from A to B becomes a Jungian trek through the nether world. Subway-demons are on a continuum with Mole People bleeding into the real subjects of Dark Days seguing into the unfortunate on the next platform. The intricate grid of New York streets is reduced to an unfeasibly elegant single straight line. The only thing that parses the soot-black funk and off-white Victorian tiles and homeless and yuppies and iron maiden-like full-body turnstiles is the trains themselves, slicing through the dark with a mighty rush and reminding you what's what. And then you step out and you're in an entirely different place, as if there were any doubt that the whole thing were magic.
 In a movie about a little boy becoming a big man, why is the most famous scene the one which highlights the man character's smallness in a way that borders on surrealistic?