A Day of Tunnels

My path home last night
My path home last night

In my freshman year of college, I joined the crew team. We woke at some ungodly hour to drive to the river thirty minutes away. And we did this on weekends. So one Saturday morning I’m trekking up this long, steep hill on campus the locals called (uninspiringly) “the hill,” and I’m staring down at my feet because I’m exhausted and the sun isn’t fully up and I’m thinking, “What the hell am I doing up at this hour?” So as I’m walking I pause and see this gaping hole in the earth that I’m about to tumble into. I stop in mid-stride and look up and see my friend Paul from the dormitory also staring down into the hole.

“Hello,” I say.

“Hello,” he says back.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

“I’m trying to get down there,” he says.

“Down there?” I ask skeptically.

“Yes,” he says. “I was speaking to my friend and he told me that under his university are a series of tunnels that lead all over campus. You can go from one end to the other completely underground.”

“Oh,” I say.

“So,” he continues, “I removed this manhole cover to see if our campus had the same thing. I heard rumors, but I’m not sure.”

We both stare down into the darkness where, in the weak morning light, we can see what appears to be pipes and plumbing about a dozen feet down.

“I was going to drop down and check it out,” he says, “but I wasn’t sure if I could get back up again after.”

We both stare down into the hole again.

“Hmm,” I say. “That’s pretty deep. Say, what are you doing up at six AM on a Saturday morning?” I ask.

“Dunno,” he says. “Never went to sleep, and I had nothing better to do. What are you doing here?”

“Just got up. Rowing team practice.”

“I didn’t know you rowed.”

“I didn’t know you climbed into manholes.”

“Touché.”

So I continue walking up the hill, and when I look back, I see Paul still staring down into the darkness. I can’t recall if he ever went down there. My suspicion says no; I think he was too scared he’d never climb back up again. At six AM on a Saturday, it would be a long time before people came to his rescue. But I remember thinking about him all day, wondering if he’d gone down into the sewers and vanished in the darkness. And the funny thing is, I remember wanting to be with him instead of bursting my lungs on the river with the rowing team. I’d always been up for those kind of adventures.

And yesterday was another day of tunnels. On the way into Manhattan, as I was descending the stairs to the subway crowded with rush-hour pedestrians walking in the opposite direction, a man behind me said, “We’re like salmon swimming upstream.” I found that rather poetic.

New York’s tunnels have always fascinated me. There’s an enormous and completely bewildering complex of tunnels under Rockefeller Center that stretches, I think, for some ten city blocks. There’s another set under Times Square that spans avenues and goes down at least seven stories to the 7 train. And then there’s the Grand Central Station complex, which connects to the Shuttle train, which connects to the NRQW, which connect to the PATH train to New Jersey.

So last night met some friends for dinner at a restaurant in Grand Central Station. It was raining, and I had my umbrella, but on the way home I traveled from Grand Central all the way to Hoboken without stepping outside. That’s about six miles and thirty minutes of travel, completely underground. It was only until I stepped out of the subway in Hoboken, the same subway I had entered hours before to thoughts of salmon, that I remembered it was raining.

I instantly thought of my college friend Paul, his tunnel adventure that never was, and thought, in some way, I had just experienced it. I also recalled that Paul himself was from Hoboken too. Perhaps his childhood adventures traveling in the tunnels of Manhattan had inspired him to remove that lonely manhole cover one early Saturday morning so many years ago, just to see where it would go.

One Reply to “A Day of Tunnels”

  1. I used to work at Rockefeller Center; I loved using those tunnels. It amazed me how far one could get around–and everything one could do–without going aboveground; there was even a branch of the Post Office down there.

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