JACKI LYDEN, host:
We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
As people walk along the busy streets of New York City, urban explorer Steve Duncan goes below, far below, through the city's tunnels, subways, sewers. It's a deep, dark look at New York's working history many of us will never see. But down there...
(Soundbite of siren)
LYDEN: ...each expedition comes with its own dangers.
Mr. STEVE DUNCAN: I don't want to make it sound too dramatic because it's easy enough to hurt yourself walking across the street in New York.
(Soundbites of beeping, gas whooshing, cigarette lighter, explosion)
Mr. DUNCAN: Definitely, there's some different dangers underground. One of the most obvious is the possibility of bad atmosphere, carbon monoxide buildup, hydrogen sulfide, also known as sewer gas. If you have an underground vault and a gas line breaks nearby, that might end up flooding it with flammable gas. Perhaps just a tiny spark from within a headlamp or maybe lighting a cigarette can set that off, and that's terrible.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LYDEN: Not to mention the manholes he uses are in the middle of the street.
Mr. DUNCAN: Cars can come over those at any point. Subway systems, where you have 750 volts running along a live, exposed line. When you also have puddles, that can be a terrible thing, exposed metal, random holes. On the subway, when trains are routed in different directions, the tracks switch a little bit, and it's possible to get your foot stuck in those if you're there at the wrong time.
These are environments that, like the wildest places on earth, you know, do have a lot of danger.
LYDEN: Of course, why Steve Duncan explores these spaces is another question entirely. Now, think about it. If you could follow Alice down that rabbit hole or Jules Verne to the center of the Earth, wouldn't you do it? We did.
Steve Duncan took us on a week-long trek through 25 miles of New York underground, each adventure going deeper from the one before.
Our first leg, it's the middle of the night, a freezing, snowy street corner in the Bronx with a tall Norwegian in his underwear.
Mr. ERLING KAGGE: All Norwegians believe in this kind of underwear.
LYDEN: He's changing his pants. His underwear look a little like fishnet stockings.
Mr. KAGGE: It's like putting on the central heating.
LYDEN: Nordic explorer Erling Kagge is the reason for this journey. He and Steve met a year ago. Erling's ruggedly handsome, in his late 40s. He's climbed the major mountain peaks. He was the first man to walk alone to the North Pole. He shot and killed a charging polar bear with a handgun. Now, he wants to explore New York's subconscious.
Mr. KAGGE: And I'm always kind of asking myself, you know, why can't I just remain sitting in the chair instead of going out and going on a new expedition.
LYDEN: So you do ask yourself that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LYDEN: And why do you think it is?
Mr. KAGGE: But I'm not always waiting for the answer.
LYDEN: Erling does wait, though, for Steve to arrive so that the journey can begin.
Mr. DUNCAN: Hello.
With his shock of white blond hair, the 32-year-old looks like a human sparkler. Steve brought along a videographer and reporter from The New York Times. We all set off.
Our entrance to the sewer is a drainage culvert in the middle of a park, mmm, somewhere in the Bronx.
Mr. DUNCAN: We're going in at a place where what used to be an aboveground river was channeled into a culvert and then fed into one of the Bronx's older sewers.
LYDEN: But it's been snowing a lot. And when we get there, it looks a little deep.
Mr. DUNCAN: What do you think? You want to try it?
LYDEN: What's happening right now is Steve lowered himself over the side, and he's trying to test how deep this water is. Looks pretty dangerous to me, actually.
Mr. KAGGE: I'm surprised by how much water it is.
LYDEN: And this man has summitted Everest. Given the danger, we make the call to stick with Steve's topside crew tonight, a friend named Will Hunt. The plan is for Steve and Erling to wade a mile through the sewer to an exit manhole. They disappear into the tunnel, and then we wait.
Mr. WILL HUNT: This is topside. Are you guys okay?
LYDEN: Have you ever been waiting for a friend who's late?
Mr. HUNT: Let us know how things are.
LYDEN: That's Will on a walkie-talkie. Do you know how you ask yourself: At what point do I stop waiting?
(Soundbite of ringing)
LYDEN: We wait for an hour, nothing from the guys. Two hours...
Mr. HUNT: Ray(ph), it's not still going.
Mr. HUNT: ...which is making me a little disconcerted about the fact we haven't seen them yet.
LYDEN: They were only walking a mile. By 5 a.m., it's been over three freezing hours, when finally...
Mr. HUNT: Steve, this is Will, over.
LYDEN: Will gets through.
(Soundbite of beeping)
Mr. DUNCAN: Oh, great. We're here.
Mr. HUNT: All right. Come on up.
Mr. DUNCAN: Hey.
LYDEN: Out they climb; filthy, tired. What happened down there?
Mr. DUNCAN: Terrible things. I can't talk about it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KAGGE: I wouldn't say jolly good, clean fun.
LYDEN: They were snapping photos, coping with leaky waders. And Steve says sometimes time just moves differently underground.
Mr. DUNCAN: It always takes so much longer underground than I expect. And then when I look at - when I map it out and I...
LYDEN: All right, let's come up for a breath. Why are they doing this? Back in 1997, Steve was an engineering undergrad at Columbia University.
Mr. DUNCAN: I was woefully unprepared for a final in a math class and realized I had to do some of the homework on a computer program that was only available in the math building. And it was late at night. So I asked a friend, who I knew ran around the tunnels at Columbia, if there's any way to get in there. And he said: Sure, I can show you.
So he took me to an entrance to the steam tunnel system and said, basically, go that way and make a few turns, you'll be right there.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DUNCAN: And he took off. I hadn't expected that part. But I felt like I couldn't back down then. And so I went in, and just the whole experience of being alone in the dark, in this built environment, I felt like I was a million miles away from any other human. And of course, I was only 10 feet away from the busy sidewalks. They were just straight overhead.
LYDEN: And later that morning, it's to Columbia that Steve returns. For this leg, we're going below with him through the doors of a small brick building on campus.
We're dirty. We have huge backpacks. It's almost scary how easy this is, down some stairs, past two employees stocking a vending machine. We reached an unmarked door at the bottom. After a long corridor of clanking, boiling steam pipes, we shimmy up a ladder and into a crawlspace.
Mr. DUNCAN: So right now, we're underneath a building called Buell Hall. It's also the French House. Before this was Columbia University, it was the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum. So you can see the, you know, where we're underneath it, it's these wood rafters supported on newer steel beams. So when I was freezing a little bit earlier, I thought like the warmest place I could think of underground and came up with this.
LYDEN: We've been up all night, and the dirt floor feels comfy. Everybody sleeps like a stone, except for me. I imagine that I can hear students speaking French from above and rest my cold toes on a heating pipe. Six hours later, the group starts to wake.
Mr. KAGGE: How I slept? Yeah, great. That was a long time, I think.
LYDEN: How did it compare to the Arctic?
Mr. KAGGE: It's definitely warmer here in the central heating of Columbia University.
(Soundbite of phone ringing)
LYDEN: No sooner is Steve awake than friends are already calling about the coming night's adventure.
Mr. DUNCAN: Get in. I can't talk now. I'm about to escape from the underground.
LYDEN: We brace ourselves with a few cough drops, a swig of bourbon, breakfast of champions. We're coming up through the bowels of Columbia. The clanking heating pipes really feel like the center of the Earth. We find a mysterious door marked Philosophy. Erling pauses...
Mr. KAGGE: I like to open doors most people do not open.
LYDEN: ...and pushes through. Good heavens, we've stumbled into a faculty Christmas party, and our dashing leader suddenly feels shy.
Mr. DUNCAN: I'm ashamed to admit it, Erling, but I'm a coward. Okay, go. Bring me back a drink and a girl. Oh, come on. Come on. Come on.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LYDEN: But we leave empty-handed and head out into the night.
Tell us about what you learn - what you're observing from your eyes in the lead of a small group or alone, what you're looking for.
Mr. DUNCAN: Well, part of what I'm looking for is just, you know, I know a little bit about what's underground, but it's still, it's this giant unexplored territory in a lot of ways. And so I'm really interested in what I'm actually going to find.
For example, we went in that old sewer in the Bronx from the 1890s, and just that gorgeous arched brick, that was really what I was looking for there. But yeah, I wish I could tell you that I had everything completely mapped out before I go underground. That's very, very rarely the case.
LYDEN: You've got a couple of maps?
Mr. DUNCAN: I do have a couple maps, yeah. Interestingly, though, New York -pretty much nobody has a complete map of the underground. It's like a mess of spaghetti down there sometimes. So I have historical data, I have archival maps. Sometimes I have maps of current systems. But sometimes, it isn't quite what I expect.
LYDEN: You can say that again. Our third night out with Steve, we're in a subway station in Lower Manhattan getting ready to explore what we've been told is an abandoned portion of tracking. Steve is giving us a little safety prep.
Mr. DUNCAN: And the big thing here is not to get killed. So don't touch the third rail. And if a train's coming, get out of the way. That might mean - in the worst situation I can imagine, that might mean standing in between those two third rails and in between two pillars so the trains are coming on each side of you. You won't get killed. You will get seen, but that's much better than dying.
LYDEN: A final train leaves, Steve jumps down, and we follow. We move like a column of special-ops, in silence, hopping over the deadly third rail with Steve in the lead. The tunnel is dim. Only the lights glow soft and blue.
(Soundbite of train)
LYDEN: The train we hear is on another track, but it's still unsettling. As we clamor onto an abandoned platform, Steve freezes.
Mr. DUNCAN: I could have sworn I saw a guy over there. Did anybody else see that?
LYDEN: Suddenly, Steve is running, and there's nothing we can do but run after him. We've been spotted, and now we're hopping back across live tracks. Up on the platform, 30 stunned spectators look on as we hoist ourselves up. Our microphones barely make it, and we dash out of the station.
I want to talk a little bit about two things that happen to start with the same letter: mortality and morality. Let's talk about this first. I mean, it is against the law, I presume, to explore these behind-barrier spaces, and you're smiling.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DUNCAN: Yeah. Legality and morality, I think, are really different issues. And so I try hard never to do anything that's immoral, that I consider bad.
Some of what I do involves trespassing. I think that we have, in the U.S., a kind of legal tradition that really stresses sacrosanct qualities of private property. If it's not yours, you shouldn't be there, whereas a lot of these places are really public structures. They're part of what make the city function.
So if we were to switch our mentality and say, well, you can be there, as long as it doesn't hurt anybody, I think that would open up a lot of parts of the city that people would love to see.
Mr. DUNCAN: It really is a different world. Part of that's just being in the dark. I mean, being in the dark has an incredible impact. And, you know, a lot of places, I could die down there and literally not be discovered for years or maybe even ever. That feeling just to me kind of wakes up something and heightens my senses in a little way, where if it's a dark environment, whatever's picked out in my headlight beam has an intensity that I don't get when everything's brightly lit.
LYDEN: Our final night with Steve is our deepest. We're walking into an Amtrak tunnel as wide as an airplane hangar underneath Riverside Drive on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
It's pitch black. Only our headlamps guide our way. The walls are covered in graffiti and murals. People live down here. They're known as the mole people. Here's how you find them.
Mr. DUNCAN: Hey, John, are you around? It's Steve Duncan.
LYDEN: But there's one person in particular we're here to visit tonight, a woman called Brooklyn who says she's lived in this tunnel since 1982. On their first adventure a few months back, Steve introduced Erling to Brooklyn. This week, it's our turn.
Okay, we're now - everybody is crawling through a very small space.
BROOKLYN: Hi, guys.
Mr. KAGGE: Hi. How are you doing?
Mr. KAGGE: Thank you.
BROOKLYN: Welcome to my igloo.
LYDEN: From the darkness comes Brooklyn, a vigorous woman with a bandana and heavy coat. Erling's brought her a gift.
BROOKLYN: Oh, you brought me a birthday cake. Oh, God. You remembered.
Mr. KAGGE: Of course.
BROOKLYN: That's nice.
LYDEN: Brooklyn is 50 this week, but her cake is a little squished from the tight passages.
BROOKLYN: It's okay. It's okay. It's strawberry shortcake?
Mr. KAGGE: Hmm?
BROOKLYN: What kind is it? Strawberry?
Mr. KAGGE: Yes, it's cream cake.
BROOKLYN: Oh, yeah. That looks good. That looks yummy. Don't even worry. Don't worry. I'm loving it.
LYDEN: She tells us her story, sitting amid heaps of recyclable trash: bottles, bicycle parts, grimy rugs. Once, she claims, she was in the Marine Corps. She became homeless after her parents died. She says she found this concrete cavern by following a cat down a grotto in Riverside Park. When she arrived, she found dozens more.
BROOKLYN: Basically, it was 49 cats. I counted them. And I started coming to feed them every day. Immediately, I fell in love with them, okay? So I was like, oh, man, they're homeless just like me. They starving.
LYDEN: Erling wants to know more about Brooklyn's life down here. He asks: What makes her happy?
BROOKLYN: Well, you guys right now, the company. It gets lonely.
Mr. KAGGE: Because - do you think you're more happy than most people?
Mr. KAGGE: What do you think people aboveground do wrong in life?
BROOKLYN: Because, you know, you don't appreciate what you've got. You know what I'm saying? I don't know why people are miserable. They got everything that I don't have, and I'm more happier than them.
LYDEN: As we say goodnight, Brooklyn is grateful for the food and company.
BROOKLYN: All right, guys. We one big family.
LYDEN: And a little whiskey.
BROOKLYN: (Singing) We are family. Eh, eh, eh, eh, I, I've got all my sisters and brothers with me, ah, ah. Sing Brooklyn, ah.
LYDEN: Thinking about all this, Steve Duncan has been exploring tunnels, even scaling bridges in New York, looking death in the face in more ways than one. Seven years ago, he survived a rare form of bone cancer in his hip. Doctors said he wouldn't walk again.
Mr. DUNCAN: You know, at first, I felt really sorry for myself. But the thing that I had most often occurs with kids, and so I was on a pediatric cancer ward for a couple of weeks. And nothing like being on a pediatric cancer ward to help you realize how relatively lucky you have it.
I do have some leftover problems. I can't really run like I used to. And after a while of walking around, my hip starts to really hurt from the osteoarthritis. So I won't be able to do this forever. I won't be able to have the same adventures. But again, it just really made me think, you know, I'd better enjoy life while I can because I won't always have two functioning legs like I do right now.
LYDEN: So how long do you think before your next descent? I mean, you just went through - because even this was unusual for you. This was like day after day after day.
Mr. DUNCAN: Yeah.
LYDEN: That was kind of the first time you've done something like that, right?
Mr. DUNCAN: Yeah, absolutely. Most of the time, it's maybe one trip a week. It's back to grad school after this for me. So hopefully, this will keep me sane for the next couple months of sitting at the library.
LYDEN: Do you want to teach someday?
Mr. DUNCAN: What I'd like to do is what Indiana Jones did where he taught half the time and ran off on adventures the other half of the time.
(Soundbite of music)
LYDEN: Steve Duncan. Our underground adventure was produced by Brent Baughman. A slideshow of photos from our journey is at npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
LYDEN: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Remember, you can hear the best of this program on our new podcast, "Weekends On All Things Considered." Subscribe or listen at npr.org/weekendatc. Guy Raz will be back in this chair next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening. Have a great week.
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