This is not the stupidest thing I have ever done.
This is an experience. This is for my art.
It's freezing cold underground in February. I have to hold the camera steady, and I've removed my gloves so as to afford myself easier access to the aperture dial. I'm about thirty feet into the tunnel, the flimsy DV camera held at eye level and tied by XLR cable to Michael, my boom op. At the other end of the lens, Ian, fourteen (though he looks more like twelve) swings a footlong icicle torn from the tunnel wall back and forth in the darkness like a sword.
"There used to be homeless people here. Hundreds. Like, an entire community. A whole government. Now it's just empty."
Ian is a historian, and our tour guide. He runs an urban exploration website (which was how I found him) and has visited nearly every abandoned factory, hospital, and warehouse in the five boroughs. He has scrambled down active subway tracks, dodging running trains and live rails. He is one of the few persons outside of the MTA ranks ever to have explored the fabled provisions for the Second Avenue subway extension as they stand today, empty, trackless passages somewhere under east Manhattan.
"My mom was mad because I can never get up for school, but I can get up for the Freedom Tunnel."
Ian met us half an hour ago at the 125th St. subway. We have followed him down a backroad of Riverside Park, through a gap in a wire fence, and, finally, here. His voice hasn't changed yet. The last time I sounded like that, I shrank at the thought of walking the narrow alleyway between my middle school and suburban home after dark. Ian is different, and knows it. He's eager to be in front of the camera, even if it is just a no-budget film school documentary.
Michael tugs at the XLR, and I feed him some slack. We're stepping across active train tracks, and I've silently been attempting to devise some strategy by which to keep my eyes on the camera and my feet without causing either to falter. Ian continues to speak, tracing histories and describing legends of graffiti artists and gestapo Amtrak police officers. He's standing in a spacious swath of sunlight that penetrates the ceiling vent, dives straight-on into newly fallen snow and diffuses fluidly onto the spraypainted metal about us.
The columns of light stretch on forever, dispensing a perfectly subtle radiance over the most beautiful "graffiti" artwork I have ever seen. On the west wall is painted a study of the Venus de Milo, shades of Chiaroscuro describing with perfect precision the fluid contours of the ancient sculpture. Not far after lies (curiously removed from light) a massive recreation of Goya's The Third of May (painted, Ian says, by two artists who resided in the tunnel with its homeless residents for months). Thematically, the mural compliments the tunnel's resident masterpiece - A hundred foot-long epic, presented in the paneled style of a graphic novel. A portait of a notable homeless leader sits adjacent to emblems of American capitalist culture and suburban idealism, only to be interrupted by a gun-wielding Dick Tracy who hollars in a speech bubble, "Drop the gun, mole!"
Anywhere else in the city, these wonders would not have lasted a week. Here, they've remained for decades, nearly untouched. This is Ian's favorite work of art.
"Historian is too much of a word," says Ian. He stumbles a bit when asked to describe himself. Later, I would note on a project abstract that Ian is at once a child, a historian, and an explorer and, for him, the Freedom Tunnel is similarly a playground, a museum, and a dangerous catacomb. He tells how his love for urban exploration began with his own family, taping his father's illegal bungee-jumps off the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. His brother, who is "probably in Riker's Island by now", is a known graffiti artist.
"I want to do something high risk," he insists. The Freedom Tunnel is nothing. He talks about cross-river tunnels and the dangerous network of Amtrak tunnels north of Penn station. We're nearing our exit point, but Ian rushes ahead, his mind already around the corner. He stops suddenly, turning to face the camera. I frame him up against the tunnel wall as he remarks upon some detail of the tunnel architecture.
Then, a train whistle blows.
I see the levels from the boom mic peak instantly. It's defeaning, and it's way too close. Reviewing the tape, I can make out the slightest glimpse of his surprise before the image dissolves into an erratic flurry of movement. I can see us dive for the tunnel wall as the passenger train barrels around the corner behind us. I'm blinded by a blast of heated air, but I aim the camera as best as I can as the train roars past.
A moment later, it's over.
I look at Ian, who grins, overcome with obvious exhilaration. "That's what I'm talking about."
We reach 72nd Street uneventfully. Emerging from beneath a highway overpass, we climb a fence, finding ourselves at the southern tip of Riverside Park. Ian's heading out to another tunnel, but I need to edit my footage.
This is one of the most unusual journeys I've ever taken.
Riding back downtown, I engage Ian in casual conversation, but he is distant, and I know that, were he alone, his face would be pressed up against the glass and looking out.