This city is crushing my soul, I will never come back here again.
-Bradley L. Garrett, New York City, 2008
I was approached by David Gilbert, one of the faculty in my department, with this simple question – would I want to come help teach the undergraduate field trip to New York City this year? David had no idea of course that when he asked me that question, images of the most horrible 3 months of my life flashed across my mind.
Yeah, I lived in New York City for exactly 3 months. That was the amount of time it took for this city to squeeze all of my ambition, money and joy from me like a sponge in a vice. My time here always makes me think of Timothy “Speed” Levitch in The Cruise when he looks across the city and says “New York City is a living organism; It evolves, it devolves, it fluctuates as a living organism. So my relationship with New York City is as vitriolic as the relationship with myself and with any other human being which means that it changes every millisecond, that it’s in constant fluctuation.” And like all my relationships, that one failed miserably.
So when I accepted the post without reservation, I surprised even myself. I guess I knew that the fact I was scared of this place would push me even more to accept. Isn’t pushing the limits of fear and sanity what my life revolves around?
I decided pretty quickly that if I were to return to the Big Apple, it would be on my terms. Meaning I had to relearn it from the inside out. So I got in contact with Alan Rapp from Critical Terrain, Julia Solis form Dark Passage and Shane Perez, one of the most well-known explorers in NYC to make sure that on this trip, New York City would be redefined.
I failed to do much research but knew that there was an abandoned hospital reported about a year ago on Roosevelt Island and woke up early on my second day here to go scope it out. I found the hospital and grabbed some photos over the fence but it was clearly under renovation and I realized wasn’t worth going into. Still, it was good to finally see the famous Renwick Hospital in person. With that, I left to go wander around the city and take some tourist photos.
Yesterday morning I woke up, feeling frustrated and in dire need to infiltrate this city in some meaningful way. I decided that if this hospital was all I had to go on than I should at least go back and plant our Londinium flag inside.
In the early morning sun, I made my way to the F Train. I walked to the end of the platform, paced by a New York Transit Authority worker in a blue suit. It the end of the platform, he opened the gate to the tunnel, unlocked a door and disappeared into some subterranean depth.
I looked at the open gate and thought of my crew in London. I thought about Ninjalicious writing that one must always be ready for action. I thought about the gloves, camera and torch in my bag. I knew this was one of those rare moments that would come and go in an instant. I looked for cameras, saw none, and crossed the gate into the Metro tunnel, following the worker into the room. Inside the room was a stairwell where I heard him talking with someone else on an upper floor, cussing about some problem. I left the room and set down my backpack, quickly pulling out my camera, realizing I took my tripod out that morning. Oh well. Before I could hesitate, I started walking down the tunnel toward Roosevelt Island, under the East River. When trains came by, I hid behind railing, holding the camera up to grab impromptu photos. I knew they wouldn’t be beautiful, but the best explorations, I find, always end up with the worst photos. Nerves, the need for mobility and the fear of being seen always compromise good shots.
There was a moment in the tunnel when I felt I had submitted to it, we became one as I slid along the wall, reveling in the silence in between trains, terrified each time I heard the rumble on the track that I knew indicated another on the way.
I don’t know how far I walked but when I got to the end of the tunnel, at the Roosevelt Island stop, I found that there was no gate and walked out quickly, stuffing my camera back in the bag. A wave of euphoria washed over me; I had walked a New York City train tunnel, right in the middle of the day. Epic. I wanted to run out of the station, up the three sets of escalators and out to freedom but I forced myself to walk calmly, my mind screaming with excitement. As the first escalator puked me out at the crest, I found myself standing in front of officer Rodriguez of the NYPD. He said “I need you to follow me” and proceeded to walk back down into the station. I responded “sure thing” and followed.
When we got back to his security hut, I was sweating. He put me in the corner of the station and stared at me until I finally looked away. “What the fuck did you think you were doing?” he said. I told him that I was a researcher here to teach a class and wanted to get some subterranean pictures for my students to see and that I had found a gate left open. He stared at me incredulously. “Why this station?” He says. “Do you know what this station is?” Clearly, I had no clue. Now I could see that he was sweating and I started to get nervous. He says “I can’t let this go… 9-11… protocol… etc.,” and started to tell me about how he was 3 years away from retiring, he had a pension to consider. What if I wasn’t who I said I was? I told him that I understood and would was behind whatever he wanted to do. The cuffs came out.
Now, I should mention that officer Rodriguez was incredibly friendly, almost apologetic when he cuffed me. He said, I just have to call the sergeant, I don’t know what to do here. Again he wailed “Why this station?” I apologized and told him I would happily wait for the sergeant.
It took ages for the sergeant to get there. Maybe an hour. I felt that officer Rodriguez and I had a good repertoire at this point and thought he might give me a break with the sergeant. Then sarge rolled in, fat-necked and scarred, looking like that captain from Starship Troopers that got his arm gnawed off by a giant bug. When he found out I had a camera full of photos he grabbed his head and cried, “oh fuck”. He had to call Homeland Security. It turns out that the photos I took were very close to a new subway power station being built. It also turn out I had photographed this power station a day earlier (above ground – the pictures still on the camera) and this was really freaking them out. The sergeant then said, “this is going to take a while, you might as well uncuff him.”
I took another hour for the security check to go through, me in the corner reading Cormack McCarthy and the cops chatting about some drama back at the station with pay raises.
The sergeant walked back out and looked down at me. “The good news is”, he said with a smile, “you are not on a terrorist watch list. The bad news is I can only offer you two options. Options one is that I place you under arrest and we do further checks while you are locked up to decide whether you can keep those photos. Option two is that you delete your photos in front of me and I give you a trespass violation.” Guess which one I took?
So, hours later, I am sitting in Bryant park in the glorious Spring sunlight, sipping a Heineken and listening to Delphic singing “Let’s do something real”. Way ahead of you guys. I feel really good. The mission, strictly speaking, was a failure. Well, shit, they both were. But you know what, I feel like New York and I are better friends than ever. We spilled a little blood together today, I took a trespass to show her what kind of explorer I am. I showed New York that she won’t own me, crush me or rob me ever again. She knows I will go to the mat now to protect my right to exist here on my own terms. And that, my friends, is a win.