A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Are there really "Mole People" living under the streets of New York City?

January 9, 2004

Dear Cecil:

Am I a moron for believing that "mole people" exist in New York City's underground? The mole people, as documented in an eponymous 1993 book by Jennifer Toth, are homeless people who live in subway tunnels, sucking down electricity and other resources for free a la Ellison's Invisible Man. Is Toth lying? Hallucinating? What documentation is there?

[Cecil has had occasion to rethink the following column. Click here for an update.]

Cecil replies:

Can't blame you for being skeptical. Parts of Toth's book read like something out of Dickens. I didn't venture into the tunnels myself, but I did speak to Toth, who was a Los Angeles Times intern when she wrote the book. I also corroborated some of her facts with other sources. While one can be certain of nothing in this deceitful world, I'm reasonably satisfied that the events in her book, God help us, happened as she described them.

The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City details Toth's early-90s encounters with several dozen of what she estimated at the time to be 5,000 homeless people living beneath the streets of New York, mostly in subway and railroad tunnels. Particularly large populations inhabit (or inhabited, anyway) the multilevel labyrinths beneath Grand Central and Penn stations. Many tunnel people are solitary loonies not unlike the guys you see living aboveground in cardboard boxes in any large American city. In a few cases, though — this is where it gets truly weird — sizable communities have coalesced, some allegedly numbering 200 people or more, complete with "mayors," elaborate social structures, even electricity. Toth describes one enclave deep under Grand Central with showers using hot water from a leaky steam pipe, cooking and laundry facilities, and an exercise room. The community has a teacher, a nurse, and scampering children. "Runners" return frequently to the surface to scavenge food and such, but others — the real "mole people" — routinely go for a week or more without seeing the light of day.

Sounds almost homey, eh? Like hell. According to Toth, most of the people living in the tunnels are alcoholic, addicted to drugs, or mentally ill. They're terrorized by roving gangs, ravaged by illness, hassled by cops, and preyed upon by each other. The majority live like animals. In one memorable passage, Toth describes a fellow who traps "track rabbits" — raccoon-size rats — which he kills by slamming against a wall, roasts over a fire, and eats.

Nonetheless, many of the tunnel people Toth speaks to in her book are intelligent and enterprising. A few have college degrees. Roughly half, she guesses now, had some source of honest income, such as collecting pop bottles; half of those held jobs at least part of the time; all told maybe an eighth had steady employment, albeit of the minimum-wage variety. Now and then a tunnel dweller managed to escape life under the streets, but Toth reports few success stories. One fellow had lived underground 12 years.

Oddly, Toth's conversations with the more articulate tunnel folk are some of the most chilling parts of her book. One "mayor" she meets is a simmering tyrant who pulls a knife on a recalcitrant minion; another is an educated misfit who's convinced himself that life in the tunnels is better than it is up top. She meets a criminal gang under Harlem that claims to make a living murdering for hire. A menacing, unbalanced character called Dark Angel, feared by other tunnel denizens and even the police, tells Toth: "Leave, little lost angel, before the tunnels swallow you and you are one of mine."

You're thinking: Oh, sure. One wonders at times how an innocent twentysomething who'd announced her plan to tell the story of the tunnel people to the world could survive so many forays among such desperadoes. Having spoken to Toth, I'd say it was by making friends who watched out for her. Even so, she had close calls; a former tunnel guy who befriended her turned out to be a paranoid schizophrenic, and after he decided she'd witnessed him committing a murder he began stalking her. She fled town; the book ends.

Is it all BS? Even allowing for the possibility that some of Toth's informants jerked her around a bit, I don't think so. Plenty of TV reports, newspaper features, and books by other authors have told substantially similar stories, in some cases involving the same people. Filmmaker Mark Singer lived with his subjects to shoot the 2000 documentary Dark Days, which won an audience prize at Sundance. Are the tunnel people still down there? Probably, although clampdowns and cleanup efforts have no doubt forced some relocations. How does stuff like this happen in our day and age? The cynic will say: Nobody ever said drugs were a shortcut to success. But anyone who's felt the occasional tremor beneath his own feet knows — the abyss is closer than you think.

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