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

The Mole People revisited

March 5, 2004

Dear Cecil:

Cecil, I think you're not casting a critical enough eye on Jennifer Toth's book The Mole People (Are there really "Mole People" living under the streets of New York City?, January 9). Certainly some parts are true, but there's a lot more myth mixed with the few facts than there should be. I'm amazed you didn't mention a single critic. One source that comments on her physical descriptions is Joseph Brennan's Web page "Fantasy in The Mole People." I know it's not the only critique.

Cecil replies:

Argh. Let's recap: The Mole People (1993) is a sensational account of homeless people living in New York's subway and railroad tunnels. Among Toth's claims: (1) She encountered underground communities with elected "mayors," kids, even hot showers; (2) she saw a tunnel dweller kill, cook, and eat a rat; (3) in a tunnel under Harlem she stumbled on a gang of toughs who boasted that they were contract killers.

I know, I know. But some of the story is true: In the early 90s hundreds if not thousands of homeless people were in fact living beneath New York. When I first spoke to Toth she seemed credible, or at least guileless. Although her grasp of the history and layout of the tunnels was shaky and she'd clearly accepted some wild tales uncritically, I decided it was safe to believe what she said she'd seen with her own eyes.

Well. The column having appeared, I promptly received several letters (including yours) referencing a detailed critique of Toth's book by Joseph Brennan, a New York rail buff. Brennan states flatly: "Every fact in this book that I can verify independently is wrong." (The facts he can verify concern the tunnels, not the tunnel dwellers, but even so one expects better from a work of nonfiction.) I called Toth back; we had a tense conversation. I asked if there was any way of corroborating her story. She put me in touch with a woman named Cindy Fletcher, who stayed in the tunnels on and off in the early 90s. (She and Toth didn't meet at the time.) To my astonishment, Fletcher did not second Toth's claims. "I'm not saying the book is not true, I just never experienced the things [Toth] said she saw," Fletcher said. Two key passages struck both Brennan and Fletcher as dubious:

Grand Central. In Toth's gothic rendition, the tunnel network under the station resembles Tolkien's Mines of Moria: It "goes down six levels beneath the subway tracks. There is no complete blueprint. … Many tunnels were begun but abandoned. Some were built but forgotten." Strange creatures — including people with webbed feet, according to one informant — lurk in the lowest depths. Nonsense, Brennan sensibly notes. The terminal complex wasn't built in fits and starts but all at one go; very few of its tunnels are unused, and all are well documented. It doesn't have six levels but rather two track levels and in places passageways at one or two levels below that.

Oddly, Toth then describes a trek from Grand Central to a tunnel community not in the railways under the station but rather in the neighboring subway. When the "mayor" there tells her to stop taking notes, she complies — but then, in an extraordinary feat of memory, gives a detailed account of all she sees and hears, including pages of dialogue. Brennan writes that the route Toth describes "does not correspond to anything in that subway area" and agreed with me that it was unlikely you'd find steam pipes, the putative source of the group's showers, in a subway. Fletcher for her part doubted Toth's claim of subterranean societies: "There are no leaders down there."

Penn Station. Toth devotes a chapter of her book to a community living under Penn Station. She's quite specific about how to reach their abandoned tunnel: You slip behind a graffiti-covered billboard on 34th Street a block from the station, cross a rubble-strewn lot, enter a small room in a deserted building via a door with a brass handle, find a hole in the concrete floor, and climb down a ladder that's sticking out. Brennan says the tunnel she claims to reach "does not exist"; Fletcher said she had never heard of anyone living under the station. I asked Toth if she could tell me how to find the tunnel entrance. No, she said — she couldn't remember. But you were there lots of times, I said. No, just two or three, she said. (The book suggests she made at least five trips.) Toth had earlier told me she visited tunnels two or three times a day for seven months — surely enough to acquire a thorough knowledge of the underground. Her recall, if we accept her account of Grand Central, is excellent. She found the Penn tunnel without a guide in broad daylight. I implored her again to give me some idea how to find the entrance. No dice — she still couldn't remember. One draws the obvious conclusion: Parts of Toth's book are true, parts of it aren't, and you take your chances deciding which are which.

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