This American Life"A Magical Realm"
Dear readers – This was a bit of an experiment and a bit of a crossover, so I know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. This American Life, the radio program, is one of those things you either love or hate, but sometime in the last year I became obsessed with the idea of a program about the Tunnels, so I wrote it. It would be better if I could have gotten Ira Glass to actually record it, but sadly, he was busy, so it has to live in a transcript format with links on Spotify to the music. This American Life – A Magical Realm is the link to the full playlist, but there are links to the songs where they start in the transcript. I couldn’t do everything they do with the selections like fade in and out, create musical pauses for effect, or loop to keep the song going longer, but I think you’ll get the idea. Thanks for indulging me and I hope you enjoy…
June 4th, 2027
Ira Glass: Hey listeners, Ira Glass here. You may have heard … when the most recent flood waters from Stella receded, municipal workers in Manhattan discovered a previously unknown tunnel system under the streets of New York City and that people were probably living there up until a few years ago. That in itself would be an amazing story, right? There are pictures of these Tunnels, ones that you can see on our website and channel. Some of these man-made caves, researchers believe, date back to pre-Colonial times, and there is speculation that people have been living under New York for over a hundred years, but, friends, it is a lot more amazing than that. We at This American Life were intrigued about these stories. We wanted to learn more about this society hidden within a society, a secret world in the biggest city in the United States, especially after we found out that the mom of Emma Goodwin, one of our producers, Mrs. Rachel Trawinski-Goodwin, knew of this group of people, visited their home, actually had interactions with them ….for years. She explains how:
Rachel: We were called “Helpers”.
(Music Begins: “Kristofferson’s Theme” by Alexandre Desplat)
Rachel: Yes, “Helpers” to the people who lived in the Tunnels. That’s what we did—we helped them. We gave them supplies, gave them a place to come to up top in New York.
Ira: What kind of supplies?
Rachel: Food, clothes, paper, building materials, soap, you name it, anything they might need, and if we needed anything—a place to stay, help with the house, help getting something, care if we were sick—they would help us. That was the rule. You gave and were given. That’s how they survived. We were a big part of their existence.
Ira: So it was a community, but wasn’t self-sustaining?
Rachel: No, it was, because people like my grandmother kept their secret, and we all helped each other out. My grandma Trawinski came from a large family in Poland, but she and my grandfather had to leave during the Communist occupation. My grandfather was a dissident. She missed her extended family, so I think the Tunnel people became her family.
Ira: How did she get involved?
Rachel: Well that’s a funny story. It was November … do you remember the big blackout in 1965?
(Music fades out)
Ira: (Narrating) On November 9th, 1965, a tripped safety relay in Queenston, Ontario, Canada, caused a cascade of power outages in almost all of New England. By 5:25 p.m., during the heart of rush hour, most of New York had gone dark. People were stuck in elevators … and … on subway trains.
Rachel: So my grandmother had polio as a baby. She walked with crutches her whole life. She’s coming home from a dentist appointment on the subway when everything goes dark. I’m not talking dim light, I mean black. She told me at first it was scary, but then everyone started talking, but she didn’t speak great English then, so she was out of luck. After a few hours stuck in the dark, these candles start getting passed around. Then someone, maybe from the Port-Authority, starts leading people out. It wasn’t that far, my grandmother told me, but she fell behind when her crutch got stuck in some debris near the tracks.
Ira: She didn’t call for help?
Rachel: Not at first. She was used to taking care of herself, and she figured she would catch up to the others once she got her crutch free; but by the time she did, all the light was gone, and then the crutch busted. She was stuck in the dark and everyone had turned a corner.
Ira: That had to be terrifying.
(New Music Starts: “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Alexandre Desplat)
Rachel: My grandmother said at first she was angry at herself, then when she called and no one answered, that’s when she started thinking about the power coming back and trains starting again and hitting her. Her mind got the better of her. She started worrying about getting lost forever down there. After what she said felt like hours she heard a kid’s voice. She said it was this little voice, a raspy one, but young—just a child’s voice. He said, “Don’t worry. I’ll lead you out. I can see.”
Rachel: So it’s almost pitch black, and she feels this kid put her arm around his neck, and he leads her towards the exit.
Ira: She didn’t think it was weird that a kid was just hanging out underground.
Rachel: (Laughing) She was from Eastern Europe. That wasn’t unheard of. She figured he was living rough down there. She thanked him and said in her broken English that if he ever needed anything—a job, food, anything—he should come and see her. My family owned a restaurant and later an importing business. We had a little left over, and my grandmother was a generous person.
Rachel: A couple months later, during the winter, someone came to my grandmother for food, used the boy’s name, and that’s how we became Helpers.
Ira: But it was a big family secret?
Rachel: Oh, the biggest! I didn’t even know that my parents and my Babcia had anything to do with this until I was about thirteen. I mean, my family knew some pretty interesting people, but I thought every family did. They would come to Grandma’s and help her with her roof or the water heater—they had lots of skills—and she would keep them for dinner. I just thought she was nice to guys who worked on her house.
(She and Ira laughing)
Rachel: But when I was about thirteen they said I had to be ready to, ummm, keep the secret.
Ira: So how did you find out?
Rachel: Well, my parents told me that we were going to meet the people they had been helping, that it was time I learned what they did with grandma and my aunt and cousins.
Ira: And you had no idea what they did?
Rachel: I thought they worked at a soup kitchen or with the church or something. They never told me, and truth was, I never asked. It was like this thing they did, like going out on a date or card playing, but they never talked about it in front of me. It was just something that adults in my family did. I got really excited when they told me I was going to meet the people they had been helping and that I was going to start helping too. It felt grown up, you know?
Rachel: So they took me over to my Grandmother’s house. It was just down the street from our apartment, this immense Brownstone in the Village. My grandma and my cousins lived there. So they took me to the basement and that’s when the dream began.
Ira: The dream?
(Music starts: “Love Theme” from The Dark Crystal, by Trevor Jones)
Rachel: Sure, I mean, you’ve had that dream where you find another room in your house, right? One that had been under your nose the whole time? You find this new door or this new hallway, and “poof” it’s there, and this whole other world you didn’t know existed just opens up for you.
Rachel: That’s what it was like. We walk into my Babcia’s basement, and standing there next to this hidden door that had been behind an old chest were these kids dressed in crazy clothes…
Rachel: …patched sweaters and cobbled together boots. And then I realized I had seen them before, kind of under my radar, delivering stuff to my family or picking up stuff. I just thought they were part of my parents’ charity work.
Ira: There were kids living in these Tunnels?
Rachel: Lots. Some kids were born there, others found their way there—the ones that were either too scared to go back to regular society or were missed by the system.
Ira: Literally, they fell through the cracks.
Rachel: (laughing) Yeah, you could say that, but they had a pretty soft landing. They were well fed, well cared for. They were polite, nice to strangers, smart. In the Tunnels they taught them and loved them.
Rachel: The kids I met were laughing and friendly and really happy to meet another teenager. They were a lot happier looking than the kids I went to school with. I think about it now, it was pretty genius of them to send the kids to get us. I had been a little nervous at first, but I think I fell in love with them on the spot.
Rachel: I mean, they led us into this secret world under my grandmother’s house! I was a huge fantasy and fairy-tale reader then, so it was like … walking into Narnia, or down the rabbit hole, or something. I was led into a world where I met people I never knew could exist and where I was accepted and trusted. Let’s face it. I think it’s every eighth grader’s fantasy.
Ira: And you kept the secret?
Rachel: Sure, up until now. They moved away in the early 20’s for a lot of different reasons: more new excavation in the city, and when the ocean levels got higher, flooding became too much of an issue. It was still mostly a secret; but some stories had been trickling out, so I got permission to talk to you about it.
Ira: (Narrating) When Rachel’s daughter, Emma, a story producer here at This American Life, heard about them finding remnants of what got left behind after the flooding, she asked if her mother would come on the show to talk with us.
Ira: (back with Rachel) But that must have been hard, keeping a secret like that, at thirteen?
Rachel: It wasn’t … actually.
Rachel: You have to understand, I was able to talk about it with my family and the Tunnel kids I had met, and there were people there who had to live there. They couldn’t live “Up Top”—that’s what they called Manhattan and the rest of the world. Some of the Tunnel people had nowhere else. Their lives depended on me, and that is a lot of power, especially for someone who really didn’t have any other power. I wasn’t pretty or super smart; I didn’t have a lot of friends at school, but I knew about the entrance to a secret world. I had friends there, and I could go there if I needed to. That was just … everything to me.
Ira: And that kid who helped your grandmother out of the Subway tunnel?
Rachel: He wouldn’t tell my grandmother why he was down there. He kept that secret. All he said was, and I think she remembered this until the day she died, he said: “I’m sorry they forgot you. It’s easy to get left behind sometimes.” He led her out of the dark and gave her a big family again. She always loved him for that.
Ira: And that was Vincent?
Rachel: That was Vincent.
(Music fades out)
Ira: (narrating) So, today on our radio program we are going to explore a hidden world, right where we least expected one, a city in a city, a sanctuary under—yes I said, UNDER—the subways of New York, with its own system of government, its own laws and punishments, its own communication system, and its very own unique protector. Our show today is devoted to this place – A Magical Realm – The Tunnels, how it came to be and how and why this secret land remained under millions’ noses. Our story in three acts: Act one—What Senator McCarthy Started – Where we learn about the first official leader of the Tunnels. Act Two—The Things You Can Find in New York When You’re Really Looking – The story of Vincent, the strangest, dare we say most magical of all the Tunnel dwellers, his impact on his home and New York itself, and how he found the love of his life. And Act Three— Wonderland’s Diaspora – More from former Tunnel dwellers and their legacy, and where they are today. When our program continues…
Narrator: This Aircast is brought to you by Fed-Ex Travel—When you absolutely, positively have to be across the country within the hour. Learn more at Fed-Ex Travel by blinking into your eye set.
Ira: Act One: What Senator McCarthy Started – Back in the 1950’s, it wasn’t a good idea to question the government, especially on top secret projects; but that is just what this doctor, Doctor Jacob Wells, did. He was a newlywed, an up and coming research scientist working at this place called the Chittenden Institute in New York—a research facility devoted to studying atomic weapons. He had everything going for him: money, a beautiful wife, a prestigious job, everything … except, one thing … he had this big conscience. Our contributor Emily Pemberg continues our story.
Emily: In 1951 the Chittenden institute was given a grant by the U.S. government to study the effects of radiation. This was when atomic power was new and the science on radiation—and it’s literal fallout— still up in the air. What were the effects? They weren’t hard to find, and within just a few weeks, a young doctor, Jacob Wells, uncovers information that is very disturbing—that the radiation was much more dangerous than previously thought, that mistakes and oversights by the military were putting soldiers and the public at risk. But when he tries to inform his bosses—and their bosses, the government—they don’t want to hear it. He insists they listen, but by now he’s no longer thought of as the brilliant scientist anymore. He’s a troublemaker, a radical. He’s forced out of the Institute. When he tries to work around the government, and inform the public, he’s brought up on charges by Senator Joseph McCarthy, the chairman of the Government Committee on Operations of the Senate and self-styled hunter of Communists. Dr. Wells is investigated for “Acts against the American people,” and for being a “Communist Sympathizer”. He is one of the earliest examples of what being labeled by Senator McCarthy as a “Communist” could do to an ordinary person who wasn’t politically savvy enough to keep his mouth shut.
Unknown female voice: Father wasn’t a Communist, far from it. He was born in England, went to boarding school there, and was a naturalized U.S. citizen. He came to America because he believed in the ideals of America.
Emily: (narrating) This is Amelia. She asked that her last name not be used. She is an amateur historian of the Tunnels. She grew up there, and, for the record, Dr. Wells was not her biological father, or even adopted one. “Father” became Dr. Wells’ honorary title as leader of the Tunnels.
Amelia: For his whistle-blowing he had his license revoked and was essentially “blacklisted”, so any chance of work in research was gone. No hospital or private practice would touch him. He was derided and disgraced, his wife left him. There was even talk of having him committed so he fled.
Emily: (narrating) He ended up homeless, penniless, and you would think that might be the end of his story; but that was just the beginning.
Amelia: Father met one of the early Tunnel dwellers when he was living on the streets. People were making a home in the Tunnels then—just barely—holdouts from the Depression. Some weren’t all there, but most were really good people just looking for a warm bed and a quiet life.
Emily: (narrating) This was the early 1950’s when the Tunnels community proper probably didn’t stretch more than a few city blocks. At its height, and under the leadership of Dr. Wells, the main Tunnels community stretched across most of the island of Manhattan from Harlem to the Village and we don’t know how far down. They lived in the old steam tunnels and tube systems and lost subway lines of old New York, the natural caves and caverns of Manhattan and beyond. There were some tunnels so old even modern archeologists are at a loss over who could have carved them. In the very early 1950s it was just a group of people trying to scrape together enough food and shelter to live.
Amelia: From what I was told, they started before the social safety net really came into its own, and my people didn’t go for such things anyway.
(Music starts: “Mad Rush”, by Phillip Glass)
Amelia: You have to understand, at first they were just people, who, for one reason or another, didn’t like the way the country was going; but they were just living piecemeal. It was Father who organized things, got the community moving in one direction. He had a vision that we could live a more peaceful and happy life together, an intelligent life, full of music and poetry and learning, without all the craziness “Above”.
Emily: (narrating) That’s what they called New York—“The World Above”—and with all the changes happening at that time—the Communist “Witch Hunts”, the Cold War, the environmental abuses, the early and growing violence of the Civil Rights Era—you can see why living smack in the middle of a society where being different or protesting the status quo could get you killed, jailed or lobotomized—people rebelled. These people, who believed in a kinder, gentler America, were willing to live underground, to “Drop Out”; and, like the counterculture of the 1960’s, these people put together an intentional community filled with like-minded souls, possibly the most successful “commune” in the history of the United States. There were veterans and orphans, iconoclasts and lost souls, the people who just didn’t seem to fit anywhere else; and Doctor Wells, or “Father”, as he was known to the group, became their leader, their patriarch. Maybe it was because of his medical training, his education, or perhaps, because he had the vision. He helped set up a council of other Tunnel dwellers, started organizing the core group, and helped draft laws that would define exactly who they were and what they believed in.
Amelia: There were hard times in the early days, from what people told me. There were fights about whether they would steal what they needed or not. Father was adamant that they should only take what was given or cast off. (laughing) We helped create “dumpster diving” in New York, thank you very much.
Emily: So stealing was outlawed?
Amelia: Mmm-hmm, (assent) very early on. Stealing was forbidden because if you were caught, you could bring the police and danger to the rest of the community. We had some strict codes: secrecy, keeping your promises, never taking without asking. If you did break the laws—and they were pretty severe about stuff—you could get “the Silence” where you were shunned by the rest of the group for a period of time, or, if you did something really bad, you could get kicked out and left to fend on your own.
Emily: And that was enough of a deterrent?
Amelia: Almost always. It was a nice place. People looked out for each other. It was a better way of living for most of us, so we wanted to follow the rules. Most of our families had been either really poor to begin with, or had once been middle class and then found themselves in poverty. They knew what it was like to live without, and they didn’t want to do it again.
Emily: So how did you live?
Amelia: Well, from the beginning we recycled everything—clothes, boxes, furniture, books, candle wax even—anything we could find. Sometimes we fixed found things and sold them to buy supplies—medicine and the like. We were given things: food, second-hand clothes, tools. Sometimes we would barter. Everyone had a job, sometimes two or three. People were teachers and looked after the kids, while other people carved new tunnels, stood security, took care of helpers, mended clothes, made candles, wired lights—we did take a little electricity from the grid, but they never missed it. We cooked, cleaned, anything that needed to get done.
Emily: It sounds like a lot of work.
Amelia: It was, but we had a lot of fun too. We played instruments, read books, played games, swam, had parties, made art. We even had our own holiday called Winterfest where we celebrated our community and our helpers. Sure, there were fights sometimes, and gossip and everything, but Father and all the leaders kept that stuff to a minimum. You always knew where you stood.
Emily: And there was enough food to go around?
Amelia: We had a lot of helpers who gave us food, like Rachel’s family. Some of them had been Tunnel people before they left to start their own businesses. We knew where food went in the city. There were a lot of bakeries and delis that would just throw out the leftovers at the end of the day. We made friends with them. Food was probably our biggest challenge, but it was somehow taken care of. We ate a lot of mystery stews, (laughs) but no one went to bed hungry.
Emily: How many of you were there?
Amelia: It fluctuated. Sometimes people came, and other times people left. Probably around 100 to 150 in our group at its height in the 90’s in the early 2000’s. There were splinter groups too, but we all tried to work together, so it’s hard to say.
Emily: It seems like a lot of people to get to work on a daily basis.
Amelia: It was. We stuck together, though. We used the underground pipes to communicate, tapping codes to each other, messages. There seemed to be meetings all the time and work rosters that went up daily. I really don’t know how Father and Vincent and the others did it half the time, looking back. It seemed that they had some magic or good luck, good will, something. Sometimes it seemed like a magic bubble surrounded that place and one wrong word…Pop!
Emily: (narrating) So, the ironic thing, although Dr. Wells testified he was not a Communist, because he was labeled as such by Senator McCarthy, he ended up the leader of one of the most successful “Communist” societies ever created. He helped construct a world that lived on sharing and goodwill, where no man was out only for himself. The whole survived because everyone pitched in.
Amelia: I think they just had the will, and the intelligence, to make a go of it. They did it by just being open to help and helping others. It’s not that complicated. It’s no big secret.
(Music dies down)
Ira: (narrating) But it was a big secret. The Tunnels seemed to be a world built on secrets, and for the people of the Tunnels, they quickly found a rally point, a raison d’etre, and in Act Two we’ll find out how a community like this could and would stay together so long. When our story continues .…
Ira: It’s This American Life, distributed by PRI, Public Radio International. Each week on our program we bring you stories on a theme. This week’s theme: “A Magical Realm”. On our program today we have a singular focus, a place called “The Tunnels”– a secret, hidden community under New York that lasted until the early 2020’s. In Act One we heard what kind of place it was and about its leader from the 1950’s until the 2000’s. In Act Two, The Things You Can Find in New York When You’re Really Looking, we learn why it lasted for so long. Our producer, Ty Thompson, picks up our story from there.
Ty: So we know that the Tunnel people were famous “dumpster divers” before that was even a term. They lived on the edges of society. They would forage around New York for anything they could put to use—clothing, metal, food—and that’s what one of them was doing when she found the most unique of the Tunnel dwellers, just a few hours old, just a baby, freezing to death outside a hospital. It wasn’t unknown for Tunnel people to find children who needed a home and take them in, however, this baby was special. Aiden, another former Tunnel child himself, who also asks that his last name not be used, helps me tell the story.
Aiden: When we were kids living in the Tunnels, we asked for Vincent’s story all the time.
Aiden: Because if you knew Vincent, you wanted to hear how he came to be. I mean, to us, he was larger than life.
Ty: So can you tell us the story?
Aiden: Sure—it started on the coldest night in January, Father would begin. By then, Father was an old man, and Vincent had kids of his own, so I guess it was kinda weird that we wanted to know about this man’s origin story, but he always told us if we asked. It was like a superhero story or something.
Ty: Like Superman?
(The Superman theme swells in the background, then dies down and fades out.)
Aiden: Exactly! Except instead of being found in a crater in Iowa somewhere, he was found wrapped up in some rags in the back alley behind Saint Vincent’s hospital by this woman, Anna, I think her name was. To us Vincent was amazing. He was great guy. He was one of our teachers, a good dad, fixed stuff that was broken; but there was this other side to him. He protected us. If there was a problem, he was a line that people wouldn’t cross. I mean, imagine having Superman livin’ with you all the time. He taught us Shakespeare and history and how to swim, but he was somebody who could get it done if he had to.
Aiden: Because of who he was.
(Music begins: “Prelude & Fugue No. 10 in E Minor,” by Johann Sebastian Bach)
Ty: (narrating) Although there are no photographs of him, it is clear by all accounts Vincent was very different. He was brought down to the Tunnels by one the Tunnel dwellers in the early 1950’s, and it didn’t look like he would survive. He was just hours old, and someone had left him to die of exposure, probably because of his facial deformities and the fur growing on his body.
Aiden: He looked like a lion.
Ty: Like a lion?
Aiden: Yup, like a man and a lion mixed up. He had sharp claws and teeth, and fur, but he walked like a man, and God forbid you try to beat him at chess.
Aiden: He had a muzzle, kinda, and his nose was flat. Father told us that some of the Tunnel people wanted to get rid of him like the Topsiders had, but most of ‘em wanted to keep him. Father and a few of the others nursed him back to health. They saved him, and Father raised him, like he did with the rest of us. He grew up in Tunnels, safe from the world. It was his home.
Ty: (narrating) But as Vincent grew, it was clear that his differences weren’t just skin deep.
Aiden: He was really strong and he had these sharp nails like claws. I never saw him fight, but I heard how he had kept the Tunnels safe when some people from Up Top started coming down and killing some of our folks. We couldn’t call the police, so he took care of it, ya know?
Ty: He killed them?
Aiden: Some of them, but they’d been killing us, and they tried to kill Vincent’s wife, although she wasn’t his wife then, not yet.
(Music fades out)
Ty: (narrating) And that is where are story takes an even further twist down the rabbit hole—or into the lion’s den, maybe. Vincent the “lion man” was a bit of an urban legend by then. There had been reports, sightings of a monster—some of them had him at seven feet tall, or with black wings—the stories spiraled out of control like a city-sized game of telephone, but one thing remained the same. The monster helped people, like a one-man band of Guardian Angels, the vigilante group famous for patrolling the streets of New York in the 80’s. In the subway, or in Central Park, or in the back alleys, Vincent was on the side of good – all the stories said so – but outside of the law.
Aiden: He just hated people being hurt, and that’s why he did it. He would put on a cloak and walk the streets, like he was looking for something. He couldn’t live Above; they would have put him in the zoo, or in a lab, or dissected him, but he still helped a lot of people in New York.
Ty: (narrating) It will never be known who all he helped, since most of the people kept his secret, but from a few accounts we could scrounge from police records, it looks like he stopped over twelve active crimes and possibly killed a few major players in New York criminal world in the late 1980’s, and all because of a woman.
Aiden: Oh, man, did he love her like crazy.
(Music begins: Comptine d’un Autre Été, L’après-midi)
Ty: (narrating) Her name was Catherine Chandler, at the time of their meeting a socialite and lawyer and girlfriend to an influential real-estate developer. During the height of the mob and gang wars of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s she became a victim of mistaken identity.
Aiden: That was the other story that we always asked for – how Vincent found Catherine. She wasn’t like the rest of us. She was rich, had everything going for her, but she was at a party and somebody thought she was someone else. She got slashed up by these bad dudes and dumped in the Park. Vincent found her there and took her back home so Father could stitch her up.
Ty: (narrating) We found a picture of Ms. Chandler from that time in the New York Post digital archives. It shows a woman with multiple facial lacerations surrounded by reporters.
Aiden: Oh, wow, (reacting to the picture) I never seen this picture. That’s what she looked like after she was slashed up? That’s awful … When I knew her she was older, a mom. She didn’t have the scars either. She must have had a lot of plastic surgery. That’s nuts! She looked so different…
Ty: So she fell in love with lion guy who kidnapped her? Like Stockholm syndrome taken to the nth degree?
Aiden: Oh, no, nothin’ like that. She really loved him. I told you. He was a great guy, smart, good lookin’ in his own way. He was just … a kind man. He saved her life, taking her home. He could have tried to call the police, anonymous, you know, or gotten the other Tunnel people to help; but maybe she might have died if he waited. She could have narc’ed us out too, but she didn’t. He risked his life to save her.
Ty: It sounds like he risked all of you.
Aiden: Yeah, I guess; but she was a good person, and maybe Vincent knew that before he even found her.
Ty: [narrating] So Catherine Chandler, after ten days that were described in the news story as “lost” days, but were actually spent in the Tunnels recovering from her wounds, came back to New York, and then within the year, had quit her job at her corporate law firm, broken with her high-powered, developer boyfriend, and started working for the District Attorney of New York as a low-paid investigator. The irony is she worked for the people who should have prosecuted the man who would one day be her husband. Of course, she never does that, and no one ever does. The cases were all closed. No one was interested in investigating the deaths of known felons and probable criminals. She kept her secret. In fact, she became a valued “helper” for all the years she worked at the D.A.’s office.
Aiden: Oh, she did lots, from what people said. I hadn’t come to the Tunnels yet, but from what I heard, she got us stuff when we needed it. She helped save Vincent’s and Father’s lives when there was a cave-in.
Aiden: Well, she was rich. She had connections, you know, access to stuff we didn’t have back then.
Ty: So she was good to you all.
Aiden: We were her family; she always said so. And she would do anything for Vincent. There was something between them. They didn’t talk about it, and we didn’t ask, but there was something going on, magical like. They were connected, bonded, like they was meant to be together. We used to say it was like they were always on the same page. Maybe he was reading over her shoulder, or she was readin’ over his, but always on the same page of a book only they could read.
Ty: [narrating] And everyone who would talk about them, that’s what they said—they seemed magical, destined to be together, like a fairy tale—a modern Beauty and the Beast—only this time, the Beast isn’t a prince of a castle, but a prince of a hidden kingdom under the subways. He doesn’t turn into a human at the end of the tale – he remains a beast – and the rich, beautiful woman stays anyway. There could be a lot of jokes, but nobody joked. To them, he was magical, and together, they were magical.
Ty: You are telling us their real names. What happened to them?
Aidan: What do you think happened to them? They got married, had a couple of kids. They do what the heroes always do in a fairytale—they lived “happily ever after”.
Ira Glass: [narrating] And that’s the other thing we found. When we asked Aidan, Rachel, Amelia and anyone else who talked with us, about what happened to Vincent and Catherine and their children, a wall that went up, as if anyone from the Tunnels who had kept the secret for so long, who had kept each other safe from us “Topsiders”, couldn’t, not stay secretive. They wouldn’t tell us if Vincent and Catherine were dead or alive, or the names of their children. We searched for them—no dice. We looked into the records of when Catherine Chandler worked for the District Attorney’s office, but many of the records had been lost. We found a few people who might be their children, but they didn’t return our messages or calls. It was like the book closed, the fairytale was over, and everyone went back to their mundane lives. That’s where we were going to leave it. For the last act we thought we would try to talk to some of the excavators and archeologists working on the sites. And then … he found us ….
Act Three – Wonderland’s Diaspora
Ira: It’s This American Life. I’m Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme. This week we are devoting our entire show to the Tunnels, a secret, underground home to hundreds in New York unknown to the general public until just a few weeks ago. We are also focusing on the protector of that place, an urban legend of New York, “The Beast of Central Park”, and we were kind of stuck…until we met this man.
Unknown voice: Hi.
Ira: (chuckling) Hi. And we should call you?
Unknown voice: (also laughing) Uh, you can call me Jay.
Ira: (narrating) Three days after we interviewed Aidan, into our Chicago studios walked this man—thirties to forties, reddish-blond hair, about six feet tall. He didn’t look like a lion, but he said he was the son of Vincent and Catherine. Now we were suspicious. We asked Rachel to come back and she recognized him. We asked Amelia and she confirmed his identity, although I have to say, she seemed kind of taken aback that he would come in. He even did a rapid DNA test in the studio. And the funny thing? It couldn’t figure out what to make of him.
Jay: It wouldn’t. My blood is unique. The software isn’t programed to identify it.
Ira: Why is that?
Jay: Because I’m something that has never been. Only my siblings and I have the same type of DNA. We’re kinda kooky like that. (chuckling)
Jay: Those who must not be named. (chuckles). They weren’t completely sold on my idea of coming here.
Ira: They didn’t want you to talk to us? I mean, I think I understand. For a society based on secrets, you’re kind of smack in the middle of it. You’re a big one.
Jay: Well, Aiden let me know what was going down. And it’s true – there’s a schism between those who think you shouldn’t talk about the Tunnels and those of us who don’t want that special place to go unexplained, or for my dad to be a mystery. My dad was born in the 1950’s, grew up in the 60’s and 70’s. They didn’t have cameras everywhere then, and he lived in the shadows. A lot of people did. Now, because of everything, there are no more shadows; and it’s almost impossible to keep secrets. One of these days, because of a camera or a blood test, no matter how hard we try, someone is going to get hard evidence of who we are.
Ira: And who are you?
Jay: Just people trying to make it in the world, trying to live a good life.
Ira: Ok. So what was your dad like?
(Music begins: “Pondicherry”, by Mychael Danna)
Jay: I knew you were going to ask that, but it’s really hard to say. Asking a child who their parent is is kind of like asking a man who’s never left his hometown what the whole world is like, or for a picture of the earth’s core when you are stuck on the surface. There is a limit to my understanding. He was a great dad. He loved us. He read to us and taught us, although Latin was always beyond me.
Jay: What I remember most, what took me a lot of years in the world to realize was special, was that everything you gave him—a picture, a story, a lump of clay you called a pencil holder (laughs)—he valued.
I once sent him a video of a trip I took to Italy with my uncle. We went to every place I thought my dad would want to go—every church, museum, ruin, square. He had taught me everything I knew about Roman and Italian history, about Dante, and the Medicis. He loved Italian culture.
He could have been angry that he couldn’t go, bitter, but he said it was the best thing I had ever given him. He talked about that video for months. We went over it again and again. Everything was a gift to him, never taken for granted. If you shared something with him, you knew it was kept safe. I don’t know how he was so grateful for the life he had. It was restricted in every way, but he had such a thankful heart.
(Music fades out.)
I wish I knew how he did it. All I know … he loved all of us and he loved my mom.
(Music begins: “Before the Beginnings”, by Young Oceans)
Ira: Can you tell us about their connection?
Jay: We’re all connected in one way or another, but my dad could feel it. He had a natural empathy with everyone he was around, but with my mom and us, it was like he had a sort of empathy chip wired in. He could know what we were feeling over long distances. There were times when he saved my mom’s life because he could feel her fear. When they met, New York wasn’t like it is today, and there were times she got in trouble because of her job, or because of helping someone in the Tunnels. Living outside of society can be dangerous. He didn’t like to discuss it, so I don’t have a lot of details. He loved her, and maybe that’s why they were connected. His empathy made him a good leader for a lot of years. When Grandfather, Jacob Wells, I mean, stepped down, my dad and mom and some of the others took over. It was a lot of responsibility to take care of so many, but he loved his people.
Ira: He doesn’t sound like a monster, yet he had sharp teeth, and claws and fur. You don’t look like that.
Jay: No, but you haven’t seen me with my shirt off either. (Both laugh.) Whatever made him him, it’s in me … but no, you could walk right by me and never know.
Ira: Ok … so your dad looked the way he did, and your mom .…
Jay: Looked like everyone else.
Ira: Did anyone ever make comments or jokes?
Jay: Not often, but sometimes. Kids can be cruel.
Ira: Even in the Tunnels?
Jay: Sure. Just like kids don’t know what their parents are like when they aren’t around, adults don’t know what goes on behind their backs. I got called “half-breed”, “mongrel”, “lion boy”, and some other names I won’t say. The worst was when they said my dad wasn’t my dad.
Ira: Because you didn’t look like him. Did you ever tell your parents?
Jay: My mom found out later from some of the other kids, but we never told my dad.
Jay: Because we knew it would hurt him … and he’d been called worse. He always hoped for better for us, and in a way it was better. We could go out during the day and no one would look twice. And because I still felt bad for when I was little and didn’t understand.
Ira: What didn’t you understand?
Jay: That my dad was different. What everyone else saw, I didn’t see. I wanted him to come with us to the city during the day, to get clothes, or go to the museum, or go to the playground. A lot of times he said he was busy, or he liked to walk at night instead of the daytime; but that only worked for so long.
Ira: Kids can be persistent.
Jay: Kids can be a pain in the ass. (Both laughing.)
Jay: I remember asking my dad why he couldn’t come. I probably asked a dozen times.
Ira: Because you didn’t believe him when he said people would stare at him, be afraid.
Jay: I’d grown up with him the way he was. He wasn’t different to me. He said people would be afraid of him, and you’re right, I couldn’t believe that. So I kept asking and asking.
Ira: He never got mad at you.
Jay: Sure he did, but he didn’t yell. He knew how to keep his temper; he had to, because he could really do something with it. He was actually a lot less scary than some of other fathers I knew. My dad had sharp teeth—we all do, we all have canines. He had sharp nails—have you seen the way people grow their nails? He had a little more hair on his body than some, but to me…
Ira: He was just your dad.
Jay: Yeah. I asked him why the “Top Siders” – what we called the people who lived in New York – why they would be upset if they saw him, and he told me, “Because they’re certain they’re alone in the world.” For a long time, I didn’t understand what he meant, so I kept asking him, and he kept it together, and he kept telling me. Finally, sometime when I was a teenager, I got it; and that’s why I’m here.
Ira: Why’s that?
Jay: When my parents met, it was a different world. It’s hard to believe now, but people didn’t think a woman or an African-American or a Latino woman (chuckling) would ever be President. People were still getting killed for being homosexual or the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood. My parents fell in love, and it was a big problem; but they had a dream, and I’m doing my best to see that dream fulfilled.
Jay: The people who listen to your show are pretty open minded, right?
Ira: I’d like to think so.
Jay: Well, I thought they would understand. My dad used to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken.” I’m banking on that.
Jay: A long time ago, back in my Grandfather’s day, they used to think that the modern human species wiped out the Neanderthals as soon as they came in contact. They thought that’s just what humans did—they found a different tribe, a different type of being, the “Other”, and they killed them. But then, when they started studying DNA, the scientists found out that wasn’t true. They realized Homo-Sapiens and Neanderthals lived side by side for a very long time, and today almost all of us have a little Neanderthal in our blood.
Jay: We never have figured out why my dad was born the way he was. There may be more people like him out there. My parents may have been different from one another, but they made a life together; we survived. I’m here today for me, for my dad, and for the others, if they are out there. People may be afraid of the different, the strange, but I think they are more afraid that there’s no magic left in the world, no goodness left. My dad said, “People are afraid of their aloneness.” I’m here to tell you … you are not alone.
Ira: So where are the Tunnel people today?
Jay: We’re still around, getting things done, out of the limelight. We may not use the Tunnels anymore, but we can still be found. We started schools and farms and clinics, and businesses all over. The spirit is still there even if a lot of us scattered. It’s easier to keep in touch these days, of course. We just “tap on the pipes,” as we say.
Ira: And what happened to your mom and dad?
Ira: (narrating) I want to pause for moment and try to describe the face Jay made at this question—it was resigned and hopeful all at once, like there was so much that he couldn’t talk about that was sad … but wonderful too.
Jay: As for my parents, well … I guess they have their own stories to tell, and if they show up, they’ll tell you. They really like your show.
Ira: (Laughing) That’s great to hear. I hope they do come by. I hope that isn’t the end of the fairytale.
Jay: You know, German fairytales don’t end with “Happily Ever After”. Most of them finish—“…and if they haven’t died, they are still living today.” That’s all I can say.
Ira: We could neither prove nor disprove Jay’s story, or Rebecca’s or Amelia’s or Aidan’s, and usually, we wouldn’t create a show around something that is unprovable, but we were so taken with these stories, we thought, let’s let our listeners decide.
(Music begins: “Underground”, by David Bowie)
Ira: So if you don’t believe it, that’s ok. If you are from the New York Department of Public Service—the water, gas and electric utilities—then Jay and Amelia want you to know that this is strictly a fairytale! But if you can believe in utopian societies smack in the middle of dystopian ones, if you can believe we might not be alone, in magic, maybe one day you will fall down a rabbit hole, or a manhole cover, or move some boxes in your grandmother’s basement and discover the world is a lot bigger than you think.
Thanks today to our listeners and to our founder, Mister Tory Malatia, who says producing storycasts isn’t that hard…“We just ‘tap on the pipes’”. Back next time with stories from This American Life.