He nods and gestures for me to follow. Together we crawl the short distance into a small chamber about 6’ feet square, with a low ceiling— 5’ tall at the most. It’s a mess of old newspapers, empty bottles, and assorted trash. The walls are adorned with clippings from various newspapers and magazines, mostly stories from those willfully subversive publications that dare point out all the numerous ways NewNYC is failing or falling apart. A few old subway maps have been scrawled over with red and black permanent marker, indicating access points to the new mole tunnels and how to find them amidst the filth-packed infrastructure of the old subways. The whole place is dimly lit by a single bulb hanging from the ceiling; it’s powered by a car battery visible in the corner. Next to the battery I see what appears to be some journeyman’s abandoned attempt to rig a makeshift solar panel; the sad remains of the failed attempt lie discarded in the corner like a cast-off toy that proved less fun than its packaging suggested. The room looks exactly how a surface-dweller might expect a mole person’s home to look. Beyond an exit out the other end of the squalid chamber is another set of tracks, with another sled perched at the mouth of still another, far more steeply-sloped tunnel. It’s garishly marked with a sloppily painted blue circle, containing the painted number 1. On the nearby wall map it’s obvious exactly where “Blue 1” goes.
All of this, I know, is a masterful facade.
Wooter produces a gleaming key from inside his coat pocket. He inserts it into a nearly-invisible crevice in a shadowed corner of the room, and turns it. The clean click of a well-oiled lock is audible; suddenly a small metal circle smoothly flips open, hinging up from the floor on silent springs.
Wooter, like any decent self-respecting mole person, doesn’t hesitate for a second— he shimmies down the hole head-first, his legs trailing behind like the fins of a dart. He’s so tall that as his torso vanishes down the hole, his legs still practically brush the ceiling before disappearing. I, on the other hand, must pause to steel my courage before following him. Even after all this time, the Mole Holes still freak me out a bit. The major mole stations are always capillaries: you can only ever get through them by diving through face first and even then, you MUST be facing the proper direction. They drop you 5 feet straight down then immediately bend 90 degrees. If you know which way to enter a particular mole hole, you can dive-roll through the portal and roll sharply to the side so your knees flex the right way: that propels you into the horizontal bend of the hole. If you’re facing the wrong way you bottom out, in too deep to shimmy back up… you’d have to be a contortionist to bend backward and still make the turn. The mole people find it hilarious when Wastelanders get caught in their entrances, and won’t hesitate to leave such intruders trapped there for hours to teach them a lesson.
Once down, I speed crawl through the 12 foot horizontal bridging tunnel and tumble ungracefully through the access hole into Wooter’s actual home. It’s an enormous room, immaculately kept and expertly decorated in a style which strikes me as distinctly German. Crossing the room we pass piece after piece of beautifully-designed furniture, intricately upholstered in shades of white, grey, and black. The furnishings radiate inviting comfort without sacrificing elegance of form. Large paintings hang on every wall, lending to the chamber the semblance of a late 20th-century Chelsea gallery. The farthest wall is covered mostly with subway tile— a doorway there beckons us onward. As we approach, the wide swathes of colored tiles come into the sharper focus, readily identifiable as the mosaics that once adorned the walls of the Natural History Museum’s subway station.
“That must have been a major project, getting those installed here,” I say. I don’t ask him why he wanted them, even though he’s blind… I assume he has his reasons.
Wooter half turns and nods. “You have no idea. The biggest problem wasn’t the deconstruction and reconstruction. It was clearing the junk out of that dump so we could get the tools in to strip the tile off the walls. It always drove me crazy— there were treasures down there but nobody got to enjoy them. I had to do a deal with the Bolos to get enough labor to do it, and find someplace to dump all that crap when we pulled it up from underground.”
I was impressed. Doing a deal with the Bolos is always a risky business. Of all the groups in Wasteland, they are the sole group with whom I refuse to work. Some call them religious zealots, others call them terrorists. In point of fact they’re an extreme militant right wing of the Mormon faith. They moved here in droves after the split, lured by promises of looser regulations on marital practice and little oversight on moral legality in general. New NYC offered them a place to practice polygamy freely and openly. As often happens to fundamentalist organizations throughout history (including every major religion), after existing a couple of hundred years and amassing sufficient economic power and political influence… they ultimately became violent. The Bolos are responsible for (or at least widely blamed for) most terrorist attacks in the Wasteland. It’s gotten so bad that the remaining authorities have even considered outlawing the characteristic bolo ties worn by Bolo adherents.
“So… you’re going to need to take this trip once a day for the foreseeable future, right?” Wooter asks.
“Yes. Provided my interview today goes well,” I say.
He ushers me through a huge double door, into the vast underground mole town over which he rules. No one really keeps track of it, but it’s safe to say this is the largest mole town in the city. It was formerly the subway platforms under Grand Central Station. The historic building once known as Grand Central, with its vaulted frescoes, has been— like most other famous buildings in the city not tall enough to reach the red line— structurally heightened to reach the 10th story red line level. This incredibly-expensive engineering feat was hastily done when things really started going to pot below the line. Now most of the great iconic buildings like the Guggenheim and The Flat Iron building sit atop giant steel and concrete cubes, raised far above the offensive old city street level, away from the trash and graffiti.
Deep beneath one such cube Wooter and I now walk past stockpiles of grain, hoards of hand tools, mechanical work bays where techs work on the mole hole tunnel sleds, and cordoned bunks of people sleeping before their next shift. It’s all spartan, but clean. The only real sign of urban decay is the graffiti covering every wall, but that predates the arrival of the mole people and their underculture. As always I’m surprised by the lack of audible chatter down here since there are so many people constantly milling about, but the Moleys tend to be a taciturn bunch. That characteristic is probably a hold-over from the early days when it was illegal to sleep in the tunnels. It also takes an introverted, somewhat solitary personality type to forsake sunlight and live underground in the dark. Here, in the bones of what were once Sbarro pizza shops and news stands selling gum and US Weekly, one can actually find the kind of anonymous solitude often craved by those who have lived a life of chaos.
“Look there, my friend. Your chariot awaits,” Wooter says. Near the mouth of the transit tunnel two mole people are prepping an especially speedy-looking sled— the kind with foot rests and a strap to hold me on. “I’ve sent word that you’re clear to use any tunnel you want,” he tells me. He hands me a map, far more detailed and sophisticated than the one marked with the blue number 1 posted near the mouth of the tunnel above.
Wooter shakes my hand as I mount the sled. “You’re going to want to spend some time learning that map,” he warns. “Until you’ve got it memorized, just tell anyone down below that you’re a friend of mine and they’ll get you where you need to go. Just remember: never take the blue tunnels, they start out slow, but usually take a fast plunge with a short, sudden stop against a brick wall. We use them to keep the overground folk scared of coming down here.”
I suddenly realize in that moment— as the mole men show me how to work the sled controls— that no matter where you are, no matter how bad you have it, there is always someone somewhere who still resents you and sees you as “privileged.” Seconds later, the sled lurches forward and smoothly starts to speed ahead into the waiting darkness.