I suppose it’s not technically accurate to blithely say “I’m off downtown” in the same casual way people formerly used that phrase. There was a time when I could walk a few blocks to a subway station, pay what I grumblingly considered “way too much money for a single ride,” board the train, and get off relatively close to where I needed to be. Easy.

Today, things are quite different. Obviously the trains haven’t worked in years, and most of the stations are packed full (in some cases almost to street level) with junk and refuse. Once the Unified Public Police Force was dissolved, the tunnels became just another abandoned space available for dumping junk like old furniture, soiled mattresses, etc. Of course… there should be some kind of authoritative force to prevent people from doing that, but there had been a big social movement in the early days to disenfranchise and formally dissolve the police. The media had already spent years painting law enforcement as little more than a vicious pack of jack-booted thugs, so it didn’t take much to convince people that any such armed force in their midst was not just superfluous, it was a legitimate threat to the public well-being. But who would keep the peace in the absence of public police authority? The answer seemed obvious… private security. In Wasteland everything is privatized.

Except as it turned out, a major problem with those shiny new private security forces was they turned out to be more ruthlessly violent and repressive than the public cops had ever been, plus they would only actually invest time and effort to “keep the peace” in areas of their direct employ. No one was paying them extra to keep garbage out of the subway stations; so, obviously, they didn’t. When no one is being paid to pay attention to such things, such situations have a natural tendency to go to pot rather quickly… so it didn’t take long before the deserted rail stations were impassably packed with detritus.

In this particular instance, however— and as tends to be the case in any horrible situation— there was an opportunistic group ready to take advantage of it. And, as is often the case, it was people whose situation was already horrible. Since the advent of the subway system there had always been people who lived in the tunnels. Called many different things— homeless, bums, mole people— they’re really just poor people with a modicum of rugged ingenuity and a higher tolerance for vitamin D deficiency. Most people find these tunnel dwellers frightening when they catch a rare glimpse of them, though the mole people are seldom seen above ground these days.

As a barterer, however, I myself try to actively maintain a friendly working relationship with all the non-violent subcultures in Wasteland as potential clients… even those below. I have a contact among the mole people, a man named Wooter. The mole people have balkanized the underground into separate tunnel “regions” and he’s essentially chief of the region below my neighborhood. They don’t have much in the way of material products for trade, but what they do have is handy transportation. For the lucky elite who live in the high buildings there are plenty of kinetic walkways and hover barges to ferry you back and forth, but down here under the line there isn’t much available that’s any faster than walking. The surface roads are nearly impassable due to the complete lack of maintenance, which leaves mostly just the sidewalks. Back in the early days there were rickshaws, but we underliners seldom earn the kind of money required to pay someone else to pedal us around. Occasionally you’ll see a rare mounted traveler on horseback, but I’ve never been able to figure out where they stable the animals or how they keep them fed. The heaviest freight usually gets moved around on carts drawn by oxen or the like, but the majority of us just walk.

As you can imagine the average experience of the city to a typical citizen of Wasteland is rather restricted. A person can only walk so far, one of the reasons people have such trouble finding employment. In my case, though, I’ve acquired the useful ability to ride the mole holes; in return for the privilege I procure various items for them from up top. I’m constantly amazed at how many people refuse to work with the moleys; it can be a pretty good deal, if you play your cards right. For example, I recently made a bargain with Wooter allowing me full use of the tunnel every day if needed. The mole holes are small passageways dug through the debris that packs the old subway tubes. They aren’t any kind of comfortable and they smell like death, but they can get you from midtown to the seaport in about an hour, if you can stand the claustrophobic space for that long.

I arrive at the appropriate access grate, retrieve the magnetized passkey from its hiding place stuck to the underside of a nearby dumpster, unlock and lift the grate, then climb down inside the tunnel as the grate latches back in place behind me. The room at the bottom of the ladder is pitch black and so tight I can feel it pressing in all around me. It’s designed this way to deter curious outsiders from penetrating into the actual tunnel itself. I worm my way down to my hands and knees and feel around in the dark, seeking the rails. Finding them, I use them to guide me forward, helping me locate the cart. I lay down on the cart and knock on the left rail, my knuckles producing a dull thump against the ancient steel; it echoes down the track into the dark beyond. I feel the answer of two quick raps in response on the right rail, and the cart slowly starts to move. After an initial few disorienting moments of moving through darkness, the tunnel suddenly flickers then floods with warm orange light revealing the full length of the entry passage and the adjacent opening to Wooter’s chamber. The access to the main room is made of old pallets, buttressed with scrap steel. I know it’s deliberately constructed to look shabbily tossed together, another layer of deceptive protection to ward off anyone who might make it past the first chamber and down the tunnel. Wooter is waiting for me in the opening. He’s tall, so the opening of the chamber forces him to crouch as he helps me off of the sled.

a man leaning against a wall waiting for a miner's cart

“Guten Tag, always good to see you again,” he says, the words playfully ironic. Wooter’s parents were German and Kenyan, and he was born blind. As one might imagine, he maintains a certain self-deprecating sense of humor about his circumstances. “Step inside my office and we’ll get you on your way downtown.”