Subway survivors

Tunnel dwellers light up Dark Days

What would those wimps and wusses of “Survivor” do in the really challenging situation depicted in Dark Days, Marc Singer’s enlightening documentary about a community of homeless people who live in railroad tunnels under New York City? If you can make it there you can make it anywhere! Singer, who was 20 years old and had no experience as a filmmaker when he started the six-year project, enlisted the tunnel people to serve as his crew. The lighting is obviously non-pro (though better than The Blair Witch Project) but the photography — in glorious black and white — will make some union guys nervous. The sound isn’t badly recorded but many of the subjects are still difficult to understand.
“You’d be surprised what the human mind and the human body can adjust to,” one of the men says in the opening sequence. He prefers the tunnel to the streets above because you don’t have people “fuckin’ wit’cha” (except the occasional filmmaker, of course). They don’t eat rats; they co-exist with them. What do they eat? A couple of experts give us a crash course in dumpster diving.
Some tunnel people live in individual shelters complete with diverted electric power and television. They even had running water for a time, but it didn’t last. So, when they get desperate enough, they bathe in cold water from a leaking pipe. Many of them scavenge aboveground, both for items to furnish their subterranean dwellings and for things they can sell. You may question their use of the word “found” with regard to some objects, but it is amazing what people will throw away. One entrepreneur notes that “faggot books and faggot movies” are his best sellers, way ahead of “girlie books and movies.”
These people aren’t all candidates for sainthood, and Singer doesn’t try to pretend they are. Some have had bad breaks, while others are criminals and/or mentally ill. By one estimate at least 80 percent of the underground residents are drug addicts. We eavesdrop on a debate on the merits of crack versus reefer. There may be a sense of community but life is not without conflict — from petty bickering to a woman having her “house” burned down (by a disgruntled suitor, she suspects).
Some people have lived in the underground tunnels for as long as 25 years. Is Amtrak aware of them? Probably, but they keep their heads in the sand until 1997 when “external pressure” brings it to bare. Then, armed police arrive to present a mass eviction notice (filming prohibited). Could Singer have narced in order to provide his film with a climax?
A major confrontation, legal or otherwise, is averted when the Coalition for the Homeless finds housing vouchers that will enable all these people to move into subsidized apartments. Final scenes of them joyously settling into their new digs make them look like yuppies compared to what they were before.
One of my favorite obscure movies is Raw Meat (1972; original British title Deathline) about people who have lived in London’s subway tunnels for generations and have evolved into a race of cannibals. It’s a toss-up whether that fiction is stranger than this truth. If the New Yorkers hadn’t moved on up, we could have checked back in 50 years to find out.