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Homeless Put Life Back on Track : Poverty: By choice, about 40 'mole people' live underground in a railroad tunnel.

May 13, 1990|LARRY NEUMEISTER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — In an underground railroad tunnel the width of a football field, in a place so scary that Amtrak workers once were assigned shotgun-toting escorts, about 40 homeless people are making a life.

To the sound of automobiles rumbling overhead, Robert Negron and Bernard Monte Isaac emerge from the abandoned railroad shacks in which they sleep.

They stand near a campfire where they cook and boil water to wash and clean clothes. They seem almost like bedraggled Boy Scouts until they start talking about life in "The Tunnel."

Some call it the "Tunnel of Doom," its inhabitants the "mole people."

"A lot of people are intrigued by our existence down here," Isaac said. "What's so amazing? What are we supposed to do, come down here to die?

"This is the perfect environment for one to grow in."

Negron, 38, and Isaac, 36, have chiseled out an existence in the tunnel that stretches from 72nd Street to 125th Street along Riverside Park on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

They read by candlelight and occasionally cook gourmet meals. The tunnel walls are adorned with murals.

But they also struggle to survive amid violence. Isaac once found a body in the tunnel, and a woman who lived near his shack was raped.

Underground trolls once demanded that Isaac pay them tribute to pass through their territory. He reacted violently. He was the Lord of the Tunnel, he shouted, and they backed off. He has held that title ever since.

"One will either grow or retard, there's no middle of the road. It's a very dangerous place," said Isaac, who holds a second-degree black belt in karate. "This tunnel scares the hell out of the macho-est of men."

Amtrak worker Bill Maccioli says he and other workers were so frightened when they first entered the two-track tunnel in 1987 that railroad police carrying shotguns were sent along with them for eight months.

The tunnel connected now-abandoned rail yards west of Lincoln Center to the New York Central tracks north along the Hudson River. It has not been used for eight years. Amtrak plans to resume service on the tracks soon, but the railroad will have to contend with the estimated 30 to 50 people who live there.

They are there by choice. All had lives above ground. Isaac claims he has a degree in journalism from the University of Maryland, and Negron says he lived on Staten Island with his wife and 16-year-old son.

"It always seemed like no matter what I got into I wasn't comfortable there," Negron said. "My emotions always got involved. I felt shy or guilty."

Negron, a former drug addict, was among the first to seek refuge in the tunnel in the early 1980s. In the beginning, he was scared and ashamed.

"When people were on the tracks, I would put out the candles and would wait for them to leave . . . ," he said. "It's like living in a men's shelter. When you go to sleep at night you have to tie your shoes with knots so that when you wake up in the morning you still have them."

When someone set his cubbyhole on fire, he moved about 20 blocks uptown, met Isaac and resettled in a 10-by-20-foot shack that he keeps padlocked.

There is a bed, a refrigerator to store food at room temperature, chest of drawers, food locker, a hamper, clothing on hangers, a rug, candles and a suitcase.

"My happiest moment is when I go inside the room, light the candle and sit down and read," Negron said.

For Isaac, too, the happiest moments come when he has a full stomach and climbs "under the sheets nice and warm and tucked in and dream. I'm at peace with myself and there's no knock at my door."

He says he passes the time by working on a book, writing songs and planning a documentary that he claims a European television station is interested in. "I'm a dreamer," Isaac said.

Isaac and Negron redeem cans and bottles for the cash they need and hunt through garbage cans for food scraps. On a recent haul, Isaac came back with 127 unopened cans of food he found thrown away by a supermarket.

"I'm not really in no pain," Negron said. "I get what I need and I'm satisfied. I just walk down the streets and I find what I need."

"You actually can exist from the waste of man and it's probably one of the few cities you can get away with that in," Isaac said. "We eat as we choose down here. We live as well if not better than the average people up top."

They note that they are literally surrounded by art--murals created by artists like Chris Pape. Pape, who is not homeless, says art is "kind of neat when it's tucked away like that and you kind of stumble upon it."

A painting of the Mona Lisa lights up when sunlight streaks through grates above. Other portraits feature Ted Williams, Woody Guthrie, Michelangelo's "David," Robert F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a break dancer.

Negron has all of this, and liquor too.

"I've got me and my bottle, the best company I have," he said. "At least now I have a lot more peace of mind. I don't have no anger in me to strike back at anybody. I don't blame anybody for anything."

Is Isaac envious of the rest of the world?

"I've had the opportunity to get jobs," he said. "I don't choose to be a robot within the system. There's not enough money they could pay me to become another person every day. What's important is when I look in the mirror, I like who I see.

"We've done something that one out of every 1,000 men in creation in their lifetimes will do. We dared to be ourselves."

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