In the IRT Subway Speakeasy, a young poet played a Japanese bamboo flute. While DL admired black nylons straying from a neighboring table, the poet’s candy-apple choppers whispered lascivious instructions. The evening’s crystal stemware of chilled notes lobbed the Dionysian-on-the-lam into the legendary Minoan labyrinth at Knossos. He yielded to temptation, whipped out his camera, and began photographing that Earth-Mother-of-all-later-human-channels-unto-rock. Each flashbulb carried him closer to the sewage tunnels of the Indus Valley. He was soon thirty-five thousand years from the music. His must be the oldest photographs on record. DL’s Nikon began impressing lost snippets from the Hebrew Bible. Fortunately, his lenses read in both directions. From what DL could determine, Joseph of the Technicolor Rainbow Dream Coat hadn’t been thrown into a cistern after all, but had been held captive at the Dothan Station instead. This journey started to sound like modern-day hostage-taking in the Middle East. So that’s what it was like to have an ayatollah for a brother! As for everybody involved, that Joseph incident would become a pretty expensive ride on Pharaoh’s Subway. DL wasn’t so sure he wanted to know any of this.

Just as he turned about, he bumped into Dante Alighieri. At least this wasn’t Dante’s Station, the Black Hole! DL counted his blessings. No, this station was Virgil’s, that satanic sorcerer who’s capable of burrowing through entire mountains in a single night. As usual, Virgil was the tour guide. This evening was getting too thick with poets for the photographer’s blood. If DL had been thinking clearly, he’d be snapping portraits of both Italians and would thus possess history’s only known photographs of them. Instead, he was interrupted by a friendly hiss – Zimm, the lovable newspaper editor and poet from Upstate. The night was definitely dripping with poets.

“Hey! This way!” he whispered, motioning to a side corridor. The impoverished journalist had been sent to rescue the lost protagonist. “This 1810 French canal tunnel was never used,” he said, leading DL along a narrow towpath. “The boatmen united in their fear of its endless darkness. You might be interested in knowing,” he continued, “of a similar situation that arose on the Sandy & Beaver Canal in southeastern Ohio. After hearing splashing in the permanent night, no one dared enter that tunnel. Not even an offer of eternally toll-free travel could induce a barge to pass through.” In the echoes, DL heard English clergymen prophesying the fruits of damnation to anyone who dared venture into the London Underground, circa 1863.

DL could tell they were coming back toward the surface. In a four-hundred-yard tunnel beneath the Thames River, they passed Marc Isambard Brunel’s historic digging machine. “He spent eighteen years here, launching the modern subway movement,” the editor explained.

“Let me get a shot of it,” DL said.

“We don’t have time,” Zimm retorted. “I’ve got to be at the office in another two hours.” He set a wicked pace, and DL had trouble keeping up.

In this stretch of history, they feared the newly constructed tubes would cause buildings to collapse. A few more steps put even that behind them.

A few more steps, indeed, brought them up to 1912. A clutch of astonished engineers was too engrossed to notice the time-travelers. The excavators had just broken into a totally unknown subway all of three hundred and twelve feet long. In 1870, it seems, Scientific American editor Alfred Beach had built his private line under lower Broadway. Its fountain, wind machine, and voiture were still in place.

“Let’s go back and check that out,” DL suggested.

“DL! Come on! The world already has photos of that discovery.”

Their spiral to the surface continued.

While feathering his own nest on the elevated, Boss Tweed opposed the underground efforts.

As a burly foreman constructing the Moscow system in the 1930s, Nikita Khrushchev grasped the full power of moving ahead by snuffing entire shifts of workers in cave-ins and underground drownings.

In Tokyo, muscular young oshiya have been hired to cram more riders into each car during rush hour.

“It’s a good thing Khrushchev didn’t know about Tokyo!” DL mused.

“Hurry up, will you?”

“Ok! I’m coming!”

They circled again, betwixt Stockholm’s masterpiece and New York’s disgrace, superstitions and dreadful truths.

DL wondered how good Minoans were at Subway Hitchhiking. Why couldn’t Brunel dig at Virgil’s speed? What connection did the Catacombs of Rome have with subway construction? DL’s world had quickly shrunk in time and space. Simultaneously, expanding like a Milky Way.


For more from my THIRD RAIL collection, click here.


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