October 27

1904 — New York City opens its first underground subway line

 

Soot makes his hair look gray, and his skin has a wrinkled, leathery texture from too much exposure, but the guy you’ve sought out is a lot younger than you expected.  Twenty years old, at most.

It will feel strange having to take orders from him.

But that’s one of the drawbacks of entering a new society.  You have to accept their rules, follow their chosen leaders.

“The farther we get away from the surface, the better.”  He leads you down a long, steep stairwell.  “Up ground, that’s where all the terrible things happen.  The explosions, then the wind and fire storms.  The contaminated air.”

You hold onto a metal rail, and hope it continues unbroken for the length of the stairwell.  The lighting is sporadic at best:  scattered torches jammed into a few wall-mounted light fixtures, with large patches of darkness between.  It’s easier to navigate by smell, though the odors rising from below are hardly pleasant.

“No rose gardens down here,” he says, sensing your discomfort.  “But at least the air won’t kill you.”

“Where are the others?”  You’d heard this was one of the larger communities, but there was no murmur of conversation in the distance, no music or laughter.  You worry that you’re descending into an dark abyss, a massive tomb beneath the city.

Then it occurs to you that people must have felt similar anxiety when the subway line first opened, more than a century ago.

“The others are working.  You don’t have any problem with work, do you?”

“No, sir.”  Again, you feel strange addressing a young man as if he’s older.  As if he’s the long-serving executive of a major corporation, and you’re some kid fresh out of college hoping for an unpaid internship.

He leads you into a tunnel, alongside a stretch of tracks.  No trains in sight, of course.

“We’re making the city again,” he tells you.  “Like a mirror.  Or the reflection of the city in a lake.”  His eyes catch a gleam from a nearby torch, flashing bright with the excitement of his ideas.  “The goal is to dig ourselves as deep in the earth as our buildings were high.”

A few steps later and you reach a large steel door — almost like a bank vault.  Instead of opening outward, where it formerly would have fanned into the path of oncoming trains, the door slides to the side along a horizontal track.

The door itself makes a rusty, clanking racket as the community leader pulls it aside, so it takes you a moment to register other sounds.  Sounds of life.  Food being shared, the clicking beat of music, the healthy clatter of things being built.

Survival above ground had become nearly impossible.  Finally, things were going to get easier.

You walk toward the hubbub, hoping to meet the members of your new community.  The people are in silhouette.  They look like they’re dancing, arms waving above their heads.

“Careful.”  The guy’s arm stretches in front of your chest, stopping you from moving forward.

A good thing, since you almost stumbled into what looks like the beginnings of a wide pit.

“We’re here,” your new boss says, lifting a tool from the ground and handing it to you.  “Now, dig.”