Our nighttime journey begins in New York City, the place that never sleeps.
Beneath its dome of dingy yellow light reflected off the underbelly of the ionosphere, the city holds many secrets. Beneath its twinkling towers, beneath its streets and sidewalks, you’ll find another city of tunnels and passageways.
Out of the car, off of 3rd Avenue in Manhattan, there’s a brick industrial building, an old pump station recently hit with a new coat of paint. The metal door with the graffiti on it: its open. Inside you may need your flashlight. Down the metal stairs. They clang under your feet and the noise echoes through the building and blow. The stairs lead down into the secret platforms of New York City.
Underneath New York City is a maze of tunnels. Miles of bare tunnels stretch away before you. Every once in a while, a buzzing fluorescent light illuminates an empty platform, like a subway platform, breaking up the dim, silent monotony of the tunnels.
On the platform there are many doors. But you don’t open any of them, at least not yet.
Who built these tunnels? When and why? These are questions you will probably never know.
If they were subway tunnels, where are the tracks? Where are the trains? Why will you find no record of these labyrinthian tunnels anywhere in the municipal archives?
Underneath you, your shoes squeak on pristine white and pale turquoise tiles, like you might find at any other subway station. These, however, are amazingly clean. All these tunnels are surprisingly free from dust or debris.
Then, with little warning, ahead of you in the beam of your flashlight, the tiles end and the tunnels go back to being bare, dry concrete, only for the tiling to return just around the corner up ahead.
The purpose of these tunnels becomes stranger when you come to that one spot, somewhere underneath Brooklyn, where the tunnel widens out until it is as wide as a cathedral nave. Taking up most of the tunnel width is a deep shaft, perfectly circular.
As you stand on the precipice and peer down, you can see down the pit until there is only darkness where the buzzing fluorescent lights overhead can’t reach. The pit yawns open, deep and black. It could go down hundreds of feet for all you know. The curved sides of the shaft are, as much as you can see, tiled like the rest of the tunnel. You shiver. Though you can hear nothing, you feel as if there is something down there, at the bottom of that darkness.
You move on. You pass underneath the swarming streets of New York. Who knows where you are now. You might be under the harbor, or somewhere near Staten Island. The tunnels stretch on and on. It is almost silent except for the crunch of your shoes, the sound of your own breathing. Every now and then your ears perk up as you detect a faint rumble, either of passing subways trains or traffic overhead.
At least, that is what you think those faint noises are.
You’ve noticed them before. Doors. Tall, narrow doorways. Too tall to be built for human use. It must be 10 feet tall or more. No matter if the tunnel you’re in is tiled and lit by those flickering fluorescent lights, your flashlight always reveals bare concrete, stretching off into darkness beyond the doorway. You don’t like that darkness. It pulls back from your flashlight beam like a living thing. You don’t like how the wind moans and howls far down inside that shadow-choked passage.
As you move on, you can now no longer ignore it. You are not alone. The hairs on your neck stand on end as unseen sets of eyes watch you. But whenever you stop and sweep your flashlight around, you can see no one there. The tunnel behind and ahead of you is empty, as are the featureless raised platforms and their sealed, enigmatic doors.
But sometimes, you see it far ahead of you down the tunnel. A flicker of a shadow. A silhouette in the blue fluorescent light. But every time you set your eyes upon it, it vanishes. But you’re aware of it long enough to take in its stretched, elongated shape, the way it glides backward unnaturally around the corner.
No, you are not alone. You are Theseus wandering through a modern-day labyrinth; a prison with its own modern Minotaur.
You turn to leave, that creeping feeling rising inside of you. You pass a few of those towering doorways, the wind whispering to you from far within the nighted passage. As you pass a junction you had reached earlier, you see, painted on the tiles where no words once were, in red, “You are seen.”
With that, your heartbeat quickens. You hear the echoes of your rapid footfalls trailing away behind you down the long, endless tunnels. You know that gangling, shadow-thing is peering at you from around a wall some dozen yards back.
You take the first turn that looks promising. Up onto the tiled platform. You try one of them, the unmarked metal doors. It opens to you. You close it behind you, shutting out that incessant buzzing of the overhead lights.
Now you are in the dark. You climb up the metal ladder. Then a winding metal staircase, each step ringing like a bell with each of your pounding steps. You push open the door at the top.
And you step out into the eternal twilight of New York City. You have just come out of a door set into a brown brick maintenance shed in the middle of a park in Brooklyn, well across the harbor channel from your Manhattan starting point.
You breathe in the fresh, night air. It is a cooling breath against your face, which has become flushed.
Shutting the door behind you, you hurry to the nearest subway station. While you stand wearily in the train car with your fellow nighttime travelers, the flickering shadows towards the back keep catching your eye and you wonder if that thing, that stalking, following thing, has stayed in its home of endless tunnels. Or has it too found a door out?
In Manhattan, you’re back in your car. You start the engine and glide down the city streets, washed as they are in orange glare from rows of street lamps.
Now you leave the lights of New York City behind. With its teaming millions still awake, electric lights casting back the void, New York City never experiences true night. So as the rest of the world sleeps, its time to leave the lights of the sleepless city behind us as we drive off into the dark, to our next destination on this roadtrip of curiosities.
When the softly glowing numbers of the dashboard clock read 12:00, you’ll never know where you’re next stop will be.