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Dark Days

 

Shots of one lone figure walking down dark, empty city streets cut back and forth with shots of Amtrak trains hurtling through echoing tunnels. Then the lone man is himself at tunnel level, shoves aside some trash, and lowers hsi body down a hole.

Into a community of people, houses, and life.

This is the world of the "mole people" of New York, homeless residents who have built homes in the Amtrak tunnels out of discarded trash and who find safety and support among each other, far from the cold streets and harsh shelters above. The community electrician, Henry, says, "You can grow down here. One of the woman living here, Dee, says, "We're family."

"Dark Days" neither romanticizes the lives of these people nor gets maudlin about them. Marc Singer, the director, lived down here himself for two years to earn the trust of the residents, so that they lived the most intimate details of their lives in front of him. He shows the rats infesting the tunnels and the methods the residents use to combat – or to reconcile with – the rats; he shows their addictions, and their struggles with addiction; he shows them in daily and nightly forages through the garbage bins in the world above for usable or saleable items.

Marc moved down to the tunnels both to gain the trust of the residents, who became his film crew, but also because, "I loved the people there and was learning so much from them that I wanted to be there the whole time." These people included crack addicts and former crack addicts, people that most of us regard as unloveable, even disposable. But Singer draws us close to these people also, humanizes them, shows us the foundations of human dignity as people who have lost all material possessions and status in their lives treat each other with the equal respect in spite of color, creed, gender or age that is only an ideal among most of us. When Dee, who is black, is burned out of her shanty, Ralph, who is Puerto Rican, shelters her. Tommy, a young white man who looks like a poster for Aryan youth, found safety here from drug and alcohol addicted parents who abused him, is comfortable among the racial mix although he rejects the drug use and makes jokes about crackheads.

I asked Marc how this experience had affected him personally. "I learned so much about myself and have changed so much over the years that it is hard to sum it all up in one sentence. If I had to try, then I guess I learnt what it is like to be human."

The lives of the tunnel residents may have be much better than those of many people in thrid-world countries, or American pioneers. They have their shacks, bedding, heat, light (in their own little circle), cookstoves, refreigerators, even portable TVs. But poverty is not an absolute; it is defined in contrast to the culture around you. If cars were cheap and riding the bus was an expensive luxury, riding in your own car would become a mark of misery.

Of course, living in the Amtrak tunnels is not an abstract misery, but a physical one.

Toward the end of the movie, Amtrak responds to public pressure by serving 30-day eviction notices on the tunnel residents. In an interview with a spokesman from Amtrak, he describes the tunnel resident as suffering from asthma and other lung problems (although nobody wheezed in the interviews shown); he reports the death of one resident from exposure in a previous winter, one woman struck by a train during the time thetime the film was made. Over the same period of time, I wonder, how many homeless people in the streets above died of exposure, were struck by cars, attacked by gangs, shot by police? But of course, living in the tunnels is a miserable state.

The Coalition for the Homeless stepped in, pointing out that forcing people out of the tunnels without providing any other alternatives would be only to force them into the streets or the already overcrowded shelter. In the end, the Coalition found housing vouchers for all 75 of the residents. According to the background material on the film, and an interview with Marc Singer, those who needed it also successfully completed drug reahab. The people we've followed through their lives in the tunnel, surrounded by darkness, are now filmed in their own light-filled apartments. Ralph, the Puerto Rican, passionately affirms, "I will never go back to homelessness. Never. I woke up out of homelessness. I'm going to stay awake."

Earlier in the movie another tunnel resident says, "You can't plan. You don't know what's going to happen from day to day." But of course, he was talking about homelessness. When we have homes, we know what will happen from day to day. We can be certain that we will never become homeless.

Can't we?

I and the half-dozen friends of mine, all homeless and formerly homeless. who went to see the movie with me, had the same reaction to the ending. It was jarring, and not quite believable. Surely the re-adjustment after years of living underground wouldn't be that easy. Surely staying in housing and never becoming homeless again wouldn't be that certain.

Singer said that even for him, coming back up "was a bit strange at the beginning. When I first finished filming and stopped going into the tunnel it was a bit hard to talk to people." But he keeps in contact with all of his former "film crew." "I see most of them every few weeks, and speak to all of them at least once a week. Some are doing really well and others