LEVIATHAN: THE CROTON AQUEDUCT
Mission: Croton Aqueduct, early summer 2001
Location: The Bronx
Goal: To walk to Manhattan from the Bronx, underground
Officers: Lefty Leibowitz, L. B. Deyo
Team: Gage, Special Agent Renée, Agent Bleach, Thiago El Rojo, Brazen, Nick Science, Salamander X
reported by t
L. B. Deyo
And as I stared through that obscurity,
I saw what seemed a cluster of great towers,
whereat I cried, "Master, what is this city?"
—Dante, The Inferno
In the shadows of the city waits an invisible frontier-a wilderness, thriving in the deep places, woven through dead storm drains and live subway tunnels, coursing over third rails. This frontier waits in the walls of abandoned tenements, it hides on the rooftops, and it infiltrates the bridges' steel. It's a no-man's-land, fenced off with razor wire, marked by warning signs, persisting in shadow, hidden everywhere as a parallel dimension. Crowds hurry through the bright streets, insulated by the pavement, never reflecting that beneath their feet lurks a universe.
From the sidewalk, I hobble into fluorescent glare. Muscle spasms strum across my back; tendons snag like they're caught in a zipper. It's two a.m. I'm in a Twin Donut in the Bronx.
I raise a forearm to shield my eyes from the fluorescent lights, grab a chair, and sit. Seven agents follow me into the shop, back to the land of the living. Nobody smiles.
"Nick," I call out. "Who invented these lights? Fluorescent lights?"
Nick takes his place in the doughnut line, looking like I feel, splattered mud drying on his glasses. "Fluorescent lights." He nods, screwing in his face. "Tesla invented them. Nikola Tesla."
"Nikola Tesla." I slump toward the floor. My tie's too tight, strangling me, but I can't get it loose. I'm shivering. Sweat beads on my forehead, with the grime. "Damn the son of a bitch. Nikola Tesla. Tinkering bastard." I can't sit still, can't even bend my legs. I get up and take a place in line.
Pain forks through me, forcing my eyes shut. Visions burst across my eyelids, hypnagogic phantoms like the ones you see when you're trying to fall asleep. I see tunnels diminishing to blackness.
I open my eyes and only then do I notice the customers aren't eating. It's late, and there aren't many people here besides us, maybe eight or nine seated throughout. Every one of them is frozen, open-mouthed, staring at us.
"Excuse me," a woman says. She's having a cigarette, sitting with her friend at the table next to me. She's a little drunk, a little bleary-eyed, but she seems all right.
"Do you mind if I ask"-the woman leans in slightly and blinks twice-"what you all been doing?"
Fair question. Here are eight agents fresh from the trenches, in a North Bronx Twin Donut Shop, wearing sunglasses at two in the morning on Puerto Rican Day. The men wear suits and ties; the two women wear cocktail dresses. Several of us have miners' helmets or headlamps. We're encrusted with mud and crystalline mineral deposits, and our shoes have lately been underwater.
"We were exploring the Old Croton Aqueduct," I tell her, "the original New York water supply line. It runs right beneath here."
"For real?" She squints. "You all look like a bunch of lawyers."
For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE (in Latin, CIVITAS), which is but an artificial man, though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defense it was intended; and in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body.
—Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
Social structures form at every level of scale, from the country village to the multinational corporation, from the conversation in a doughnut shop to the transcontinental alliance. Of all these structures, none is fitter, more adaptive, than the city.
It's a macrocosm of the human body, living through its anatomical processes. Its immune system attacks infection through police and emergency workers. Its circulatory system pumps goods throughout the marketplace in huge arteries; these fan out in every direction, branching into finer vessels and capillaries. The nerves of the city pulse with signals, animating, electrifying, communicating, and uniting millions of differentiated cells into an organism. As in a human, these systems are mostly automatic. Without the direction of a central executive, the city breathes and sweats, consumes and excretes.
Nikola Tesla understood that a place can be a living thing. Tesla was the inventor of the Tesla coil, an amplifier of electrical charge. With the Tesla coil he ionized the very air into a conductor, closing the circuit of a current to a slingshot loop, ramping up the voltage by a thousand times, which manifested itself in the slithering arc seen in Frankenstein laboratories. In 1899 Tesla built his largest coil, atop a two-hundred-foot tower, in the skies of Pikes Peak, Colorado. The Jovian engine came alive, hurling lightning bolts in every direction. It inspired the RKO Pictures logo and blacked out the city of Colorado Springs.
For months before he built the tower, Tesla spent his hours measuring the summit's inherent charge. He concluded that the earth itself was "literally alive with electrical vibrations." The tower's genius was to tap into
the conductivity of the mountain. Rather than generate power, Tesla's tower would derive it as an antenna receives its radio signal, passively accepting the system's energy. The result was the greatest electrical discharge yet harnessed by man, and it split the night sky.
Few modern cities benefit from Tesla's wisdom. In design, they squander natural vitality. Today's urban planners, impatient with growth and infatuated by theories, impose the limits of their own imaginations. They build soulless, congenitally defective abominations: Los Angeles; Phoenix; Houston; Toronto; Celebration, U.S.A. Failed experiments, bereft of life.
On the other hand, there is New York. The Empire City was designed as a simple grid, ensuring long vistas and fluid movement. As the blueprint came to life, and construction proceeded up the island, the grid worked as the lattices of a fence, allowing wild growth of vines and ivy through a loose and simple matrix. Like the interlocking pattern of Tesla's tower, the grid plan bridged the gap between the artificial order and natural chaos, shaping and focusing an explosion of energy. Over the centuries, the city has evolved into a New World Leviathan. Operation C-1609 would be Jinx's journey through the living body of New York.
The plan was laid out as a list of targets, each a badlands outpost, each offering its own empirical promise. We would proceed upward from the depths, from the intestine labyrinths of the aqueducts and subway lines, through condemned buildings and landmarks, up into the bridges and rooftops until we reached the top of the antenna on One World Trade Center, at more than 1,726 feet the closest place to heaven in New York.
For the first mission of our operation, Jinx set out to probe the city's guts, marching down into the mouth of New York. In the geometry of the tunnels we sought an evolutionary snapshot, a fossil record in progress. The goal was to explore as much of New York's water intake and drainage as we could without drowning. As water moves through the five boroughs, it mostly runs in prohibitively cramped steel pipes. To get our feet wet, we'd want the aqueducts that bring fresh water from up north, tunnels you could drive a car through. We picked the
Old Croton Aqueduct because it was semiretired. We assumed it would be pretty empty. We knew we could get in and had hopes of getting out as well.
Were we ready? I harbored grave self-doubts. Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, by the time he found the source of the Nile in 1858, spoke twenty-seven languages, had been ordained in the Islamic and Hindu faiths, and was the finest swordsman in Europe. I didn't even have a library card. The Age of Exploration was gone; we of Jinx had never breathed its vigorous air. Ours was not the compass, the machete, or the duel, but the mouse, the flip-flop, and the Casual Friday. We sprang from a whited epoch of online chat rooms, grade inflation, and psychic friends; years of Thinking Globally while Acting Locally, of asking What Would Jesus Do?; it was a time
of Lollapaloozas, Promise Keepers, and vegan airline meals. Instead of virtue we had correctness; instead of fighting we signed petitions. We had no love affairs, only relationships; no safari, only Earth Day; no death, only recycling. Where were honor, courage, guts, and style? Consigned to the classics section of the video store. An anemic generation cowed through faddish decades, growing softer and more churlish, waiting for a battle cry. The cry, when it came, was "Mean People Suck." How could we be ready?
DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
Mission One, nine p.m. A trail leads right from the sidewalk into the woods of Van Cortlandt Park. We've been following that trail for close to an hour now. The dusk paints its rich line of blue behind the trees. We walk at the crest of an embankment that drops off sharply on either side, twenty feet down into darkness.
We've got a big team. Jinx usually goes out in twos and threes, but for this reconnaissance Lefty and I assembled a unit of eight, our largest-ever command.
Agent Bleach, the backbone of Jinx security, was the first man we called. Bleach, as anyone can see at a glance, is not human. His ghastly pallor, penetrating stare, and jet-black widow's peak mark him as nocturnal, and so he is: He sleeps by day, often at his desk, and by night creeps through a sticky undergrowth of East Village drug bars. Like the vampire he emulates, Bleach appears ethereal yet owns a terrible reserve of strength and endurance. Imagine your own worst night of chemical and sexual indulgence, then imagine living it every night and rising every morning afterward with the sun to face a full day of work. Bleach was made for this mission.
To flatter my scientific aspirations, we called in Brazen and Nick Science. Brazen is an editor at Scientific American, a specialist in planetary science, and a graduate of the Cornell program at Ithaca, where his office had been one floor above Carl Sagan's. By his manner, speech, and face alike, Brazen projects an appealing gentleness. Here is a man serious, mature, self-effacing, good-humored, and wise-therefore alien to us, therefore to be closely watched. Nick is a theoretical chemistry graduate student at Columbia, fluent in quantum sorcery. Like Brazen, he seemed inexplicably modest, a thoroughgoing gentleman. Presumably he was feigning. We had the brains of the operation.
The eyes would belong to Renée and Gage, our photographers. Pro-strength shooters, formally trained, they knew the challenge waiting for them in the tunnels. Natural light is never known there, and we'll squeeze no studio lights down the rabbit hole; flashbulbs, ruinous to composition, must suffice. Gage is tall, with shocks of blood red hair falling across a Cleopatra gaze. Renée is an alabaster nymph in astonishing curves, black hair straight down to the small of her back, eyes liquid, lips engorged. Their alarming beauty, and the levity of their condescension to our serious work, must discomfit every man on the team.
Walking behind them is a new agent, little known to us. He is Thiago El Rojo, a Brazilian national working in New York. Rojo had approached us through the Web, and I had been impressed with his digital artistry. He was a mystery to us otherwise; he seemed to be a political radical and was certainly highly intelligent. We're not so simple as to trust a foreigner, naturally, but in the open and liberal spirit of the Jinx Project, we brought him along.
Our oldest protocol forbade any reasonable safety measures, maps, preparation, or planning. For this mission we made an exception: We allowed ourselves
a guide. This was Scott Sala, known to his peers as Salamander X.
Scott's a handsome kid. He turns the ladies' heads. Strong build, broad shoulders, dark hair and eyes. He's a movie-star type; he wears the suits and shades well. How I hate him. Great chin. They call him the Casanova of Cavers. They call him Don Juan in Hell.
Salamander's never really at home unless he's crawling through the frigid blackness under ninety feet of rock. His free time is for tearing off to the Northeast's toughest caves, most of them uncharted. He's linked up with a network of kindred souls and holds rank and title in the local Caver hierarchy. The avocation is primeval. Sal and his fellow cavers (they save the term spelunker for the amateurs they must constantly rescue) lower themselves into three-hundred-foot shafts, swim blind through flooded caverns searching for the next air pocket, and microblast their way through rock to get at virgin caves. Success, for Sal, is busting into a tunnel that's been sealed shut since the age of mastodons, leaving footprints through the dust of twenty thousand years.
"Here it is," says the Salamander as we reach a concrete gatehouse. It's a bland structure, two stories high, ghostly in the failing light. The graffiti crews have been at it. The gatehouse is one of many along the aqueduct; they controlled the water flow and provided access for repairs. This one has no doors or windows, but it's supposed to be our way in. "We'll enter down there." Salamander points his flashlight down the slope of the embankment at a stream that flows out the side. "There's a drainpipe that's just big enough to crawl through."
As we regroup at the bottom, Salamander takes the lead. He crawls in headfirst, feeding himself to New York. The pipe admits his body, while spitting out a stream of runoff beneath him. He's dressed uniquely in the annals of caving: high boots and utility belt, headlamp and two spare flashlights, black suit, navy silk shirt, black tie, and sunglasses. The Jinx uniform is sacrosanct, and permits no modification whether at cocktails or in dank sewers. It's the line we draw between the squares and us.
I take a deep breath and follow. The pipe fits like a straightjacket, flooded and crowded with bramble from the forest floor. I balance on the slick rocks, struggling to keep clear of the water. I'm struggling to stay dry, knowing I'm going to get wet, knowing that before I emerge from the manhole hours from now my suit will be soaked in mud and silt and petroleum byproducts.
My hand slips and plunges wrist-deep into the stream. "Water's cold!" I shout back to the others, who wait around the entrance to follow. I can't expand my chest enough to take a breath. For a moment I freeze. The urge to escape is strong, but I can't turn around. Could I crawl backward if I had to? I close my eyes and let the feeling wash through me.
Excerpted from Invisible Frontier by L.B. Deyo and David Leibowitz. Copyright © 2003 by L.B. Deyo and David Leibowitz. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.