JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF NEW YORK by Peter Nolan Smith


The myth of albino alligators slithering through the sewers of New York originated in the 1920s when New Yorkers returned from a Florida holiday with baby alligators. The tiny saurians grew into fierce creatures seeking to devour cats and dogs. The owners flushed the little monsters down the toilet into the city’s sewers. While this urban legend has been broadly dismissed as hooey, a sewer worker had reported an alligator sighting in 1935. A hunt was organized by the commissioner, who announced that the alligator problem had been solved by the hunters.

Thomas Pynchon wrote about this myth in his book V.

The myth still reverberates through the marrow of the city.

In October 1978 my good friend Mike S and I were wandering through the abandoned rail yards west of Hell’s Kitchen. Freights trains ran along the tracks at a slow speed. Several hobo encampments were hidden under the concrete bridges. One settlement seemed to be laundering cast-off clothing.

Mike’s fearless dog acted as point on this expedition. Merlin barked at a doorway in the abutment.

Mike opened it. The stairs led down to an unlit tunnel.

“You want to see where it goes?” Mike came from California. He was a sculptor. His wife had left him for another man.

“Can’t see why not.” My girlfriend had disappeared in Europe. She had written me a good-bye letter. It had broken my heart. We had nothing to lose.

Mike and I returned to his loft on West 45th Street for a compass, flashlights, batteries, baseball bats, and his .22 revolver. Mike stuffed his pocket with shells. There was no telling what lived underneath the surface of New York.

“Let’s go.” Both of us were wearing heavy engineer boots and leather jackets.

We almost left Merlin, however the valiant dog was as curious as us and we walked over to the mysterious door talking about alligators and lost colonies of mole people. The afternoon had another few hours to run until night and Mike pointed to his watch.

“Two hours and that’s all.”

“We have extra batteries for the flashlights, so two hours is more than enough.” I had been in a few caverns in the White Mountains. They snaked into the granite shield for several hundred feet before narrowing into impassable crevices. “We run into anything dangerous. We turn back.”

“Of course.” Mike was broken-hearted, not suicidal.

“This might be like the entry to Hell.”
“Or the subterranean world like in JUles Verne’s JOURNEY TO THE CENTER ON THE WORLD.”

“Or a forgotten world like in ATTACK OF THE MOLE PEOPLE.”

“I love that movie.” It had presented on a semi-annual basis on the old UHF TV horror stations.

We descended the stairs. Merlin heeled at Mike’s thigh. The walls of the Stygian passage reeked of urine and stench of shit rotored into our noses. Wrapping bandannas over our mouths and noses filtered the foul odor. As we walked farther from the stairs the smell of excrement was replaced by the aroma of damp dust. Puddles of rainwater gathered on the concrete floor. We came to a split in the tunnels. Savaged rat skeletons were piled in the center.

They looked as if something had bitten them in half.

Something big.

“Which way?” Our flashlights revealed nothing ahead but more darkness.

“Merlin?” Mike asked his dog and Merlin barked to go straight.

The core of Manhattan.

We continued in that direction without speaking. It was, almost as if the city overhead had been bombed into oblivion and we were the last three creatures on Earth, but we weren’t alone. An ominous scratching was coming our way. Merlin barked with terror. Mike pulled out his revolver. I lifted the baseball bat, expecting an albino alligator. Our twin beams caught a beast with a hundred eyes.

Rats.

Thousands of them.

Mike’s pistol barked out several times without stopping the gray mass of gnarled teeth and fattened bodies.

A bar hung from the ceiling.

“Mike, grab the bar.” I dropped the flashlight and baseball bat. My hands grasped the rusted metal. Mike joined me. The railing creaked under our weight, as we lifted our feet to escape the scrabbling horde of rats.

Merlin was caught in action by the two flashlights. He snapped at dozens of the sewer squirrels, his teeth flashing with blood. The rodent deluge was over in seconds and the rats disappeared down the tunnel. Mike and I dropped to the ground. He checked Merlin.

Not a scratch.

“Let’s get out of here.”

“How?” The rats were headed toward their headquarters. Any direction other than that was good with me.

Merlin barked twice and trotted down the swamped corridor.

“Follow Merlin. “

Merlin reached a steel door. It looked like no one had touched it in this century. Mike and I manhandled open the rusted steel plate and we climbed the stairway to a sub-basement of a building.

It was a fall-out shelter. Dust lay decades deep. The entrance was not locked from the outside. We emerged from the underground on 8th Avenue. The pedestrians stared at us in horror. Michael held the pistol in his hand and I carried a bloody baseball bat.

“Four blocks in an hour.” Mike checked his watch. The sun was setting over New Jersey.

“I don’t think we have to do that again.”

“No, what you think, Merlin?”

Merlin barked out his agreement and Mike bought him a bone from a 10th Avenue bodega. He was a good dog against rats and probably alligators too, for something had to be living on rats down there and I was happy to never discover whether it was big or small.

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