“There is a place like no other place on earth, a land full of wonder, mystery, and danger!
Some say to survive it, you need to be as mad as a hatter. Luckily, I am.”
~ The Mad Hatter, “Alice Through the Looking Glass”
It’s difficult to recap the week past, let alone make sense out of it, as it started with a week that ended leaving the house in Northern Maine, a remote and distant spot whose fields are red with wild blueberry stems, and whose skyline is a lace-pattern of tall pines and spruce and the changing leaves of birch and oak. It was a quiet week, that one which ended, and I left an armful of wildflowers in a vase on the table that I only remembered when I got home.
There was very little time to transition from the quiet meadows and boggy deep woods outside of Calais to Timothy’s phone call that I got the next day at home. The urgency in his voice was genuine and when he shared the news that our friend Bernard had died, I was stunned. Bernard was a legend on the street, a man who was bigger than Life itself, who made both friends and enemies easily, as he navigated the life of homelessness. His death shocked those who knew him because Bernard had dodged many bullets in his 60 years, taking up residence underground in the Amtrak tunnel that runs for two and a half miles beneath the Upper West Side. He lived down there for ten years or so, beginning in 1985, two years before I began this outreach leg of my own journey.
I met him one night under an overhang where some of my Rotunda guys started to stay. They had the best set-up, tapping into the Amtrak electrical system so they could plug in an old refrigerator one of the guys found on Riverside Drive. Shorty, one of the funniest people I know, would grill chicken on a make-shift barbecue, in a silk smoking jacket he found in the trash on Riverside Drive. There was such a series of strange contrasts here: the homeless poor occupied space discretely, and then underground or between the shadows along the elegant and swank residences of Riverside Drive. So little made sense to me then; perhaps even less makes sense now to me.
Bernard emerged from the darkness and I found him to be affable and articulate, choosing his words very carefully as he spoke and made easy conversation, the hint of a Southern lilt misting over his words. He was a confident man and a very smart one, too, who declared himself the Lord of the Tunnel, only when he was told by an established pack of guys downstairs that he would be charged a tax for settling in down there. This sub-culture of people living underground fascinated me and Bernard became my guide and teacher, bringing me to the tunnel so that I could actually see what he described as his peaceable kingdom.
I didn’t think about it, this near-foray into the tunnel, but followed him, a rat running across my boot when I got there. There were spots where people set up their dwellings and I was offered a cup of tea. I had no idea how anyone could survive in the dank cold of this tunnel. There were murals on the walls, upside down crates and bedding. It was at that moment I realized that I had indeed fallen down the legendary rabbit hole. And, it was at that precise moment I knew I would never come back.
We stayed in touch through the monthly Runs we made into the city and Bernard and I became friends. I’d like to think that we were close friends, as we both managed to confide in each other and care about each other. The upstairs neighbors to the downstairs tunnel folk were evacuated in 1991 and it was the end of the “under-the-West-Side-Highway” congregation as we knew it. So much changed over the next few years and sadly, not for the better. Bernard disappeared for a bit and it was only on occasion that I’d see Timothy, Bernard’s good friend he introduced me to. My own life was taking on different challenges as my kids grew and my marriage soured.
One very rainy night, down at the Visitor’s Center near Columbus Circle, a tall, thin man appeared at our run, dripping with rain, his hood covering all but the bill of his baseball cap. He had a back pack and was fumbling in the dark and cold to retrieve something from it. I saw him come toward me, but I had no idea who he was. The rain was steady, it was very late and we had a nice crowd of people to talk with.
As soon as he flipped the hood off, I saw it was Bernard. He smiled and he hugged me and told me he thought we’d never see each other again and as I think on those words now, I realize what an innocent I was back then. I really had no idea.
He handed me a book, carefully enclosed in a plastic bag from Gristede’s and told me to wait till I got home to read it. I promised I would and when I did finally get home, before I took off my wet windbreaker, I took the book out of my bag. It was a copy of Margaret Morton’s book, “The Tunnel” and there he was, on the cover, this powerful black and white portrait, a shaft of light illuminating him, Bernard in his peaceable kingdom. Inscribed inside, a note from Margaret and one from Bernard: “God Bless you, Jeannie Newman. Bernard Monte Isaac, The Lord of the Tunnel.”
Weeks come and go and start and end and mine was capped last night when we did our first Run of the academic year. The news of Bernard’s death spread on the street and all of a sudden, in the small crowds we saw, one or two or three of the old guys appeared. They stopped by as they heard we were coming down. They heard Bernard had died and they said they wanted to know more. They, like me, wanted to process it.
There will be a service now that his family has been contacted and Bernard will finally rest in peace, his ashes to be sprinkled by his older brother across a favorite creek of theirs that they played and swam in as boys in Florida. Until then, there will be a moment or two to try to make sense of this journey altogether, I suspect, one jagged puzzle piece at a time.