Back in the 1920s New Yorkers returned from Florida holidays with baby alligators. The little reptiles grew fast and their owners flushed the saurian relics down the toilet, thereby creating the myth of albino alligators slithering through the city sewers seeking to devour cats and dogs. While this urban legend has been broadly dismissed as hooey, a sewer worker 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 legend in his novel V and reported sightings still reverberates through the marrow of the city, since few people know what lies underneath the city's concrete surface.
Even less now, but in October 1978 my good friend Mike S and I were taking a short-cut through the abandoned rail yards west of Hell's Kitchen. Freights trains rumbled along the warped tracks at a slow speed. Several hobo encampments were huddled underneath the concrete bridges. One settlement seemed to be laundering cast-off clothing.
Mike's fearless dog acted as point on this expedition and Merlin barked at a doorway in the abutment.
"What do you think?" The lanky Long Islander was as fearless as Merlin.
"It has to go down."
"Only one way to find out."
Mike pulled open the battered door.
Stairs led down to an unlit tunnel, which dimmed ten feet down the steps to complete black.
"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 disappeared in Europe. She wrote a good-bye letter from Milan.
"What if there's an alligator down there?"
"A blind albino alligator?"
"Then we better go prepared for the worse."
We had nothing to lose.
Mike and I returned to his loft on West 45th Street for a compass, flashlights, batteries, baseball bats, a .22 revolver, and a sawed-off shotgun. Mike handed me the pistol and stuffed his pocket with shells.
"You think this will stop an alligator?" The gun was light in my hand.
"No, but it will get its attention and I'll kill it with the shotgun. We'll make the front page of the New York Post."
"That's always been one of my ambitions as long as I'm not in handcuffs."
"Then let's go." Both of us were wearing heavy gloves, engineer boots, and leather jackets.
We almost left Merlin, however the valiant dog barked out a warning.
We ween't going anywhere without him.
"Okay Merl, but no fighting with 'gators."
We left his apartment with bags over our shoulders and walked to the train yards. The afternoon had another few hours to run until sunset and Mike pointed to his watch.
"We go down for two hours and that's all."
"Two hours should be more than enough."
"Are you scared of the dark?"
"Who isn't?" 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. Without a flashlight there had been no light. "We have extra batteries, but if we run into anything dangerous. We leave."
"Of course." Mike was broken-hearted, not suicidal.
We stopped before the door.
Merlin barked that he was ready for this expedition.
Mike pulled open the door.
"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 and darkness swarmed from the walls. 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.
Merlin hung by Mike's thigh.
His eyes showed an uncharacteristic caution.
"Merl doesn't like this."
"Neither do I."
"You want to turn around?"
"Not yet. You?"
"We're here to see what there is to see."
The flashlight played on a concrete corridor and the farther we walked from the stairs the smell of excrement was replaced by the aroma of damp dust. Puddles of rainwater gathered on the floor.
At a split in the tunnels savaged rat skeletons were piled in the center.
"They look like something had bitten them in half."
"Something bigger than a rat."
"That's just a myth."
"Down here anything is possible."
"Which way?" Our flashlights revealed nothing to the left and right 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 the shotgun. I lifted the revolver, expecting an albino alligator, but the twin beams caught a beast with a hundred eyes.
Thousands of them.
The pistol barked out several times without stopping the gray mass of gnarled teeth and fattened bodies.
A bar hung from the ceiling.
"Mike, grab it." I dropped the flashlight and gun and 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."
“Which way?” 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 led us to a steel door. It looked like no one had touched it this century. Mike and I manhandled 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 shotgun in his hand and I carried the 22.
We stashed both of them in the bag. Mike checked his watch.
"Four blocks in an hour." 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.