Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Columbia's Underground Labyrinth

I’d love to tell you that the Irregulars were the first people in forty years to explore the tunnels under Columbia University, but that would be an almost laughable lie. (This old story from Columbia’s newspaper proves that the tunnels are—and will always be—a source of fascination for the school’s more adventurous students.) If you know where to look, you can even find maps on the Internet that claim to show all of Columbia’s underground passages. (Though most sites admit that their maps aren’t entirely reliable.)

Perhaps the reason the tunnels continue to receive a small but steady stream of visitors is that getting inside them is so astonishingly easy. Using the ID cards that Oona had forged, all six of the Irregulars breezed past the security desk at Butler Library, and less than five minutes later we were standing in front of an unmarked door in the building’s basement. There were no guards or cameras—and just an ordinary lock on the door. I imagine some would-be explorers might have found the lock a bit daunting, but Oona’s skilled fingers popped it like the latch on a cheap diary. She threw open the door, revealing a stern warning—something about dangerous conditions and trespassing fines—posted on the wall of tunnel. Kiki Strike took a picture of the warning for her own amusement, and we stepped inside the dimly lit labyrinth.

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of exploring Columbia’s underground, I’m happy to describe what we saw there, though I can’t say it was charming sight. The tunnel beneath Butler Library is shaped like the inside of an aluminum can and stretches from east to west under the campus. The Irregulars set off to the east and eventually reached a door that opened onto a passage with concrete walls that were lined with a rainbow of brightly colored pipes. Later, we found sections of tunnel in poor repair—their brick walls were crumbling and mud puddles sprinkled with dead squirrels created a foul obstacle course. Wherever we went, evidence of previous explorers was impossible to overlook—graffiti covered the walls, soda bottles with cryptic notes inside littered the ground, and uninspired messages written in magic marker decorated the pipes.

The fact is, next to the Shadow City, the Columbia tunnels don’t offer much to write home about. Most are dirty, hot, and unpleasantly narrow. We did make a few interesting discoveries, however: a jumble of rotting trampolines, a dozen old coal carts left forgotten on their tracks, and evidence that one of the university’s main buildings could collapse at any time. When we passed under Pupin Hall, the university’s main physics building, DeeDee insisted we search for the cyclotron that was rumored to be on the first floor. Legend had it that the sixty-year-old machine had been used during the Manhattan Project—the development of the first nuclear bomb. DeeDee tried to make the search more interesting by warning us all that machine—along with the entire building—could be radioactive, but when we found the cyclotron, it looked like nothing more than a harmless hulk of rusting metal. (Also covered in graffiti, I might add.)

As we left the physics building and continued on the loop that led back toward Butler Library, DeeDee entertained us with the story of Ken Hechtman who had been a student at in the 1980’s. Founder of an anarchist group called ADHOC, Hechtman had used the tunnels to steal radioactive material from the physics department and dangerous chemicals from a nearby chemistry building so he could experiment with them in his dorm room. No one seemed to know the nature of Hechtman’s experiments. As DeeDee recounted the tale, I could sense that she admired the anarchist’s dedication to his science.

We were almost back under Butler Library when I realized we’d missed one of the tunnels. It was clearly marked on Professor Morlock’s map—a passage that began under the university’s bookstore and led to the west, beyond the campus’s borders. Yet somehow we had walked right past it.

The Irregulars returned to search for the tunnel, and for more than twenty minutes we looked in vain. Since the Irregulars have all had a fair amount of experience locating hidden passages, I began to wonder if the professor had made a mistake. After all, the tunnel wasn’t noted on any of the other maps we had come across. Even Kiki was ready to give up when Betty noticed a pipe on one wall that appeared to be cracked. She bent over for a look and felt a cool draft blowing against her cheek. She gave the pipe a soft push, and the crack widened. Another push, and part of the wall seemed to give way. It was a secret door, and behind it was the entrance to the tunnel we’d been looking for.

Long, dark, and only a few feet wide, the brick-lined tunnel stopped abruptly at another door. Kiki and I stepped past two empty cheesecake boxes and turned the knob. The fluorescent lights of a laundry room spilled into the darkness. We sent the other girls back to Butler Library, and exited the tunnel. When the door we’d come through closed behind us, it seemed to disappear into the wall. After a quick survey of the basement, Kiki and I took an elevator to the building’s first floor. When we realized we were inside an ordinary apartment building that offered little to see, we left through the front door.

Outside in the sunshine, I experienced my first real shock of the day. I was standing across the street from my dorm.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Story So Far

I’m sure you’re expecting to hear what happened last night in the tunnels below Columbia University. Believe me—I’m anxious to tell you. But I’ve been advised by one of my most loyal readers (thanks, Luz) that I’m in danger of confusing everyone unless I take the time to bring you up to date on the story. So here goes . . .

Three weeks ago, I discovered evidence (namely an electric blanket and a half-eaten cheesecake) that led me to believe that someone might be secretly living in Butler Library—the main library on the Columbia University campus. My curiosity piqued, I decided to investigate. For almost a week, I staked out the darkest, most deserted sections of the library but saw nothing of note. Then one evening I fell asleep while reading a book I had found lying on a nearby desk. Sometime around midnight, I was rudely awakened by a mysterious goggle-wearing man who informed me—in a very uncivil tone—that I was using “his” book as a pillow. That was my first—and last—meeting with Butler Library’s only resident.

The book he yanked out from underneath my head was entitled The Untold History of Columbia University. From the little I managed to read before drifting off to dreamland, I gathered that an insane asylum had once stood on the very ground where Columbia was built and that a system of tunnels lay underneath the school. Later research informed me that the tunnels did, in fact, exist and that some of them dated back to the days of the old Bloomingdale Insane Asylum.

I began to suspect that there might be a connection between the man living in the library and the tunnels underneath the school. As it turns out, I was right. (More about that once I've gotten a little sleep.)

Kiki Strike and the Irregulars agreed to help me with my investigations, and DeeDee Morlock managed to make the first break in the case. Her father, Sirius Morlock, a professor of chemistry at Columbia has first-hand knowledge of the tunnels underneath the school. In 1968, while Professor Morlock was an undergraduate at Columbia, he and group of his fellow students staged an uprising and took over the campus. He used the tunnels to smuggle food and supplies to the rebels. Though he probably had no idea what he was getting his daughter into, Professor Morlock gave the Irregulars our first big scoop—a hand-drawn map of the tunnels.

Last night, the Irregulars took our first tour.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Ancient Tunnels Discovered in Israel

While I'm waiting for tonight's adventure to begin, I thought I'd let you know about a thrilling discovery that was recently made on the other side of the world. I should have posted this story earlier, but as you might imagine, I've had a lot on my mind.

Earlier in March, archaeologists uncovered a system of tunnels and igloo-shaped underground chambers near the city of Nazareth in Israel. Apparently, the subterranean village was the work of ancient Jews who were preparing to revolt against Roman rule nearly 2000 years ago. The hidden rooms, which the Jewish rebels built beneath the floors of their own homes, were intended to serve as a refuge from the Roman army.

A much more in-depth account of the discovery can be found here, along with a fascinating picture of a two-headed turtle.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Planning for the Expedition

First thing this morning, Kiki Strike and I visited the secret room under the Brooklyn Bridge. No “civilians” have been allowed inside since it was discovered, and even Oona’s handmade press passes didn’t impress the policemen keeping guard when I tried to gain access to the bridge on Thursday. But Kiki had a hunch that we might find an entrance to the room in the Shadow City, and I had a hunch she was right. The bomb shelter may date from the 1950’s, but the bridge itself is much, much older. Just as Kiki suspected, there was a narrow passage leading from a large room with a rat-baiting pit to the hidden chamber under the bridge. (I wonder if the passage was once used to deliver waterfront rodents to the pit below.) It’s nice to know that, even after all of these years, the Shadow City can still continue to surprise us. Kiki and I were able to take a private tour of the Brooklyn Bridge bomb shelter, and Kiki left with a souvenir package of fifty-year-old crackers.

When I got back to my dorm room, I picked up a message from Oona. She’s finished making Columbia ID cards for the Irregulars. (We could have explored the tunnels under the university without them, but it’s always best to be prepared for the worst. Students caught wandering through the tunnel would be one thing—but who knows what might happen to a bunch of suspicious-looking girls with no security passes.) Tomorrow night, the Irregulars will embark on our first expedition through the Columbia tunnels. Although I know nothing could possibly compare to the tunnels of the Shadow City, my head’s still buzzing with excitement.

As for the man in Butler Library, he’s been keeping a very low profile lately. Since my cover was blown in the stacks, DeeDee has been spending late nights studying in the darkness. She’s only caught sight of the man once when he sauntered past her desk carrying a pillow and a bowl of soup. She tried to follow him, of course, but he managed to slip out of sight somewhere in the vicinity of the architecture books.

I should also note that after hunting online for days, I’ve managed to locate a copy of the book the man took from me that night in the library. I've ordered The Untold History of Columbia University from a downtown shop that specializes in rare books, and it should arrive in my mailbox sometime soon. I'm dying to find out why it was of such interest to Butler Library’s only resident.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Coyote Captured in Central Park

It’s only Wednesday, but this week has already seen two bizarre events. First the forgotten bomb shelter under the Brooklyn Bridge was discovered, and now a coyote has been captured in Central Park. The furry invader managed to elude the authorities for quite some time before it was shot with a tranquilizer gun and given the rather uninsipired nickname Hal.

Of course, this is by no means the first time wild animals have been spotted or captured in New York City.

Ask most New Yorkers, and they’ll tell you that the alligators reputed to live in New York’s sewer system are only urban myths. However, quite a few of these fierce reptiles have been discovered in the city over the years. You can find an amusing list of alligator sightings at this website.

The Wild Parrots of Brooklyn
No one knows for sure how a large and boisterous flock of South American parrots came to take up residence in parts of Brooklyn. The most promising theory states that, sometime in the 1960s, a shipment of birds bound for pet stores was accidentally released at JFK Airport. Since then, the number of wild parrots in Brooklyn has exploded, and the birds have found themselves with many friends—and many enemies—in New York. An excellent website entirely devoted to the parrots can be found here.

In 2001, seals began to make a comeback in the waters surrounding New York City. For decades they had avoided the harbor, which was foul, polluted, and often quite smelly. Now seals can be found sunning their fat, brown bodies in all five boroughs of the city.

In 2003, police disovered a 400+ pound tiger living in the apartment of a man named Antoine Yates. (Along with a three foot alligator.) In order to capture the beast, a police officer rapelled down the side of Mr. Yate’s buiding, and fired a traquilizer gun at the tiger through an open window. The tiger is currently living in a much more suitable environment: Ohio.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Secret of the Brooklyn Bridge

For those of you who find it difficult to believe that there's anything left to discover in a city like New York, here's proof that you couldn't be more wrong. Deep in the base of one of the city's most beloved landmarks, the Brooklyn Bridge, a fifty-year-old secret lay waiting to be discovered.

By the end of the week, the Irregulars will know what secrets the tunnels of Columbia University have to offer.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Professor Sirius T. Morlock: Smuggler

I had coffee with DeeDee today at a café on Amsterdam Avenue. It was too crowded to have a proper conversation, and we were forced to hunch toward each other and whisper conspiratorially. From the looks we received, I imagine most of the café’s other customers thought we were plotting a coup—which, given the subject of our conversation, wouldn’t have been a bad guess. (Although they may well have been sneaking peeks at DeeDee who, thanks to an unfortunate chemical spill in her laboratory, smelled like rotten eggs and cheap air freshener.)

Here’s what DeeDee told me. Last night, DeeDee spoke with her father—a respected chemistry professor at Columbia. She was fishing for information about the man in the stacks, but she caught an unexpected species of scoop. When asked if he had heard anything about a man living in Butler Library, DeeDee’s father simply laughed. No one’s lived in any of Columbia’s libraries for more than thirty years, he told her. Obviously this led to the very question that must have flashed through your brain a moment ago. Who was living in the libraries back then? DeeDee asked. I was, her father said.

In 1968, students at Columbia staged an uprising. Protesting the Vietnam War, the draft, and the university’s “friendly” relationship with the U.S. government, the students took over the school. They seized and occupied many of the university’s buildings. No classes were held, and no one other than the protesters was allowed inside. Among the young activists was DeeDee’s father, who in 1968 was an eighteen-year-old Columbia student. For almost a week, DeeDee’s father lived in Low Library—one of the oldest structures on the campus. (Built on the former site of the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum’s main building, I might add.) He slept in the President’s office and smuggled food to his fellow protesters using the many little-known tunnels under the school. As fascinating as it was to imagine DeeDee’s brilliant father as a renegade peanut butter smuggler, what made his daughter and I almost giddy with excitement was a crude drawing her father had made on a scrap of graph paper. It was a map of the tunnels underneath our school.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Poodle Zapper

On Monday night, I paid my first visit to the library since my scare in the stacks. I chose a desk in a corner near a selection of books on abnormal psychology and spent two long hours listening for footsteps and pretending to study. (Two feats that are far more difficult to perform simultaneously than one might imagine.) It was nearly nine o’clock when I heard the door to the stacks swing open. Someone began walking slowly past the aisles of books, heading in my direction. I switched off my reading light and ducked under the desk, my arms hugging my knees to my chest. As usual, at the worst possible moment, I suddenly needed to go to the bathroom.

The footsteps paused every few feet, and one by one, the lights in each aisle illuminated. The floor grew brighter and brighter—a fact that didn’t give me much solace. Whoever it was, he was searching the stacks, and I had a hunch he was looking for me.

At last the naked bulb in my aisle flashed on. The footsteps stopped for a moment, then turned down the aisle and began to walk toward my hiding place. I had no intention of going without a fight. I took my only weapon—a number two pencil—and clenched it like a dagger in my fist.

“Ananka,” I heard the stranger say, and the shock nearly made me empty my bladder. Then I saw a grinning face peek under my desk. “Next time choose a bigger desk. I could see your shoes sticking out.” It was DeeDee Morlock. “Kiki said I might find you here. Are you busy?”

“Do I look busy?” I snapped at her, untangling my limbs. “Couldn’t you have let me know it was you?”

“What was I supposed to do? Shout? It’s a library. Come on. Luz has called another meeting.”

Any member of the Irregulars has the power to call an emergency meeting. Most of us reserve that right for times of crisis, but Luz Lopez has a habit of using it when she feels like having company. (Yes, we’re on to you, Luz.) Fortunately, Luz’s shop is only a few blocks away from Columbia, and unlike the other Irregulars who still live downtown, DeeDee and I didn’t have waste too much time getting there.

It was the first meeting of the Irregulars since I discovered the man living in the stacks of Butler Library. Last week, after visiting my website diary, Luz had taken over my duties investigating the electrified sidewalks. As it turned out, she had called the meeting to announce a new development in the case. The rest of us watched as Luz demonstrated a handcrafted voltage meter that had helped her identify an electrified sidewalk grate in the East Village. After staking out the grate for a little over an hour, Luz realized that while the grate was harmless to humans and most kinds of canines, it delivered a powerful jolt to any dog resembling a poodle.

Luz knew it wasn’t a coincidence. She followed a cleverly hidden set of wires to a nearby basement apartment and watched the poodle hater—an old man with three pet pit bulls—at work. Afterwards, she destroyed his trap and devised a plan to give him a dose of his own medicine. She wanted us to help her electrify his bathroom floor, but Kiki insisted we turn the sadist into the ASPCA instead.

Luz was even more annoyed when her announcement was overshadowed by my news about the man in the library. A few of the Irregulars eagerly shared similar stories they’d heard over the years. Betty remembered an older cousin once mentioning a man who lived in a janitor’s closet in the Emory University library. And Oona had heard one of her clients at the manicure shop gossiping about a little girl who had been found sleeping in Herman Melville’s trunk in the basement of the main branch of the New York City Library. Apparently, library dwellers are more common than I had expected, and most seem to be relatively harmless. What made the Irregulars’ think my discovery was worth investigating was the book the man had taken from me and its strange connection to the tunnels underneath the Columbia campus.

It was agreed that the other girls would lend a hand in my search for the stranger in the stacks. Kiki wants to start by checking out the tunnels beneath the university. Oona is making security passes, and they should be ready in a week. In the meantime, DeeDee—the only other Irregular enrolled at Columbia—will tag along with me. I can’t tell you how relieved I am to have the company.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Bloomingdale Insane Asylum

I didn’t go back to the library today. Maybe tomorrow. But right now, my nerves are still shattered. Instead, I stayed in my room, trawling the Internet for information on the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum—in part because of the book that was taken by the man in the stacks, but mostly out of sheer curiosity. Unfortunately, there isn’t much information to be found. This is what I remember from the book along with all I’ve managed to learn today . . .

When the asylum was built in 1821, the neighborhood now called Morningside Heights was still remote countryside. I have not been able to uncover many details about the men and women who were sent to Bloomingdale to live, although according to one source, the male patients were quite noisy and considered a nuisance by neighbors. In the 1890’s, the asylum relocated north of the city. Columbia University purchased its Manhattan land and began building a new campus. All of the asylum’s old buildings were torn down—except one. Buell Hall is a charming red brick building that’s now almost a hundred and thirty years old. It doesn’t seem all that interesting—unless you know what lies beneath it. Rumor has it that a number of tunnels—remnants of the old asylum—connect Buell Hall to other buildings on the campus. They are part of a vast underground maze beneath Columbia, which according to at least one source, is the third largest system of tunnels in the world. (Although I know of another that’s much, much bigger.) Some of these Columbia passages are still in use, but others, such as the Buell Hall tunnels have been closed off for decades, and today, even their existence is disputed.

For a map of Columbia University, please click here.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Man in the Stacks

It’s Saturday afternoon, and at last I have news to report. I’ve spent most of the past week in the stacks of Butler Library, hoping to spot the person who stashed an electric blanket and a cheesecake underneath one of the desks. It’s not exactly how I would have chosen to spend my time. The Butler stacks—twelve vast floors of narrow aisles teeming with ancient books—are dark and often deserted. And the absence of windows means there’s never any sunlight to spoil gloom. At the end of each long aisle is a timer that activates a single dim bulb. Underestimate the time you need to find the book you’re after, and the timer will run out while you’re still yards from the switch. In an instant, you’ll find yourself alone in the dark, remembering why the stacks were chosen as the setting for the famous first scene of the film "Ghostbusters".

While I love a good library, I’ve never been a fan of the dark, and I usually try to avoid the stacks. But I had a hunch I needed to find the person who’d been using the electric blanket. And if I’ve learned nothing else from Kiki Strike over the years, I’ve learned to trust my hunches. So, last Sunday afternoon, I returned to the stacks. I found the blanket missing and an empty cheesecake box. But instead of abandoning my stakeout, I chose a desk nearby and proceeded to wait . . . and wait . . . and wait.

Of course I had to leave the library to attend classes and deal with matters of personal hygiene. But most of my time was spent hunched over that desk in the darkest part of the stacks, with only a tiny flashlight to break through the blackness. By yesterday, though, I hadn’t witnessed anything more interesting than a kissing couple and a frat boy weeping over a copy of Pride and Prejudice. I started to wonder if I was wasting my time. The maple syrup smell had returned to Manhattan, and the Irregulars were expecting an explanation.

Fortunately, I wasn’t at a loss for entertainment. I had come across a book on the history of Columbia University lying on a chair not far from where I had discovered the electric blanket. Around midnight, I was halfway through a chapter on the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum that once stood on the land where the university was later built, when my eyelids began to droop with fatigue. I rested my head on the open book and promptly passed out. Several hours later, I woke with a start. My flashlight’s bulb had burnt out, and a massive figure was looming over me. It was dressed in a black, hooded raincoat that reeked of mold and dust. I could see very little in the darkness, but a glint of metal led me to believe it was wearing goggles of some sort.

“You’re drooling on my book.’’ The voice was deep—undoubtedly male. I felt a hand yank the book out from under me.

I fell from my chair, but I’m pleased to report that I didn’t scream. Without pausing to think, I groped for the timer, but when the weak light flickered on in the aisle, there was no one there. I was alone in the stacks.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Welcome to My Diary

If you’ve managed to find your way to my website, you probably know who I am and what I do. But for those lucky few who’ve stumbled here by chance, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Ananka Fishbein. I am an 18-year-old student at Columbia University, and for the last six years, I have belonged to a group known as the Irregulars. Our mission is to protect New York City and the underground world that lies beneath it. So far, we have been successful.

Even if you have never heard of the Irregulars, you may be familiar with one of my colleagues. Though she avoids publicity and only grants interviews to elementary school newspapers, Kiki Strike is well known in Manhattan. She’s been credited with uncovering dozens of criminal plots and saving countless lives. But Kiki would be the first to admit that she could never do it all on her own.

Which brings me to the purpose of this website. The Irregulars could use your help. We need people like you to keep their eyes and ears open—to pay attention to what’s going on around them. In New York, strange things happen every minute, and no one seems to pay them much mind. They make the news one day, and then are forgotten the next. Right now, for instance, I am personally investigating two disturbing phenomena:

1. Since October of 2005, a mysterious maple syrup smell has periodically engulfed Manhattan. It has been detected as far south as Brooklyn and has been described as “overpoweringly delicious” in parts of Harlem. Some news articles have pointed the finger at New Jersey, where all strange smells are thought to originate. I, however, am not convinced that the Garden State is responsible.

2. Every winter, New York is plagued with exploding manholes and electrified sidewalks. Pedestrians are terrified, innocent poodles are zapped, and sometimes the consequences are tragic. The authorities are satisfied that frayed underground electrical wires and incompetence are responsible. However, the Irregulars know that there’s far more beneath the city’s sidewalks than damaged wires and pressurized gases.

Unfortunately, even with the Irregulars’ assistance, I have reached dead ends in my investigations of the maple syrup smell and New York’s electrified sidewalks. And now I’m afraid that I may need to turn my attention to an entirely new subject. Yesterday, while searching for information on manhole cover designs in my school’s library, I found an electric blanket and half-eaten cheesecake hidden under a desk in a dark corner of the sixth floor.

Those of you who live in the city may remember the “Bobst Boy”—a student who was discovered living in a remote part of the New York University library a few years back. After what I uncovered yesterday, I believe there may be someone secretly living in Butler, Columbia University's main library—and I’m not sure it’s a student who’s short on funds.

More later . . .