"This wasn't here before," she whispers, laying a gloved hand against the wall. The wood is new, not yet bombed with graffiti. I can smell the sawdust.
Beside her, Chris rears up against the partition, pressing his huge frame against it, pushing back his dreadlocks to listen at the wall. "I don't hear anything on the other side," he growls.
Cruise stays back, his eyes darting around the subway tracks, through the chain link fence above us. He takes off his glasses and cleans them mechanically.
"Well?" I speak at last, looking to the three explorers for some decision. We're standing on dead subway tracks in the open air of night, in the bowels of the Manhattan Bridge, at the unexpectedly sealed entrance to the Canal Street subway tunnel. We were supposed to enter here to enter here, follow the tracks to the station, and nonchalantly climb up onto the platform with the commuters. Now a few hundred square feet of wall stood between our plan and success. I say "our plan," but I'm only along for the ride. This is a Dark Passage mission.
"What are we going to do?" I whisper.
Chris and Cruise are breathing in the cold, standing silent. They're looking to Julia.
Her look back is a direct order to proceed.
I stand back with her, basking in her weird glow of wordless authority, yielding somewhat, I suppose, as Chris goes to work on the partition with a heavy length of pipe. The bridge, like the subway line, is closed for construction. There shouldn't be anyone around to hear the blows. Still, it's unnerving; the noise is retrograde to our purpose. Chris is a big son of a bitch, six four, with maybe two seventy-five on him. I shudder at the force of the pipe on the cordwood. All that power, directed by less than a gesture. It must have taken the construction crew half a day to build that wall, sealing up a space big enough for four subway trains. A flash of Julia's eyes is enough to bring it down.
"Subway tunnels are still among the most exciting locations for me," Julia tells me, "feeling your bones vibrate from an approaching train, seeing the train from the bottom up, in its natural habitat; it's like being on a safari."
Five minutes and we're through. You never get used to some things, and one of them is trespassing through New York City subway tunnels. The same lethal truths that brought you here can start to shout you back, louder and louder in unison as you go. Rats, Cops, the smell of decadence and trash and standing water, slithering third rails; death can come at you from any direction and at any speed - the electricity is faster than the trains, the trains are faster than the schizophrenics who live under the grates, the schizophrenics are faster than the hepatitis. The tunnel ceiling is arrayed with a thousand naked light bulbs, each one lighting the way ahead. Who the hell changes all these light bulbs? Why are they lighting an empty tunnel? There's dust everywhere; the air is hard and frigid. We're already filthy as we begin our march.
"I got lost the first time I came down here," says Julia, "My friend and I had walked for two hours and could no longer tell which rails were live and which weren't. We saw trains pass next to us that according to our maps should not even be in the same vicinity. We turned a corner and suddenly found ourselves ten feet from a platform; people were staring at us. My friend yelled 'run' at the top of his lungs. It was a close call. I couldn't wait to come back."
Watching her now, it's hard to imagine she ever got lost down here. Julia Solis, underworld boss of her own urban exploration crew, Dark Passage; Writer, translator, born in Hamburg, Germany, published on two continents. She glides as easily over the junk-strewn tracks as across a ballroom floor.
From the scorched psychic landscape of the postwar world emerged a new genre - painted in the shades of inner city gangsters, flavored with the anguish of Parisian existentialism - the world called it Film Noir. Dark Passage is Julia's realization of that genre. "My influences are Catherine Deneuve in 'Belle du Jour,'" she explains, "The characters of Rita Hayworth. I've spent much time studying Barbara Stanwyck films such as "Double Indemnity, and 'The Lady Eve."
These are strong women, mature and aware in their moral sophistication. They are the sadder but wiser women, capable of luring men to murder and destruction. Finally, they are women of substance expressed through consummate style. These are the prototypical femmes fatales, black and white goddesses with hearts and minds of steel.
"I started modeling myself after 1940's women very early in life. Women in noirs, especially, are very elegant, vulnerable, and they mind their table manners - you don't know they've kicked your ass until you're sprawled on the tracks facing an oncoming train. It's glorious."
Dark Passage, she reminds me, is itself named for the novel that became the Bogart film.
So it's natural we find ourselves here. The long shadows of the Canal street tunnel evoke nothing so much as "The Third Man." Jinx operations below the city streets are fairly common, but I've never seen anything like this. Whole tunnels converge as we pass, lit up as subway tunnels never are, empty and silent. Hollow passageways, leading into darkness, are carved into the walls. Of course, graffiti is everywhere.
See that," Chris booms over to me, pointing up at some scrawl behind him. It's a diary entry, penned in blue spraypaint. It's dated, only a few months old. "Have you ever heard of Revs?" he asks me.
I tell him I haven't.
"He was huge in the eighties. About ten years ago he and his brother got busted - it was one of the biggest graffiti busts ever, hundreds of thousands in fines. They were ordered never to tag again or else. Obviously, they're still at it."
"They're legends," Cruise looks up in awe.
"What amazes me," continues Chris, "is that some of the stuff they did back in the day was seen by millions, that's how prominent it was. And now they're working for an audience of what, four people?"
Julia is half-listening. She's leaning against the cold concrete, staring down a tunnel that veers off to the side, deep into the darkness. "That line is still active," she murmurs. "Here comes the Q train now."
Standing there in her wool-knit cap, jeans and workman's jacket, her eyes fixed the stabbing headlight of the Q, she retains the elegance that is her signature. This is a woman who says her greatest defeat was walking into the Miu Miu store and finding herself twenty dollars short of the perfect pair of shoes. Yet here, as the deafening rumble washes over her, she is utterly in her element; without the shoes, the Stanwyck dress and the slow burn of a cigarette, she exudes style.
"Hey," Cruise's voice breaks my reverie, "I think there's somebody in there."
A door I hadn't even noticed creaks open just enough to reveal a single eye behind it. "What the hell you doin' out here," comes the voice, more a challenge than a question.
We're sorry to bother you," Julia tells him gently, her face settled in a half-smile, "We're just looking around. Good night." I'm backing away quickly. A man paranoid enough to live behind a locked door in a subway tunnel under a bridge is paranoid enough to be armed.
When we're safely on the other side of a concrete barricade, Chris grins. "He was watching T.V. in there."
Moving further down the track, we're startled to see several trains parked ahead of us, with their signal lights on.
"This is strange," Julia tells us, stopping short. "I've never seen trains here before. I wonder if there might be people down here working on them."
We approach with trepidation. There's no plausible explanation we could offer should we encounter an official. Still, this is a rare opportunity. The trains lie naked before us, impassively displaying their intimate parts. We examine the wheels and undercarriages, the engineer's booths, all the places unseen by straphangers on their way to work.
"Shit," I say, noticing blood is streaming down Chris's wrist.
"Yeah," he smiles, showing me the cut on his filthy hand. "Better wash this soon. This isn't ordinary dust down here; it's finely ground steel. Once I was working in another tunnel with some magnetic bolts, and when I went to pick them up, they were completely covered. You could really get a fair supply of steel down here if you wanted, but I don't know what you'd do with it. Maybe make some thermite."
Chris is the demolitions expert for Dark Passage. He and Cruise have been known to work fireworks displays into Julia's events. Indeed, theatrics and roleplaying are a vital part of her unique vision for Urban Exploration. "Adventures are great stimulants of the imagination. My primary focus is on writing fiction and I love to play games; explorations tie these two together very harmoniously." Dark Passage has brought large and diverse groups together for games of hide-and-seek in graveyards, huge banquets served on subway tracks, and close encounters with abandoned lunatic asylums.
"Let's go back," she tells us. She has spotted several construction workers ahead, moving towards us. We oblige, hurrying over the rough gravel and debris, back where we came from.
Julia doesn't consider herself a femme fatale. "From my understanding, a femme fatale is a woman who uses her charm to lead men into dangerous situations, preferably leaving them dead, mutilated, or brokenhearted. As far as explorations go, I think of myself as fairly responsible."
So she says, as she leads us three men through a sunless dungeon that hums with live third rails, a single misstep from arrest or violence. And we follow.
She's walking a few feet ahead of me now, a more vivid illustration of the femme fatale than has ever been caught on film. She says the biggest misconception people have about her is that she hates them. She says fear never hurts. "It hones your skills of perception and can be a motivator. It plays a great role, actually, in that it can be an excellent conduit for experiences. Some situations I encountered with my partner, a co-founder of Dark Passage who dropped out this summer, were pretty hairy. I prefer to go into truly sinister situations with only one companion so that I'm not distracted from what the building seems to divulge. If something terrifies me, I take a closer look. I don't climb bridges for the view, but because I'm terrified of heights and my survival literally depends on overcoming this fear with every step."
Here is the essential motivator. If she seeks danger, it is because she refuses to be mastered by her fear. And if she has brought three men with her into danger, it is not for hatred, not to destroy them, but to share with them that great overcoming. I look at Chris and Cruise and I see that they're grateful to be along for the ride, grateful to be of use to her. And how does she choose the men who will follow her?
"As a woman, I have to be concerned with self-protection. I have gone on explorations with a variety of gentlemen when we numbered only two. I have to weigh the possible risks of the site against the protection afforded by my companion and my own means of defense. On one occasion I was left alone on a subway tunnel, face to face with a mole person. He was gracious enough to scurry off. But I prefer not to rely on luck.
We leave the tunnel, returning to the clean, cold air of night, and I'm chilled to realize that tomorrow belongs to the femme fatale. If men such as Chris and Cruise, men of guts, brains, ingenuity and vision, are willingly mere shades in the palette of this woman's noir creation, what fate but usurpation can await the Jinx Project, and the world? Worse than needing to follow her, we want to. We crave her guidance, even into the darkest passages of the city.
I have one last question for Julia before we say goodnight - an appeal to the hegemony of a dying age. What does she say to those who insist that adventure is a man's world?
Julia only smiles. "I'd like to hear someone say that to me, actually."