In the down under

Two trip reports of illicit underground (sewers, subways, and steam tunnels) explorations of New York by Steve Duncan and Erling Kagge offer different perspectives. Jacki Lyden’s long piece for Weekend ATC is relatively straightforward, albeit with a dose of Radiolab sound effects. Alan Feuer’s diary for the New York Times, on the other hand, takes a hard left turn midway. The story turns into the story of the documentors of the project.

Wednesday, 12:15 a.m.
114 Delancey Street, Manhattan

…there are problems: the entourage has gotten too large. Everyone wants to go into the subways: me and a photographer from The Times; Jacki and an NPR producer; Andrew the videographer; even Will Hunt, the spotter. There were four of us in the sewers; now there are eight. What, I think, has happened to the intimate expedition?

Steve senses the concern and hastily announces that he, Andrew and Erling will go ahead; the rest of us can follow at a distance. I fail to see the point in exploring without the “explorers.” I confront Steve, tell him this is useless. Is this an expedition, or a media event? Disillusioned, I leave.

4:03 a.m.
West 181st Street, Manhattan

From home, I e-mail Steve and Erling: “I understand why you guys wanted to publicize this poetic adventure. … Unfortunately, the thing that wanted to be publicized was slowed down and rendered moot by the distracting number of people you brought in.” I add that it’s become impossible to describe two men on a journey when, in fact, a media army — with sound booms, cameras, video equipment — is in tow. I wish them well, offer no hard feelings.

3:32 p.m.
620 Eighth Avenue, Manhattan

An e-mail and an epiphany. The epiphany: When Ernest Shackleton went to the South Pole in the early 1900s, he himself documented the journey in a diary. Not so, in 2010, in media-soaked New York, where, it dawns on me, the crowd of chroniclers is fitting in its own way.

Another twist in Feuer’s version of the story that is more This American Life than The Gray Lady is the abrupt end to their visit with the woman known as Brooklyn, dweller in the Amtrak tunnel: B.K., her boyfriend, shows up and throws the whole lot of them out.

I’m uncomfortable with Lyden’s lack of reciprocal acknowledgment that another reporter and photographer were accompanying the urban spelunkers.

At any rate, the naturalist in me finds it interesting that one of Duncan and Kagge’s routes follows Tibbetts Brook through the Bronx, a waterway long ago confined underground by pavement.