Book Club: The Mole People by Jennifer Toth

We each take turns writing our blog posts for the book club. This entry was from Rebecca Miller-Webster, one of our software developers who is obsessed with her black pug, Maverick.

Living in New York, the homeless become part of the landscape of the city. You often come to know the homeless that live along the route of your commute. For me, it is the exceptionally disheveled man with the worst under bite I have ever seen who, between himself and his garbage bags containing his belongings, claims a few seats on a bench on the downtown 4/5/6 platform at Grand Central station. It is also the middle aged Asian woman who sleeps in the walkway to the subway. She in particular pulls at my heartstrings as she seems like someone who is just down on their luck. I believe I’m not alone in thinking that, either, as I constantly see trays of sandwiches left over from meetings and other food and sometimes money left near the comforter she lays on the ground as her bed.

I chose the book The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City by Jennifer Toth for the book club because of this common experience those of us in the book club share. I figure that homelessness was something we saw everyday and discussions of it would generate interesting discussion. I was right.

Apparently, beyond the homeless people I described above, the ones living on subway platforms and walkways, there is another layer of people living within the actual subway tunnels below ground. I say apparently because there is some controversy over whether all or part of the book was made-up or at least a little too believing of the homeless people with which the author interacts. Surprisingly (at least to me), we didn’t end up discussing this controversy too much.

The book chronicles the experiences the author, Jennifer Toth, has investigating this sub-culture of people living in the tunnels of the New York City subway system. She describes going into these tunnels many times both with homeless “guides” who take her to their “communities” and with a New York City police officer who is assigned to the underground homeless. She speaks to some homeless advocates and agency workers, some of whom have contact with the underground homeless. The homeless people living underground with whom she interacts range from drug addicts, to the clearly mentally ill to a gang of violent, drug-addled teenagers to seemingly lucid members of full-fledged communities consisting of adults and families with heat, electricity and water rigged from the electric and water systems of the subway and the city itself. Many of those in these somewhat functional communities argue that they are either not wanted in the “topside” (above ground) world and/or prefer the underground where they have created a utopian society. A good number of them have jobs and yet still remain living in the underground tunnels.

To get the discussion going, I began with the question: “Are these people drug addicted, crazy, resourceful, or just lazy?”

Most people answered with a combination of the above. One member felt that many of the underground homeless, particularly those not mentally ill and addicted to drugs, were lazy. Another member asked if we all thought that if in 30 days we lost everything – family, home, job – we would be homeless or if we had grown up in some of the unfortunate circumstances of many of the homeless described in the book, if we would have ended up homeless. Some of us felt that we would never or it would be very unlikely that we would ever be homeless – they felt that they would do anything including working three jobs cleaning toilets or whatever job we could get to support our family. Others of us acknowledged that we could envision a scenario where we would be homeless and they felt empathetic towards many in the book.

I, personally, fall in latter camp. Many news articles have reiterated the statistic that many Americans are one or two paychecks away from homelessness. With the current state of the economy and the expense of living in New York City, I can envision a worst-case scenario that would involve homelessness. Can you? I also fall pretty heavily into the underground homeless – at least the selective group that Ms. Toth chose to interview and include in the book – are incredibly resourceful camp. Sure many suffer from addiction and mental illness but I was struck by the incredible will humans have to survive. In fact, I often found myself thinking of our previous book club book, The Sex Lives of Cannibals. What struck me in both books was the ability of people to survive under terrible conditions and the complete ineffectiveness and misplaced resources of governments and non-profits and other well-meaning organizations to actually give people what they need to improve their lives.

Then the question becomes what do these people need, do they know, and are some beyond help? We spent a fair amount of time discussing our responsibility as a society to these people. Are there those who are so far gone into drug addiction that they cannot be helped? How many times does one have to go to rehab and relapse for this to be the case? Should we return to involuntary institutionalization of the mentally ill and if so, how do ensure that those not mentally ill aren’t institutionalized as a form of social control? What is our moral responsibility to the homeless in general and the underground homeless in particular? The group’s views varied widely and was sometimes contradictory, evidence that we personally and as a society, don’t have particularly good answers to these questions. What do you think?

Towards the end of the discussion we discussed the author, particularly our feeling that she should have put more of herself into the book. Who is Jennifer Toth and why did she write this story? Was she particularly crazy or stupid or reckless to go into those tunnels alone? How much of the story seemed exaggerated? Did the fact that she was a woman and perceived as vulnerable help the underground homeless, a particularly untrusting group trust her? Unfortunately, there is limited information on Jennifer Toth so we don’t have many answers to these questions. As a book club, though, this seems to be somewhat of a predominant theme: many of the stories we’ve read seem to lack background information that we believe would make the story so much richer. Authors, take note! 🙂

Have you read “The Mole People?” What are your thoughts?

Next month the book club takes an unexpected turn. Abel has chosen the graphic novel/manga Tekkon Kinkreet for our next selection.

One Response to Book Club: The Mole People by Jennifer Toth

  1. Ridgely D. January 28, 2010 at 1:13 AM #

    As an anthropologist, I loved this book. There were some areas where I felt she called up a bit too much wordplay, but the book was never intended as a strong example of research or interview methods. To me, what is interesting is the big question of escape and creating a society that in fundementally separated from the mainstream.

    Also check out Marc Singer’s documentary – it’s on Netflix. It’s less sensational, but very good.

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