Notes from the New York Underground: DARK DAYS

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In the mid- to late nineties, documentary director Marc Singer spent months among the homeless population of a New York train tunnel due to be renovated by Amtrack. The result is DARK DAYS.

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The use of black and white film adds to the eeriness of living underground. As the film opens we follow Greg, who could be any New Yorker walking along at night until he slips into a hidden entrance to the train tunnels. (The filmmakers kept the entrances hidden from authorities.) On the informative commentary the director notes that he and his team tapped into the electric power cables for lights so they would be able to film. Comparisons to post-apocalyptic films may be cliched, but they hold. Whether it’s real life or a Mad Max movie, a habitat created from the leftovers and trash of a big city looks like something cobbled together, like the Liberian architecture that influenced the paintings of Basquiat. We’re introduced to several people and their houses, sheds jury-rigged constructs the residents make as anyone else makes a house, for efficiency and also comfort. Searching garbage bags for tossed-out food, brushing your teeth, having a shower using water from street run-off, dragging a new piece of furniture home–humans can adapt. You may have a broken shred of mirror and an electric razor. Or a T.V.

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The citizens of the tunnel community become friends the way people do in any work situation–warehouse workers, for example. When you depend on people to watch your back, knowing the other guy understands your situation matters. People slip into their habits, gathering food, cooking, all under the city where millions live their ordinary, complaint-filled lives.

There are rats everywhere. I’m not getting into that. Ick.

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DARK DAYS follows the lives of these people who live with the sounds of trains passing, among trash, wearing used clothes, sleeping in beds, looking through the CDs they’ve foraged, talking about the kind of trash that sells best (porn). “Each cart (of junk) contains something–money,” explains one man. Some of these guys make more money in a day than I do.

Singer lived among the residents of the tunnels for months. He doesn’t shy away from the life choices and events that led to these people being in this place. They aren’t just folks choosing alternative lifestyles. They are drug users, alcoholics, people with mental health and emotional problems. But mostly drugs–yes, including pot. One scene shows the simple boredom of smoking crack. Yay, choice!

Late in the film we learn the story of a woman who once had two kids. Other than her own hell on earth, the woman drives home the simple, easily-ignored fact that everyone has their own story. The Homeless are no more a monolithic group than People Who Rent Apartments.

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DARK DAYS isn’t for folks who like Cool and Edgy Dark Shit like SIN CITY. It is a focused, humane look at a community made up of folks who make up any community–good folks, bad folks. But drug abuse had a part of almost all of these lives.

It’s not about saying drugs are good, it’s about saying, this is what drug use can lead to–losing everything, and still being alive, in a major city, clinging on, in the dark.

I don’t seem to have much to say about this movie, other than “See it.” Years ago, I worked in a homeless shelter for a few months. What I came away from the experience with is an understanding of WHY some people are homeless, and why there always will be homeless people.

DARK DAYS won’t give you that level of understanding. But it’s not a bad place to start if you want to learn.

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2 comments

  1. It’s worth looking up. Someone posted it to YouTube with the director’s commentary track audio, but you should see it ‘clean’ first. (Search it on YT if you want a taste of it). I learned a lot about people working in a shelter, and the experience has never left me. I bet I think about it every day.

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  2. Good write up. I may have seen a little of this back in the day. I will seek out again. Homelessness is scary to me. Like prison. I spent 36 hours in the Tombs in NYC in my twenties and came away with similar beliefs. Why there are people in jail and why there always will be. Similar beasts, IMO.

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