BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : A Balanced Look at New York City's 'Mole People' : THE MOLE PEOPLE: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City by Jennifer Toth ; Chicago Review Press $19.95, 255 pages


One of the many paradoxes of the '80s was that as the number of homeless people mushroomed, both conservative and liberal advocates found it nearly impossible to generate much public interest in their proposed solutions to the problem.

Liberals wrote long, heartfelt accounts of the hardships of the non-working poor, but these didn't exactly go over well with those in the increasingly hard-pressed and hard-working middle class. Most conservatives, in turn, were demure in their criticism, finding it too politically incorrect to ask "the bums" to get jobs or face prison.

When less judicious thinkers such as Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern began grabbing headlines in the early '90s, however, many homeless advocates finally started becoming politically savvy. Their tactics may not be as sophisticated as David Gergen's, but they nevertheless made Jennifer Toth, a staff writer for the Raleigh News & Observer, feel manipulated when she began researching this book about the 5,000-plus homeless living in the network of sewer, water and train lines that form an 18-story-deep honeycomb under New York City.

But while Toth often gives in to the advocates' pressure--letting them frame the messages and themes of some chapters--she never takes sides with any one constituency. She deftly manages to reserve her emotional allegiance for the underground homeless themselves, while at the same time rejecting their paranoid tendency to deny the beneficence of all authorities above-ground.

The first advocacy group that "The Mole People" gives voice to are those who say the homeless are nuts. Toth describes women who wrap their heads with toilet paper to keep old "ideas from flying out or new ideas from flying in"; a tunnel-dwelling man called the Dark Angel who likes to scare cops by rising, arms crossed over his chest, out of his coffin-shaped box; and Nell, 31, a heavy woman who looks muddled and confused when Toth asks if she might be pregnant:

"You mean a baby? Naw, it ain't that. My belly's always been big." Then, as the thought sinks in: "Maybe though. . . . Ain't bled for a while."

"She turns out," Toth writes, "to be seven months pregnant. Her baby is born in a hospital, trembling, addicted to crack cocaine."

Toth doesn't interview these people enough to give us a sense of whether their mental illness might be due to neuro-biological defects, social trauma or drugs. Still, she never demonizes them for dramatic effect, as Victor Hugo did, for example, when he wrote, in "Les Miserables," of "a fearful, sacred voice" coming from "an enormous black hole" and composed "of the raving brute and speech of God."

The second main advocacy group for the homeless wants to portray them as "just like us" in order to play upon the widespread fear that we all could fall through the American safety net--the same tactic now helping the President and Hillary Rodham Clinton sell their health-care plan.

Toth's decision to write "The Mole People" grew out of this very kind of identification with the homeless. One night when she left her apartment in tears and a homeless women gave her a limp, fading white carnation, she came to see the homeless no longer as "untamed and dangerous" strangers, but as kin.

Toth is sometimes too affectionate toward "the homeless are us" camp; she recounts the poignant story of how one man entered the tunnels after being stabbed, raped and beaten, for instance, but she doesn't question his strange behavior, as when he says he "just doesn't have the time" to visit a public hospital to get his very serious foot wound sutured.

Generally, though, Toth keeps a healthy distance from both advocacy camps, and so we come to trust her as our guide to this subterranean world.

And what a world it is. After snaking with Toth over fences, into manholes, down rusty stairs, across planks and catwalks, and through fissures in cement walls, we enter what one police officer describes as "a city beneath the streets."

In one of the city's communities, the "mayor" introduces Toth to the community's schoolteacher and nurse, both of whom claim to be certified by the state, and shows her amenities including exercise and laundry rooms and a kitchen where food is cooked on hot steam pipes. In another, she meets an urban mountain man who cooks a brown rat the size of a small adult raccoon by the open fire while enthusing about his favorite book, Thoreau's "Walden."

Still, lest you think this would make for a sexy, "Blade Runner"-style TV series, Toth refuses to romanticize the underground: "Here, rats run in dark waves toward, not away, from people and the crunch of roaches underfoot is as familiar as the stench of sewage seeping through the rock walls."

Toth doesn't offer any specific salvation for the mole people, but one remedy emerges clearly from her vivid reporting: These people will never leave their dark dens until the world above offers them more options than crime-infested shelters, food handouts and jail cells. Lacking the parenting and supervision most of them need to reverse years of trauma, the mole people have found a home of sorts in the tunnels.

And only the promise of real, nurturing havens above ground, Toth discovers, can lure them into the light. As one social worker tells her of the world "up there": "It's all sink or swim, and a lot aren't strong enough to swim."

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