In Jennifer Toth’s, The Mole People, the author ironically intends to dismiss the urban myth of animal-like underground dwellers by presenting her readership with the personal accounts of those who inhabit the tunnels beneath New York City. It is unfortunate that Toth’s lofty attempt to metaphorically resurrect the underground homeless bares more likeness to the 1956 movie monster series of the same name than to the perception of its ultimate purpose. Toth’s interpretation of life in the tunnels beneath New York City becomes the sensationalized voyage of a dichotomous nether world.
By merely depicting the underground homeless as a dystopic or utopic subculture Toth proliferates the misrepresentations of homelessness, all the while inadvertently dehumanizing the “mole people” to be as visceral as their label suggests. In the 1956 Universal Studios’ release of The Mole People, intrepid archaeologists John Agar and Hugh Beaumont explore treacherous caverns only to discover an underground dwelling race of albinos who keep as their slaves the hunchbacked, clawed and bug-eyed Mole People.
The film’s trailer contemplates whether or not these heroes “can save themselves with only a flashlight for a weapon”. (“Rotten Tomatoes” 1) The very nature of this seedy horror film is seemingly analogous to the way in which Toth, having strode beneath the heart of New York with only a can of Mace from her father, acts as our brave guide to the subterranean dystopia she has stumbled upon. The thrill of this adventure has obviously jaded Toth’s sense of objectivity, regardless of what her disclaimer (Author’s Note) might offer as “relevant” proof against this arguement.
Simply by naming her book, The Mole People, Toth has chosen to sensationalize the perplexities of the underground homeless. Toth is unhesitant to portray the dystopia of a menacing subculture of irrational activity and unpredictable emotion. The “Dark Angel” chapter contains the most redundant display of Toth’s overt voyeurism, comparable only to the final few pages of the book’s epilogue in which Toth “escapes” from the horror of the “mole people” entirely. The devil-like figure that Toth devotes an entire chapter to could easily be miscued as an accurate representation of the underground homeless population.
More importantly, if Toth were truly trying to alter the public perception of the mole people why would she include such an extraordinary spokesperson? Perhaps “Satan” is right when he describes Toth as “having a fascination with the darkness of the tunnel” and the evil within it. (Toth 165) This fascination leads Toth to go so far as to despotically define the smells of homelessness: “spoiled and soured food from scavenged dumpsters, stale sweat, and the excrement and urine of the streets”.
(Toth 78) In conjunction with the terrifying adventures of her personal narrative, the quotes Toth selectively employ lend themselves to support her dystopic image of a carnal subculture. Rob Buckley, the director of the All Saints’ Soup Kitchen on New York’s Upper West Side, affirms, “Once you go down there and see the way they live, like animals, you can surely say no human beings live like that. ” (qtd. in Toth 91) Harold Deamues, a volunteer with ADAPT (The Association for Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment) attests to “feeling their eyes” and starting to wonder about the stories of cannibalism.
(qtd. in Toth 160) Luckily, on the next page Toth goes on to state that Daniel Crump, a steward for the Transit Workers and Mechanics Union, “is one of the first knowledgeable people to talk about the underground homeless with her”. (161) Perhaps, her audience can momentarily refrain from peeing its pants; that is until she incessantly reminds them of a third rail that pulses with electricity, or of the hidden criminals, drug addicts, enormous rats and rushing trains that occupy the tunnels.
However, just when it is reasonable to believe that the “mole people” are villainous creatures, doomed to the lifelessness of their underground dystopia, Toth strategically twists the plot and allows her audience to empathize with them. Once more, Toth’s work is reminiscent of the Universal Studios’ 1956 monster series of the same name; the only difference being that their “mole people” partook in terrible dance scenes when they grew tired of enforcing their reign of terror upon society.
For obvious reasons, portraying the tunnels as an alternative utopia to the “topside world” becomes just as harmful to Toth’s “cause” as it is to depict the tunnels as a dystopia. This book craves for a common ground. Toth’s glorification of what she calls “the homeless version of the sweet life” is equally disturbing in the sense that it has the ability to tempt its audience into wanting to join the ranks of the underground homeless.
Needless to say, the enchantment and hyper-reality of Disneyland cannot lie within a subway tunnel. One is lead to believe that Toth would have her “mole people” singing and dancing in a well-orchestrated chorus line if she could. Toth goes on to fantasize about Ghost Cliff, “a ten-thousand-year-old standing forest buried deep under the Upper West Side”, and a room “with a piano and tiled floor with mirrors all around” that is even known to have a fountain as part of its di?? cor.
(234) Toth paints a lucid picture of hidden societies that consist only of “those who believe in the human spirit”, as is the case with J. C. ‘s community. (209) Example after example of these utopic places insists that some of the underground homeless are free from any kind of outside pressure. There is no fighting or struggling to be someone; everyone is part of a community established to abide by a basic human religion. The only war the “mole people” wage in is an “independent fight against society and its institutions”. (Toth 178).
As unrealistic and harmful as it may be for Toth to display the “mole people” as a strictly dichotomous subculture, what’s more detrimental to Toth’s, The Mole People, and more specifically the goal it has set for itself, is the way in which she persistently dehumanizes the homeless throughout her work. There are at least 41 instances in the book in which Toth metaphorically compares the underground homeless to some sort of animal. Within the first few pages of the introduction Toth identifies the homeless as “wild and frightening…
untamed and dangerous”. (2) Perhaps one of the most obvious examples (of the way in which Toth undermines the goal of her book) can be found in her first impression of Bernard. Toth describes Bernard as “gliding” towards her over the tracks only to crouch when he reaches her “in preparation to lash out”. Bernard goes on to circle Toth, prowling silently, leading Toth to believe she has found a mole person. (97-98) Are these the best words for an author to use who is hoping to dispose of the animalistic images that illustrate underground homelessness?
When Toth suggests that Teresa was once a “teddy bear, all round and always laughing” but now she “moves like a colt, an angular body with loose skin over sharp bones”, it becomes obvious that the “mole people” are to be viewed as animals. (86) She goes on to depict Joey as being seen as a “useless parasite of an old man”. (113) Toth can “feel the eyes” of the “mole people” in tunnel and often distinguishes them by way of their faint growls and reverse hisses.
Toth admits that the Dark Angel personifies her visceral fears of the underground and the creatures that exist there. (169) She encounters gangs of youth who roam the tunnels for helpless prey, laughs at alien-like figures that resemble E. T. and compares the entryway of J. C. ‘s community to the entrance of a “good-sized dog house”. (193) Throughout The Mole People, Toth continually stresses the importance of possessing “a primeval instinct for survival” when beneath the tunnels in New York City. (239).