“There’s a tunnel in the basement of the old building,” Lois Lane told me. “It ran beneath the arterial –“
“Mill Street,” I said.
“—all the way to Conklin Avenue on the other side. It was an underground railroad stop. There was a false wall, but you know. The building was in such awful shape – all the bricks were crumbling, trees growing up through the foundation. So you could see it. Billy –“ her boyfriend “– grew up on Conklin Avenue, so he knew where it came out.”
I’d absolutely hated the Literacy Center’s old building with its rabbit warren of gloomy rooms, its perpetual miasma of mildew and the scent of the dead animals that had crawled into its crumbling walls over the course of a century and a half.
And there was a lot of underground railroad activity in Dutchess County.
But I’m more inclined to think that this tunnel was dug around the turn of the 20th century to serve as a conduit for underground telegraph wires.
I’ve done a lot of research into the history of this locality. No Quakers lived in Poughkeepsie proper in the 1840s and the 1850s. And Quakers were the guiding spirits behind the underground railroad.
“What happened to Poughkeepsie anyway?” I asked Lois Lane. (Long-time readers will recognize this as a question that has obsessed me since I moved to the Hudson Valley four years ago.)
“Crack cocaine,” said Lois. “And prisons – parolees have to live near ‘em. And rehabs. Because wherever you have ostensibly recovering junkies, you will have an equal or greater number of non-recovering junkies. And, of course, the line separating those two groups is very, very permeable.”
“During the 80s and 90s, there were a lot of wild parties in those underground railroad tunnels,” she added. Wistfully.
Lois Lane and I were socializing.
For some reason, the Vassar Art Department had decided to book the actor Federico Castellucchio (Furio on The Sopranos) for a lecture.
I was interested because, you know, Furio. (Have you thought about flooring?)
Lois Lane was interested because fr-r-r-eeee!
Lois Lane is someone I’ve wanted to socialize with for a very, very long time. She speaks the language, she’s really fuckin’ smart, and she has a fascinating backstory. Moreover, there is something almost saintly about her – no, no, I’m not exaggerating – a halo of pathos: She’s someone who’s known great pain and has come out the other side without the protective amnesia that most people develop when they’ve had the experience of great pain.
I’d put out tiny feelers from time to time, but I’d understood when I was rebuffed. I can see how much it takes out of her to maintain that façade of normalacy; I sensed that her needs for decompression, down time, isolation were probably much, much greater than mine. No hard feelings.
So, I was shocked and pleased when she suggested this outing.
Castellucchio – who mispronounces his last name Casta-looch-ee-yo – turns out to be a fairly talented artist who knows a lot about 16th century Baroque painting, so his lecture turned out to be fairly entertaining even if he’s no longer the steely-eyed stud in the Angel Raphael hairstyle that Carmela Soprano lusted over. I should note here that Carravagio is one of my favorite painters (plus talk about your interesting backstories.)
Lois Lane was too broke to do dinner afterwards, and I didn’t want to embarrass her by suggesting that I would pay for her to eat. So we chatted in the parking lot outside the Literacy Center’s new, rather boring but completely odorless digs.
“What was the moment that turned it all around for you?” I asked softly. “Was it when you were institutionalized?”
“Not the first time,” Lois Lane said. “Not the second time. But the third time… I was really strung out and hooking on the streets. And there was this girl. And I can’t even remember what I did for her, but she remembered what I did for her.
“And, of course, I got busted and was standing in front of the judge in my little orange jumpsuit. ‘You used to be a Marine!’ says the judge all shocked. Because I was ex-military, they gave me a light sentence, right? But part of it was lockup.
“And I get this package. And it was from that girl. It had gummy bears and coffee and all the things you’d need to make coffee in lockup, and a bunch of other stuff you need when you’re in that situation. And she’d written a note: You were very kind to me when I needed it, so I want to return the favor. And I’m going to say what you said to me then: You’re too good to be doing this.”
Lois Lane sighed. “That’s really what did it.”
I nodded. “The message in the bottle.”
“I mean, not that it happened overnight. It was a long, long, long struggle. I was homeless for a while there. I was –“ She bit her lip and stopped talking for a couple of moments. “It was the beginning, though.”
“What happened to the girl?”
“Last time I heard, she was strung out. And hooking.”
“You really need to write a memoir, you know,” I told Lois Lane.
She’s a fine writer.
“Also you really need to come with me to the Brooklyn Museum to visit the cat mummies.”
“I would like that,” Lois Lane said. “I would like that a lot.”