Harmony in Concrete
Somehow being in the sunlight at the top of the tower, letting traffic pass right over my head and cast brief shadows across my face felt like being washed. The light came in waves.
The tower is an underground structure, and the most interesting feature of a small storm drain that runs under I-495 in the suburbs of Washington D.C.
Beside a jogging path there is a gravelly slope that leads down to a rectangular concrete opening beneath the noise wall of the highway. Halfway down that pipe I climbed through a hole in the wall and found myself in a circular room with plastic rungs set into the wall. Many of them were hung with reflective strips of tarmac that had swept down from the highway during rain, looking like clumps of silver and yellow seaweed growing in that place. Even so, the rungs were easy to climb. They led two stories up to a small opening in the ceiling.
Above them was a round room just high enough to sit and dangle my legs through the opening. A grille was set into the ceiling above me where it made the same double thud every time a car slammed across it: front wheels then rear wheels, and they interrupted the sunlight.
I could not get all the way to the surface, but being just under it gave me a kind of calm I have only occasionally felt in places of happened-upon solitude.
Was it because so many people were passing by me without knowing I was there? Was it because many of those people were truckers and office workers engaged in a routine of modern life? Was it wrong to think that I was somehow sidestepping the bullet train of growing up by walking through a concrete pipe and climbing a ladder?
I’ve since referred to this storm drain as “Island,” both because the word was spray-painted in orange at its entrance, and because it fits so well that respite.
When you grow up in the suburbs, you grow up with an idea of transcendence. They’re not the worst place to be, but if you’ve ever waited around for hours in a strip mall with a name like “Franklin Farms” or “Spicewind Terrace,” you know banality. Piles of mulch, cars backing listlessly out of parking spots, the incredible heat bouncing off of the asphalt, and the atomic yellow of someone’s banana Slurpee dumped on said asphalt, but that’s all just in the summer. In the emptiness of suburban summers before jobs and other commitments, there’s often a sense that you’re searching for something to do or someplace to go: an exit.
In some parts of the world, people go underground as a means of survival. Here, in the affluent suburbs of the United States, drains are essentially empty. Going into them is an act of recreation. They are not a place where anyone stays.
My own draining has been limited to the East Coast of the United States, where I have never once found another person in the tunnels. One of the largest and most well-known tunnels on the East Coast, which is not a drain but the abandoned Rochester Subway, is attached to rumors of hostile inhabitants. I’ve never been there, but the first-hand accounts I’ve been told included no inhabitants at all.
Someone writing as “Liz” in Infiltration: the zine about going places you’re not supposed to go also found little resistance on her trip to the Rochester Subway. She opens her account by mentioning some of the rumors, but the only people she finds are “a scrappy looking 30-ish guy… carrying what appeared to be a ‘to-go’ container from a restaurant, [who] greeted us with a pleasant ‘Hey! You guys ever been down here before?’” and “a couple of younger guys wearing really large headphones [who] greeted us as well and then disappeared ahead of us to go smoke or drink beer or something” . Although one of the people Liz encounters is “scrappy-looking,” they all appear to have the amenities of modern life, in this case restaurant-made meals and headphones. As well, they appear to be people simply passing through the space, much like Liz is, either for privacy or repose or some other reason.
Urban exploration is the kind of thing that’s easy to get interested in as a result of boredom because it’s useful for carving some adventure out of everyday environments. Most often, the activity takes you to abandoned places: houses, factories, shops, places with remnants of past lives. In these kinds of places you can find paystubs, photographs, and other documents of those pasts, but drains have none of that. Here’s what separates draining from the rest of urban exploration: drains are designed to be abandoned.
Drains are not sewers. They exist to carry rainwater away from roads and other non-permeable surfaces to nearby bodies of water. Sometimes they’re not much more than small pipes but sometimes they have huge tunnels, rooms, pillars, slides or stairs, useable manholes (though using them is usually dangerous), towers, and other features.
In an essay called “From Places to Non-Places,” the anthropologist Marc Augé describes the concept of a “non-place” as a transient space that is not concerned with relation, identity, or history— a product of globalization and the modern world . He lists spaces like airports, supermarkets, and freeways as examples. I offer the storm drain as another. Storm drains are everywhere and nowhere, and when you’re in them you can be no one, because they’re one of the few non-places in which you’ll ever find yourself physically alone.
East Falls Church Drain, named after the adjacent Washington Metro Station, is the largest drain I’ve ever been in. Comprised of two separate sections, the drain has three entrances on the bank of a small creek. The first entrance is a small round pipe that opens immediately into two cavernous rectangular tunnels that make up the first section. On my first trips to this section I found plenty of exposed sandbars to walk on and keep my feet dry. Within was an antique-looking chair, as well as a lot of graffiti. Someone had stenciled angels across the wall that divided the tunnels. A person using the tag “Raze” left large signatures with hard angles and upward arrows. Someone else created a red creature exclaiming “what do you mean I’m not art?” on the ceiling. Set into one wall is an entrance to a small tower with sunlight and traffic noise pouring down through it.
The tower in East Falls Church Drain is a decent place to let the traffic wash over you, but it’s not the two-story shaft where I waited in Island. I used a sharpie to write “this is what highways really sound like” on the wall of the smaller tower, which tore the felt markertip to shreds.
Beyond the entrance to the tower, the air got hazy and ominous. The flashlight I had with me was not able to reveal any details but darkness and haze in the distance, so I turned back.
The second and third entrances to East Falls Church Drain are cave-like mouths that have spat water with enough force to carry concrete slabs and manhole covers all the way into the creek. The second entrance is obscured by hanging vines in the summer and could easily be missed, but both tunnels join into a small room after only a short distance. This is how the second section of the drain begins. It’s the second section that can take you places. After this room, two more tunnels fork out ahead. The one on the left deposits you in the middle of the woods. The one on the right leads on further than I’ve been able to go.
A drain is a place where everything resets periodically. When it storms, the drain floods and the entire structure becomes inaccessible and changing. The water cancels out the interior, subtracts a chair and any weaker graffiti, adds a basketball or a traffic cone, divides a cracking wall, but these are small details.
Some of that weaker graffiti was my own sharpie scrawl: “this is what highways really sound like.” The line came from a poem I wrote when I was nineteen. I had been living away from my family and childhood home for the first time, staying with a close friend and his parents who stopped charging me rent after I paid for the first month. My room was in the front of their house, close to a main road in and out of the suburban neighborhood they lived in. The sound of cars passing one by one during morning rush hour would often wake me up, and I would lie listening in the muted light to that sound I had heard many times but now wasn’t used to, as the house I grew up in had been surrounded by woods and relative silence.
In the drain, that line redefined itself. What I had heard lying in bed on those mornings was not the same sound that permeated the drain. I rewrote it when eighteen-wheelers were roaring by just a few feet above my head. Their metallic clattering came like a wind from the distant dark of the tunnel and seemed to shake the concrete slightly. I’m not certain if it was the water or the noise that eventually washed my words off the wall, but all messages are eventually lost.
Graffiti is like social media. It’s not as much like the social media we think of now, mediums like Facebook which serve mostly to denote our preexisting, offline relationships, but like older forms of social media that created communities of strangers. I’m thinking of internet forums, but there are other realms: BBS, chatrooms, MMORPG’s, etc.
The people I knew from the drain are like most of the people I knew from this kind of social media, without their names or their bodies. They were entirely the messages they left, the signatures that were attached.
The Sydney Cave Clan was an organization formed in 1985 in Australia that focused specifically on exploring storm drains together. Due to the activity being illegal in Australia, they created aliases and organized enough “expos” as they called their expeditions into drains, to achieve international membership and extensive media coverage.
One of the Cave Clan’s early members, the late Michael Carolton, went by the alias “Predator.” He wrote a detailed guide on exploring storm drains called “Approach” and in its opening pages, Carolton answers the fundamental question “Why go in drains?”
In life, you make choices. You can stay in bed and take no risks, or you can go out and get a life. This involves the taking of risks, telling of yarns, breaking of silly laws which restrict your freedom, finding out things of an unusual or interesting nature. Now, some people take drugs, some people watch TV, some people drive cars faster than the posted speed limit, some people get heavily into teletubbies, some people play golf. Since we find these things not very interesting, we explore drains. We like the dark, the wet, humid, earthy smell. We like the varying architecture. We like the solitude. We like the acoustics, the wildlife, the things we find, the places we come up, the comments on the walls, the maze_like quality; the sneaky, sly subversiveness of being under a heavily_guarded Naval Supply base or under the Justice and Police Museum .
The architecture is only one thing Carolton likes about drains, but for me it is often what separates a drain most clearly from the suburbs it runs under. There is a sense of regularity to a suburb: the landscape is arranged into well-defined blocks with collector roads, houses in the same block often look alike or identical, and rush hour begins and ends at the same times all week. In a drain there are elements of regularity, but they are warped. A tunnel that begins large enough to run through could shrink to a crawl at any point, metal pipes of different sizes could jut out anywhere in the wall, and the tunnels flood only with the irregular patterns of rain. In a drain the architecture does not care if anyone inhabits it. Midwest Drain, named despite its location in Virginia for official-looking writing in its entrance pipes that read “Midwest,” has a room where rusty nails stick straight down from the corrugated steel ceiling. Fortunately the ceiling is high enough not to be near the head of anyone who isn’t exceedingly tall, but it just as easily could have been much lower.
Carolton’s answer captures the spirit of the practice well, which is more or less that going in drains is an experience that offers great variation from one endeavor to the next. Variation is often what keeps mundanity at bay. Though the suburbs provide an environment in which draining is relatively safe and easy, drains still require a degree of caution and awareness beyond much of suburban life. In another place where drains are old and crumbling, or people have been driven to seek shelter in them, or there is aggressive wildlife (Carolton mentions saltwater crocodiles in his text), draining could be a more dangerous venture, but here it’s mostly a matter of watching your step and checking the weather.
Once I traveled around part of the country with a band I was in, as well as another band from Puerto Rico. In Illinois we arrived early to a show. The show was taking place in a house, and not very many people were there yet, so we all split off into groups to kill time. One of the guys from the Puerto Rican band was named Francisco. He wanted to go take pictures of a big church we had driven past on the way into town so he could send the pictures to his dad. I decided to go with him.
On the walk he said that some of the houses looked like the ones from back home. They were flat, concrete, and nearly featureless. He said more about how he wished he could live in a wood-sided house with lots of natural light and about his grandparents’ declining mental health. He liked the big natural stones that comprised the church. As he pointed his phone up at the steeple, he said “I think concrete makes you crazy,” but later it would bring me incredible peace.
One night I met with a friend named Melanie while she was in town. We decided to go to an all-night bánh mì shop we knew well. This was in August of 2014, which was turning out to be an emotionally tumultuous month for me for reasons beyond just concrete tunnels.
The bánh mì shop had thick, flat fluorescent lighting and staff that never seemed to clear tables until they were overflowing with spent bowls of phở. Too many wall-mounted TVs for the place’s small size contributed to the noise made by the mostly drunk clientele. Somehow the mess and the flickering fit my mental state. I mentioned the drain to my friend because I had spent part of that day waiting there. She surprised me by saying she had been there, and that it had a name, “East Falls Church Storm Drain.”
It was a weird place to wait. Someone I was very close to had recently undergone electroconvulsive therapy in order to alleviate the symptoms of psychiatric illness. Supposedly different people have different reactions to this treatment, and for her reacting meant losing her memory of the past few weeks and threatening suicide via her Tumblr account.
I’d had a panic attack at work, left early, and made some phone calls. There was a small birthday party happening at my house that night and the plan I came up with was this: my roommate, Vivian, would pick the friend up from her house, text me once that was done, and then take the friend to the party. That way she was around people for at least a few hours. After that I would go to my friend’s parents’ house and tell them about the suicide threats and some recent drug abuse that may have been contributing, knowing they would have a lot more control over the situation than I would.
When I got there, I knocked on the door and waited. Under the mail slot was a sign that read “NO SMOKING, OXYGEN IN USE.” I remembered that her grandmother had recently been put on oxygen after receiving treatment for lung cancer.
My friend’s father answered the door. “You just missed her,” he said. “Someone just picked her up.”
“I was actually hoping to talk to you,” I said.
“Well now’s not really a good time.”
“Is there some time I can come back?” I said.
“Maybe in an hour.”
I remembered the entrance to the drain was just a few blocks away. I thanked him and walked there. I spent time going in and out of the drain’s multiple entrances, just inhabiting the architecture and the dampness and letting my thoughts cool. That hour ended up being a slow and clear-headed one sandwiched between a day’s worth of panicking, planning, and breaking bad news.
An hour later I returned. Her parents were upset but seemed to appreciate that I approached them. We exchanged phone numbers and I left, getting home just as the birthday party was ending. Someone drove the friend back to her parents’ house, and then I met Melanie at the bánh mì shop.
“East Falls Church storm drain” is not a terribly creative name but it places it in the world. Melanie and I talked about where it was and how big it was, coming to the conclusion that we really were talking about the same place. She went on to tell me there was a room where someone had spray-painted tadpoles over the entirety of the walls, something I never found. While I just occupied the space, other people had changed it.
In the area of the drain I was familiar with, one such person called themself “Nerk.” The Nerk tag I remember best was one of a large, purple mailbox and a house in the background. They had even taken a roller and walked a stretch of the drain with it, leaving a long green line that served as a yard (off of which other people based less memorable tags). Nerk had left their name across the mailbox’s side. They had found repose in the drain and made it their address, but for a little less than an hour I lived there too. What can we learn from a place that can gather a storm, pacify it, and pack it away? What happens once that storm is out of sight? What does it leave where it passed?
Sound behaves strangely in a storm drain. Though there may only be one or two tunnels large enough to walk through, many much smaller tunnels feed into them. As well as water and garbage, these tunnels carry sound from distant places. A drain can distill the sounds of an entire suburb: cars starting, peoples’ voices, hydraulic brakes, dogs barking and birds singing, it’s all there. Once while exploring I heard what sounded like several young men coming toward me from the other side of a bend in a tunnel. I backtracked to a gap where I could switch to another tunnel, but even after I had switched I could still hear them. I decided to stay at that gap, listening intently, until I could figure out which tunnel they were coming through so I could occupy the other. Of course they were nowhere near me but more likely sitting next to a curb inlet a few blocks away, with no idea they were scaring the shit out of me.
When I was about eight or nine years old, a friend and I were playing in a large field next to the playground at our school. A small drain ran through the field, with three concrete inlets spaced out across it. The inlets were set into a slope, so that there was a vertical grille through which you could see into the drain. My friend and I were playing near the one in the middle of the field and could hear the voices of young girls coming through it. We were sure the drain was haunted, and soon so was the playground and the entire school. We told all our friends until later in the day we learned that two of our classmates were sitting next to one of the other inlets, telling each other secrets, away from the playground, where they were sure no one could hear them.
Another memory from childhood: once when I was seemingly even younger, my grandparents took me to an indoor playground that was several stories high. I remember the first floor was taken up mostly by art classrooms, while the rest was open, with a staircase that lit up as you climbed it, ball pits, and lots of plastic piping hung from the ceiling at various levels.
The piping consisted of different colored pipes that snaked around the building and met in open platforms. Most of these pipes were translucent in the way a curtain is, letting in enough light to see by and coloring everything the same shade as the curtain itself. The purple pipes, however, were a dark enough shade that no light got through them at all.
Somewhere inside the purple pipes, there was a small, plastic, ovular window set into the ceiling that let in a pointless amount of light in the otherwise huge darkness of the tunnel. The shaft of light it created seemed like a beacon from a distance, however, and now it reminds me of the way curb inlets create distant points of light in drains.
The only other thing I remember from the purple pipes is coming across another child, who was kneeling in the darkness and crying. I remember they told me they were lost, so I began to lead them out of the tunnel.
Last year I had a dream I was standing on a concrete platform in a flooded room with two other people. I understood the room to be part of drain, even though the structure was an unrealistic one even for that environment. Our goal was to find a way out. One of the people I was with dove into the water and I followed. Then they began leading us out through some submerged exit.
These two experiences, dream and memory remote enough to be dreamlike, give a sense that exit is essential to the navigation of storm drains. Their linear nature takes us progressively further from an entrance toward what we assume is, and may require to be, an exit. After all, an exit is what we were seeking before we even went underground.
Light can be deceptive in a drain as well. My first attempt at exploring Midwest Drain resulted in me turning around and exiting almost immediately. Looking down the pipe I could see dim sunlight coming in from somewhere. In the light I could see a moving shape. It looked like an animal, maybe a deer or a dog, turning around repeatedly. A few hours after leaving I realized it was my own shadow cast by the sunlight from the entrance onto the wall of the room at end of the tunnel. Since I was not standing completely still, the shadow I cast swayed in a lifelike way, and by then I had already forgotten about the light behind me.
There is a point in the East Falls Church Drain where the seemingly infinite section of it forks yet again. The left tunnel eventually deadends in a low-ceilinged room. The right tunnel leads on much further. The last time I was at this fork, my partner and I turned out our flashlights and stood in the darkness. If we positioned ourselves just right, we could stand in the intersection of the three directions and see two crescent moons of sunlight in the distance of each tunnel ahead of us, the composite of sounds rumbling somewhere beyond them.
On a more recent visit to the East Falls Church drain I found a tag dated 2015, a large signature by someone calling themself “Dert” in yellow spray-paint. It sounds so much like “Nerk” that I wonder if they are different sides of the same person.
Maybe it’s something about the rigidity of concrete that allows this place to blur our forms a little. Can concrete remember its infancy as a liquid? Against its rigidity do we appear more like the water, any number of variables rushing anywhere at once? Have you ever met someone whose favorite color was gray?
Augé says that “a world thus surrendered to solitary individuality, to the fleeting, the temporary and ephemeral, offers the anthropologist (and others) a new object” . He is writing about the world of self-checkout lines at the grocery store, slot machines, and credit cards, but he describes the world of the drain as well. Any attempt to escape the suburbs by getting under them is temporary. Any attempt to define ourselves is the same.
But I’m not really alone am I? The drain becomes a place to obscure yourself and become something else because you are somewhere and also nowhere else, a silhouette moving along a trickle of water.
1.) Liz. “The Beautiful Abandoned Subway of Rochester, New York.” Infiltration. Web.
2.) Augé, Marc. Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. London, New York: Verso, 1995. Print.
3.) Carolton, Michael. Pred.txt. Sydney: The Bastard Archive, 2004. Web.