Joseph Moser still believes in mystery— Devil mystery, spooky Goonie mystery, mystery hidden in the Earth, lurking somewhere deep behind the surface of things. Batcaves. Pirate treasure. Golden fleeces. Crystal caverns guarded by gnomes and drunken fraggles. It is a hopeful belief; one that twinkles against an otherwise dark backdrop of Joey Moser’s black-humor salves and decidedly grim realism. The hope, though, is never broken.
We have been fearless explorers— lost in space— since we first met some fourteen years ago; roaming the Portsmouth night far past the curfew hour, climbing every jut and rooftop that caught our wandering eyes, sneaking through every magic passageway that promised to open upon Neolithic cavedrawings of The Hunt and The Amber Dawn of Civilization. We walked for hours, every night. Alongside glowing interstates. Across empty stripmall and YMCA parking lots. Confronting the expanse, with the cityglow staining the huge nightsky above us. Through the gingerbread lanes and yellowbrick roads of Churchland and Sterling Point, with the candlestick-streetlights and spiderweb-trees and other illusions of the night. These walks left the impression in me, very early on, that I was living in a universe without ceiling, an open-ended universe… And they really meant a lot to me.
I’m not sure Joey knows this. He might. He probably felt those same things, only in his own terms and twilight vocabulary. And I never want him to give that up, and lose that twinkle and those lastditch romantic notions about monsters and sexy-lesbo vampires stirring in the cloak of night. Those notions are Joey Moser, as far as I’m concerned. You can understand, then, why I was so excited when he was so excited again, after having read about the existence of a whole North American demimonde of “urban-explorers,” a flashy new extreme-sport appellation for something so many people had been doing since day one, Joey and I included. We were now in Richmond, Virginia, after all; Capital of the Confederacy, industrial graveyard to the Gothic South. Ghosts ran amok, played pranks on the elderly, clogged our kitchen sinks and slashed our tires. All manner of ruin and decay clutter the backwaters of Richmond, Virginia, with history buried in the rubble.
Joseph has discovered that he has nose for these backwaters. He and Hank and Clint, and maybe a few others, would pull up, with a trunk full of assorted tools-of-the-tradeÑ maglites, crowbars, bottled water— and into the night we went in search of the pirate ship of One Eyed Willy. “We should call ourselves The Illuminati,” Joey suggested, full of resolve, ready to choke on earth and coaldust, and eat asbestos for breakfast. “Seriously, I’m ready to do this,” Hank returns, “Full-on, dedicate my life to this. I mean it. Look at me, Joey.”
The findings at first were magic but modest. Sewers leading from one Broad Street ditch to another outlet. Alleyways and barriers and large gutted concrete structures. Magnificent quasi-Roman aqueducts by the James river waterfront. Joseph was a natural archaeologist, obsessed with the search for the Lost Ark and Holy Grail, and the last to tire, even on worknights. And so, picture if you will: four blackclad youths gathered around a manhole, two crouching and pumping with crowbars to free the lid, as the other two leap into action, flashlights in hand, to learn the secrets of the Richmond and Henrico County sewage systems. Oh, man, and did we ever keep it cool when cars passed; dropping the crowbars with a loud clang and whistling off in every direction, with our hands in our pockets. Not to mention Joey’s predilection for weapons of all shapes and sizes. It was enough to make mouths water down at precinct. “Maybe we should always bring Cagney (Joey’s supergoof pup) along as subterfuge.” “No, no, no, listen, we should all dress like joggers or preppies. Instead of dressing like cat burglars. That would be much better.”
Some “friends” were quick to deflate our discoveries. “Oh. Everybody who’s anybody knows about that place. Oh-la-la. Look at me! Didn’t you see my tag?” “It’s just a fucking sewerline, darling. Shitwater. Who cares?” But we knew. We knew the Big One was right around the corner, hidden from view, lost on the incurious. All we had to do was uncover that one hidden door, or follow some white rabbits, or twist the nose on a porcelain bust of Frederick the Great, and the underworld would be ours. The underworld, the mystery kingdom.
And by a gorgeous stroke of luck, I soon became privy to the most hush-hush of supersecrets, as a volunteer fun-facilitator at the Richmond Children’s Museum. I had found the porcelain nose, metaphorically speaking. I was just minding my own business, making some noodly origami art for the upcoming Valentine’s Day, when one of directors blurted out “blah, blah, blah, because my husband is the commissioner for the Department of Works.” Head honcho of the inner circle, in other words. The Evil Gnome King. “So,” wedging into the conversation, “I bet your husband really knows his way around the sewers and stuff, huh. You know that stuff just fascinates me… as a feat of engineering, that is.”
Obliviously, she continues “Does he ever! Sometimes he’ll drag me and my mother down there for tours. He just gets so excited, explaining everything and all. You should see what they’re building under Manchester Park. WhewÑ it’s unbelievable!” Well I’ll be damned. This wonderful little woman, bless her heart, had inadvertently slipped me the golden key to the underground city (or the crowbar, as the case may be). Cutting away with safety-scissors, she politely offered to contact her husband about guided tours through the tunnels, but all that had become secondary by then. The code was broken and the cover blown. I ran home to telephone Joey…
“I knew it! Remember that construction site a while back, with all those noises, where we hid in the bushes? I want to check out that area a little more thoroughly. Something tells me. Something tells me…”
Joey was referring to a little patch along the James River that we had stumbled upon in our nighttime wanderings. It was, I remember, somewhat near another wonderful stakeout of the mysterious and elusive Illuminati clanÑ an antique pumphouse and cathedral look-a-like, a ghostly relic of the Guilded Age, under reconstruction by a Richmond historical society. There were no open doors or windows to the pumphouse, as such, but Rich and I were more than glad to demonstrate the advantages of lockpicking finesse over the blue-collar brute force of crowbars and boltcutters.
And we finessed our way through like ghosts through cinderblock. Inside were torches and rusty sets of iron spiral staircases. Pools of brown water and pipes some ten feet in diameter; quite literally, the bowels of Hell. The mystique of the pumphouse was somewhere between Tom Sawyer and Transylvanian highland in effect, I’d say. The movie-perfect summerhome for monsters and Joeys and leatherclad lesbo vampires. Friends scattered every direction in the torchlight, as I read construction notes about the myth and history of the place. It was apparently wide-open to the public by day. But there and then, the secrecy and moonlight made all the difference; it brought out the ghosts and goblins and swampfog, so that we could see it for what it really was.
And one day, after bouncing around this claim for a while, we walked along the traintracks a ways and heard the smells and jackhammer sounds of a construction site. We hid nearby and, not wanting to ruin the fun for later, left with the intention of returning. We hadn’t got a very good look at it before, however, not straight on. But Joey’s sixth sense kept going crazy until one night, with me in absentia, the Illuminati discovered The Big One that we had all been waiting for— Over the telephone: “Let me tell you something, man, you fucking suck, because you know what? We found it, Brandon. Tonight. It’s completely fucking insane. A hole in the earth. We had our good clothes on, otherwise we would have gone down further. But tomorrow we’re going back, man.”
The way Joey talked, I thought it was another sewer or manhole, only a little deeper, a little sketchier. But upon seeing it, the next evening, I understood why words would inevitably fail to describe this Hole of Holes. Jesus Fuck. It was not dark at all. The construction site had millions of watts pumping through a circle of goddamn stadium lights. Brighter than the noonday sun. And what you saw under that light made you stop and stagger back. It looked like a government cover-up, a spaceship crashsite, or maybe an overgrown industrial version of the Sarlac Pit from Return of the Jedi. A hole gaping some forty, fifty feet in diameter and (count’em) one hundred and five feet deep. Re-enforced with steel beams, covered in heavy construction tarps, and accessible only by a caged ladder that was cold and slippery with every step (it was raining inside the hole, by some irreal suspension of natural law). And that’s only the beginning. At dead bottom, there were traintracks feeding into some kind of giant service tunnel. Where they led nobody knew. It sounded like a job for the valiant and foolhardy Illuminati!
One by one by one, we descended into that crater, into the devil’s depot. At bottom, peering down the tunnel— a concrete cylinder easily wide enough for a coaltrainÑ no end was in sight. We were tingling and dumbstruck in the temple of doom. “I guess we’ll just follow it until…well until.” The thing was: nothing in creation, except maybe a ten-headed monster or the lost treasures of Nebuchanezzar, could possibly fulfill the promise of this tunnel. The tunnel itself was the find; just as the search would always outweigh the discovery itself, in matters dark and deep. A good metaphor for Desire itself, but we won’t get into that here.
We followed the tunnel as it got wetter and wetter, more Goonie-like with every step. The walls went from concrete to drizzly brown, watertable bedrock. The Hall of the Mad Mountain King. We tried to keep dry by clinging spiderlike to the sides of the cylinder, and we almost succeeded. Soon or later though, everybody got their turn to slip down into the little rivulet as the others guffawed themselves stupid, schadenfreude. “Goddammit, god-fucking-dammit! Fuck you guys! This water’s fucking disgusting! It smells like fucking raw sewage and gasoline.” It did smell like gasoline, a disconcerting thought trapped some eleven stories under the surface of the earth. But it was too late now. Ever onward and inward, fair Illuminati!
Nearly thirty minutes in, but nowhere near the terminus, we came across another pleasant little surprise: “Whoah! A telephone! Does it have a dialtone? It does! Let’s call everyone in Richmond!” So that evening every answering machine within thirty square miles received a message that ran a little something like this:
“Hey guess where we are… we’re a mile underneath the earth… I’m not kidding… we’re going to die… we’re all going to die… tell everyone I said I love them… we’re a mile underneath the earth… really!” Tempted to dial for phonesex on the government dime, but our good judgment got the better of us. We continued on our merry way. Walking and walking in the oilslick and crapwater. “I wonder where the oil is coming from?” —”Dinosaurs. Fossil fuels.”
As a child, did you ever wonder where your dirty bathwater went, peering down the drain as far as the light allowed? I always imagined harrowing fifth-dimension dungeons, infested with ghouls and worker-drones and unspeakable horrors. But this tunnel would come in a close second, I’d say; solid confirmation of the talltale paranoia of my six-year-old mind. Definitely the hyperbolic backdrop of a Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton film, the place where dreams go to die and nightmares go to party. That kind of thing.
After our mile-long trudge to the Center of the Earth, finally, finally, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Difficult to make out at first. Is it a workstation, another tunnel, a ten-headed monster mayhaps? Close enough. It was a giant fucking drill burrowing straight through the bedrock, a monster made of cable, steel, and yellow-reflective paint. “Danger Danger 14,000 Volts!” Little rubber conveyorbelts running from the grind to the traintracks. Fivefoot monkeywrenches and coffee-stained blueprints, hearing protection against the deafening, unbroken motorsounds. Not burrowing sounds, really, just the loud hum of lightning-high voltage, juice and transformers and hunger growls from the belly of the beast.
We crouched low, suspecting the whole complex was ready to collapse, or snap shut, or pulverize us into memories, at any moment. Ever so slowly we approached the cockpit. “Make sure not to press any buttons. Now’s not the time for that crap.” We needed clues, specifics, proofÑ for ourselves and othersÑ that this was more than just a weird dream. There, by the dials and toggle switches, sat an aluminum clipboard-case-thing. Surely this held the masterkey, the orders from up-high, the topsecret plans for Defcon Eight.
The Illuminati gathered around Hank, holding our breath, salivating over the possibilities contained therein. On the count of three: one, two, three, and tah-dah, we open the aluminum case to reveal a well-used, dog-eared copy of Juggs Magazine. That’s right, I said “dog-eared”— a worker gnome gets lonely down here in the center of the earth. Didn’t I say before that this expedition would make a good metaphor for Desire itself? Well, I’m saying it again. The Illuminati laughed and wiped their brows and staked their claim. There probably wasn’t enough oxygen down there to make the tale coherent, so we resurfaced to compare notes on our stories of subterranean life. Our proof that America was still a dark and undiscovered continent, or rapidly becoming one again under the wrap of locked doors and no-trespassing signs. The Illuminati, along with every other stripe of urban explorer, were the Lewis-and-Clarks of the City Works and Concrete Jungle. Rediscovering discovery. Anarchitects unloosed with crowbars, lockpicks, and gallons of go and bubbling moxie.
And even with the White Hole under his belt, Joseph Moser was still not satisfied. He was still not finished. What a guy. “Let’s go the other way down the tracks. I have a hunch.” And sure enough, fifteen minutes in the opposite direction revealed yet another hole, just begun, without all the creature comforts of lights and ladders and night watchmen snoozing through their duties in the cabins of their Chevrolet Trucks. What the fuck? Is Richmond the future home of nuclear missile silos or elevator shafts to the center of the earth? What gives? Actually, we have since discovered the truth of things. Or rather Joey discovered the truth of things, one day when the sleepyhead nightwatchman awoke from his slumber. Caught, Joseph Moser played stupid, “coming home from work” or something, and casually asked the nightwatchman point-blank. And, then and there, the secret was finally unveiled. The deep, dark, clandestine mystery among the Illuminati and commissioners of City Works; fallen fruit from the Tree of Knowledge; plenty enough to give your grandchildren gooseflesh. The secret of all secrets; a secret straining under the weight of its own yummy secrecy. The one, the only. The grand, guarded secret of the White Hole of Richmond, Virginia… was ours.
Well, near this other hole, Joey found the entrance to nothing less than the Richmond urban catacombs, x marks the spot. “Stop, Beyond Here Lies the Empire of the Dead.” Brick tunnels, going deeper and deeper into the earth. Miles upon miles. A whole expedition this time, women and children and seven dwarves. My roommate James and I ran into the Void at full throttle, straddling the water, bouncing from side to side, left foot then right foot, as the sewer waters drained between our legs. We ran and ran until we had gotten far enough ahead of everybody to be alone with our echoes. No place for claustrophobes. Just us two fartheads, crouching in the dark, waiting for the others to appear and say “you guys tryin’ to scare us or something?” and ruin all the fun. That is, until James slips and assplants in a puddle of shitwater, to a chorus of hoots and friendly taunts.
There was just something about this subterranean living, these mysteries of the deep. Infinite intrigue. These tunnels had no end. And it was this that satisfied Joey even more than the White Hole, I could tell. Now, he could go to sleep at night knowing where the pirates had buried their treausure, where the Evil Gnome King hid his stash of emeralds, where all mysteries lay in waiting. Somewhere in this tunnel but always in the darkness, just beyond. This was the sacred wisdom of the Illuminati, this endless depth, and good enough to keep Joseph Moser going for a long while.