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Superheroes aren't the only ones who can leap tall buildings, see in the dark or pummel evil opponents named Drunkin Janitur. In NYC, anyone can-even us.



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Illustration: Thomas Pitilli

Urban spelunking

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I’m shining a flashlight down a long, dark tunnel. The beam settles on a staircase at the opposite end, seemingly a million miles away. Everything else is hidden in blackness, except for the dust swirling in front of me. “This is how horror movies start,” I say.

The group behind me laughs in polite acknowledgment of the newbie’s jitters. “We usually let the person who’s never done this go first,” my guide, Julia Solis, had said, as if she were giving me a Christmas present.

But it’s a gift I asked for. In this city, as in many others around the world, brave—and, some would argue, stupid—cadres of people climb, shimmy, tiptoe and probe through abandoned buildings, forgotten tunnels and forsaken ruins. They call themselves “urban explorers.” The ones I’ve sought out run a local arts organization called Ars Subterranea (arssubterranea.org), which (legally) presents exhibitions and events in deserted gems such as the old Long Island Railroad tunnel under Atlantic Avenue and the Bronx Borough Courthouse. “Ars Subterranea preserves forgotten architectural relics through creating experiences with sites or locations,” explains Gayle Snible, an explorer who also serves as the group’s publicity director.

Today we’re scouting a site for documentation purposes, and I am sworn to secrecy about the location to protect its integrity. What I can reveal is that it’s a complex of early-20th-century buildings. They are stately, with columned entries, brick facades and big windows, many sealed with cinder blocks. Solis warns me to be careful of the floors; often they are not solid. These, however, are—they’re just covered with layers of brick dust, debris and something that looks suspiciously like asbestos.

Dangers aside, the decay is at once haunting and elegant. “I have a preference for hospitals,” says Solis, Ars Subterranea’s founder. “If you want to see what it means to be human, they’re the best places. You can go to a museum, but in a hospital there’s nothing between you and reality.”

The complex we’re exploring today wasn’t that kind of institution, but we still see rusted bed frames and other evidence of past lives: in the basement, piles of discarded office chairs; in the long dormitory rooms, eroded radiator covers; in one cubby, small plastic football figures; and in a closet, shelves labeled DRESSING TRAYS and MORGUE PACK.

When I emerge from the closet, I don’t see anyone else. I beat back an eruption of terror, certain I’m going to get picked off by some dude from Hostel. But then I hear the rustling footsteps of my crew, each caught up in their own discoveries. One is awed by unbroken lightbulbs, Julia is drawn to staircases, and I find I have a thing for slivers of light shining through very dark spaces. As I build courage throughout the day, I turn off my flashlight to see where cracked walls, broken windows and roof holes let the sun sneak through.

When we finally emerge, I can’t believe it’s still daylight. The safety of noon hadn’t been tangible in the musty blackness inside, but now I hear kids playing ball at a nearby field and church bells ringing somewhere. I make a mental note about the fickleness of perception. Safe in the bright day, I feel pleased with myself, even a bit cocky. I can’t wait to go into the dark again. Although next time, I might bring a bigger flashlight.—Billie Cohen



Illustration: Thomas Pitilli

Backyard wrestling

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Manny Gonzalez, a.k.a. Diamondback, has me hoisted over his head in a military press. I’m holding some of my weight by pushing off his sweaty shoulder, but my hands are slipping. Otherwise we’re in perfect form. Is this modern dance or backyard wrestling?

This isn’t my first time being tossed around; I wrestled in high school. But Diamondback and his pals—who practice an indie, WWE-style tussle—consider this the real sport. My school coach would’ve said the same about his version.

I consider this from eight feet in the air, where I have a panoramic view of Spartacus Gym in Gravesend, Brooklyn, today’s practice site for Insane Backyard Wrestling, Inc. (myspace.com/ibwwrestling). There’s a tornado of wrestlers in baggy jeans and black T-shirts executing flips and throwing each other onto the mats, punctuating body slams with dramatic thwacks! They storm around between a rainbow of foam gymnastics equipment and a group of eight-year-olds playing parachute at a birthday party. A row of concerned families monitor from the edge of the room behind a glass wall, fogged with the breath of a pair of small boys watching me float in the air.

Ballerinas don’t become spinal tragedies, I think to myself, realizing that I don’t know how I’m going to descend from this. I hope the guys running this place have an ambulance on speed dial. But there ends up being no need—Gonzalez knows I’m a beginner and lets me jump off.

Eric Ayzenberg, a.k.a. Synn, offers some advice with a hint of Zen: “Before you know how to wrestle someone else, you have to know how to wrestle yourself.” My Miyagi demonstrates, running full-speed ahead and clotheslining himself on the arm of an invisible adversary.

Once I master the front and back bumps (dramatic falls, basically), Gonzalez thinks I’m ready to endure a barrage of more technical moves. I take a suplex—an upside-down drop; no big deal. Then comes a “real” clothesline, which means it’s going to hurt. It does. Next they want me to try a compact driver, which scares me because I don’t know what it is. I’m supposed to trust a skinny dude with braces who won’t tell me his real name, insisting I call him Pyro. He tells me to put my head between his legs. He turns me upside down and we plummet. Somehow my head doesn’t cave into my chest cavity.

I might be getting battered, but at this point, I finally let go of my high-school wrestling instincts. Even though these guys look like they’re pummeling each other, they’re really working with each other, more like a theater company than competitors. And in that moment, I overcome the fear. I take the plunge and let them do whatever they want—I am their stage prop. So when Wil Kitcher, a.k.a. Drunkin Janitur, asks to try out his special moves, the Halo Teabag and the Two Girls One Cup, I’m game. I tell myself that a suplex is really just a trust fall; a full nelson just a warm embrace; and IBW, Inc., just a big, crazy family. Bring it on, brother.—Sam Tremble

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