Feature

Notes from the Underground

The first thing you notice is the hissing. As you step through the yawning metal door marked “Do Not Enter” into the network of heating maintenance tunnels beneath the center of campus, the steam pipes all around you emit a high, insistent whine punctuated by the occasional blast from a half-open valve. The path ahead stretches off into close, humid darkness on one side and the incandescent glare of naked light bulbs along a long, narrow corridor on the other. The passages are just barely wide enough for one person to walk through at a time, and they stretch onwards until the other end is little more than a smear of glowing color and shadow.

Students speak in quiet, ominous tones of secret society meetings, hidden rooms and underground passageways between buildings. Intrigued with these rumors since arriving at Georgetown in my first year, I decided to spend a 24-hour stretch of time in the tunnels to see how much truth they held. What follows is my account of my descent into the steam tunnels, taken from the notes I made there, searching for whatever it is within that makes for such a compelling myth.

Let me note before beginning, in reference to the second paragraph of the 10:30 p.m. entry: it wasn’t me. I had the good sense and civic responsibility to sneak into the Performing Arts Center for that. The foul character responsible has yet to be found.

9:50 p.m., Saturday

I have been in the tunnels for 20 minutes. My friends said their farewells some time ago and I am now completely alone. I will remain in the tunnels until 9:30 p.m. tomorrow, Sunday. My first resupply mission is due at 1:00 a.m. Hopefully they will bring along a flashlight as well, as the left branch of the tunnels is too dark to explore otherwise. I entered through the door beneath Dahlgren Quadrangle adjacent to New North, and seem to be located beneath Gervase, the old Jesuit Residence, at the moment. I have seen no one.

10:30 p.m., Saturday

I just left a group of freshmen who had come down to explore. About 10 minutes after my last entry, I heard voices coming along the corridor, drawing closer very quickly, and stepped out into the open. We terrified each other. After a few quick explanations, though, everything was fine. The group of five had a flashlight with them, so I went along through the second, darkened branch of the tunnels with them.

About midway along the passage after one right turn, there was a large pile of human feces, covered by toilet paper. The smell, made more potent by the dank, stagnant atmosphere, extended for dozens of feet from the scene of the crime. Apparently one of them had stepped in it earlier, and the group had turned back to explore the well-lit section where we met.

We all pressed on to find a three way junction. The left branch ended about 40 feet away in a small wooden door. Presumably this leads to the new Performing Arts Center. One of the guys went to inspect the door, but quickly retreated, saying there was another person behind there, although he hadn’t seen him.

We continued straight ahead. We made our way to another large machine room that seemed to be underneath Healy, the back half of which was lit.

Behind the machines lay a vacant room with a huge, blood-red cross within a circle painted on one wall, and a variety of names and Latin phrases scrawled around it. This must be the meeting place of the Stewards, Georgetown’s purported secret society. The phrases “Crux Orbis” and “Circuli Crux Non Orbis Prosunt” showed up several times among the graffiti. After taking some photos, I left the group and went to look into the basement of the chapel I had passed earlier.

It is now nearly 11:00, and I’m still somewhat shaken from this encounter. I can only imagine what they think of me. I’ve been here for barely an hour and a half, and I’m already starting to question myself. A bank of fluorescent light bulbs just turned on completely by itself above a pressure gauge.

I could have sworn I saw someone at the end of the passage, but when I went down towards the entrance to look a moment ago, nobody was around. The door to the chapel basement was open where it had been closed before. That was probably the group of freshmen, but doubt is starting to seep through me. I hope I’ll be able to carry this through to the end, but right now I’m not sure. The fluorescent lights just turned off again all by themselves. My supply mission cannot possibly arrive soon enough.

By the end of this I’m going to be desperate for some kind of friendly human contact, if I’m not already. I hope I don’t have to encounter many other groups of randoms; I’m afraid of the effect it would have on both us. In descending to search out what monsters and creeps reside in these tunnels, I’ve become the creep myself. I would give anything for a flashlight. It smells terrible down here. I’m already covered in some kind of brown-orange dirt that lines the walls and floor. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get comfortable enough to fall asleep at all, even in this relatively safe place. Thankfully, the only animal life I’ve seen thus far has been a solitary cockroach scuttling through the room of the Stewards, but I still don’t feel secure enough to pass out.

1:50 a.m., Sunday

My supply mission just departed, having brought me a flashlight and some food, and I am alone for the rest of the night. Two girls just stumbled by, lost and trying to find a way out. I’m getting tired and I have to go to the bathroom, but I don’t think it’s safe to go to sleep yet. The basement of the Performing Arts Center seems like a good place to do both, but when I went in there earlier to look around, I got a nasty surprise. I was walking into the main stage and passed a side room where I thought I saw something. I went to take a second look, and found a shoeless man with a scraggly beard and receding hairline standing stock-still, brandishing a wet paint roller in one hand and staring at me. I looked at the floor, where he seemed to be painting a series of sinuous white lines, maybe for a mural or something. He asked if he could help me and I claimed I had gotten lost. He escorted me out the back door by the Copley Crypt. I had to go back around New North and make the descent into the tunnel system again.

10:00 a.m., Sunday

Last night, around 2:30, I heard voices coming down the hall. I looked around the corner to see a couple going up the stairs into the chapel basement together. A few minutes later, I could hear them coming back my way. Having scared the living daylights out of the two girls who came by earlier, I jumped up and tried to seem like the perfectly normal person I am, who had just come down to poke around too. When I stepped into the doorway, though, the girl walking ahead froze, stared at me with wide eyes and whispered something over her shoulder to her gentleman friend. The two turned around and sprinted away down the hall toward the exit as fast as they possibly could.

I went into the Performing Arts Center basement at 3:00. After exploring to make sure the late night painter was no longer around, I pulled my blanket out of my backpack and spread it out in the corner of the dark and windowless Study Room 039. It was a cold, restless sleep, and I awoke for good around 9:30 to the sound of footsteps outside and the toilet next door flushing.

I picked up my bag and eased open the door. The other person had already left, and I could hear him walking away down the hall. I headed towards the stairs, but froze when I heard two construction workers greet each other right behind the corner. I beat a quick retreat back towards the machine room where I had entered last night, but there were several workers within. My way back into the tunnels was blocked. At the other end of the corridor, the conversation continued. I paced up and down nervously until the workers stopped talking, stayed out of view as they disappeared and quickly pushed through a side door into a stairwell. Up at the stage level, I found myself in the costume room. I saw a corridor that seemed to lead out. I ducked past several more construction workers, found an exit door and plunged into daylight for the first time. I walked out back behind Copley and had a fleeting but blissful instant of eye contact with another person. He seemed slightly confused at the sight of my unwashed self and filthy clothes, but I was overjoyed just to see someone look at me without jumping or gasping.

As I turned under New North and stepped down into the passageway that would take me back to the tunnels, the tower bells rang out 10 o’clock. The tolls felt like they were escorting me into my tomb. As I stepped quickly into the tunnels, I tried to forget that beautiful glimpse of daylight, which I was not to see again until Monday morning.

12:30 p.m., Sunday

Nine hours left. I’ve gotten over the majority of my time here, and my greatest obstacle to reaching the end is the crushing weight of boredom. My afternoon supply mission just left, and I’m well-fed and caffeinated again, but I have cased the network thoroughly and there’s nowhere left to explore. I went to find a way into the crypt beneath the chapel, but Sunday morning mass is still going on. When I walk past the stairs to the chapel basement, I can hear faint strains of organ music and a choir through a hole in the wall. There is a music practice room behind the door to the basement, which I saw last night, but it is now occupied by someone doing exercises on a keyboard. Beyond the basement practice room is a spiral staircase that leads up to a trap door. Supposedly the door opens up beneath the desk of a Jesuit in the back of the chapel, but I have no way to check, as Mass is still going on right above me.

In the basement there is also a large wooden door to the outside, a large oil painting of one of the popes and another heavy, ancient door. It leads into the Dahlgren Family crypt, where someone had left a light on. Through the small window, I can see several chairs and kneelers, what looks like a tiny chapel and several large stone sarcophagi that, if the name is any indication, are the final resting places of the elders of the Dahlgren family. Struck with a great leaden feeling in their somber presence, I feel that this area is one part of the tunnels that is better left locked and undisturbed.

I may set out to chart a map of the tunnels’ progress. I’ve spent the better part of a half hour staring at the flies blindly wending their way into a spider web. There’s a slight fresh breeze blowing in from an exit door above me, but it is tempered by a strong hint of dumpster that lies directly behind it. I am turning into the Crypt Keeper.

1:00 p.m., Sunday

Nothing new to report. I remain alone. The dull, whirring roar of the machinery and the sibilant hiss of the pipes that surround me have become barely noticeable. Having been here for 15 and a half hours now, I’m well over the hump, but the real obstacle may be long behind me. The hardest hours were by far the first three, from 9:30 to 12:30 last night. Here in the tunnels, my circumstances and surroundings remain exactly the same, but there is some vast psychological difference that comes from knowing it’s the middle of a sunny Sunday afternoon and people are going about their usual business. A cricket has just started to chirp incessantly. It’s the only animal I’ve noticed besides the roach and the flies.

3:00 p.m., Sunday

Six and a half hours to go. I’m making decent progress on my map, but it’s only a temporary distraction from the intense feeling of being alone. I’d like to go back to the Performing Arts Center, but the contractors are almost certainly still at work. I’ll leave to check soon, but the rest of the day is starting to feel uncomfortably like a sentence. I could really use some human contact; hopefully some friend will come by with a little more of what Mick Jagger might call “tea and sympathy” later this afternoon.

One of the most interesting things about this whole experience has been the calculus of what we fear about places like these tunnels and why. They would make a brilliant setting for a horror film not because there’s something primeval within us that is frightened by them; we fear them because they seem to have dropped straight out of a slasher flick. The frightening thing about these tunnels is the space they provide and the potential they contain to host everything we’re “supposed” to fear. And in trying to discover or understand whatever prescribed objects of fear are supposedly down here, I’ve become one myself.

4:45 p.m., Sunday

Just went back to the chapel again, and found a hole in the wall next to the handle of the door that separates the basement and the tunnels. The hole is almost perfectly fist-shaped. It looks like some other thrill-seekers accidentally locked themselves in the chapel basement, and punched through two layers of drywall in desperation to grab the handle on the other side.

5:30 p.m., Sunday

I finished my map, and am left again with nothing to do but contemplate my solitude. My great wonder at this point is whether the rumors of a connection between the Healy tunnel system and the passageways below LXR are true. I know that the Healy system must continue to feed the rest of the building, and that there are other ways into the sub-basement. If I can eventually find those, there’s still a chance, however slim, that this Atlantis of Georgetown could bear some measure of truth. I know there’s also a set of tunnels underneath Reiss, but I highly doubt that it could intersect with those on this side of campus.

I’m getting down to the final stretch at this point; I have to keep my resolve strong. I can’t stand these tunnels anymore, but to quit now would be to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Only four more hours left.

8:15 p.m., Sunday

I am so close. I can almost feel the sweet fresh air billowing out on my face already. The boys brought me a Wingo’s burger awhile ago, and it made for a nice evening meal along with some philosophical discussion. Returned to the Performing Arts Center basement to use the bathroom again, got busted finally by a theater friend of mine and returned to the safe room in ignominy. It’s just a matter of willpower now to not break out early.

9:25 p.m., Sunday

Just a few more minutes and I’m free at last. Now that I’m about to rejoin the real world, what have I learned? I went down to the tunnels to find out exactly what kind of sketchy things happen there that we all talk about. In the process it was I who became the sketchiest person on campus.