Life in the Hole, Part I: The Catalyst

By | January 31, 2015

Bam was twelve years old when he took his first life.

A noise roared out from the back of his home in East New York, Brooklyn, echoing from below while he was feeding pigeons on his roof. Bam knew something was wrong; in fact, he lived with the anticipation that something would always go wrong. His family had dealt in heroin as far back as he could remember. Rather than video games and backyard barbecues, Bam’s childhood was colored by gray-faced strangers manically knocking at his door.

He knew what he had to do. He grabbed the machete from the front foyer. Within moments the intruder was on the floor, no longer grappling Bam’s mother, no longer breathing.

Three decades have passed since this confrontation. Bam’s voice is gravelly, his eyes weighed down by a web of crow’s feet. He’s lived a hard life. Having embraced the family business at a young age, his adulthood was defined by alternating bouts of gang violence and prison time. Now this troubled child is trying to do right by his own family – a wife and three sons. Bam is not a hero though. He has done unthinkable things. He lives outside the law. He fosters drug deals. He steals electricity. But he’s a man at a tipping point, not quite going straight but trying to distance himself from the worst of his offenses.

Bam’s new life is built on a shaky foundation. The family’s RV is parked in a small lot in East New York. Although it’s only a twenty-minute trip from Manhattan, their neighborhood won’t be circled on any tourist map. Abandoned buildings dot the landscape. Every morning, idling industrial trucks pour a veil of suffocating smog over the neighborhood. Chickens run amok from derelict coops, ushering in each day with rebellious cawing. The whole area is built thirty feet below sea level. Due to the elevation, the city is unable (or unwilling) to construct a working sewage system here. Existing on the border of Brooklyn and Queens, this place is a municipal nightmare. Even on dry days, some intersections are veritable waterfalls, dowsed in the runoff from overburdened septic tanks, anachronistic cesspools, and drains that lead nowhere.

The area is notorious for being a dumping ground for victims of organized crime. The NYPD has exhumed numerous bodies but suspect many more lay hidden underground in concrete coffins. To its residents, this neighborhood is known simply known as “The Hole.”

Bam (a nickname), is not alone here. Just as water inevitably collects in “The Hole,” so do other people who have been washed away by society. The Hole means something different to each person who calls it home, and you’ll meet two others in the rest of this series. In Bam’s case, it’s a place where he says he can clean up his life, but it’s also dangerously close to his past, in which cash, drugs and violence ruled the day. For Bam, The Hole is a catalyst of the most powerful sort – it’s a tipping point for the rest of his life, and only time will tell which way he goes.

Will, who, like the others profiled in this series, declined to give his last name, is a woodcarver with a checkered past. Much like Bam, he is struggling to support his family – including a wife pregnant with twins. However, he cannot afford the fee to become a licensed tradesman and is forced to take jobs under the table for a fraction of what he should legally be paid. As he sits in his shed applying the finishing touches to a wooden cane, he recollects that his first carving knife was given to him by his older brother days before he was stabbed to death. Each figure he carves is a memento of him.

Jose – known as Wepa to his friends – is a farmer of sorts. Untamed vegetable gardens are cobbled together on his property. Jose’s roosters stalk his tenants’ yards. He has no permit for the animals, and they often engage in impromptu cockfights to establish dominance over one another. While he brags about building his home with his own two hands, he has been unable to connect it to the electrical grid. For months now, he has resided in a small shack on the edge of his property, a satellite of his hard work.

And there are dozens of others. Some claim to be mafioso, some use the land to host illicit social clubs, and some have purchased plots as tentative investments. They are all neighbors on this small parcel of land thirty feet below sea level.

Continue: Life in the Hole, Part II: The Creator

-Text by Mathew Iantorno and Allen Agostino

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Allen Agostino is a photojournalist and longterm documentary photographer. He is now based out of Detroit, where he will continue to delve into documenting issues facing contemporary American society. allentoronto@live.com, @thisisallenagostino

Mathew Iantorno is a freelance writer and graduate student based in Toronto. He studies and writes about robots, video games, and digital culture.

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