Blog by Steve Sobel
To the Editor:
The potholes are unbelievable this spring. I didn’t fully appreciate how unbelievable until my most recent encounter with one. I’m aware that our town Selectboard plans to propose a budget item to fund a new road repair technique promising definitive elimination of these scourges of our vehicles’ wheels and axles. The recently developed technique would be incomparably more permanent than the taconite-related methods developed in Minnesota. However I’d like to plead the case for avoiding any improvement to our current practice of pothole repair.
Cruising down the road in our town, several miles from home (as you’ll soon understand, I prefer not to identify the precise location), a route I know so well that I can drive it while pleasantly daydreaming, I was mildly annoyed by the frequent, but irregular, jarring sensations of my tires traversing medium-sized potholes. Suddenly, I was jolted out of my half-reverie by the terrifying realization that I was about to plunge into a pothole that might more appropriately be termed an abyss. Desperately slamming the brakes had about as much impact as that of a floating speck of dust in blocking a charging bull. I expected my life to flash before my eyes as I careened into this opening in the earth’s crust, but, instead, time seemed to slow down such that I observed each centimeter of my descent with an eerie awareness as I anticipated the inevitable crash.
Instead, I seemed to tumble onto a bed of welcoming pillows, inexplicably bouncing gently back upward. Dazed, I felt relief and terror wash over me simultaneously. Does an afterlife exist? Had I gone directly to Hell or purgatory? Why was I still seemingly conscious?
An angel reached toward my door handle, though she appeared more like a homely human than a celestial being.
“Don’t worry; you’ve only fallen down the rabbit hole, kind of like Alice,” she explained in a softly reassuring voice, though I remained just as shocked and confused.
I noticed a motley bunch surrounding my vehicle—a bizarre, underworld welcoming committee.
“You’ll love it here! It’s really groovy” blurted a rotund, smiling fellow with beaming eyes.
“Don’t mind him, he dropped down here in the 60s,” a tall, lanky man advised me as he chuckled contentedly.
The tall man introduced himself as Gary, a former high school history teacher, and proceeded to describe this most peculiar community which exists unbeknownst to us under the ground of our own little town. They have created several entryways connected to potholes which they can open or seal shut almost instantaneously via a Rube Goldberg contraption involving a myriad of levers, pulleys and springs. The landing spot had indeed been padded with thousands of pillows they’d imported to their subterranean abode. The inhabitants take turns standing guard as part of a scouting committee, observing people who show signs of wishing to drop out of the rat race. The sigh, the extended glance at clouds or trees…driving the beat-up car, the wrinkled shirt, driving unnecessarily slowly to work with a kayak on the roof, singing along oblivious to the world, always being late to work, early to go home and so on. They had developed an exceedingly reliable algorithm for spotting suitable candidates.
I had been making an awkward effort to avoid glancing at breasts and genitalia after noticing they were all naked. They were covered with mud so initially, it escaped my notice that they were, in fact, stark naked. But they were so natural about it, and at-ease, that my own awkwardness soon dissipated. I inquired of Gary why they wore no clothes.
“We don’t age, but our clothes do. Our bodies are impervious to the passage of time, but the fanciest dress becomes threadbare and disintegrates, elegant shoes turn to dust.”
“Wait a minute, so you’re telling me you’re immortal down here?” I asked.
“More or less. But immortality isn’t for everyone you know. Only a miniscule percentage of ‘drop-ins’ choose to stay.”
Another denizen of this netherworld, an eccentric-looking, middle-aged woman with piercing, blue eyes, Beth, expounded upon this topic: “Gravity behaves in ways Einstein never predicted when one resides underground for prolonged periods of time; apparently the earth’s centrifugal force is impeded by infrared heat emanating from its molten core which, in turn, emits non-Newtonian waves that interact with living cells via synthesis of mitochondrial DNA and induce a hibernation-like state of entropy.”
“As a physician, your theory makes no sense whatsoever to me,” I impulsively retorted.
“Well, I’m no scientist-I used to be a librarian, but that’s how it was explained to me. It’s probably a load of bull, but it’s fun to speculate. And we have no dearth of potential explanations. Meditating is popular down here and we have an abundance of time to practice it. When the entire community meditates at once, we’re probably able to slow time to a near standstill,” opined Beth. “We like to propose outlandish theories to explain the halting of the aging process. That’s one of the favorite pastimes in the community. Some believe we’ve achieved an ability to influence the mind/body connection such that we can even extend our chromosomes’ telomeres. That might be why it seems to take some time for people’s aging process to come to a halt after they arrive here. Personally, I don’t know telomere from a telephone, but, whatever the real explanation, the fact remains, we don’t age down here.”
“Why don’t you choose to completely reverse the process and return to your youth? “
“Don’t be absurd! How could we reverse the aging process? You’re being silly now or incredibly naïve. And of course, the moment one of us goes up, their body undergoes an instantaneous aging process like The Picture of Dorian Gray, making up for all the lost time. It’s like muscle memory that gets restored.”
“What kind of nonsense are you speaking?” I exclaimed.
“Like I said, I’m not a doctor or a scientist. I just collect theories. The stranger the better as far as I’m concerned. I don’t claim it’s the truth. I accept that I only know that I know nothing. But, there’s no denying that biology behaves in ways that would be considered science fiction on the earth’s surface. For example, there are some birds that have flown down here over the years. Interestingly, shortly after they arrive here, they start flying upside down.
Beginning to wonder if I was being used as the butt of some elaborate joke, I decided to change the topic. Perhaps I’d catch them off guard with a different question, causing someone to stumble, and thus expose their discourse as nothing other than an improv theater performance.
“How do you survive down here? Like what do you eat?”
A previously reserved, contemplative fellow with an unkempt beard, named Joe Mansfield piped up. “We don’t exactly look malnourished, do we? It’s a different ecosystem down here, but a perfectly satisfactory one. We breed earthworms as a primary protein source. Think of it as miniature hotdogs but far healthier. We’ve also found some underground ponds and rivers which are well-stocked with fish. We’re not sure of the fish species, but it sure ain’t trout,” he laughed. As it turned out, his expertise, as a former Fish and Wildlife Department employee, had been invaluable in developing these food sources.
“So you live here forever, eating earthworms,” I stated dubiously. What do you with your eternity of free time?”
This query seemed to stir up some excitement in the group. Various members of the community described their passions and pursuits. Some focused on improving the design of the entryways. Others spend time on singing and creating new musical instruments for their daily concerts. It was a thriving art colony. Clay had been found in one of the underground river banks and they pointed out beautiful sculptures arranged on shelves dug into the walls of this cavern. There were frequent presentations and other teaching opportunities. They enjoyed putting on plays—sometimes comedies and sometimes exploring the meaning of existence. Indeed, philosophizing appeared to be the one endeavor they all had in common. Religion was a nonissue, but spirituality was not neglected. They had built a community temple of mud, a fantastical, inspiring structure with a cathedral ceiling and multiple reflecting pools.
“We like community but we’re actually mostly extreme introverts, believe it or not,” ventured Beth. “So we have dug passageways to isolated caves, and nooks and crannies, for solitary contemplation time. Most of our best plays have been written by members who spend a lot of time alone there. They’re among our most valued members.”
As for leadership, they seemed to have a well-functioning anarchy along with an eclectic mix of Buddhism, communism, Stoicism, and their own assorted ideals suitable for a relatively spartan lifestyle. All property was shared.
“You’ve established a utopia here,” I blurted out. “Does anyone ever leave?” I was wondering if I should consider myself a captive or an incredibly fortunate discoverer.
“It’s a good gig for the right person,” Gary stated with humility. “There are lots of reasons for returning to the above ground world. Of course, the main one is people want to be with their families. We don’t open the entryway to children, but we’ve had a few surprises—children sleeping in the backseat of the car and so forth. It wouldn’t be ethical to make the decision for them to stay here so we send them back. We find that couples don’t mesh well with the community structure. Sometimes couples form down here, but they’ve always opted to return to the surface world. Those who are goal-oriented and super-ambitious seldom choose to stay. Overall, 95% of drop-ins go back up, but swear to secrecy. Most don’t want to acquire a reputation of being crackpots. Look what happens to people who claim to have seen aliens. Then again, those folks are crackpots or maybe just really good at dissociating. Most of us who’ve stayed had lost our loved ones through tragedies or were just solitary figures for one reason or another.” He leaned closer, whispering in my ear, “Beth’s entire family died in a house fire for example.”
Over decades, this group of underground survivors had grown to 36 souls. Some had stayed even though they knew they’d been reported as missing persons to the police. A few went so far as to stage their own deaths if they were determined to never resurface. Several undergrounders who’d been here when young and chosen to go above ground, returned after losing all their loved ones. They came back here opting for immortality, but immortality as a primary motivation for choosing this life was surprisingly rare. A few coped by leading a dual life—telling family they’d moved to a foreign country or across the country and visiting often, though difficulties arose in responding to family members’ requests to visit them in turn. These double-lifers were the ones who brought back news-not to mention special desserts for which some still craved. Others gave them letters to send to their families when they visited the above ground. Clearly only certain types were suited for the long haul.
“We knew you’d be intrigued, and appreciate this place, but, ultimately, would choose to continue your above ground life. It’s obvious you love your life above ground. We had another purpose in bringing you here. We’ve gotten word of the town’s plan for the extraordinary pothole repair method. Our entryways would no longer function if this transpires. The pothole repair program would pose an existential threat to this unique community. We’re hoping you’ll speak out against it. We figure you’re a respected member of your community so people might listen.”
So I too have sworn secrecy regarding the exact location of the pothole entryway to the underground community. However, the community has voted to allow me to share the fact of its existence given its dire situation. This advanced pothole repair method would seal off the underground community from the world forever and ensure their demise. Let progress wait a bit so that habitats can be preserved and life can continue to thrive in surprising ways.
I request that the honorable Selectboard members of our town refrain from definitively resolving the pothole problem. Who knows what other utopian worlds might be forever sealed off if we were to employ this new technology?
River Styx, M.D.