The Kunstkammer

This is the redrafting of The Hobby for my Portfolio, which I have to hand in tomorrow. I would greatly appreciate comments and criticisms.

The Kunstkammer

There was a world beneath the world, and it was fascinatingly dirty. When Peter Weiss left Bavaria, a land with no metro cars, it was primarily due to his preoccupation with the places beneath cities. The first place to offer him a job was a civil engineering firm in New York City, and that suited him just fine. He regretfully consigned the Paris catacombs to his vacation time, but with some relief as well: the human remains made him rather squeamish.

Within three months of his arrival in New York, Peter managed to use his work connections to get a full copy of the subway blueprints and, through other channels, a Metropolitan Transit Authority ID card that allowed him access to the subway tunnels. Peter didn’t mean any harm – he just loved walking through the relative darkness to places that most people never even thought of  – there was graffiti in the strangest places, that he would have sworn were impossible for anyone to get to, strange objects to find that people left behind, and architectural idiosyncrasies in areas that the public would never see.

It didn’t take longer than a few weeks for Peter to realize that he would need a place to store the things that he was finding. He couldn’t keep it all in his apartment, which would have been unsanitary and weird, but he didn’t want to get rid of the stuff either. Some of it he didn’t want to be seen with at all, like the one pound bag of hashish that he found hidden in an alcove of a service tunnel, or any of the various knives he had picked up. He picked out a maintenance storage room in an unused tunnel near the Museum of Natural History, brought his own tools, drilled out the lock, then changed the lock. There,  in a tradition from back home, he kept his kunstkammer, his curios.

When police found out about the first bomb, it was because it exploded, it was assumed, prematurely in the basement of a downtown mall. Mostly the news showed cell phone videos of the blasted remains of kiddie chairs that had been stored there, and splinters of those uncomfortable plastic and metal foldup chairs that any building with a multipurpose room kept around for gatherings of people. Nobody was hurt. The damage to the mall was physically minimal, but of course everyone that heard anything about it said that they had been near there, or that they had planned to be in that part of the city but had changed their mind at the last instant. And it was hard not to hear when the media was bringing out all the stops to hype it up.

So the subways closed down for a few hours, just in case they could catch the perpetrator, and then the security was increased at the subway entrances and platforms. All this was a mild annoyance to Peter. In the hours that he was stuck above ground, he kept up with the breaking news. It seemed that as many as ten people were thought to be involved in the plot to take out the mall. Afterwards, when everything was running again, he just kept up his regular routine. The security people were already used to seeing him from before, and so they still didn’t trouble him. It was a week after the attack, to the day, that he met Katja. There was nothing girlish about the woman from Weimar. Their country connected them immediately, but so did Katja’s manner. She dressed in a way that showed off her features without being showy – dark, practical clothing that accentuated her long neck, her pale skin. Her brown eyes were narrowly set in a way that made her manner appear continually serious. When she smiled, it made her seem wry.

Peter spotted her staring up at the roof of the tunnel and figured that she must be either looking at the graffiti that was already there or trying to find her way up. Sure enough, she had a can of fluorescent orange spraypaint, like the kind that city officials used to mark things that were slated for destruction – trees, portions of sidewalk, that kind of thing. Around her neck was a digital SLR camera. She was so concentrated that Peter was within ten feet of her before she looked at him sharply.

“What are you doing down here?”

Her question surprised him, and Peter found himself searching for an adequate answer. He shrugged instead. “And you?”

“I like it down here,” Katja said.

Peter didn’t press her. She was pretty enough that he didn’t want to scare her off with any kind of awkward insistance. The terrorist attacks up top were on the peripheries of his life, and he did not even really work for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, so he didn’t care how she had gotten down there. She had as much right to be there as he did. “So are you an artist?”

Katja smiled at him, and took a picture. “My name is Katja.”


The collection continued to grow, up until the bombings proper. By the time that it happened, Peter and Katja were spending one day in every two together, talking about home, about Peter’s kunstkammer, and food, films, books, music – whatever regular people talked about when they weren’t underground in the New York subway tunnels. Peter had shown her the bag of hashish, the basketball signed by the 1995 New York Knicks, some disintegrating old American money, a couple of stubby beer bottles from the early 1900s, and all the other things that he had so far gathered. As an artist, Katja was particularly interested in the structural details of the subway, and the pieces of architecture that were load-bearing rather than decorative. Peter showed her around, pointing out the nexus points of intersecting tunnels, support pillars and arches. Katja took a lot of pictures and a lot of notes.

Katja encouraged his collection, even bringing him some baseball cards that she found in a tobacco tin underneath an exposed girder. She was deeply curious about the subway in the same way that he was – and she was always looking underneath and on top of things. A true explorer. It was weird, what people brought down to the subway tunnels for safe-keeping. The day after Katja brought the cards,  sections of New York City exploded. Immediately, the misinformation began. Cell phone transmitters were knocked out, and even those that weren’t were completely overloaded. Out of the nine million people who lived in the city, plus however many tourists, how many had died? Nobody knew. Had any other cities been bombed? Nobody knew. Was anyone coming to help them? There was silence.

In the first hour after the bombing, people were already filling the subway. They were scared and they had seen one too many cold war movies where the bunkers looked just like a subway tunnel. They brought no food or any other kind of supplies with them. They were a mob. They came as they were. Peter, who was already down in the tunnels, locked himself in the Kunstkammer. For two days, he waited. He had no idea what had happened above ground.

On the first day, Peter sat against the doorway, alternating between listening to his own heartbeat and trying to discern words from the shouts he heard outside. Peter was in a maintenance closet, so he had access to sink and buckets to empty all the water that he could before the water pressure was lost. He didn’t know if any pipes were damaged, or if anyone up above would turn off the water if that was the case. So, on the second day, when his head had cleared, Peter filled his buckets with water, not having the luxury of cleaning them first, except with Alpet, an alcohol-based spray. This took him two hours, and when he was done, the water pressure had still not decreased. He was surrounded by tins and buckets and water bottles. That was when he realized, after listening to the sound of rushing water for two hours, that he hadn’t left himself any empty buckets for other purposes, and since he was subsisting off of his spelunking supplies, he was eating an awful lot of granola.

He realized then, that he hadn’t thought of much of anything in the past two days, listening to the press of people outside, their panicked shouts, their anger and their fear. Now he thought of Katja. He had to leave the Kunstkammer. He inventoried the maintenance supplies – he had had no need to clear any of them as of yet. What ended up in his backpack were a package of unopened X-Acto blades, the remaining granola bars, two water bottles, the hashish (for bartering), a roll of duct tape, a bottle of Alpet alcohol spray, and a general map of the subway system as well as a few of the surrounding stations. In his hands, he carried an unscrewed wooden broom handle. If push came to shove, he’d use the Alpet on any attackers’ eyes and then take out the X-Acto blades. The broom handle was to buy time. He listened at the door before he left, but the noises he heard were faint, far-off.

The tunnels around him seemed intact, and that bode well for the rest of the system. He steered away from the noises at first, unwilling to confront a mob and not at all sure that Katja liked crowds. In their time together, he had found her friendly enough, and willing to share a joke, but not…gregarious. When he came towards the nearest exit, he saw that it was blocked by fallen debris from above. Peter took out his map and made a note of it, erasing the solid line of a wall and turning it into rubble on the page. He then began to sift absentmindledly through the smaller fragments and dust with the end of his broomstick, wondering where he should head next. His eye caught the movement of the dim light on something in the pile, and he separated it with the end of the handle. It was a gold wedding band – most likely a woman’s.  It made him think of Katja. He wiped it on his pantleg and slipped it into his pocket.


He headed toward the 86th and Broadway subway station from his closet near the American Museum of Natural History, and was almost immediately overwhelmed by an encampment of hundreds of New Yorkers, some sitting, some sleeping – fewer standing. Nobody took notice of him, which had been his chief fear. He walked towards the outer edges of the grouped people and began observing them and listening in, trying to get as much information as he could without actually talking to anyone.

There were plenty of people trying to get cellphone reception, even after two days. It was incredible that any of them had battery power. Soon, they wouldn’t, and it wouldn’t matter. They would be worried about their hunger, if they stayed down here. After that, people would probably start to get sick from living in too close proximity to one another with no means of maintaining hygiene. Peter wasn’t looking forward to that. He struck it from his mind and listened.

“I just walked from Port Authority and they said the attacks happened all over America.”

“I’m not taking any chances. I’ll stay down here until I get a guarantee that there won’t be a second wave.”

“Half the city’s gone.”

“I hope it wasn’t nukes…”

“Can’t have been nukes – the tunnels are still standing.”

“It’s the subway – of course it’s still standing.”

“The government has gone into hiding.”

“– I heard it from someone with a radio.”

“The buildings fell right over…”

“…like trees…”

“I heard that the police are coming around and clearing people out of the tunnels.”

“…couple of thousand dead…”

Bunkers. The Koreans – North and South. The Russians, rising again. Canada, sick of all their bullshit. Nobody had their facts straight. What was clear was that things were a lot worse than Peter had imagined, sitting in his closet. Nobody tried to start anything with him – they were all just too tired. A few of them looked over at his broomstick with a kind of unease.

He finally asked the man that seemed to have the biggest mouth whether anyone had been up above yet.

“Yeah, some people that were at other stations. You planning to go up there? Yeah, man, I’ll follow you, so long as you go first. If the Russians have landed their personnel carriers than we could be facing down the barrels of a fucking lot of guns.”

“No – I just wanted information, you see,” said Peter.

“Information is straight up those stairs, guy.”

Peter excused himself, and tried to work out a strategy to find Katja. There were no guarantees that they were on the same line or near the same station, if she was in the tunnels at all. He thought back to their last conversation, when she had brought him the tobacco tin. She had been so hopeful for the future. The last time that he had seen her, her whole body  had been tense with energy, a sort of happiness – or maybe excitement at having found the baseball cards that were still sitting in the kunstkammer. She seemed anxious to see if he liked her gift.

“Are the cards worth anything?”

“They’re great – Joltin’ Joe is a real find. I bet these cards belong to some kid who isn’t a kid any more and forgot about them,” said Peter.

“I wanted to thank you again for the help you’ve given me, touring the subways. I was really able to advance my project.”

“Are you leaving?”

“No – but I think I’ll be busy the next little while. I have a show coming up,” said Katja.

“At which gallery? Are you showcasing any pictures from the subway? Paintings?”

“Some place downtown – you’re sure to hear about it. I can tell you more once the newspapers have got a hold of it. It’s going to be a big show,” she said.

“I’ll look out for it,” said Peter, picturing her dressed up for her vernissage. At least, he thought that was what it was called. Peter didn’t think it strange that he’d never heard of Katja – big in the art world didn’t mean big anywhere else, and Peter didn’t really pay attention to newspapers or television or anything. But he remembered being sure that she would be sensational, somehow. Now her show might never happen – her art might be scattered amidst the destruction above. He only hoped that she herself had survived.


He spent the rest of the day searching and then went back to the maintenance closet to sleep. Everyone was still too caught up in themselves to care what any one person did. As he neared it, he saw a dark black shadow interrupting the brown of the closet door. It was Katja – she was beautiful,  alive, and completely unaware of him. It looked as though she had been waiting for him. He thought of the wedding band in his pocket. In her hand was a small black box with an antenna and a few wires sticking out of it. It was obviously cobbled together by hand from two or so broken radios with a great deal of effort. Katja looked up with a start when he took hold of it.

“Hey, did you make that? Have you been able to get any news from above?” Peter examined the radio.

Now Katja was on her feet. “No – give it here, Peter.”

Peter raised his eyebrows at her. “It’s fine – I know how to use a radio. I won’t break it.”

The look on Katja’s face stunned Peter. He felt sure, then, that this was no radio.


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