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The West Side Mole: A manifesto from the margins

BY THE MOLE | Greetings, fellow Villagers. Allow me to introduce myself.

I’m the person you pass on the street every day, but don’t give a moment’s thought. I’m on the line behind you at the post office. I’m admiring your dog in Abingdon Square.

We’ve shared the same sidewalks for years, yet you’ve never registered my presence except as an obstacle to maneuver around. To you, I’m on the periphery. A passing shadow, not part of the permanent local color.

I’m unfamiliar, which is always threatening to a villager, especially in this capital-“V” Village where refusal to change is a badge of pride. I’m tolerated just as long as I keep moving and don’t ask for anything — especially to be counted as an authentic part of the neighborhood where I’ve lived for years.

In a sense my invisibility is a success, because blending in is how people like me survive. The less we stick out, the better. If we dress down and mind our own business, the landlords, lecherous creeps and police won’t ask our names and where we live. Our presence here depends on our ability to remain unnoticed, like criminals in a witness protection plan.

Call me the Mole. The name fits snugly, for not only do I sleep in a hidden, homemade hole, but I also carry on a cloak-and-dagger double life. My co-workers and friends wouldn’t guess that I have no lease or legal residence, and that my existence hinges on a game of hide-and-seek.

Like most New Yorkers, we eat out when we meet. Years pass without ever seeing each other’s apartments, which is perfect, since they might be alarmed that I lack a stove, fridge, window and proper bed.

Strangers are the only ones who can see through my disguise, kindred spirits who are also on the margins. They wink knowingly when our paths cross. We recognize each other the way ex-cons — or the very rich — can pick each other out in a crowd.

There are many of us in the neighborhood, though we aren’t counted in the Census or mentioned by the tourist guides. We are not the official face of the Village. More like its backside.

But the moles are manifold here, even if unseen. In fact, we may be the majority. Start the tally with illegal subletters like me, then add the dog sitters and homecare workers. The au pairs and building supers. The cashiers and cooks who catch a few hours of sleep in the back of the shop after their double shifts. The personal assistants and art handlers who nestle in between canvas stretchers in the galleries at night.

And the kids — the kids who grew up in the neighborhood but didn’t get on the waiting list for Westbeth or the West Village Houses. Now it’s too late. After the layoff and divorce, there was nowhere to go but mom and dad’s couch.

Don’t forget the people on the street or in cars, many of whom pass as “normal,” sleeping in their suits, with cell phones for alarm clocks.

Even the moles whose holes are in a different part of the city spend more time in the Village than its official, storied residents, who are always visiting their cabins Upstate and summering on the Cape.

We do the degrading work that keeps the Village running while aboveground residents write, paint or — let’s face it — sit around and complain, talking about how persecuted they are, and prophesying doom as the barbarians from above 14th St. gather at the gates.

And therein lies the real trouble. Because it’s one thing to be here on a borrowed dime, doing the Village’s dirty work, and being overlooked and ignored. It’s another to get the brunt of the scorn the neighborhood turns toward those on the outside.

To walk down my own street and be treated as an interloper and sightseer is a drag. Insult is added to injury when the local landed gentry lecture me about how anti-establishment they are. Even reading the local press I feel vilified, because anyone under retirement age is lumped into a faceless horde, and a threatening one if we’re on bikes. Anyone who hasn’t been here since the Sixties is assumed to be rich, and a fool besides.

It’s enough to ruffle your fur.

Illustration by Alexandra Leff.

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