Imagine entering a world hidden from the naked eye. From where you stand, everything looks normal. Cars roll by, people cross the street, but then suddenly you see a face pop up from underground. Just as quickly as it appears, it vanishes.
The face you saw could have been Bruce Lee’s. With silver-painted hair, hundreds of medals that jingle when he walks, and a pack of dogs at his heels, he’s called ‘The King of the Sewers’.
Below the ordinary hustle and bustle of the city of Bucharest, Romania, hundreds of people like Lee live underground in the sewer tunnels beneath the city.
Conditions in the sewer are far from glamorous, yet access to the underground community is exclusive. No one dares to enter without first consulting their leader, Bruce Lee, whose biological family abandoned him when he was just three. He’s lived underground for more than 24 years. They call him Bruce Lee because he likes to fight. But some also call him ‘Dad’ because he’s the only person they’ve ever trusted.
An entire generation of orphans has grown up underground since 1989 when Romanian orphanages closed after the communist regime was overthrown. Thousands of kids found themselves alone on the streets, and many of them took refuge where the steaming pipes kept the cold away.
It’s almost unbearably hot, and music blares from every corner. The city’s garbage furnishes the tunnels, which run for about two kilometers. Lee’s section even has a fan, a microwave, and a Christmas tree.
Police have tried to seal the entrances to the tunnels several times, but it never works for long. In the tunnels, people have what they need to survive. But that’s not the only reason they stay. Here they feel like they’re not alone. They’ve found family, and for many of them, that’s what matters most.
Studies show that loneliness affects the same part of the brain that physical pain does. So in a very real way, loneliness can be painful. Scientists say that because humans are social animals, being part of a group is important to our survival. When we feel left out, or like we don’t belong, our bodies may sense a threat to survival, sending pain signals, encouraging us to change our situation by seeking connection.
Loneliness can make it harder for humans to sleep, can cause dementia, and can cause inflamed tissues around the heart to tear – literally leading to a broken heart.
Lee says that someday he wants to save enough money to build a place above ground for them all to show everyone else that they are people too. But for now, at least they have each other.