Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2017  Vol. 16 No. 1
 print preview


Jesse spotted the virgin wall while we stood by a patch of fronds on the edge of Clark Park. He crowded up to me. “You up?”

“No doubt.”

The shadows from the dogwoods and oaks mixed, creating an alien, country darkness. On the other side of the park, on the corner of 47th and Baltimore, was a halo of lights from a bulletproofed APlus mini-mart and gas station next to an alley where a white conversion van was parked. The van butted up to the unmarked red brick wall of an Ethiopian restaurant. The owner of the APlus had ratcheted up the lamps above his pumps, making the restaurant, with its dimly visible hieroglyphic figures marching around a jasmine door, seem dingy, sad, and dangerous by comparison.

“You wanna do, like, a couple a’ throw-ups, or you wanna do full pieces?” Jesse asked. A radio shaking metal and plastic car parts like they were garbage can lids weaved in and out of earshot.

I frowned at him. “Come on, son.”

We ran, counting in our heads the cans of discontinued Krylon colors we’d saved for just such an occasion.

A moment later, I had my foot in the cradle of Jesse’s interlocked fingers, was boosted up, and, with a metallic thwoop, set my foot down on the roof of the van. I pulled from my bag cans of Chippewa and pastel yellow for the parchment-paper-looking background and four cans of flat black for the letters CANT, which would unfurl in a Declaration of Independence style script, my perfect imitation of John Hancock, as OG Philly as you can get. With my arm outstretched, I spaced out my letters and shook the can to feel its fullness. Employing one continuous but dynamic application of strength from my curled finger to the top of the cap, I traced on the brick of the Ethiopian bar and became, instantly, a figure with the gesticulations and furious expressions of an orchestra conductor. When I finished filling it in, I signed it, “The Work of the Maestro,” and jumped down to see if Jesse could match it. He always could.


The summer before my senior year of high school, I went to my parents holding, instead of college brochures, a US map. “Here is where I am willing to go to school.” I pointed to a flyover state.

It had a university with a well-manicured lawn in a city that was all suburbs. The stores had grate-less windows for attentive owners to peer out of. The buildings looked like historic monuments dedicated to prairie settlers. Everyone drove cars. Local government was tough on crime and public transit. No elevated trains. No tunnels, nothing subterranean. It was a graffiti-proof city.

“What school is there?” my mom asked.

“Does it matter?” I responded. I had a very clear idea of what would happen to me if I stayed in the city.

My dad waited for a commercial to come on the TV. “We didn’t spend all this money sending you to private school so that you could go to Bible college. You’re going to Penn.”


After my first arrest with Jesse for vandalism behind the ACME in Upper Darby, my dad cobbled together enough to enroll me at St. Joe’s Prep in North Philly. It was a classically Catholic plan. And it worked. The priests tolerated me for about a month. They called me a “diamond in the rough” with thick Irish sarcasm. I don’t know how it happened, but I became a joiner: forensics club, photography club, Hawkeye—our school newspaper, which made me editor junior year. By then I was spending practically every evening on campus.

But the priests at St. Joe’s couldn’t keep me from sneaking out on the weekends to write. They couldn’t keep me out of the better-lock-your-door neighborhoods and off the rooftops and out of the subway tunnels, but they kept me from becoming what my parents feared most: Jesse, an emancipated minor living in a flophouse with writers twice his age. My partnership with Jesse, my compulsion to keep up with him, combined with periodic access to a car, brought me under the tutelage of an older writer who went by Dwaer. It was Dwaer who got me to stop writing on the backs of box stores. And it was Dwaer, the Dirty Word Applier himself, who christened me Cant.

Jesse and I were in his North Philly apartment, flipping through photo albums full of subway cars, store grates, and freight trains while Dwaer’s girlfriend waited for us, the teenage groupies, to leave. Jesse was going off on one of his more violent, cinematic exaggerations, and I said something—probably, “Jesse, you can’t go to your mom’s boyfriend’s house and kick in his teeth.”

Dwaer shook his blond dreadlocks in disapproval. He was wearing Red Kap slacks and a denim shirt with the sleeves cut off because he always dressed like a janitor, even though he was the cosmic opposite of one. “Why you always telling people they can’t do shit?” At twenty-five, he was the oldest person I knew, unrelated.

“Damn, Jared, you should just make that your tag.”

Like almost every word out of Dwaer’s mouth, it was meant to humble me. But I appreciated the name immediately. There was nothing soft or supple about the letters. Starting with my PAC-MAN-shaped C, they always came out imposing. And that’s not to mention the sentiment behind the name. Every writer I knew was proclaiming his kingship. Everyone intended to “run this shit.” I embraced a negation. I was the restraint on Jesse’s wildness because graffiti should be a thumb in respectable people’s eyes, not a gouging.

Dwaer was a king among kings in Philly. He had scaled the frozen steel beams of the construction crane parked in Center City one winter when Rittenhouse Square was deserted, the work crews having stopped to wait out a cold snap. The crane passed within two feet of a high-rise about eight stories up where Dwaer left his mark: a six-foot burner in sunrise yellow, so ugly it was almost classic, like a perfect replica of a ’70s throw-up. He was the author of the most dangerous and well-seen piece of graffiti in the city. He never let you forget that.

Once, at the graffiti picnic in Fairmount Park, I saw Dwaer drop a cinder block on a boy’s head for going over one of his pieces—a nothing, forgotten throw-up on a Germantown bus route. The kid’s worthless friends stood frozen while he was bum-rushed by three older, shirtless boys. They kneeled on his legs and arms, leaving his head free to twist and snake from side to side in the tall grass. Dwaer emerged from the crowd and stood with his feet on both sides of the kid’s head. With the cinder block resting on his shoulder and a key chain jingling festively from his belt loop, he posed like a malnourished Atlas. The shirtless boys gazed at him with aw, shucks smiles.

First covering his giggling mouth during the brick’s amazingly slow descent, then clearing away the standers-by to get a better look, Dwaer examined the boy’s new features—nose, eye sockets, and jaw bloody and shifted, strange yet familiar, like countries on an antiquated map. He laughed, skipped, jabbed a fist into the air. “A homerun into the bleachers!” Bottles of malt liquor were used to irrigate the park’s withered grass and someone called 911 as an afterthought. Later that night one question dissolved and reformed in my sleepless mind: What was the precise mixture of terror and admiration I felt—was it 90 percent terror and 10 percent admiration, or was it way more admiration—watching Dwaer send that kid to the ICU?

It must have been a month later when Dwaer ended my apprenticeship with the coldest, shortest sentence I have ever heard. “Sorry, son, you’re not real.”

I told myself, Well, that’s it. Time to put childish things away. If I just would have followed that advice, then I never would have met Carter, never would have taken him under my wing, never would have seen him become a part of my family’s life.


A drizzly morning after Jesse and I had been out late. I slouched my way through h
istory class while the kid in front of me bragged about going down to Jewelers’ Row to haggle with shopkeepers in front of a girl he was trying to sleep with. I was nodding off. Walking from the front of the room, a priest with veiny, peeled-onion skin, and the clammy touch to match, shouted out my Christian name. “We won’t have you lounging around school like a little Nero anymore,” he breathed in my ear with barely contained rage.

It was Thursday and my weekly column in the paper had just come out, but I didn’t get the chance to read it until lunch period. Most weeks, in my editorial, I flirted with agnosticism or expressed my hatred of jock culture in almost every printed sentence.
Sometimes, through contortions of logic and analogy, I did both. My editorials probably would have alienated me from everyone at The Prep if I hadn’t been the only one reading them.

As usual I found myself sitting in the cafeteria with a table of fellow outcasts whom I had no problem ignoring. I opened up the paper to the center page and, next to my smiling photo, read the first line: “St. Joe’s is trying to get away with self-imposed segregation of the city’s public transit.” The Prep shared subway and bus stops with the kids from William Penn and Ben Franklin, but we were dismissed forty-five minutes before them. Walking past in our khakis and blazers and watching the faces through those narrow windows, you could not miss the message being sent: rich white kids get first dibs. “For no reason other than placating a few anxious parents, the administration is trying to make some North Philly buses and trains ‘whites only’ for two rides per day: the ones that St. Joe’s students take to and from school. This needs to stop.”

I was halfway through reading my article when the lunchroom conversations became hushed, and then stopped. I looked up and saw a wall of buzz cuts, blue blazers and Brooks Brothers ties. St. Joe’s basketball team and its managers were standing at attention in a military column, each holding a copy of that day’s student paper opened to my weekly editorial. They held it like it was a foul object to be sniffed once and then tossed at another less-cool kid. In unison, they ripped it down the center. When they sat down, the lunchroom applauded.

I stayed late working on the next day’s edition, which I did quietly, masochistically, letting my classmates leave their work unfinished for me to complete. Then I caught the El back to the suburbs and, beneath street lights that illuminated rooftop canvases like Broadway marquees, I was subjected to a taunting montage of the names of Philadelphia’s most hated sons: BIK, MBER, KARE, DWAER, and RAZZ.

When I sat down at the table in our cramped kitchen, I saw Carter’s plate warming on the stove. He had eaten my family’s leftovers every night that week. He would remain in my sister’s room during dinner, in the glow of her television, while my mom engaged my sister in feats of Irish Catholic jujitsu—Does Carter enjoy casserole? Because there are other things I could make, if I knew what he liked— and our dad, sullenly stirring his soup, broadcast a head-buzzing, radio-stuck-between-channels message of disapproval. None of us talked about the fact that Carter was upstairs, alone, among our most intimate quarters.

My father regularly called Carter a cancer, usually while I was helping him install drywall at one of his properties. He would look at me, expecting a reproach. “I know, I know. It’s a cliché to call a kid like Carter that.” Had my dad known how Carter spent his time outside of our house  . . . well, the metaphor fit a little too well.

Sitting across from her at the table, I noticed Helen, my sister, had cut her hair recently. It had been newly frosted and styled into a flip. She was still wearing her Baskin-Robbins uniform from her after-school shift. She rushed to finish her meal so she could hit the corner store to buy Carter wine coolers or beer or whatever other vice her ice-cream wages afforded. Helen didn’t conduct herself like a teenager anymore. She had the hustle of a single mother, loving but harried, juggling a job, kids, and an education. (With Carter so fully insinuated in her life, I couldn’t help but fear that was her future.)

The last time we had spent more than a quick meal together was a year ago when I took her to a Free Mumia rally in Center City. Back then her hair was long and wavy and as dark as our father’s, and she wore it so it fell over the front of her jean jacket to just above where she’d pinned on the PFLAG and Catholics for Choice buttons. Now she took Carter to those rallies and said, in a voice hoarse from chanting, “He’s atoning for his past life.” I wondered constantly how much of his present activities he kept from her, and how much she simply forgave, in order to keep him as the last square in her martyr’s quilt.

I had tried to warn her about him. I had approached her at work, and, when I told her that Carter was a bad guy, she blinked and said, “What, you mean, as bad as Jesse?”

“No. Way, way worse.”

I remembered she had cast a sideways glance at her coworker, and then went back to squeegeeing the Baskin-Robbins’ windows. Over the next few weeks, she dismissed me every time I brought up his name, and there remained a million more angles she could still dismiss me from: I didn’t like Carter because he was a rival; I didn’t want him dating my sister because the other writers would hound me about it; he could testify to our home life and make me look as soft as milk-fed veal, etc., etc. She was stubborn, and I was too self-serving, generally, to be trusted on Carter specifically.

My sister had always loved art. She’d hung Keith Haring posters from her walls, a giant tapestry she’d bought at the Philly Folk Fest over her bed, and, as an uncomfortable announcement she’d entered puberty, a giant-sized poster of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss. (Before that, she’d prayed that God would make her into a radical nun, the kind who traveled in a big bus distributing condoms to sex workers.) She was always my biggest defender, whenever the cops pulled up to our house with me in the backseat, or when the security guard at The Home Depot caught me racking paint.

When I looked at her now, I thought, My dad is right. Carter is a cancer. He had grown from the most wayward and delicate corner of our familial body—me—and insinuated himself where he could wreak the most damage.

“Can I?” my sister said, as if they were one word, and, not waiting for an answer, she was up from the table holding her plate in one hand. She dropped it in the murky dishwater. I had barely touched the red mass of pasta and ground beef on my plate. The splash caused my dad to lift his eyes up from his meal. She was halfway to the staircase with Carter’s food when, through a mouth full of pasta, my dad hollered, “Stop.” He held his napkin to his face to conceal his chewing; it was hard not to notice his huge, bludgeoning hands.

Our father was a neighborhood-born Sicilian and rehabilitator of houses in the Northern Liberties. He wielded a look behind his sophisticated, wire-rimmed glasses, his only article of clothing not covered in plaster dust, like he had spent his adult life constantly frustrated, every working moment bumping up against the limits of his physical strength.

And then he gave voice to that look: “Helen, what is it exactly in Carter’s delinquent background that makes him think he is too good to eat with us?”


When Dwaer dropped me, I began living a very tentative, day-to-day existence, like a true recovering addict. I tried to just work my summer job, study for my SATs, and ignore Jesse’s calls, but I felt like I’d swallowed something revolting and wouldn’t be at peace until I had vomited it up. My thoughts, dark green and flittering, slithered along the contours of boarded-up buildings and highway concrete.

One night I found myself putting on my painting clothes and lacing up my boots without any sense of where I was going. The next thing I knew I was sitting on a concrete slab of wall canopied by elm trees in Rittenhouse Square. It wasn’t late enough for bums to bed down for the night, but I scouted behind the wall anyway. When I stared at the buildings, my eyes automatically followed the length of the crane, parked across the street, to where Dwaer’s name was painted.

The beams of the crane were almost a body’s length apart. The climb must have been exhausting. I thought about how some supporting muscle could give way before you reached the top, or you could catch an ill wind shimmying between beams.

I was not suicidal; I didn’t do things that definitely would get me killed. But, if I really looked at what a stunt required, if I really calculated the odds of my death objectively, like, out of a hundred young men climbing a construction crane, how many would reach the top?, and I came up with a number above 50, I did it, and I did it right away. Terrible, dangerous things must be done as soon as they are dreamed up. This seemed rational to me.

Dwaer tolerated me now, but it was just a matter of time, if I kept writing, before he’d send some young bull to beat me down just for the hell of it. What would Dwaer do to me if I went over this piece? I imagined him catching up with me one day in an alley and expertly, like a sewing machine, stabbing me in the side of the stomach. It wasn’t worth it. But still, I thought, If I took this away from him, he’d see that he was nothing.

I packed up my stuff and went home. It seemed unfair that he had so little to lose.

The next day, while Jesse and I sat on my parents’ stoop trading sketchbooks, I saw this kid spying on us. I knew he had just moved in with his grandmother up the street. I could tell by the way he was looking at us that he had a thing for graffiti.
I called him over. “Let him get up with that Sharpie,” I told Jesse, who rolled his eyes. He had this way of making a person feel as welcome as a needle scratch.

Carter took his time writing his tag in the black book, and left an impression of his size and awkwardness. He had the expansive chest of a fat man but with thin arms and legs. When he stood up, he confessed, “I suck, man.” Carter’s light hair was wet and combed forward, and his eager, bewildered eyes made him seem like a middle schooler at his first dance. Then he scratched the back of his neck and the crucified skinhead tattooed on his triceps came into view.

Carter told us that he grew up in Wilkes-Barre, the youngest of three boys, all neo-Nazis. He was named after the last president their father could stomach voting for. In an act of defiance, Carter renounced racism and moved out.

“I mean, we were always playing army in the woods,” he explained, “building wolf pits to catch each other. I thought, when they were shaving heads, it was just, I guess, being part of the game. I didn’t know what we were doing until kids I went to school with my whole life wouldn’t talk to me.” He looked down at his feet. “I don’t miss my dad, and when I think of my brothers . . . all I hear is them calling me a traitor. I feel like a man without a country.”

Right away I saw in Carter someone I could mold, someone I could treat the way Dwaer treated me, someone who would be my protection.

I brought Carter out on one or two excursions with Jesse and me, but he wasn’t much for painting. Mainly he would come over to my house and hang out in my room. He drank in the stories of graff beefs, about this writer crossing out this other, stories that ended in alleys with faces being slashed by X-ACTO knives. I filled him with accounts of Dwaer’s undeserved fame and respect.

To my surprise, Carter started organizing his own graffiti crew, mostly made up of crank-addicted tattoo artists and club bouncers he met hanging out on South Street. None of them really wrote, or acted like they wanted to; it seemed their sole reason for existing was as a pre-prison gang. He wanted me to be their president, but I saw how he kept them in thrall. When we went out, he carried a butcher’s knife in the sleeve of his jacket. “Ya know, in case any of Dwaer’s boys try to fuck with us.”

Carter’s favorite pastime became hanging out on South Street, posing as a drug dealer to lure some drunk into an alley, so his entire gang would flood it, fists swinging, pulling the drunk down, stomping on his beer-addled brain until he was purely senseless. They never stole wallets or jewelry. Theirs was a strictly not-for-profit criminal enterprise.

I realized that Carter was like a released circus freak, and violence was his moneymaking vestigial organ: hereditary, functionally useless, but he found currency in displaying it.
I was in the process of freezing him out when one night I came home and found, sitting by the door like a reeking totem of evil, Carter’s boots. Helen, my Irish twin, was next to him on the couch. She was touching his shoulder with two tentative fingers while he watched a cheetah on TV launch itself in slow motion. I didn’t say anything as I made my way upstairs, but looked back in time to see him point a finger at me, make the sound of a gun clapping, and murmur, “Catch you on The Strip, Cant.”


I came home early one morning, just a few days after our dad made it known that Carter was no longer welcome in our house, and found Helen had fallen asleep on the couch. There was a half-eaten chicken on the kitchen table, its yellow skin curling in the light, and the acrid smell of exploded peas coming from the microwave. The refrigerator clicked on, hummed, and pulled juice from the light swinging above the table. I flicked it off and looked out the window. I had trouble distinguishing the air from the concrete.

Upstairs, running water partially covered up the sounds of my father’s bathroom exertions. I wanted to be in bed before he came down. I walked up the steps, but came to a stop in front of Helen’s room. I’m not sure why I went in. Carter was gone. I guess I expected to find a suitcase of Helen’s clothing, packed for a quick getaway. When I walked in, all I noticed was the smell of burned incense. That, and the tapestry above her bed had been moved.

I gently took it off the nail it was hanging on. Beneath it was Helen’s name in blocked-out, rainbow-colored letters, next to a balloon-carrying girl with a wide face and flowery dress. I sat on my sister’s desk. I thought about taking a photo of Carter’s piece, just a keepsake to embarrass Helen with once she was grown and he was no more than a far faraway speck in her rearview mirror. I walked back toward the door to get my camera.

On her beige wall, just below her giant Gustav Klimt poster, were two blotches of paint—not aerosol, paint from a can—that didn’t quite match the base coat but were close. There was a black shape edging out from underneath the poster, almost reaching the doorframe. I ran my fingers under the edge of the poster and popped it off the wall. Beneath it was a pair of naked bodies outlined and filled in with shiny black strokes. They reminded me of the hallway graffiti I’d seen in project walk-ups. Their objective seemed the same: to mark territory. A woman with pendulous breasts draped them over a man’s eyes and mouth and poised her bulbous butt in the air. Small, curved lines floated above it, suggesting bucking motions.

In the corner of the room were my sister’s overdue copies of bell hooks. Just a few feet away was a cluster of Keith Haring posters. I found beneath them a set of cartoonish figures—segregated from the carnal cave drawing—whose swollen oval eyes, clownish red smiles, and hair curled like mattress springs marked them, undeniably, as Sambo drawings.

Helen had fed Carter, been kinder to him than any person he had ever met, and it must have hollowed her to see this.

Helen was far too good to stay with Carter. This was an inescapable fact for him. Perhaps he couldn’t say goodbye without burning a bridge.

Or maybe it was something else. I started to see how his plan had formed, as it must have, in the sub-basement of his mind.

He must have known that the only way he’d keep a girl like her was if he made her less than she was: less willful, less idealistic, compromised.

He must have started with the portrait on the bedroom wall one day while she was at work. When Helen saw it, she would have acted upset but would have been secretly thrilled, he knew. Then at night, after our parents had fallen asleep, after Helen had let him back into the house and into her room, he would have picked up a can of black, and, just for fun, started to paint.

“What’s the big deal?” he must have said. “I’ll cover it up, too.”

The bodies appeared, at first, like a racy joke, greeted by silence. He kept painting. She couldn’t yell for him to stop—our parents were ten feet away—so he kept painting. What he wanted was for her to start crying. Afterwards, he apologized. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I was too high.” He blamed his racist dad and brutal brothers, his repressed rage. “You don’t get past growing up like that overnight,” he’d said. “I’m doing good, considering.” He promised to paint over it tomorrow. Of course he didn’t. He made excuses: he got busy; he felt depressed that day. And every day it stayed up, it wore her down a bit. She grew a little more anxious, brittle. How could she even say she was a good person with that on her wall?

And then he disappeared, leaving her to clean up the mess and hate herself for doing it. Maybe he’d wait a few weeks, maybe a month, and then he’d come back. Then, if he could convince her to take him back, he’d have her for good. And here’s the thing that really scared me: what does he do if Helen tells him to get lost?

I could feel my dad’s presence in the doorway before he spoke. He was looking at the wall above Helen’s bed. He didn’t say anything, but when his eyes met mine, I knew, for a second, that he thought I had done it. “I guess I’ll have to do something about this now,” he said, and walked back downstairs.

I covered Carter’s work and shut my sister’s door behind me.


Jesse and I were both studied in West Philly’s pitfalls: gentrifiers, stumbling tribes of Penn frat boys, rookie cops. He tagged without looking sideways. He was improbably successful, almost miraculous, like a broke-down car running on nothing but prayers from kids in the backseat. In pegged jeans with his Brooklyn baseball cap turned backwards, he could climb an expressway sign with a gymnast’s ease. Every one of his actions screamed, I don’t give a shit. I couldn’t match his nimbleness, so I bombed everything. I caught tags with markers on signs for the Art Museum, with fat-capped cans in cobblestone alleys, with gel pens, in stark letters on bus shelters with the keys in my pocket. Sharp and imperious, my name materialized on walls and above signs. “Cant Stop!” they pleaded.

I wanted to hop a bus that would take us west to a block in the high 50s, where the roads widened like rivers’ mouths and, in the moonlight and broken street lamps, had the seamlessness of black ice. We could bomb the neighborhoods that my classmates ventured into for drugs, walk the twenty-odd blocks to my house, clutching the screwdrivers and box cutters pilfered from my dad’s workbench, and arrive cleaned out, pure. And from the silhouettes on porches, we’d catch the summertime reek of marijuana and hear that familiar refrain, “Hey officers, nothin’ goin’ on here.”

This was our shared addiction: vacationing in the ghetto. Like the rap-bred white boys we were, we dreamed of a respect that eluded us but kept us diving into neighborhoods famed for assassinating delivery drivers.

So, as I trailed behind Jesse, I had to ask myself: Why were we heading toward lights, toward people, toward civilization?

I grabbed his arm. “Market East is this way.”

He jabbered something, some hodgepodge of hip-hopisms. We were crossing Rittenhouse Square and I could see the Center City crane—Dwaer’s crane—over Jesse’s shoulder.
“I’m not feelin’ it tonight, Cant.” Jesse rubbed his hands on his jeans. “Let’s chill on The Strip instead.”

I thought about the reception that awaited us there. I couldn’t go home, though. “What-the-fuck-ever,” I said.

On South Street, under the banner of Condom Nation, I milled about with a half-dozen middle-school dropouts next to a SEPTA bus bench marred by scribbled names. Dwaer sat on the bench with a sketchbook open on his bony lap and his track bike resting against the wall. Boys in armor-heavy black jackets stood around, acting as stupid as statues. One was probably Dwaer’s new protégé. Glancing around, someone pulled a Sharpie from his pocket. There was the swish of nylon as bodies moved to conceal the round-robin tagging. Between tags the boys lolled around dented cars, parked crook and tight, like they were dead tongues in a diseased mouth. I took my turn, crouched in the center of the circle, and looped letters on the side of a paint-chipped hydrant, while trying to fight the thought creeping into my head: I’m an idiot. I’m a legal adult, headed to college, trying to impress a bunch of vandals. That thought was worse than death, and worth fighting.

Dwaer sighed and complained loudly enough for me to hear, “I wish Cant wouldn’t tag when I was around.”

Streetlights altered the hues of people’s faces. “Hey, Megan!” and “C’mere, girl!” and other rude invitations crisscrossed the street. Fingerpicked melodies wafted from speakers mounted outside the fake ’50s diner. Led by Carter, a gang of teenagers, dressed conspicuously alike in Timberland boots, baggy jeans, and oversized white T-shirts, crossed against the traffic light.

“My nigga Cant!” Carter proclaimed, unable to hide the inflection from years of using that term not as one of affection. I felt like someone was choking me. I reluctantly clasped his hand. Carter’s boys diffidently stood by, leaning on cars, apprising skinny young men, drunk, exiting bars alone. When I looked at them, I could almost hear the scratch and crackle of a police radio. “Suspect heading north on foot. White male, teens or early twenties, medium build, short hair, white T-shirt, jeans, boots,” and the response: “You mean, every motherfucker out here.”

I could tell they made Dwaer nervous. He stood up and pulled his blond dreadlocks into a ponytail. His body flinched automatically, preparing for pounds or a nod or another sign of respect, but none came.

Jesse erupted suddenly. “Yo, I’ll paint anywhere,” he said, pacing the sidewalk in a Public Enemy T-shirt with faded gun sights while he looked down his long, beaklike nose at Carter’s gang. His rosacea flared red. “I’ll go anywhere: the Badlands, Saigon projects, Strawberry Mansion, Sarajevo . . . but I won’t set foot in China.”

“Why?” came a voice from beneath a baseball cap.

Jesse’s face crumbled in mock disgust. “Don’t you know how they do? They’d catch me like a red-butted baboon and sell my glands. I’d end up down on 10th and Arch in one of those Chinatown herb shops.” The boys on the corner fell out laughing. That’s why I painted with Jesse. I had never taken drugs, but his presence was cocaine-like: inhibition-shedding, wild-gibberish-inducing, and insane sense of invulnerability-inflaming. It was starting to affect me. I was starting to feel like a conquistador again.

Jesse squared up to Carter. “Hey, your boys remind me of a New Kids On The Block poster. The only place they’re up is their girlfriends’ walls.”

I felt a surge of panic. They know, I thought. He bragged about it. I looked from Jesse to Carter and then back to Dwaer. Jesse was in on it. Dwaer must be, too. It was all to clown me. But there was nothing, no indication on their faces, no reaction except from Carter’s boys, who raised themselves off the cars at the rising tenor of Jesse’s voice.

Carter pointed to his gang. “Ya’ know these dudes? Like, some of them are killers, feel me?” He paused to let that sink in. “But I told them all: You’re with my boy, so you’re off limits. Besides, you ain’t in the game like that, Jesse.”

This was too much.

“What do you mean, he ain’t in the game like that? You some kind of referee?”

Jesse appeared by my shoulder, echoing me, “Yeah, you some kind of referee? Take that noise down to Foot Locker.”

Again, the boys on the corner fell out laughing, and the concentrated hardness Carter’s gang was holding on to seemed to dissipate. “Okay, Okay,” Carter said, “just trying to look out for you, not trying to get out of line. I’d be nobody if you hadn’t seen something in me, Cant. I ’preciate that.” He pulled a razor blade from his pocket. Putting it in his mouth, he mumbled, “Time to put some work in.”

He chewed the razor’s blunt edge and swished it from cheek to cheek. With his teeth clenched, he yelled, “Weed out! Ready rock!”

“What we standing in front of Condom Nation for, son?” Jesse prodded me.

“Word, god, that shit is mad gay,” I played along.

“I knew you’d feel me.”

I couldn’t wait to break out. We could disappear into the service entrances of the West Philly trolley tunnels and come out with soot-and-sweat-stained shirts, my asthmatic lungs drinking in the smoggy morning air, followed by a celebratory ride in my dad’s Dodge Colt, quoting Style Wars the whole way, to an all-night diner where grandmas in starched dresses would serve us breakfast food.

While Jesse hugged his goodbyes, three boys in polo shirts walked through our circle. One threw his arm over his friend’s shoulder while telling a story about a girl. Stone drunk, he punctuated every smutty syllable with a tap on his friend’s chest. I heard a voice coming from my right ask, “Yo, you sellin’?”

That “Yo,” so rounded and lilting—you can’t hide Main Line elocution.

I recognized the speaker by his dark hair, his chalk-bright teeth, and the freckles on his arms and face. His name was Bill Putnam and he was the manager of St. Joe’s basketball team and the two boys flanking him were center forwards. They must have been test-driving new fake IDs. He asked again: “You sellin’?”

Behind me, Carter inhaled, then hollered, “Weed out! Ready rock!”

The taller of the two basketball players said all the weed on South Street was oregano. Carter sucked his teeth. “True, true.”

Jesse swarmed them. “Where you cop your stuff?”

Bill shrugged and smiled. “You know, the place.”

“Yeah, I do,” Jesse said gravely. “You gotta watch what you buy down there. Those boys put angel dust in their weed.”

A comic wine-burp escaped from Bill’s mouth. “Can you get us some?”

I looked back to see if Dwaer was appreciating this. His gang had joined Carter’s, a mixing of black jackets and white T-shirts surrounding my classmates. Dwaer stood while concentrating on drawing something in the sketchbook he was holding. A slight smile passed across his face.

Carter grabbed my arm. He leaned in and whispered, “I heard your boy’s gonna get you somewhere where, ya’ know, Dwaer’s at.”

I looked at him to see if this was some elaborate joke.

“You mean, like a trap?”



He placed one hand on my shoulder and the palm of his other on my chest. “You gotta, like, curb him, or stab him, or whatever.”

I scanned his face to see if he believed what he was saying. “There’s something you should know,” I told him. “Dwaer ain’t that bad.”

Carter snorted. “You for real?”

“The thing about Dwaer, once he’s done his dirt, he goes away. He knows he’s an asshole.” I pointed at Bill. The freckles on his arms and face glowed like phosphorescent algae in the streetlight. “That guy over there, he doesn’t know he’s an asshole. If you fuck with him, he’ll keep coming back at you forever.”

“Yeah.” Carter said it absentmindedly. He was listening to see how drunk or doped up my classmates were. Fucked up enough and the police don’t care how bad you’re beat; they won’t take a statement.

I could feel my whole body vibrating. “So, which kind of asshole are you, Carter? The kind that goes away or keeps coming back?”

All of a sudden his whole demeanor changed. He looked at me, just for a moment, with something besides his usual Neanderthal blankness. It wasn’t anger or shame or regret as much as it was, maybe, love for my sister and a rudimentary calculation of what she would want him to do in this situation. I knew, at that moment, he would never leave her alone.

Jesse sang out, “Your boy’s hungry. You got’sta feed him!”

Bill seemed jumpy but ready to follow and so did his ball-playing friends. Three victims meant the beating would be spread out. I wanted to go, but Jesse wouldn’t budge. He wanted to see it go down. I knew, once it started, we would not be able to sit it out. I would have to hold one of these boys down or land a kick in a stomach or spine or skull. To do otherwise would be asking to be the next victim.

Bill was talking faster now, discussing the finer points of the deal. “I want to get the good stuff, we’re used to the good stuff.” Carter smiled at me. This was going to be bad.

I looked at Carter and shook my head no. He gave Bill a clenched-jaw smile. “I think we’re all out of what you’re looking for. Take it down the street. Shop’s closed.”

“Fuck you, man,” he whined. “How would you like it if I jerked you around?”

Carter rubbed his chin, discreetly tucking the razor blade between his fingers. “I don’t think I would like that.”

The basketball players started to back away. They seemed to be mumbling prayers, or maybe just mouthing Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit! while Carter advanced. Bill sniffled but wouldn’t move. His eyes looked narrowed and red. Tears flashed.

I pushed my way past the tightening circle of Carter’s boys. I grabbed my classmate and pulled him close enough to whisper, “Look at them. Look at them. How do you think this is gonna go down?”

Bill’s expression didn’t change.

“Hey,” I spoke softly, “don’t worry. We’ll all be waxing your yacht someday.”

He wiggled out from the grip I had on his shoulder and stepped closer to Carter, into the sphere where he could tap Carter’s chest to emphasize a point, be punched, grabbed from behind, choked. Carter’s eyes were beyond blank, purposeless, dementia-inflicted. He still had the razor palmed between his fingers.

“Go home,” I called out, my voice hard enough to mask my concern. “Play some cricket. Play some water polo.”

“Yeah, go back to Connecticut,” Jesse joined in, and there was something in the way he said it, languidly, dropping each clunky syllable —“Cuh-Nect-A-Kit”—like a bored child plunking stones in a well . . . I could immediately see Bill standing in some financier-father’s backyard next to a pool and flowering garden and touch football played by men in salmon-colored shorts. It felt like visiting the zoo and remembering the bored animals were neither docile nor harmless.

While gleeful malice in the form of laugher erupted all around him, Bill’s expression did not change. His friends had deserted him.

I had been wrong about him. He was not drunk. He was past drunk. He had gotten himself raw, down to his lizard brain, past perspective and self-preservation, into that area that tastes disrespect and spits it out like poison. “Say you’re sssorry,” he slurred.

Up the street, about ten feet from us, a cop turned the corner, stopped, craned his neck to say something into the radio on his shoulder, and then stared into the display window of Zipperhead. I caught Carter’s gaze and held five fingers to my chest and then made an O with my thumb and index. His boys stood up and shook out their legs like sprinters.

“Hold up,” a voice said. It was Dwaer. He was standing by my elbow. “Wait until Officer Krupke crosses the street. Then we’ll settle this.”

Carter wouldn’t even look around. He knew he couldn’t back down now.

“Say you’re ssssorry.”

“I’m sorry,” Carter said, almost smiling. The white T-shirts crackled with suppressed laughter. His apology hung in the air. Laughter drained from bodies. They grabbed Bill by the arms.

I pulled Jesse away before Carter could maneuver him under the awning of a shuttered store, before their reaching arms became the tentacles of the beast known as One Unceasingly Unlucky Day for You, Motherfucker. When I looked back Carter was slowly, gingerly, like a practiced beautician applying makeup, sliding his hand across the boy’s freckled face, leaving just the faintest line, which puckered, oozed a tear of blood, before it poured out in a flow. A woman screamed.

Jesse and I cut down alleys, emerged onto unlit streets, leaving behind the shrieking woman and the flowing crowd of tanned and alcohol-sweating sex-seekers. The wall of shimmering light and color thrown up above The Strip—an artificial aurora borealis, struggling, chained to the earth, a welcomingsight to nighttime travelers and revelers—receded in our wake.

We separated, and I found myself back at Rittenhouse Square, alone, under the elm trees, surrounded by office buildings the color of the moon.

One of those ball players must have recognized me. Every time I thought about going home, I was visited by the Ghost of Christmas Future. I saw a cop car pulling up to my house, scooping me up and taking me to the precinct where a detective tells me they’ll go easy on me if I talk, but I can’t, because I have been conditioned not to, and, for a reward, I live out Carter’s prison sentence.

I still had my painting gear with me. There was no one around. I walked across the street to where the crane was. My last hurrah. I started climbing and, by the time I reached the 40-foot mark, my sweat had darkened my shirt and made the insides of my gloves feel like Silly Putty. But my body did not give up, and when I was finally within spitting distance of Dwaer’s piece, I pulled open my bag and took out a can of ocean blue. I wrapped my legs around a steel pole, held onto the underside of the girding with my forearm, and, gripping the can in my right hand, reached toward the concrete. I depressed the cap. The paint evaporated and was carried on the air, leaving only a dusting.

I turned my body over and inched up the pole so I was facing the wall head-on. I calculated the distance and noted the cement ridge. Enough for a toehold? I took a moment to rethink the whole operation. What would keep me from falling? Gardening gloves, soft fabric on smooth, onyx-colored steel, controlled like a puppet by hands marinated in sweat. I could fall. I could let go. No jail. No disappointed parents. There was a pleasing sensation accompanying the thought.

I gripped the crossbeam with both hands and let my legs slip off. On the third swing, I was able to catch the ridge. My foot was at the bottom of the A in Dwaer’s name.

When I was done with my work, I looked out over the city. Hunched shapes were cleaning offices or working late in the buildings. My muscles were still shaking and seizing up. I saw the statue of William Penn above City Hall, his face friendly but indistinct and his body bronzed and bird-shit stained. “Hey, Penn,” I whispered, “don’t say shit if it don’t concern you.”

Dwaer was no longer the author of the most dangerous and well-seen piece of graffiti in the city. I was. Who cared if it had Carter’s name on it?  

return to top