Adam Mansbach – Rage is Back (Chapter 1)
When Ambassador Dengue Fever told me that Billy wasn’t dead after all but half-alive and back in town, skulking through the Transit System’s blackened veins feral and broken and scrawling weird mambo-jahambo on the walls with chalk – chalk! as if spraypaint never existed – I pretty much just shrugged a whatever shrug and kept on selling hydroponic sensimilla to stainless steel refrigerator owners living in neighborhoods that had just been invented, and hoping Karen would let me back in the apartment soon, me being her son and all, even if I had been expelled from fucking Whoopty Woo Ivy League We’s A Comin’ Academy on account of some Upper Eastside whiteboys’ inability to keep my botanical enterprises, of which they were the major beneficiaries, on the low.
Dengue was blind as Lady Justice, and so fat now that his eyes wouldn’t have done him much good anyway, obscured by slabs of blubber when he laughed or even spoke. He dressed like an African tribal chief in a Hollywood movie, or a hip hop back-up dancer circa 1989: voluminous kente-cloth, chestload of polished wooden beads, an ahnk-handled staff that had evolved from prop to crutch. The nation-state for which he served was a graffiti crew called The Immortal Five, the name long smudged with irony: Amuse murdered, Sabor dead by his own hand, Cloud 9 incarcerated, Dengue having fallen asleep one night with perfect vision and awakened from a nightmare permanently sightless, and my father, Billy – Rage – Billy Rage – a fugitive, missing in action, last seen sixteen years ago, last heard from almost twelve and incoherent even then.
“I don’t want to hear another rumor,” I told the Ambassador from my bed, his couch. “Matter of fact, I’m not sure I wanna hear shit about Billy even if it’s true.”
“Jus’ cool, bredren. That yuh father yuh chat ‘bout, yunno.” Dengue’s from the Patterson Projects in the Bronx, but for serious matters, he tends to favor the brimstone gravity of Rasta-speak.
“Tell him that,” I said.
Dengue reached into a kitchen cabinet, wrapped his palm around a small bottle and twisted the cap between his thumb and finger. An orange spurt of hot sauce roped into the pan and sizzled. Only when the Ambassador cooked did a decade’s worth of model-glue fumes dissipate, or seem to. I’d never been able to unravel whether his dependence on the braincell-popping odor was the byproduct or the genesis of his obsession with constructing “Battle Alphabets,” huge, three-dimensional versions of the spike-tailed guerilla letterforms he’d once painted on subway trains. He built them from industrial plastics, scrap-metal, wood. Whatever people brought him, for Dengue never ventured outside his apartment.
Tiny tubes lay everywhere, squeezed flat. I’d seen him rub the toxic adhesive into the arm of his chair before sitting, bend laboriously forward and apply it to the rug between his house shoes. The crib was only five hundred square feet, a rent-controlled fourth-floor walkup in the East Village that Dengue had occupied since New York was America’s War Zone and real estate was priced accordingly. Four hundred and change, if you subtracted the space occupied by squadrons of armored letters, many mounted atop remote-control cars to form a mobile infantry.
I’d been crashing with the Ambassador for three days. I sat as close as possible to the window at all times, scattered Village Voice pages atop the carpet before going to sleep. My headache was constant. The fact that Dengue’s mind still worked at all was staggering.
I hadn’t knocked on his door until my second banished month, after two full four-day rotations through the homes of every other hospitable person I knew. I was being very careful to maintain most-favored-houseguest status with them all, because there was no telling how much longer I’d have to do this. With all the money I’d blown treating my hosts and hostesses to breakfasts and flowers and weed I could have rented my own place, but no landlord who hasn’t been sniffing glue himself hands the keys over to an eighteen-year-old with no documented income, regardless of how much cake the kid flashes. Not even if he’s Banana Republiced up, pants fitting right and everything.
Plus, I still expected Karen to stop tripping.
Dengue divided the skillet’s browned contents between two plates, seventy-thirty. “Faith,” he said. “Yuh mus’ try an’ feel it, Dondi. The universe vibratin’ different, seen? Big tings ah gwan.”
“Remember a few years back,” I asked, “when that one kid was all over the graffiti chatrooms, swearing he saw a new Rage piece on the Staten Island Garbage Barge?”
Billy and Amuse had hit the boat, famously, in ‘85, during the day it was docked off Manhattan for maintenance – some freak once-a-year shit they’d researched and timed out. The pieces ran for months, and the Post even published a photo, making my old man and his partner the uppest dudes of the year. A fat new jewel in the crowns they already wore.
When the rumor surfaced, I hopped a ferry over to New York’s forgotten borough and watched the barge slide by, stacked high with filth New York was running out of places to pile. The sides were blank. I hadn’t believed the story to begin with. If Billy had bombed the vessel – if Billy were still Billy – he’d have put Amuse’s name up too, honored his dead.
If Billy were still Billy. That was back when I still acted like I knew him. Felt like I knew him, I should say, the way little kids feel like they know the swashbuckling righteous-crusader assholes we cram down their throats the minute Goodnight Moon gets boring. Stand Billy between Sherwood Forest’s Prince of Thieves and Gotham’s Masked Avenger – neither one a family man, I might add – and the luster paints itself on with an elephant brush. Your boy here led grade-school Brooklyn in somber nods for six years running. He had no choice, I’d tell myself, pumping my chin at some irregularity in the pavement. He had to leave. Good old head-not-the-heart Dondi, thinking his way free of the pain. I kept that up until autumn 2000, when Karen started letting pigeons shit the monument, at which point the secret door to a whole new magical kingdom of fuckedupedness swung open like, “bring your ass in here, young man, we’ve been expecting you.” But later for that.
The Ambassador fell into his recliner, plate in hand. “Dis nah di same,” he said, and shoveled a mound of plantain, potato, egg and pork into his mouth.
“I know this dude,” he elaborated, un-Rasta’ed by the swine. “And he knows Rage.”
“Let me guess. Some dirty white bum was spotted wandering around a train yard, mumbling to himself. Quick, call Fever, must be Billy Rage. Never mind the fact that painting subway cars in 2005 makes your source delusional to start with. Like the buff doesn’t exist? Like anybody’s gonna see his piece except a couple work bums and maybe a guard?”
“You too young to understand nostalgia, D.”
“Yeah, right. I spent my childhood surrounded by grown-ass men who still call themselves Donk 202 and Blaze One and shit, trading train flicks in Karen’s – oh, I’m sorry, Wren 209’s – living room and arguing about who kinged the 2s in ‘76 and who rocked the Flying Eyeball character first, Kid Panama or Seen. I know more about nostalgia than anybody my age should, man.” I took a final bite, and dropped my fork. “That was delicious, by the way.”
“When you lose one sense–”
“The rest get sharper?”
“–you eat all the bloodclaat time. You want to hear what Sambo said, or not?”
“You know somebody called Sambo?”
“Sambo CFC. Crazy Fresh Crew. Old-school Queens cat.”
“I don’t even know what race to hope he is.”
“It means ‘curly-haired’ in Spanish. Creo que homey es Peruano.”
“That’s fuckin’ muy ignorante. Nobody beat him down for writing that?”
“It’s just a name. You finished being indignant?”
I nodded. Like he could see me. Maybe he heard it, or felt the displaced air.
“Sambo was at the Coney Island Yard, our old homebase. He saw a dude in the tunnel wearing one of those Mexican blanket things. You know, Eastwood keeps the sawed-off tucked underneath in all those Sergio Leone joints?”
The Ambassador snapped his fingers. “Serape.”
“They cost ten bucks at Army Surplus, Dengue. You don’t have to go to Mexico to get one.” He and Billy had said their goodbyes at the Southern border. All these years later, the slightest whiff of nacho cheese stoked Fever’s optimism.
“Sambo said it took this guy an hour to walk the last fifty feet to the yard, because the whole time, he was writing on the walls. Nobody just walks the tunnels. You got the third rail, live trains, no light – you could get killed. Sambo called out to him, and dude turned and ran.”
“Unless the walls said Rage Rage Rage or Fuck You Bracken, I’m emphatically unconvinced.”
“There’s a book in here called Ritual and Religion of South America or something like that. Big hardcover I boosted from The Strand. You see it?”
I found the tome steadying the base of a three-foot wildstyle Z, barbed arrows and chunky mechanical bits pinwheeling from it. Z is one of Dengue’s favorites. He believes a letter’s power is a function of its angles, the more and the sharper the better. Get him going on letter theory and you better clear your day. He’ll take it back to Egyptian hieroglyphs, the ancient Hebrews’ Unspeakable True Name of God with its mystery vowels, the science by which Franciscan monks illuminated the opening letters of each chapter in their hand-scribed Bibles. You thought Taki 183 and Julio 204 were old school, forget about it.
I freed the book. It was enormous. Graffiti writers can steal anything. Now the art supply and hardware stores lock all the paint inside glass cabinets and make you show ID, but racking was a way of life during the train era, the first thing you learned how to do. Some guys built reps just for “inventing” cans. It’s ridiculous how much I know about this old man shit, I realize, believe me. Kid Panama painted the Flying Eyeball first, by the way, in case you were dying of curiosity.
Dengue finished eating and slid his utensils neatly to one side of the plate, as if a waiter were going to come and clear our dishes. “There’s a flick in there of these juju priests down in the rainforests who cover everything in symbols to ward off evil. They use all kinds of shit. Blood, vegetable inks, chalk.”
I flipped until I found it. Three wizened, bark-brown men, eyes clear and deep in their skulls, mouths slack where teeth had been, standing before a thatched hut in the jungle, staring at the camera, every inch of their bodies painted in arcane patterns, symbols, slash marks, the dyes dripping down their chests and thighs. The hut, the ground, even the trees were covered. It reminded me of that Keith Haring self-portrait, where he’s standing naked on a bed screaming, his body and the room done up in black-and-white designs. Except that these men were not posing. They looked defiant and serene, like people waiting for a storm.
Don’t ever mention Haring to a graffiti writer, by the way, or Basquiat either. Not unless you’re ready for a tutorial about how those guys were chumps, never hit trains, didn’t hang out at the Writers’ Bench on 149th and Grand Concourse, only painted where it was safe, fronted like they were real heads and made millions while the real heads are real broke heads, some of them with real broke heads.
Dengue listened to me eye the picture. “The whole tunnel looked like that,” he said. “All the way across the ceiling, in some places. Chalk and red latex house paint with mashed-up berries in it, those poisonous ones that grow in the park. Sambo walked through two stations, and it was still going when he turned around.” Dengue’s hand darted from his lap to the windowsill, and closed around the neck of a Ray & Nephews bottle he kept there.
“I sent some kids out last night for a look,” he said, swigging the last of his overproof Jamaican rum. “This stuff is in tunnels all over the city. Somebody’s putting in work.”
“The letter Billy sent from the Amazon was years and years ago, Dengue. And it was gibberish. He said they were teaching him to talk to trees.”
The Ambassador wedged the empty bottle between the overstuffed pillows of his thighs and leaned forward.
“Kilroy Dondi Vance. Listen to your uncle for once in your life. Billy’s here. Mi nah overstand wha’ condition di bredda in, but I-an’-I cyan feel him.”
I torqued myself off of the couch, started to duffel up my clothes. “Yeah, great. I’m leaving a sack of weed on the coffeetable. Catch you later.”
“Yuh feel ‘im too, K.D. Yuh jus’ doan reca’nize it, cuz yuh nah remember wha’ Billy’s presence feel like, seen?”
“Whatever, Dengue. May the force be with you.”
By the time the door shuddered into its locks I was down the first flight of stairs, phone drawn, scrolling through names for somebody to crash with next. Sometimes you feel like a nut and sometimes you don’t, to quote a candy bar commercial I never saw but Karen grew up loving.
The Ambassador was spot-on correctamundo, of course, but you probably guessed that. Why else would I start the story here, right?
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