tag and tale of a teenage graffiti artist
PART I. RUNNING
And death shall have no dominion
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
Dylan Thomas, And Death Shall Have No Dominion, Stanza I
Chapter I. Target
I left 60th and its quiet pre-dawn rush of infrequent taxis to find my spot along the park’s iron rail. My rope was heavy, with fist-sized knots every twelve inches. I threw it over an overhanging tree arm, shouldered my bag, and climbed it as easily as I would a ladder. Softly, I dropped to the ground on the other side. Clouds blotted out both moon and stars, and I didn’t dare use my headlamp: Central Park was forbidden to visitors for another two hours. I followed the asphalt path by feel, through the thin soles of my sneakers. All I could hear were insects in the trees, that odd electric hum, and the rhythmic slap-slap of the bag on my back. A delicious smell, wet and green, filled me.
My target wasn’t far, a huge hunk of granite in the Great Meadow. Maybe ten minutes passed, and I was there, my hands moving over its large, rough sides. It felt alive, some ancient fantastic animal. I couldn’t wait to let its life soar.
I worked quickly, stroking on bold black outlines with my treasured boar-hair brush. The outlines I filled using a mere three cans of color, brown, white, and gold. More detail required more time with another thinner brush – my favorite part. The sky had lightened from black to navy at this point, so I needed my headlamp only for orientation. Flashing it on for half a second helped me refine the talons; another second of light let me shape a broken wing. I climbed on the rock’s top to finish the feathers when I felt the hit.
I never even saw him. One hand grabbed my mouth while another pulled me down. I slid so fast and hard down the rock’s side, chunks of skin ripped off my back through my t-shirt. I fell to the ground with a thud, then felt someone rolling me over. A black knit cap hung above me; knees in jeans squeezed against my shoulders while hands tightened around my neck. I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t even breathe.
“Hey! Hey you! What’s happening here?”
Another hand, higher up, sliced through air, chopping at my attacker’s neck. The man on top of me coughed and fell so close that I could taste his breath, a swirl of smoke and onion-like grime. Then he rolled to the side and took off across the grass.
“Who was that?” Someone was helping me sit up. “Have some water.” A plastic bottle pressed against my lips. The water tasted bitter. Spluttering, I spat out as much as I could.
“You should drink.”
I couldn’t talk, but managed to shake my head away from the bottle’s sharp smell.
“Should I call the police?”
That got me shaking my head like I was trying to wing it off into the trees. I could do without seeing Officer Jill again. Last time she’d carted me off, she’d slammed the police car door on my foot and growled, “I’d rather you waste your time in prison than waste mine out here.”
“You’re shaking.” The voice called through my thoughts. “Let’s find a place for you to rest. Can you stand?”
“My stuff…” I whispered and tried to turn around, stumbled, and fell to my knees.
“Hey, let’s try it a little slower.” Carefully, the man helped me get back up and walk to the other side of the rock. My tag was still wet: a large white owl compressed in a net, its beak wired closed, its black eyes wide and angry. My three unfinished feathers, the ones that had broken free through holes in the net, were sailing in empty black outline to the top of the rock.
“You did this?”
If I’d had the strength, I would’ve run. As it was, I couldn’t quit leaning against him.
“It’s cool. Sad, but cool. Here, let me help you.” He gathered my supplies for me – the three cans of spray paint, brushes, my headlamp. He even helped put all of it back in my canvas sack.
“That’s quite a load,” he said handing it to me. He was smiling. His teeth actually shone in the dawn’s growing light.
“I can handle it,” I rasped as its weight settled against my back. My throat was still burning like I’d swallowed gasoline.
“We should move on away from here. Let’s find something safer. This way…” He led me into some pines bordering the meadow while I hung on his arm, floating like a balloon on a string. I shouldn’t have felt so lost. I’d been exploring Central Park all summer, ever since moving out of my foster family’s home in Albany. Immediately, the Park had screamed canvas-wonderland to me; just in the last two months I’d tagged it with forty different species of trees, birds, and some mythic creatures, too. That’s my style, not any of that older-than-old “wildstyle,” but wildlife style. I want to take it to all the famous city parks of the world someday – but for that early morning moment, I was utterly disoriented. The October light had grown so bright I had to keep closeing my eyes.
“I need to sit down,” I insisted, pulling my arm out of the strange man’s grip.
“We’re only a moment from the Boathouse. It opens early, for the tennis players. Can you make it?”
Hesitantly, I followed a few steps, then a few more.
“Here we are,” he said at last, pulling out a chair. It was made of some kind of plastic, but it felt soft as a cloud. All around me were tables, white ones, lots of them, all floating with us on this wooden deck like lily pads. A few families sat at nearby tables studying maps or chatting on cell phones; that was all.
“Let’s get you something to drink. Then we can get hold of the police.”
The word “police” should have gotten me bolting out of there, but my body was sinking ever more deeply into that imaginary fluffy cloud of a chair. Someone dressed in black gave me a white linen napkin with tassels and a minute later put hot chocolate in front of me, real hot chocolate. Dark slivers of something sweet were in the whipped cream, which I ate with a spoon. I didn’t say a word, just stirred and swallowed. I tasted the luxury of lace and velvet and something even silkier. I imagined a Persian cat sipping cream from a silver saucer. I felt better by the time I savored the last of it. Relaxed and warm even. “I really… really…thank you,” I heard myself say.
“No need for that.”
“I think you saved my life.”
He smiled. His eyes, I noticed, were blue. “Do you have any idea who that man was, the one who attacked you?”
I shook my head. Even with my history, I hadn’t ever been attacked like that before. I touched my throat and coughed.
“As soon as you feel better, we’ll call the police. He needs to be caught, sentenced…”
“Why aren’t you all about sending me to the police?” I blurted.
He shrugged and made that wide smile again. His teeth were even whiter now that the sun was high and bright in the sky. His hair was blond and very short. “Art’s not a crime.”
“To some people my kind is.”
I was quiet for a moment. So was he, until he leaned forward: “How long have you been at it?” he asked.
“Just three years.”
“You were young when you started.”
“I gotta go,” I said, making myself stand. My legs felt limp, like someone had slid out their bones.
He stood, too. “Why so soon? Can’t you rest a while longer?”
I’d happily have sat there resting and drinking hot chocolate for a month, but I shook my head. Maybe he was just a nice man, or a curious one, but I just couldn’t take chances. “I’ve gotta be somewhere by…” What time was it? 7 AM? 8 AM? “I’ve gotta be somewhere by nine,” I guessed.
“Then let me help you.” He came to my side of the table.
I shook my head, mumbling, “Sorry I can’t help with, you know, the police.”
“I’ll take care of it. We’ll get that man.”
I was walking backwards and stumbled against a chair, which knocked against another table.
“Excuse me!” cried out an old lady in tennis whites.
“Excuse me,” the man countered. “Don’t yell at this young girl. She’s had a frightening accident.”
“Oh, well, I…” The old lady touched a delicate strand of gold around her neck with her face puckering like a month-old lemon left out in the sun. “My apologies,” she mumbled before turning to the three clones at her table, all with the exact same frosted hair and painted lips.
“Thanks,” I said. I even smiled.
“I hope to see you again…What’s your name?”
“Brandy.” I hadn’t thought quickly enough to lie, but at least I didn’t mention my last name.
“Brandy. That’s a pretty name.” He held out his hand. “I’m Sean Jackson.”
Hesitantly, I lay my palm along his. His skin was cool, smooth. Nice, I remember thinking.
“Take care of yourself, Brandy.”
I nodded, bumped into a few more tables and chairs, and then my feet were back on asphalt, walking home.
Chapter II. A123
I had no change for a bus and took my time walking, so my head was much clearer by the time I reached the shelter, thirty blocks south. A123 is a residential home for teens in the City. The lucky ones stay only a month or two before getting placed into foster care. I’m working on Month 4.
A123 is my nineteenth address, which doesn’t include all the city park hideaways and warehouses I’ve slept in while on the run. You could say my habit of running away is the only consistent thing about me – that and my hair, which no one has ever managed to cut. It hangs down to my hips. I named myself Brandy for its color, which I like to imagine my mom shared. Gray, my last name, is for where my mom died.
My mother, only seventeen at the time, died giving birth to me. She was alone, in a Vermont church graveyard. I don’t know why my mom was by herself outside in such a place. I’ve never met anyone who knew her. I’m what adults call a “ward of the state,” though the states have changed, from Vermont to Massachusetts to New York.
At A123, I was able to sneak past the front desk and sign in without anyone noticing my necklace of bruises or question me about my bag. Usually I stash it behind the shelter’s dumpster, but all I wanted at that point was to lie down. In my room, I changed into a shirt with a collar, then stretched out on my bed. Nothing strange about that. Girls often slept during the day. There wasn’t much else to do. From my jacket pocket, I pulled out an angel-white tassel I’d managed to untie from the fancy cloth napkin that morning at the Boathouse. I brushed its satiny threads along my sore throat wondering about that guy who’d attacked me. Some graffiti rival maybe?
The real mystery was around the man who’d saved me: what was he all about? Empty of ideas, I recited familiar words: And death shall have no dominion... When our bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone… We shall have stars at elbow and foot…
These words are my only treasure. Anything material always gets lost for kids like me. No one at A123 has a desk or even a drawer for objects of their own. Some kids wear backpacks full of stuff – things they’d carried around since the beginning of their refugee-like lives – but long ago I’d given up on having any physical item I cared about. My supplies and even my sketch books have all been trashed or stolen multiple times.
All I’ve managed to preserve is the sole remains I have of my mom, a tiny scrap of poem by Dylan Thomas copied in her own handwriting. Some staff lady gave it to me when I was five, saying it had been found in my mom’s pocket. I’d folded and unfolded that paper so often as a little girl, it had just about crumbled to dust, but a foster parent when I was eight saved a little bit of it. First, she put a stamp-sized piece of the poem inside two cut squares of clear plastic. Then she placed a cloth napkin over the plastic and ironed over it. The heat of the iron melted the two pieces of plastic together. “To preserve what’s left,” she’d said.
Ever since then, all my life, I’ve carried that tiny bit of laminated lyrics in a leather pouch tied around my ankle with a string. Even when I was sent to a horrible boot camp for eight weeks and no one was allowed any jewelry of any kind, a therapist wrote a special “directive” allowing me to keep wearing it. I’m half a day away from fourteen, and I still have it.
Lying on my bed at A123, I pulled it out and drew tiny circles with my right ring finger on the satiny plastic. Like a person’s breath on cold window glass, traces of my touch appeared, then faded. Of the whole poem, only the words “love” and “no dominion” were left. Of course, I knew the poem by heart and some days would recite all three stanzas for hours, but that afternoon, I felt antsy. Disturbed. I had homework but couldn’t concentrate enough to remember what it was, let alone to do it. I was enrolled in a GED program with morons who couldn’t multiply 6 x 7 or tell a verb from a noun, so it didn’t really matter what I did or did not do. I kept touching the word, “love,” then polishing off my fingerprints, again and again.
Maybe after thirty minutes, I went to the office for aspirin, then lay back on my bed to flip through my sketchbook. An elegant fountain pen slanted across the most recent page, holding within its slender form the body of a woman. My new teacher’s high-heeled black boots fitted together into a perfect point at one end, and her shiny black hair swirled around the pen’s prow-shaped tip. Within these swirls of hair were numbers, a few phrases such as “domestic tranquility” and “blessings of prosperity,” and I vaguely recalled something about our history class addressing the U.S. Constitution. Ms. B always let me doodle in class and a week ago had talked to me about something called the “LiveScribe Pen.” This pen could videotape my doodles and record what my teacher said in class at the same time. So I could touch this pen to Ms. B’s hair, and the pen would play out loud what she was saying in class the exact moment I drew it. Then I’d know what the numbers were for and what the quoted phrases were all about. “Maybe it can help you remember homework assignments better,” she’d said to me.
Of course, Ms. B was new and didn’t know that kids like me were lucky to get Walmart’s rejects for school supplies, if anything at all. In the upper right corner of the page, I sketched a wave composed of dollar signs looming over the fancy pen, threatening to wash it away, and then I went to the office again and asked for an Ativan, which I’ve had a renewable prescription for ever since I was eleven. Somehow, at some point, I went to sleep, knowing I’d be running again, trying for another escape and tag before the moon rose.