BY ADAM MANSBACH
RISK ONE bends at the waist, hefts a stolen supermarket crate onto the jutting shelf of his hip, and prepares to climb the steps to Temple Beth Israel. An unwieldy system of conveyor belts once ferried this crate from the checkout counter of the Fairfield, Connecticut, Stop ’N’ Shop to the minivan-jammed parking lot, where patrons claim their groceries by matching the numbers stenciled on the sides to those printed on their receipts. Six months ago, local b-boys noted that the crates were perfectly sized to hold LPs. They have been disappearing ever since.
It was RISK who set off the crime spree, ending an hour-long stakeout by springing from the shotgun seat of DJ Zone’s mom’s Buick to yank crate 808, specifically, out of orbit as it shuttled toward the bowels of the store. The numerals reference the vaunted TR-808 drum machine, a small push-button appliance that produces a tremorous and celebrated simulated kick drum. It is the sound anchoring the classic recordings of the mid-eighties, the period during which RISK first discovered hip-hop through late-night radio, Style Wars on cable access, and black kids with cousins dwelling fifty miles south, in New York City.
It is the fall of ’89 now, in more ways than one. Professor Griff has given his infamous anti-Semitic interview, setting off a shitstorm of protests and boycotts. Chuck D has announced Public Enemy’s breakup, retracted that statement, retreated from that retraction. A year ago, the Hip-Hop Nation was surging unstoppably forward, but now the future of the world’s most important group is in doubt, and nostalgia blues the air.
’88 has calcified into a fist-sized fossil that sits in RISK ONE’s belly. You could sharpen a knife on it, if you had one. It’s almost funny, the way his b-boy generation — seventeen like RISK, eighteen like Zone, nineteen and twenty like their mentors — cops a collective creak-kneed squat to genuflect before a past so recently departed that the Nikes they were wearing when they met it still aren’t scuffed. Not beyond some cursory toothbrush-and-bleach repair work, anyway.
RISK flicks the power strip, runs ground wires from the decks to the mixer, and clips on the battery-powered fan they hope will keep the ancient amp from overheating and cutting out the way it did last week. He’s doing all of it as fast as possible, because Risk Zone Productions has arrived a scant ten minutes before they are scheduled to play, as is their trademark. Guests are already streaming into the synagogue’s huge function room, finding their seats and casting eager glances at the laden buffet tables.
Thanks to the half blunt Zone sparked on the way over, Risk Zone Productions is operating from beneath heavy eyelids and feeling ambivalent about the prospect of spinning for yet another gaggle of timid suit and party dress–clad thirteen-year-olds and smug professional/parental Jewish types. As is also their trademark.
The father of Jamie Siegel, the Bar Mitzvah Boy, turns sideways in his head-table chair, away from the lavish flower bouquet and the murmurs of proud aunts, and beams a vaguely threatening brand of concern at them across the polished parquet dance floor.
“OK.” RISK bends to flip through Zone’s crate, number 420, although he knows exactly what’s in it. “You brought the ‘Chicken Dance,’ right?”
“Yeah, sure. If you’ve got the ‘Electric Slide.’”
“Of course. Sinatra’s Greatest Hits? The Big Chill sound track?”
“Check. ‘Brown Eyed Girl’? ‘Stairway to Heaven’?”
“No doubt. ‘Oh, What a Night’? ‘Twist and Shout’?”
“Naturally, homeboy.” They’re both laughing now, at their own sheer, stubborn incompetence. The Risk Zone Productions catalogue consists of little beyond rap records and breakbeats, plus a few old soul joints of the Al/Marvin/Aretha variety borrowed weekly from Zone’s mom’s living room stereo cabinet. They’ve got none of the new Top 40 pop radio horseshit for which the Bar Mitzvah Boy and his large cadre of colleagues will surely clamor, nor a single traditional favorite. Not even the dominant rap songs of the epoch are represented: no “Wild Thing,” no “It Takes Two,” no “Supersonic.” But RISK and Zone charge $150 per Bar Mitzvah, and the competition asks six times that.
The competition is Steve Goldman Productions, owned and fronted by the eponymous tuxedo-clad ex–lounge singer and staffed behind the boards by underpaid high school kids from two towns over. RISK attended about fifty Goldman parties in his thirteenth year, when everyone but him was memorizing Torah passages and Becoming A Man to the tune of major cash infusions. They are slick, corny affairs featuring smoke machines, oversized plastic sunglasses, an endless supply of neon glow sticks, and an arsenal of audience-participation games that provide the little hormone balls with a sanctioned form of boy-girl contact. Steve Goldman, moreover, plays cassettes. For this alone, the words Sucker DJ should be branded across his forehead with a white-hot iron.
“Sweet! I was hoping it’d be you guys.” RISK looks up from the wires he’s dejumbling to see Zone extend a hand. Apple-cheeked Adam Goldfarb, coolest kid on the Bar Mitzvah circuit, slaps him an enthusiastic five.
“Whaddup, Ad Rock?” inquires RISK.
Adam shrugs. The red knit tie he wears to every Bar Mitzvah is stained with something pinkish, probably last week’s salmon cream cheese. “You guys need anything?”
“My man!” says Zone. “Can you hook us up some plates?” With Adam in attendance, they can eat without looking like derelicts for abandoning their station. He’s thrilled to be the kid who gets to hang out with the DJs, more than happy to run errands to the buffet tables and even the bar. Under the quiet tutelage of the senior half of Risk Zone Productions, Ad Rock has become a proficient, gleeful thief of alcohol. His reward, aside from the satisfaction of a job well done, is exemption from the dumb-ass games the kids, brainwashed by the Goldman Agenda, will eventually cajole RISK and Zone into orchestrating.
Zone back-cues Risk Zone Productions’ theme music, nudges the volume on the mixer up to two, the proper volume at which to blend it with the buzz of conversation, and lets the record play. A six-note minor-key piano riff falls over heavy drums, and RISK smiles the way he does every time they set a party off like this, with the most wildly — yet subtly — inappropriate Bar Mitzvah platter in the crates: “Why Is That,” off the new Boogie Down Productions album, Krs-One’s verse-and-chapter breakdown of biblical lineage in service of the argument that Moses was black.
Nobody but Zone, RISK, and Adam is listening to the lyrics, but something in RISK needs to perform this ritual, mount this unreceived challenge. He scans the room for signs of recognition, disbelief, outrage, waits for someone to stalk over and argue the point. No takers. Ha. Another victory. Complacent dickheads.
Adam returns, a plate in each hand and a cloth-napkin-and-silverware roll poking from each trouser pocket. RISK sets his rations to one side. Zone digs in. He adores Bar Mitzvah food.
Twice in the next hour, elderly women ask Zone to lower the volume, claiming their conversations are being impeded. Thrice, RISK is forced to apologize for not having “Havah Nagila.” Finally, getting into the make-do spirit that sustained their forefathers through forty years in the desert with nothing to eat but manna and more fucking manna, the revelers organize themselves into a circle anyway and find a chair on which to hoist the Bar Mitzvah Boy, those footing the bill, and the parents of those footing the bill. Zone throws on the instrumental B side to Eric B. & Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend” — a proven substitute, because it has hand claps — and everybody pauses, palms poised in ready-to-clap rigidity, and then they cock their heads and don complainy faces.
RISK nudges Adam. “Set it off.”
Adam nods through a couple of bars, getting his bearings, then bangs his palms together and bellows, “Havah nagila, havah,” to the beat. The crowd joins him on the second go-round, drowning out the record. The circle spins, the chair is raised. Zone pats Adam on the shoulder, turns his back to the dance floor, and pours himself a glass of straight Bacardi from the half-bottle the kid liberated from the bar. He downs a slug and passes the cup to RISK, who opens his throat and drains it.
His grandparents’ door is unlocked, as always.
“Hello,” RISK calls, not expecting an answer. He heads for the kitchen, pours himself a glass of cranberry juice, and grabs a container of mixed nuts from the snack cabinet. The household’s only television is enshrined here, a dusty wood-grained model squatting on a countertop above the breakfast table. RISK slumps before it, jiggle-sifts the tin until two almonds breach the sea of peanuts, pops one in his mouth.
He flips twice through the mundane alphabet of channels before settling on MTV, in the hopes that he might witness the miraculous: a rap video aired outside the daily hour to which the music is confined, boxed in on either side by endless whiteboy crap rock. No such luck. He takes in a Madonna video and a string of commercials, then rises and walks to the landing just as the old man appears around the bend.
“Greetings, boy.” Tristan reaches the bottom and lays on a hand on RISK’s shoulder. “So. Why has your old lady deposited you here?”
RISK shrugs. “I was drinking.”
Tristan lifts an index finger. “Good idea.” He points toward the living room bar, and RISK backs out of his way. Tristan makes a slow beeline for it, and pours them each a scotch. “Have we got some nuts or something?”
“Sure.” RISK darts to the kitchen, dumps the contents of the tin into a wooden serving bowl shaped like a fish, and reunites with his grand-father on the living room couch. He reaches for a yellow legal pad lying on the coffee table, pulls a red Sharpie from his pocket, and absent-mindedly begins to trace the outline of a piece.
“Where were you drinking?”
RISK adds some old-school 3-D effects to his outline. “At a Bar Mitzvah I was DJing.”
“You mean to tell me you were boozing it up in temple?” From the expression on the old man’s face, RISK can’t tell if his grandfather finds the notion scandalous or funny.
“Yeah, but not in temple. They had a party for the kid afterward, with a bar. It’s not like I was swigging from a brown bag during the service.”
“How much would you say the affair cost the parents of this young schmuck?”
“Plenty. Each kid got a hollow ceramic sneaker with his name stenciled on it — I guess it was supposed to be like a pencil holder or something. They were filled with bags of green M&Ms, the Bar Mitzvah kid’s favorite candy. Oh, and there was a caricature artist, too, drawing pictures of the guests.”
Tristan shook his head. “It’s the end of the Jews. You know what I got for my Bar Mitzvah?”
“A tongue sandwich with mustard and a gold pen. Which you bet in a craps game against Sammy Fischer.”
RISK finishes his drink and points toward the staircase with his chin. “How’s it going up there?” he ventures.
Tristan’s eyes narrow. “What is this, an interview? Terribly. I don’t have the stamina for it anymore.”
“You’ve been saying that for as long as I can remember. But every time I come over, you’re in your study.”
“And what have I published in that time? One shitty book, the year you were born.”
RISK stares at the carpet, prepared to endure the thirty seconds of awkward silence that will pass before his grandfather conjures a topic of his own. After ten, though, he decides to push.
“Tell me about your process,” he says. “I mean, do you start with a plot, or—”
Tristan grimaces. “For God’s sake. Talking about it will do me in for sure.”
“C’mon, Grandpa. I’m not gonna learn jackshit from the failed novelists teaching English at my school.”
The old man snorts. “What makes you think you want to write?”
“I’m good at it.”
“That’s not a reason.”
“It beats working?”
“If that’s what you think, forget it.”
RISK caps the Sharpie, taps it against his jawbone. “I want to make sense of this ridiculous world.”
Tristan takes both glasses to the bar, pours refills. “I suppose that’ll do. Until you come up with something better.” He hands RISK a second scotch, larger than the first, and returns to his seat. “Imagine you’re taking a dump. I’m willing to bet that every single time you wipe your ass, you do it the exact same way. Maybe you ball up the paper against your thigh, or fold it over your hand. It doesn’t matter. The point is, you’ve probably never bothered to notice how you do it, this thing you’ve done thousands upon thousands of times.”
“A writer notices.”
“No. A writer finds somebody else to wipe his ass, so he can concentrate on writing.” Tristan sips his scotch. “That’s a joke. Yes, a writer notices.” He runs a palm over his soft white hair. “I could really do with a haircut. It’s either that or buy a violin.”
He shifts to look at the pad in his grandson’s lap. “What are you doing there?” RISK holds it up for him, not sure he likes where this might go.
“What does it say?”
“RISK. My alias.”
Tristan squints. “I don’t see it.”
RISK traces each letter for him. “It’s supposed to be hard to read. Another graff—” He stops himself, not wanting to utter the word. “Another writer would be able to read it.”
“Writer, you say?”
“The guys who do this stuff, they call themselves writers. Because the medium is, you know, words.”
“I see. The subways in the city used to be covered with this sort of thing, you know.”
RISK can’t help but smile. “Yeah, I know.”
“It can’t be legal, of course.”
“Well, getting away with it is half the fun. And there are rules. Private property’s off-limits, sort of.”
“Deface the public and respect the private, is that it? Reverse communism?”
“I never thought of it like that. Most guys, their philosophy is basically that the system fucks them over, so they’re gonna strike back, claim something. Beautify the city, or destroy it — those two words are almost interchangeable when it comes to writers.”
“Creative destruction. More reverse communism.” Tristan peers down his nose, considers the ice melting in his glass. “Another drink?”
“Come with me,” RISK says. “There’s a freight yard ten minutes from here. You can see what it’s all about.”
The old man eyes him for a moment. “I’d need a new name, wouldn’t I? I couldn’t just write Tristan Brodsky, or they’d come straight over and arrest me.”
RISK nods. “Plus, it’s too long. Three to five letters is ideal.” He can’t tell if his grandfather is just humoring him. But RISK is already wondering where he can score some cans, and whether Tristan is ready for the next hard truth of the graff game: that only toys buy paint, and the accepted method of acquisition is racking.
“How about BRONX? That sounds suitably tough, doesn’t it?”
“That’s so perfect I can’t believe nobody’s used it yet. Especially since the Bronx is where hip-hop was born.” RISK winces, realizing his mistake. What’s hip-hop?
But Tristan lets it pass; he either knows what hip-hop is or doesn’t care. “I imagine we’ll need spray paint. There should be some in the toolshed.”
Fifteen minutes later, the cans are in a knapsack, thumping against the small of RISK’s back as he and his grandfather stalk toward the freight yard through the weak light of the waning afternoon. On the foyer table lies a note for Amalia: Out vandalizing trains. Back soon. Love, BRONX and RISK (T. Brodsky & T. Freedman). P.S. Don’t tell Linda.
Out on the street, away from cocktails and couches and the foothills of unpublished pages stacked around his desk, the old man doesn’t seem so old. He’s only sixty-eight, after all. A kid from the Bronx. RISK can see it now, as never before: his grandfather juking and weaving through the crowded city streets, looking for trouble or at the very least not knowing how to avoid it. Tristan slaps eighty percent of all questions concerning his youth out of the air, but RISK’s great uncle Benjamin is quick to tout his older brother as the most feared stickball slugger on the block, and good enough with his hands that Ben, five and a half feet tall on his best day, never had to worry about bullies. Put all that together and you’ve got an athlete and a roughneck who whizzed through college by eighteen, plus knew his way around the jazz spots back when that meant something. Hell, young Tristan Brodsky was a goddamn ghetto superstar.
BRONX is hungry for graffiti lore; it seems to have captured his literary imagination. RISK regales him proudly, flashing his expertise with tales of BLADE and COMET and their five thousand whole cars. Tells horror stories about head-busting Vandal Squad infamosos like Curly and Ferrari from Queens, Rotor and Wasserman from Brooklyn — cops with the same lust for fame as any writer. He profiles icons: the one-armed KASE 2 and the magnanimous superstar LEE. Discusses the innovations of pioneers like PISTOL and RIFF 170, style masters like DONDI and SEEN.
The afternoon is fading into dusk, a prime time to be invisible but still have light by which to paint. They circle the fenced-off perimeter of the yard, gazing through the ten-foot chain-link fence at rows of rust-colored trains slumbering nose-to-ass. RISK finds what he’s looking for: a four-foot flap some writer surgeoned open with bolt-cutters years ago. He pulls it back, beckons his grandfather inside.
They half-jog toward the first row of trains, RISK glancing over at BRONX every two seconds to make sure he’s all right with the pace until the old man grunts, “I’m fine.” They high-step the junction between two boxcars, the left one already covered in ugly silver Krylon throw-ups. RISK shakes the can of white sideways, leans over to BRONX, and continues the tutorial in a whisper. “Imagine painting a forty-foot, twenty-color mural under these conditions — only it’s darker, the trains are closer together, you’re underground, and cops might raid you any time.”
He steps up to the train, raises the can above his head, then freezes at the sound of boots crunching over gravel. RISK flattens against the train, looks to his left. Three figures are approaching. His instinct is to grab his grandfather and break out, but yard security doesn’t roll that thick. RISK has only been chased here once in twenty-something missions, and it was by a single patrolman whose darting flashlight beam gave him away before he got within a hundred feet. These must be other writers.
“Get down,” RISK hisses. “Hide.”
Writers are like Siamese fighting fish; any time two squads meet in an enclosed space, things could get ugly. That’s why crews formed to begin with: not out of camaraderie, but for protection, because dudes running alone got jumped and robbed, or extorted for spray-can tributes. Not that this is the Washington Heights Ghost Yard circa 1979. The vast majority of cats out here in Connecticut are pleased to make your acquaintance. It’s just freights; there’s room enough for everybody. You end up trading stories and phone numbers, not mouth shots. But on the flipside, the very provincialism of the scene makes some dudes feel the need to start shit, just to prove that they’re true to the spirit of the thing. The most enduring stories in graffiti are about fights, after all, not art.
The trio stops short of the light slashing in between the cars. Two skinny kids on the flanks, RISK’s age or younger, each holding a shopping bag bulging with paint. One sports a messed-up Afro and a long-sleeved black T-shirt, down almost to his knees. The other wears a hoodie, his free hand sheathed elbow-deep in the sweatshirt’s front pocket. The guy in the middle is bigger, thicker, older. He carries nothing. Two apprentices, one master.
“Hey,” says RISK, stepping into full view. “Nice day to paint, huh?”
The master walks up to him and folds his arms over his chest.
“RISK ONE. How ’bout you?”
“I never heard of you. Look like a cop to me.” He turns to his cohorts. “You ever heard of RISK ONE?” His tone makes the desired answer clear.
Instead of delivering it, the kid with the Afro scratches his scalp. “You was in IGT once, right?”
“Yeah,” RISK says hopefully. Being known is the better part of being respected. IGT is International Graffiti Times, aerosol grandfather PHASE 2’s sporadically published newsletter, and getting a flick in there is the crowning achievement of RISK’s career.
The main dude turns back to him; he seems to have decided that RISK is worth impressing, at least. “CLOUD 9, RTW,” he reveals, proclaiming his name and his crew’s as if the words part seas and shatter boulders. They come close; Rolling Thunder Writers is one of the most feared collectives of the eighties. They ran the Coney Island Yard, the biggest in the city, handed out beat-downs like raffle tickets. CLOUD 9 is a lesser light, not in the class of RTW all-stars like MIN, BOE, RICH, and SAGO. But he got up. Straight letters, mostly — not a master of style but a workhorse with a nice clean hand.
“Oh, word?” RISK tries to sound impressed but casual, keep the fear out of his voice.
“Word. And who the fuck is that?”
RISK turns to find Tristan walking toward him, and his stomach drops.
He gives the old man a baleful stare. “My grandfather.”
“Fuck he doing here?”
RISK cracks his knuckles. “He’s about to get up.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“Nah, for real.”
“What chu write, Grandpa?” CLOUD 9 shouts, as if he suspects the old man might be deaf.
“BRONX,” says Tristan, just as loud. It’s the same authority-freighted voice that might boom forth from behind his study door, telling a visitor that he is too busy to socialize. But it sounds more vital out here, in the open air of the dark train yard — sounds, perhaps, the way it did fifty years ago, on some steaming city block.
“You from there?” calls the Afroed kid, incredulous. His fellow apprentice shoots him a screw face.
“Born and raised.”
CLOUD 9 shifts his stance. The gravel rasps beneath him. “How old are you?”
“I’m sixty-eight. And you?”
CLOUD 9 cracks a smile, drops his arms and lets them dangle by his sides. RISK nearly pisses himself with relief. “I’m twenty-five.”
Tristan walks up to him. “Well, that’s nothing. I was in Baghdad when you were in your dad’s bag, kiddo.”
CLOUD 9 throws back his head and laughs. “Shit. Y’all dudes is crazy,” he decides, and swings a splayed hand toward RISK, who startles, then recovers in time to extend his own. Their palms meet with a satisfying clap. CLOUD nods at the old man. “Go ahead, BRONX, do your thing. You ’bout to get in the record books. Hope you appreciate I’m here to bear witness.”
Tristan takes a can from the knapsack. “Only thing I’ve ever painted is a lawn chair,” he apologizes, squaring off before the train.
Tristan depresses the nozzle, and an inch-thick caterpillar of color wiggles up the train.
“Paint top to bottom,” CLOUD instructs. “Control the drips better that way.” He bends at the waist, peers forward. “Whoa. Bermuda Blue?”
“Yeah, man. I found it in his toolshed.”
“Damn. Haven’t seen that in years.”
Tristan steps back to examine his handiwork. A wobbly bubble-letter B floats before him, bleeding Bermuda Blue. It looks like a relic from 1970: the dawn of history, when guys first switched from homemade purple-ink markers to spray cans refitted with oven-cleaner nozzles. The old man shakes the can, then sets to work on his R.
CLOUD shoves his hands into his pockets. “Lucky thing you brought the old man out tonight.” He gazes past RISK at SCRIPT and MEGA, both consulting sketchbooks as they paint their outlines on the next car over. “I brought these kids out here straight looking for a fight. Just so they’d realize graffiti ain’t no weekend sport.”
RISK goes quiet, considering this. “Sorry I couldn’t help you out.”
“Shit.” CLOUD laughs. “BRONX looks like he might still be able to whup some ass. Bronx Jews were nothin’ nice back in his day, huh?”
RISK stares at his grandfather’s back, lulled by the slow, arthritic arcs of his right arm, the soothing pssht of the paint. “How do you know he’s Jewish?”
“Shit.” It seems to be CLOUD’s all-purpose way of opening a sentence. “How do you know I’m black?”
BRONX has finished his outline. It looks like something a third grader might carve into a desk. He turns, walks over. “So now I fill it in?” he asks, sounding embarrassed to be proud. His hands are caked with paint. They look like Smurf gloves.
RISK nods. “I’d go with the white. And don’t worry about screwing up the outline; you’re gonna go over it again anyway.”
BRONX hands the Bermuda Blue to his grandson, picks up the white, and trudges back to the train. RISK shakes the can, then passes it to CLOUD. “For you,” he says, thinking that this gesture of friendship could just as easily have been one of submission.
“Do something dope with it.”
An hour later, RISK’s grandmother will pace her foyer, Tristan’s note in one hand and a cordless telephone in the other, wondering whether she should call her daughter. When she does, the phone will ring and ring. Linda will already be in her minivan, en route to her parents’ house to relieve them of the burden of their grandson, ashamed of her own selfishness in dumping him there. As if her mother needs more crap to deal with.
When Linda arrives, BRONX and RISK will be sitting in a nearby steak house talking graffiti history with CLOUD 9, SCRIPT, and MEGA, the old man having insisted on treating all of them to dinner. The Brodsky men will come home several hours later, to be confronted in the foyer by RISK’s mother and grandmother, BRONX’s wife and daughter. The women will be holding white mugs of hot peppermint tea, their concern dissolving into anger as the front door opens. The two writers will pocket their paint-crusted hands and insist that they’ve merely been out to eat, that the note they left behind was nothing but a joke. The empty spray cans rattling in RISK’s backpack will put the lie to that. &