Ralph Uttaro holds a law degree from Duke University and has spent the past thirty years developing real estate for a large regional supermarket chain. His work has appeared most recently in Bartleby Snopes, Toasted Cheese, and The Legendary. He was nominated for the 2013 storySouth Million Writers Award.
It was a little after eleven when I heard Johnny down on the sidewalk. He never rang the bell, just whistled up to me. I knew what he wanted when he came this late. I grabbed the Key Food shopping bag I kept my paints in and went downstairs.
Johnny was pacing back and forth. Freddy was standing by the curb smoking a cigarette. When he saw me coming down the stoop, Johnny started talking real fast.
“You won’t believe this, Brother.” He always called me Brother even though we were only cousins. “You know that place we tagged last week? The box factory?”
“Well, me and Freddy went by there. And guess what? They left the fire escape ladder down.”
“We can get to the roof.” Johnny flashed me a big grin.
“The roof, man. The roof!”
We called ourselves “The Diablos.” We thought it sounded tough. We had Freddy, Vince, Kenneth, Javier, the Maldonato twins, a few other guys who came and went. Johnny was the leader. He was seventeen, the oldest one in our crew, two years older than me.
It wasn’t a real gang. We weren’t into dealing drugs or anything like that. We didn’t have guns either. Johnny had a long pocket knife that he called a switchblade but it really wasn’t. We patrolled the streets in our leather jackets, but nothing much was going on. Our neighborhood was just some old factories and half-empty warehouses, a few stores on the main streets, rows of beat-up apartment buildings everywhere.
Our big thing was graffiti. We started with thick black magic markers, hitting easy targets like lampposts and stop signs and phone booths. We started experimenting with paint when we moved on to subway cars. We worked late at night when everything was so quiet you could hear the rats digging around in the trash.
We all had handles. Mine was Paco. Johnny made it up. He said it was short for Paul Colavito. The Maldonatos were Big M and Little M because Carlos was bigger than David even though they were identical twins. Johnny came up with that one too. Johnny called himself Onions. He never told us why. Freddy was Mace as Freddy. It sounded backward to me. Besides, the whole idea was that you didn’t use your own name. But that’s the way Freddy liked it.
It was 1972. Everybody was tagging. The subway cars were covered inside and out. The walls of all the buildings were covered too, especially down near the street.
“We gotta get you up higher,” Johnny would say to me. “We gotta find you some kinda canvas, ya know?”
Some guys just wrote their names all over everything, any which way; I was obsessed with how my letters looked. I practiced until I got the shape just right: big round white letters that looked like marshmallows. First, I would outline the letters in black. I used a special narrow nozzle to make my lines thin as a pencil; none of those fat lines the amateurs drew. I always used Red Devil paint; it didn’t run like the other brands. When I was done outlining, I would switch to a can of white and fill in all the space between the lines. I always filled from top to bottom, not side to side. It looked better that way. When I was finished, you could hardly see any black. The letters looked like they were floating in the air, not even touching the wall. I got so good that the other guys stopped trying; they would just come along and be my lookout.
As we walked over to the box factory, Johnny told me about his plan. He was carrying a coil of rope over his shoulder and he was getting more and more excited.
“We’re gonna rig up a harness for you outta this rope I got,” Johnny said. “Then me and Freddy are gonna hang on to you while you climb down the wall and do your thing.”
Johnny’s plan sounded a little crazy to me, but I didn’t want to say anything. The factory was an old brick building near the elevated subway tracks where the 7 train passed through on its way from Times Square to Flushing. It was dark on the sidewalk outside the front door; there weren’t even any cars parked in the street. Johnny led us around to a side alley.
“Why don’t we just do it from the fire escape?” Freddy asked. “Wouldn’t that be safer?”
“Nah,” Johnny said. “Anybody can do that. This is gonna be epic.”
The whole fire escape vibrated as the three of us climbed up, the metal steps clanging under our feet. It was a warm night for April, but you could feel the temperature drop the higher we went. When we finally got to the roof, we stopped to catch our breath. We could see the headlights of the cars down in the street but from eight stories up they looked far away. A plane screamed over the top of us on its way to LaGuardia. We all ducked even though it wasn’t anywhere near that close.
I walked to the edge of the roof and looked down.
“I can’t do this,” I said.
“Sure you can,” Johnny said. “We got this far, we can’t pussy out now.”
I was scared. Plenty scared. But it was exciting too. It felt like we were on top of the world.
“I never did anything like this before.”
“You can do it. Right, Freddy?”
“Yeah, you can do it,” Freddy said. He didn’t sound too sure.
“Don’t worry,” Johnny said. “Me and Freddy, we won’t let you fall.”
Johnny wrapped the rope around my waist a couple of times, passed it through my legs and pulled it tight.
“How does that feel?”
“I can’t breathe,” I said.
“Good.” He made a complicated knot on my right hip then repeated the whole process and tied another knot on the left side. “You’re good to go.”
Johnny and Freddy helped me up onto the little brick ledge that ran along the roofline, then stepped back. My legs were shaking as I looked down on the two of them, hanging on to the rope with both of their hands.
Johnny nodded at me to go, but I couldn’t make myself take that blind first step backward. This scary picture was going through my mind of me pulling Johnny and Freddy over the edge behind me, the three of us screaming as we flew toward the street.
“C’mon, c’mon,” Johnny said. “You can do this. Just take it slow.”
Finally, I dangled my right foot over and felt around for the wall. My sneaker slipped a little before I got it flat against the bricks. Then I slowly lifted my left foot over and brought it down next to the right. I was holding onto the ropes so tight that my hands were burning. I walked myself down, one foot at a time, a few inches then a few inches more. I felt like Batman or something.
“That’s far enough,” Johnny said when I was three or four feet from the top.
Johnny had tied an apron over the ropes around my waist and stuck two cans of paint in the pouch on the front. I let go of the rope with my right hand and grabbed the can of black. I started outlining a huge letter P. When I was done, I switched to white and filled it in. It was hard to keep my hand steady. The fumes were making me a little dizzy; little drops of paint dotted my arms.
I made the P so big that I had to walk myself a few steps to the right before starting on the A. I attached it to the P but made it a little smaller, then I made a C and an O the same size as the A. I was concentrating so hard that I didn’t think about being afraid anymore. I wrote Paco quickly, then Onions, then Diablos. My legs were cramping by then and my neck was stiff, so Johnny and Freddy helped me back up onto the roof to rest.
“I can’t wait to see what it looks like from the ground,” Johnny said.
“I’ll do Freddy next,” I said.
“You mean ‘Mace as Freddy,’ right? You know that’s my handle, man.”
“Fuck that,” Johnny said. “My arms are getting tired. Besides, it’s too dangerous.”
That was it. Freddy’s name never made it up there. I never heard him complain about it either. It seemed kind of unfair, but you didn’t argue with Johnny, you just did what he said.
The next day, me and Johnny got on the 7 train and just rode it back and forth. I was a little disappointed at first. Some of my letters were kind of flat on the bottom. The P in Paco almost looked like a D. The big O in Onions looked like a bad tire. Still, it was cool to see my stuff way up on the top of that wall. I thought about all the people who would look at it from the train and wonder how it got there.
“You’re some fuckin’ artist,” Johnny said as we went by for the fourth time.
I took my girl to see it that Saturday. Her parents didn’t let her out of the house on school nights, but Saturday was our day. Daisy Morales was really fine. She had this smooth shiny dark skin, thick lips, kinky black hair that puffed up out of the pink headband she always wore.
“You’re wasting your time,” Johnny would tell me. “That girl is tight.”
“It’s not like that with Daisy, man.”
“Bullshit. It’s always like that.”
The truth was I couldn’t get past second base with Daisy and it was making me crazy. The other graffiti writers gave you respect if you got up in places that were tough to reach. I had this crazy idea that, if I showed Daisy what I did, maybe it would improve my chances.
I told her we were going in to the city. She loved to walk up and down Fifth Avenue and look in the store windows. I made sure we sat on the right side of the train on the way back so we would have the best view. I nudged her and pointed as we passed the box factory.
“Mira,” I said. I only knew a couple of words of Spanish, just what I picked up from Javier and the Maldonato twins, but Daisy loved it when I talked her language.
“Paco!” she said. “That’s you!”
“That’s so cool. How did you do it?” She was smiling, her brown eyes wide open, excited. I was excited too.
“A magician can’t tell you his tricks.”
Then her smile slowly started to disappear. “Johnny put you up to it, didn’t he? You could have got arrested. Or worse. You could have got hurt. You could have fallen off the roof. You can’t be doing nothin’ crazy like that if you want to be with me. You hear?”
“Why are you always blaming Johnny for everything?”
“What? You got the idea to go up there and do that all by yourself? That ain’t you, Paulie. Johnny put you up to it.”
“What’s this thing you got about Johnny? I don’t get it. He’s a good guy. Everybody thinks so.”
“Anita don’t.” Anita was one of Daisy’s girlfriends. She used to date Johnny. “She even told me Johnny was stealing money from his own mother. He’s trouble, Paulie.”
“She’s just making stuff up about Johnny because he dumped her.”
“She told me that when they was still goin’ out.”
I didn’t believe her, but there was no talking to Daisy when she got in a mood like that. I slid away from her and sat on the edge of the seat, looking the other way. I didn’t even walk her home when we got off the train.
One Saturday in September, I was hanging around with Johnny at his house watching a Mets game on Channel 9. Nobody was home except the two of us. Johnny got up and walked into his parents’ bedroom then came back out with a ten-dollar bill in his hand.
“Wanna go for pizza?” he said. “I’m starving.”
“Where did you get the dough?”
“My Ma has a stash in her dresser. She keeps it in this little purse in the top drawer, under her underwear and shit.”
“And it’s OK if you take some?”
Johnny laughed. “The old lady don’t know, man. I only take a little at a time. She don’t miss it.”
We were eating our pizza and I started feeling guilty. We were using my aunt’s money and she didn’t know it. Then I remembered how Daisy told me about Johnny stealing and how I didn’t believe her and that made me feel even worse.
“Don’t it make you feel guilty stealing money from your Ma?”
“It ain’t stealing. Besides, I told you, I only take a little.”
“Isn’t that wrong or something?”
“Stop being such a goodie goodie, Paulie. You take what you need, don’t matter where it comes from. That’s the way it works in today’s world.”
Then he started telling me about how he was breaking into cars, stealing tape decks, sunglasses, anything else he could get his hands on.
“When did you start doing that?”
“Few months ago. Me and a couple of other guys.” It stung a little that Johnny was doing things without me.
“What if you get caught, man? I don’t want you to go to jail.”
“I don’t plan on getting caught, Brother. Old Johnny knows what he’s doing. You just bust the glass with a hammer. You find the cars that look like they don’t have an alarm. Even if they do, we’re out of there before anybody comes. In quick, out quick. That’s the way you do it.”
“What do you do with the merchandise, sell it?”
“What, you want to get in on it?” I didn’t know if he was serious or not, but I shook my head no. “So we got this guy over on Northern Boulevard. He gives us cash on the spot. Probably goes and sells it somewhere for more, but I don’t care nothin’ about that.”
“You don’t wanna get mixed up with guys like that.”
“You worry too damn much, you know that? I’m sorry I ever told you anything about it.”
I started seeing less of Johnny after that. He wasn’t hanging around with our crew so much anymore. I would still go out with Freddy sometimes and do some tagging, but it wasn’t the same. Eight months later, Johnny and one of his new friends held up a deli on Roosevelt Avenue. The security camera got the whole thing. Johnny pointed a gun at the guy behind the counter while his partner cleaned out the till. Armed robbery. They sent him upstate to Beacon. His sentence was eight to twelve.
It was more than a year before I went up to see him. My mother kept telling me she didn’t want me to go, but I finally talked her into it. It was right before Christmas. The sidewalks were covered with dirty snow. Nobody told me it was such a long walk from the bus station to the jail. My feet were wet and my ears were numb by the time I got there, but inside the air was steamy. The whole place smelled like piss and sweat and stale flesh. Everyone was yelling back and forth. You could hear them all the way out at the front desk.
A guard with a gun on his belt made me sign some papers before he took me back to see Johnny. The visitor’s area was a big long room with pea green walls that had nothing hanging on them except for a clock at either end. Three other guards took turns walking slowly around the room checking out what everybody was doing. The prisoners all wore orange jump suits. One of them was sitting by himself talking real loud and pointing his finger like he was having an argument with somebody. Another guy was sitting there with a girl in his lap until the guard told them to break it up; the girl was crying. A family was sitting around a table with their heads down, holding hands, praying.
The guard brought me to the back corner. I almost didn’t recognize Johnny at first. He looked older, even skinnier than I remembered. His eyes were wet and cloudy like an old man’s and he had a bruise on his face that was almost the same color as his jumpsuit. I went over to him but he didn’t move; he just kept his hands on the table in front of him. I gave him a half hug around his shoulder and sat down.
“What are you doing up here?” Johnny asked.
“I came up to see you.”
“What, you got nothing better to do?”
“No. I been wanting to come. I finally talked Ma into it.”
“Isn’t that nice of her? Didn’t she want to come up with you, check out my digs?” He looked around the room. “Fuckin’ palace, isn’t it? Good company in here too.” We sat there for a minute, neither one of us saying anything. I get uncomfortable when things get quiet like that.
“I’m gonna be graduating,” I finally told him, just to have something to say. “In June.”
“Good for you.”
“I got a job lined up too. My Pops knows this guy. He said he can get me in as a night porter in one of those big apartment buildings over on the upper east side. Right off Lexington.” Johnny just gave me a dead look. “It’s only part-time but I’m gonna get my union card, work my way up.”
“Yeah, you do that, Brother.” I got the chills when he called me Brother. “You know what, man? You were one lucky son of a bitch. We both did some crazy shit. You just never got caught.”
It made me mad when he said that. I felt like telling him that I never broke into any cars, never held up a store with a gun either. I wanted to tell him it wasn’t luck, it was hard work. Hard work and doing the right thing. But I didn’t say anything.
I never went up to Beacon again.
Me and Daisy got married and moved out to Bay Ridge in Brooklyn It was closer to Coney Island Hospital where she was working as a nurse’s aide. We had a little boy. We named him Jeremy. One day, when Jeremy was in first grade, I got an idea and went out and bought some cans of spray paint. Jeremy loved superheroes. I went up to his bedroom, got up on a ladder and started high up on the wall. I painted a kid that looked just like Jeremy. His arms were stretched out like he was flying down from the ceiling. I gave him an orange cape and a blue shirt with a big J in the middle of his chest. I hadn’t done anything like that in years but it came out pretty good. Jeremy loved it. Even Daisy thought it was cool.
I didn’t see much of the Diablos after I moved to Brooklyn, but one day I ran into Freddy on Third Avenue in the city. It was early in the morning and he was coming off work. He worked the overnight shift at a diner, cooking pancakes and eggs and bacon. I asked about our old crew. He told me that Javier had moved back to Puerto Rico, Kenneth was slinging garbage cans for the Department of Sanitation, Vince got killed in a motorcycle accident. He didn’t know what happened to the Maldonato boys.
“So how about you?” he asked.
“I work at a co-op building on the upper east side. I just got promoted to assistant super.”
“You must make a pretty good piece of change.”
“I do all right for myself. I do some odd jobs on the side too, off the books. I do plumbing, painting, a little electrical.”
“I even got a couple grand saved up for my kid’s college.”
I showed him a picture of Jeremy.
“Good looking kid,” he said. “Looks like his mother.” We laughed. For a minute, it seemed just like old times.
“Ever hear anything from Johnny?” he asked.
“He writes to my aunt every now and then but that’s it.”
Freddy looked disappointed. “How long’s he been in now, ten years?”
“Something like that.”
“Man. Ten years.” He shook his head.
My aunt called out of the blue a month later and told me Johnny was getting out on parole. The whole family was driving up to Beacon to pick him up.
“Don’t get any ideas,” Daisy said when I told her. “You’re not going with them. I don’t want you hanging around with Johnny. You got responsibilities now.”
I didn’t argue with her, but it kept eating at me that Johnny was out of jail and I wasn’t going to see him. That didn’t seem right. I let three or four weeks pass, but the feeling never went away. One night, I couldn’t sleep. I just laid there on my back, staring at the ceiling until the sun came up. I didn’t have to work until the evening shift so I decided to take a ride. My aunt had moved out to Flushing, near the last stop on the 7 line. I figured Johnny was staying with her so I would just drop in and say hello. I didn’t tell Daisy where I was going.
The sky was so bright that morning, it made my eyes hurt. I don’t ride the 7 much anymore, just a couple of times a year to take in a Mets game. I started to worry that maybe my tags would be gone, painted over by a new owner renovating the old factory. As we got closer, I could see that everything was still there. But somehow it felt different. Maybe it was the way the sun was hitting the building. The letters on the wall looked faded. The red bricks were starting to bleed through the paint. The P in Paco looked all squashed down. The dot on the I in Onions had disappeared. I always made the top of the L in Diablos look like a devil’s pitchfork, three prongs pointing up into the air. I used to be so proud of that pitchfork but now it looked like something a little kid would draw. A little kid like Jeremy.
I started thinking about what Daisy told me, about how I had responsibilities now. Johnny would want to meet Jeremy; I know he would. I couldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t let Jeremy find out that his old man used to do graffiti and hang off buildings. He might start to get ideas. And I didn’t want him to be around an ex-con either, even if he was my cousin.
I got off at the next stop, went downstairs and crossed over to the Manhattan bound side to head back home. There was no one but me on the platform. The sun went behind a few clouds and the wind kicked up, sending scraps of newspaper and plastic bags blowing around in the air. When the train came, I got on and sat in the last car. I told myself I wouldn’t look when we rode back past the box factory, but I couldn’t help it. When I took a peek, it made me think back to that night on the roof.
Johnny had pulled out a pack of Winstons and passed it around. We stood there staring at all the lights over in Manhattan. I looked up at the moon and blew a thick ring of smoke at it.
“Paulie’s the man,” Freddy said.
“Damn right,” said Johnny. He shook my hand. He made me feel so proud. “We’re done. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
We ran down the fire escape at full speed, Johnny out in front, yelling at the top of his voice: “The Diablos rule.” “Paco for President.”
Damn, those were good times.