First Edition | Prose

Rage is Back

by adam mansbach


Three hours into my earthly existence, Billy went bombing, because that’s what a fiend does. Triumph and tragedy are met identically. Boredom too. Something happens, or nothing happens, and you need a fix.  

He kissed us both, left me snoozing the snooze of the innocent on my mother’s chest, swung a backpack containing spraycans, a sketchbook, and some just-in-case bolt-cutters over his shoulder  — yup, he brought it to the hospital; that was Billy’s version of a maternity bag — and bullshitted his way past his parents and Karen’s mom. He scooped Amuse, his ace, the Immortal Five’s only other whiteboy, half-Jewish just like Billy, from the hospital lobby. The two of them rode the iron horse out to the Coney Island Yard, the city’s biggest, and met up with Dengue, Cloud 9, and Sabor, the three of whom popped out from behind a work shed to surprise Billy with champagne, cigars, good wishes, and ten tabs of Donald Duck acid, two hits to a man. Billy took one. Faint stirrings of parental responsibility, perhaps. Amuse had three.  

The Immortal Five unpacked their special-occasion stashes, out-of-production colors you had to trade for or hoard (or, if you were Cloud 9, spend a day boosting from dustcovered hardware stores in Virginia): Krylon Hot Raspberry and Aqua Turquoise and Icy Grape, Federal Safety Green and Sandalwood Tan Rustoleum, Bermuda Blue Red Devil. The lysergic diethylamide dissolved on tongues and swirled into bloodstreams, chased by the bubbly and then a couple six-packs of Bud tall-boys. Few sticks of weed to keep things copacetic. Toasts every few minutes, to me and Wren and fatherhood and family, as the squad lined up and commenced to bomb the living hell out of a lucky F train.

Billy rocked a wildstyle window-down whole car, KILROY DONDI VANCE, with the Cheech Wizard holding a basinette next to the K, and then for dessert he caught a top-to-bottom: IT’S A BOY in silver blockbuster letters, with CAN’T BELIEVE IT — I’M A DAD! and 7 LBS 8 OZ and I LOVE YOU KAREN in True Blue script. Cloud and Dengue split the next car down and put up WREN 209 and HOT MAMA. Sabor, short on paint, helped with the fills, then bailed Amuse out on the IMMORTAL 5 ALIVE car he’d started before the tabs hit him full-on and he decided, googly-eyed, to sit down for a while and watch. On that much acid, the smallest sounds became a symphony; your senses were fizzing over, flowing into one another, and all you could do was breathe everything in. Especially since (who knew?) the rhythm of your own personal inhalation turned out to be the ordering principle of the entire universe.

Two tabs, though, was a time-tested burner-painting dosage, and for the next couple of hours the pssht and clicka-clacka of paintcans sufficed for conversation as Billy, Sabor, Dengue and Cloud got down. Four, five in the morning is every writer’s favorite time. The city’s as quiet as your apartment right after the refrigerator cycles down.  Nobody’s alive except you and your boys and your recently completed joints, voluptuous and razor-sharp, vibrating and bulging with the struggle of containing their own energy. You’re backstage grinning at the newest-freshest, knowing that soon you’ll be home asleep and the burners will roll out on their maiden voyage. The heightened alertness of the mission has smoothed itself down to a glossy pride, and you’re enjoying your last few minutes with an oblivion-bound creation you’re never gonna see up-close again. Maybe you’re doing some touch-ups or taking a few tags on the insides, or passing a final roach. For sure, you’re talking late night trash, trading lies and war stories, or else an early morning spasm of sincerity has gripped the crew, and love and loss and life.

I don’t know which it was, but this much is indisputable: if anybody had a bigger hard-on for graffiti than the writers, it was the NYPD’s Vandal Squad. They stayed up on who was hot, read wildstyles the average person could never decipher. They took train flicks, even brought cans to the yards and crossed out people they particularly hated. They wanted fame as bad as any new-jack thirteen-year-old, and they got it. Writers made reps by putting in work, inventing style, hitting five hundred cars in six months, splashing color through the city’s hardened arteries. For cops, it was busting heads and taking down prize bucks.

Most times you got popped, it happened after the fact. The police sat in their car, watched you sneak in and out of the yard. They caught up with you later, at a bar or in front of your building, tapped you on the shoulder just when you thought you’d gotten away with it but before you’d scrubbed the paint off your hands. They knew better than to match speed and wits with kids who, if they didn’t outrun you and vanish through some escape-hatch you and your partner never even knew about, might very well turn around and knock your fat twelve-sandwich-eating ass the fuck out. A lot of distinctions blurred in the yards; a badge didn’t shine as bright there. The boys in blue only invaded in pursuit of big game, and always in big numbers.

And so it is written that on July 2nd, 1987, at approximately the asscrack of dawn, fifteen po-pos rode down on the Immortal Five, with Officer Anastacio Bracken, the biggest asshole in the history of cops and robbers, leading the charge. n


Adam Mansbach of Berkeley is the author of the No. 1 New York Times bestseller “Go the F**k to Sleep,” the California Book Award-winning novel “The End of the Jews,” and the cult classic “Angry Black White Boy.“ His work has appeared in the New Yorker, New York Times Book Review, Esquire and on NPR. This excerpt is from “Rage is Back,” published January 2013.