It happened while I was painting this “mural” that says “subway scholar” in huge 16-foot-by-as-high-as-I-can-reach letters. It spans an eighth-mile city block across the backs of four factory buildings, two and a half stories up, along one of the major veins of the el before it plunges into the subway downtown. So if you’re on the train, coming in from the south side, the piece is right there, butting up against the tracks. As you’re going by, you can still read some of the letters: S, U, A, Y, S, C, H.
One night a while back I was up there painting the O. The O was on a building all by itself, painted along the fire escape. Earlier that day I’d been up there in work clothes, an orange reflector vest, and a yellow hard hat. And two gallons of white paint. I pretended I was painting over the graffiti, but I was really just priming the wall. When the trains came by I waved to the motormen. A lot of them waved back.
So there I found myself that night, waiting for the bus, wearing white shorts and T-shirt, carrying two full bags of equipment halfway across the city to a dark industrial alley with trains thundering overhead. I’m alone in the alley and it’s full of everything you’d expect to find: heaps of garbage, falling-apart machines, stray dogs, ghosts, goblins, etc, etc.
Some of my friends were gonna come, especially my friend Chris, but he backed out at the last minute because there were supposed to be thunderstorms. Fuck it, I was gonna paint anyway. As long as the wall doesn’t get too wet, I don’t mind the rain. There are fewer people out and it fucks up their visibility.
I climbed the fire escape still wearing all white. Cloudy sky, no sign of rain. I took my all-black painting clothes out of the bags and pulled them on over the white. I strapped a respiratory mask around my face. I felt warm and I was practically invisible in the night.
But I’ve been caught painting up here before. The police know this alley’s hot so they sometimes check it with searchlights, especially this fire escape, which is the main way writers climb up to the tracks. So every time a train comes by with all its lights on, which is every couple minutes until about 2 AM, sometimes around the curves from the south, sometimes up from the subway, the fire escape is lighted up and I have to run down and crouch out of view of the motorman. So I was up there painting the inside of the O for like half an hour. It was around midnight–I was painting this scene of this girl playing in this overgrown lot–when I was caught off guard by this worker train. The city had been doing track repairs in this area all summer, and a couple times a night a worker train would just stop up here sometimes for 20 minutes and do God-knows-what-I-never-stuck-around-to-find-out.
So this worker train appeared on the tracks. It startled me. I crept down the fire escape part way, curled up behind my paint cans, and tried to act like a shadow in case a cruiser turned into the alley. I was frozen there a few minutes, trying to be patient, when I got the impulse to check behind me. Right behind me, next to the fire escape, ten feet below me and ten feet to the rear, was this freight train embankment I sometimes use as an escape route. And right there, right on the edge of this embankment, was a scraggly-looking man crouching perfectly still, looking up at me and smoking a cigarette. So here we were in this abandoned alley in the middle of nowhere. I was staring this dude down and he was staring me down, and ten seconds went by and neither of us moved. I couldn’t see his face very well because of the cigarette. Suddenly he stood up and there was the flash of a pocket camera as he tried to take a picture of me. I barely turned around fast enough to hide my face.
So I was thinking who the fuck was this guy? How long had he been there? What did he want? And what made it weirder, a similar thing had happened the night before. I’d been lying in the same place when a bum walked into the alley maybe 150 yards away. He leaned against a supporting beam, stood there for about 15 minutes, smoked a cigarette looking right at me, and then left without seeing me. I had thought.
And what made it weirder, a week before, me, Chris, my friend Ages, and this dumb-ass 15-year-old kid I’d brought along named Bubba had been painting the “SCH.” When the trains would come, me, Ages, and Chris had all hid in these crevices down the tracks, but Bubba wouldn’t even hide. He just kept playing on the fire escape, being all loud, borrowing cans to write his ugly, wack name everywhere, being all theatrical and shit. It would have been tragic enough if Bubba had been his graffiti name, but it was the name given to him by his parents. So I’d gotten really mad at this kid. I’d made him go climb up the fire escape and wait for us on the roof. Everything was cool for a while. We were painting, painting, painting. All of the sudden, there was Bubba, climbing down off the roof in a panic.
“There’s a body on the roof. There’s a body on the roof. There’s a dead body.”
“Bubba,” I said. “Leave. Me. The fuck. Alone.”
“NO. No no no no. I’m serious. I’m serious. There’s a body. I’m serious. I’m not joking. You gotta believe me. I’m not going up there.”
We all climbed up onto the roof. “There it is,” Bubba said, pointing into a dark corner. Sure enough, there were the outlines of a body slouched in the darkness.
We tiptoed up to it. It didn’t move. We tried talking to it. It didn’t move. We tried kicking it. It still didn’t move. All of a sudden, there was Bubba. A beam of some kind was shooting out of Bubba and landing on the body. Bubba was pissing on the body!
“The fuck are you doing!” I yell.
Bubba was not pissing on the body. Bubba was spraying Mace on the body. My Mace, from the pocket of my jacket, which I’d let him wear. Oh shit. The body moved. The body moved again. The body was coming back to life. Bubba had Maced the body back to life. We bolted down the fire escape. Just then, a police car spotted us and tilted its search beam our way. We scattered into the night.
We never figured out who the body was. So here it was one week later. As I scrambled to get the cans into my bag, I was racking my brain about the scraggly guy. Was he a stealth cop? A vagabond trying to collect the reward for my arrest? Was he the Body? I was throwing stuff in my bag and watching him. He was very agile. He hopped down from the freight embankment by this special way I thought only graffiti writers knew about. And then he did something that seized my blood. He ran toward the base of the fire escape.
Fuck the paint. I grabbed my mask, bolted up the fire escape, and vaulted across to the tracks. My escape route from here was already planned, but the worker train was right there on the tracks (part of the setup?). I said fuck it, I’ve already been seen. They’re gonna have to catch me. I started leaping across the tracks, across the gaps and third rails, till I got to the catwalk that lies in between the center tracks and leads into the mouth of the subway two blocks away. All of this happened in seconds. I fled down the catwalk as fast as any man being chased. The catwalk is two feet wide, flanked on either side by a third rail. There was a rumbling behind me. Train. I jumped over to the other track, and I was on the incline going toward the tunnel, and I knew the train driver had seen me but he didn’t stop. I kept on running and followed the red taillights into the mouth of the tunnel, whipping off my gloves and tossing them, along with my mask, into a crevice in the wall. Oh and by the way, I was exactly two blocks away from Police Department headquarters.
Just inside the subway tunnel was a new subway line, not yet in service, that branched off from the tunnel I was in and opened out into this even more abandoned district over by the river –a perfect getaway. I ran the new tunnel, which was longer than I expected. There were no tags in it yet. I was still looking over my shoulder for the scraggly guy, even though there’s no way he could have followed me–probably too many Freddy the 13th movies where the monster keeps jumping out of somewhere just when you thought you were safe. I hopped this razor wire, then stashed my black clothes (bad guys wear black) and followed the freight tracks across the river at 16th Street. I still hadn’t heard police sirens. It was a beautiful cloudy night and the whole skyline was lit up a dozen blocks away. I was thinking now my whole mission was shot. I was thinking I had to bring a posse up there the next night and like kill this dude.
So finally I reached a busy street, Halsted. There was bus fare in my shoe. I took the Halsted bus to 55th, then the 55th Street bus home. A lot happened on the way home, but that’s another story. Finally I got home and all I could think was whew.
No whew. There was a cop car on my corner. It sat there for five minutes. I retrieved my keys from this stash spot two blocks away and when I returned, the cop car was still there. So I said fuck it, I don’t have any paint on my hands, I’m dressed like I go to Oberlin, and there’s no way they could know I did anything. I walked past the cop car and I stared the cops down and they stared me down and I went into my apartment. I showered, ate, congratulated myself on the escape, and cursed myself for losing my cans and not finishing the piece. Worried some more about who this guy was and how I could take care of him. Then I tried to fall asleep. My parents were out of town so it was OK.
At 3:15 I was still awake. I kept thinking about that cop car on my corner, sitting there for no apparent reason, and about another writer who had fled to California because the cops were doing intelligence shit on him, trying to set him up. And I had this faint feeling that as I was running away from the alley guy, he had been yelling my name. Biillllyy. Biillllyy. And then I realized something that made me sit up in bed. One of the bags I’d left on the fire escape had pockets in it that I hadn’t checked. Suppose one of those pockets had something in it with my name on it? We are the only Wimsatt in the telephone book. And what if those cops on the corner were waiting there to testify that yes I did come home at 2 AM? And what if, at this very moment, they were preparing to bust in on me and search my house?
Spread out in my room were 70 spray cans. Many of them were rare brands –the same rare brands I’d left on the fire escape. I frantically ran around, trying to hide spray cans in shopping bags behind clothes in my mother’s closet, under dusty boxes in my father’s study, and I was running around the apartment with half the lights on, spray cans lying everywhere, when I heard someone clomping up the stairs. Clomp clomp clomp, I hear, and I have pretty quiet neighbors, and I thought for sure it was the police. Fuck, why did I turn the lights on? The clomps came up to my door, I live on the second floor, and then they continued up the stairs. Ahh, so they’re surrounding me, are they? A key turned in one of my upstairs neighbors’ locks and I sighed in relief. Unless…the neighbors. They could be in on it too.
Two minutes later, the phone rang. 3:34 AM. After four rings, I picked it up. My plan was to sound half-asleep. (“The police at this hour? Whatever you want it can wait till the morning.” Click.) I wasn’t sure how this would help, but I pictured it playing an important role in some desperate future court case.
“Hello,” I yawned falsely.
“Billy!” my friend Chris shouted into the phone. “It was me. It was me.”
I croaked in disbelief.
“It didn’t rain so I decided to come piece with you. I thought you recognized me. I started taking pictures of you but you ran away from me. I kept shouting ‘Billy, it’s Chris.’ But you kept running. I thought you got killed by that train.”
I never finished the piece.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yael Routtenberg.