The sky is burning. A vast plain of scintillation. But it is only sunset, another rehearsal for some future promised holocaust. The dying light silhouettes towers of iron in rust’s glow: great stacks, ziggurats of steel cubes, shipping containers wedged and balanced on pier’s edge above the crimson diamonding of the Pacific.
Karmann Ghia turns away from the copper light drowning into the ocean, each lapping wave a sputtering flame that sparkles, dies. The world is a funeral pyre without him—when will he return? She walks along this upper Matson observation deck, her fingertips caressing, tracing a rail of rebar Monk welded last year. White plastic chairs and a table shift in sunset shadows. Below, some of the old cargo containers still advertise faded logos glinting from networks of rust, salt, and desiccated barnacles: sea-land, pacific, matson, westcon, yang ming, ramjac, evergreen, pan-ic (international carriers). A city of iron cubicles latticed along the harbor, plied like a giant’s stairway in gravity-suspended steps rising toward the burnished sunset, or skewed in angles and intersecting layers; some pitched, half-toppled by long-ago extracted cranes and ship’s booms. The steel hulks loom like a metallic warren on the precipice of Slip Thirteen, an abandoned cargo depot jutting out into the smoggy dusk of Los Angeles Harbor. The shuttered facade of the Crescent Warehouse Company along the East Channel obscures most of the old containers; beyond the protection of these warehouse buildings and the toxic, oiled patina of the channel waters is the city: only scattered buildings and glimpses of knotted freeways shift beneath the haze.
She descends the iron steps welded diagonally down the rusted side of the container, gripping the handrail of old, thin pipeline that Monk looped and welded around the crude staircase. Dim corridors snake through the labyrinth of the steel boxes, created by confluences of gaps amid the containers, or shipping doors ajar, or crawl spaces through torched holes or peeling iron sides. There are ropes, ladders, stacked crates, purloined boat ramps, illegally welded rebar rungs and handholds, ingress and egress, but these signs of human habitation have been carefully hidden from the city to the northwest.
Karmann disappears through an open cargo door, down a ladder through a blowtorched portal, into the darkened nexus of the iron chambers. Electric bulbs strung on wires hanging from freight hooks and eyelets wash her black skin in dark rainbows of blue, yellow, green; she’s changed some of these lights with colored bulbs, hoping for a festive aura here, but lately it seems to her the effect is garish, carnival; maybe that’s just her soul of late.
In the main rooms now, a series of chambers extended by gaping cargo doors, containers torn open and welded together at disconcerting angles. Windows torched through iron reveal views into other containers or sometimes the smoggy blue continuum of the channel waters and sky. An old sofa, tables, dusky lamps. Black-and-white shadows flicker from the Philco TV—Elizabeth Montgomery twitching her nose in Bewitched—hung with baling wire from a ceiling hook high in the corner, silent, volume down, its jangled antennas looped with wire snaking up corrugated iron walls for patchy reception. Some of Monk’s friends mill about, drinking Brew 102 or Pabst or some of Karmann’s Electric Purple lemonade from a glass bowl on the dining table, smoking cigarettes—although Slim-Bone over by the old fish-crate shelves splayed with crumbling paperbacks has just lit up a joint—the babble of conversations echoes, reverberating inside the steel walls, everyone’s voices metamorphosing into a kind of amplified clang that has seeped into her head, one of those migraines that will take a day and a bottle and a pack of cigarettes to muffle away. Atop a converted old crab trap is the hi-fi, the turntable playing a scratchy Miles Davis riffing on “Boplicity.” Cheap portable fans waft smoke up through vent flaps sheared open in the ribbed walls or through welded windows and opened hatchways. More guests appear now, like pirates storming a besieged vessel, men and women swaying up or down from planks and ladders, twisting down knotted ropes, appearing at the bases of staircase crates, laughing, talking, bearing bottles of wine and plates of chicken and ribs and corncobs. Always a rent party somewhere in the ’hood, and tonight it’s Karmann and Monk’s turn, sharing food and drink, even stuffing a few Washingtons—if you can spare them—in a fishbowl on the table next to the pile of green-for-money rent-party invitation cards, just enough to get a soul through another month, though Monk doesn’t pay any rent, since no landlord knows about Box Town, but the money bought food and gas and wine and cigarettes and records and bail, maybe a few bills stashed in the reserve for any needy soul’s emergencies.
“Hey, Slim-Bone,” a new arrival, a young man in a purple silk shirt, calls out as he tosses another green rent-card on the table’s pile:
Don’t move to the outskirts of town
Drop around to meet a new Brown
A social party by Monk and Karmann
Saturday. Latest on Wax. Refreshments.
The rent party ebbs and flows through several levels of iron lozenges: couples caress on backseat divans torn from gutted cars, dance to Motown blaring from radios, rise toward observation containers to toast the sunset or descend into sublevels where old mattresses and piled pillows and hammocks tucked away in shadowy metal corners wait like silent confidants for the new scents, pressings, and stains their lovers will bring. The electric bulbs blink and sputter with voltage stolen from surrounding harbor grids, feeding into shipyard transformers and underground vaults and through portals and under gangplanks of dry-docked, decommissioned navy ships: a discotheque effect, strobes of rainbow lights flashing, illuminates faces beaded with sweat, clear plastic cups sloshing dark wine, glistening black Afros, silvery strata of cigarette smoke, purple eyeliner, silver and gold chains webbed in moist chest hair glinting from open silk shirts.
“Hey, Karmann.” She frowns: Felonius, one of Monk’s more disreputable friends, swaggers up to her; Lamar, already stoned, hangs on to Felonius and stares down at her, his lips—always mumbling in some kind of incomprehensible drugged soliloquy—twisting into a demented grin. The reflected lights seem to sparkle in Lamar’s black sunglasses and greasy, slicked-back hair.
“You like a widow, ol’ Monk’s never home.” Felonius's gold tooth seems to always siphon off her eyes and then all her thoughts, unweaving, until Felonius dissolves, leaving only the glimmering nugget of gold twinkling out of existence whenever his upper lip obscures the precious metal.
“A black widow?” Karmann smiles. Behind her, President Johnson speaks in muted silence, staring down at the party from the Philco TV, then a storm of static reveals grainy footage of Huey helicopters hovering over rice paddies.
“Girl, ya all could do better’n ol’ Monk.” He pulls the ring tab from a can of Pabst, foam bubbling up as he pours beer into a plastic cup. “Ol’ Felonius, for example, I’m a community activist—”
Lamar nods then retreats into a mumbling conversation with himself.
“Is that what they’re callin’ unemployed now?” Karmann laughs, sipping her wine.
“Oooh, tha’s col’, baby.” Felonius grins, gold tooth winking. “I’d shower you with rings and treasure, baby,” slipping the beer can’s pull ring on her small finger.
“Shower yourself first. With water.” Karmann smiles, drops the pull tab into his plastic cup, and threads her way back to the phonograph to change the record. She sets the needle to a new album one of the girls has brought, and the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself” reverberates through the iron rooms. Marcus and his girlfriend Dalynne materialize through cigarette smoke with a bottle of wine. “When’s Monk comin’, honey?” Dalynne fills Karmann’s cup.
“When he gets here, I guess.” Dalynne and Marcus are already stoned, their black eyes shriveled like those famous raisins in the sun.
“Chasin’ graffiti, huh?” Marcus shakes his head. His woolly beard drapes to his belly, flecked with gray. “What’s he studyin’, he say? Signology?”
“Semiotics. The study of signs.” Her Monkey, Monk and key, an initiate searching for keys to unlock each signpost, an anchorite lost in a profane world.
“Signs? You mean like stop signs and shit?” Dalynne laughs, her straightened, chopped hair bobbing on her shoulders. “Girl, how he gonna get out of the ghetto lookin’ at signs?”
“It don’t matter nohow, because we’re in the fourth generation.” Karmann sighs. Marcus is going to pontificate again. “You see, it’s only been four generations since Lincoln freed the slaves, not enough time. Gonna take ten generations, according to my calculations. Our future’s still a slave’s future. We throw these parties ’cause we never been taught to keep money, the plantation store always kept our money, ya see? We leave our wives, girlfriends, ’n babies ’cause back in the old days the boss man’d break us families up and sell us down the river. Monk’s still fightin’ it is all.”
“You better talk sense or this girlfriend’s gonna leave you.” Dalynne scowls at Marcus.
“Tha’s why a brother’s got to have sisters and babies all over town. It’s that ol’ slave reflex of makin’ lots of babies ’cause the mastah gon take ’em from ya—”
“Bullshit!” Dalynne, spilling wine. “Black man just like any man, can’t keep his dick in his pants!” She grabs the bottle from Marcus but instead of hitting him over the head stalks away into the smoky haze.
“Hey, man.” Lil’ Davey—six foot six—nods down to Marcus, slinking toward the radio.
“See? It’s all around us.” Marcus frowns, edging closer to Karmann. “Brothers call each other man ’cause back in the slave days whitey called us boy . . . now the hippies say man this man that, always ripping off the nigger, just like with our music . . . ten generations, Monk’ll see, ain’t no use fightin’ it.” Karmann’s cataloged some of the debris in Marcus’s beard: caked mustard, tobacco ash, wine drops, flecks of avocado dip, cracker crumbs. “You know, Karmann,” Marcus says, swaying to the Four Tops, “when I’m ’round you I can’t help myself neither. Onion ring?” Waving a greasy onion ring in her face. “Maybe we could, ah, dance,” Marcus running a yellow fingernail down her forearm, pressing close to her, the wild beard blotting out the world.
“Excuse me.” She pushes away, weaving urgently past dancers and smoke. She finally catches up to Dalynne, who’s staring out through a patch of window blowtorched in the iron wall. Dalynne’s arms are crossed protectively across her breasts. “Honey, don’t feel bad.” Karmann slips a hand on her shoulder.
Dalynne turns, eyes red with tears. “He’s such a pig.” Karmann nods, sips her wine. “I need to find a good man, like Monk.”
“He’s always gone,” Karmann says. “Maybe he’s thinking about not coming home.”
“Don’t say that! He love you more than ever, you both blessed.” Dalynne wipes a tear away. “Look at you . . . you hardly even showin’.”
Karmann smiles, lights a cigarette, taps one out for Dalynne.
“How you feelin’?” Dalynne lights up and Karmann blows on the match, tossing it through the window, into the harbor darkness.
“Okay, just a little sick in the morning’s all.”
“You smoking and drinkin’ too much, girl?”
“The doctor said wine and a few cigarettes are good, keep down the stress.”
“He a white doctor?” They both laugh. “You feel him kick yet?” Dalynne lightly presses her palm into the almost imperceptible swell of Karmann’s stomach then moves it away quickly, a pang of embarrassment or envy in her eyes as she sips her wine.
“Not yet. How do you know it’s a him?”
Dalynne laughs. “Well, I guess I don’t. You feel the kicks soon. How along are you? Three months?”
“Three weeks more than that.”
“Shit, you feel him anytime now. My mama says if you eat a banana every day it’ll be a boy.”
They laugh and drink wine. “I’m serious.” Dalynne grins. “Eat bananas for a boy, lemons for a girl.” Karmann laughs, drinks wine, starts to feel better. “You know what? Later we’ll go on up to your room. Now listen, I’m serious. Mama told me this, too. You lay down and expose your belly. We get a pencil and tie it to a string, and I’ll hold it over your stomach. Now if the pencil wobbles around, it’s gonna be a girl . . . but if that pencil stays straight ’n’ true, it gonna be a boy.” More laughter. “I’m gonna find Marcus.” She hugs Karmann and wanders through the party.
Karmann sighs and passes through a welded open hatchway, toward the kitchen. Down a staircase of crates into a double-wide Sea-Land container where a knot of guests crowd around a Zenith TV precariously balanced atop a six-foot crab cage leaning against a wall, talking, drinking, smoking, eating chicken from greasy paper plates. On the flickering tube, Amos ’n’ Andy mug and ham it up, but their lips move in silence, the volume’s turned down: Amos’s face looks black and bloated beneath the white sweat-stained fedora as Andy, distracted, scoops up a pair of dice next to the bowl of mints, chomping, grimaces, chokes, eyeballs popping out of his black face like white eggs.
“I’m tellin’ you, those are cracker actors,” someone says behind her, “they put shoe polish on their faces.”
“No way,” another voice says, “them’s black and that’s that.”
“They was white on the radio, my mama said.”
“Yo mama tol’ me last night, ‘Oooh, that feels nice.’” Laughter, cursing. Someone dances by, transistor radio half buried in his Afro, Little Anthony and the Imperials blaring “Take Me Back.” Amos ’n’ Andy fade away and it’s that Edward R. Murrow at the news desk, the black-and-white cyclopean eye of CBS behind him. cbs news live crawls over and over along the bottom of the screen, half buried in flurries of snowy static. “Hey, turn it up.” . . . bat in Vietnam. Once again, the Pentagon today at three o’clock Eastern Standard Time has acknowledged for the first time publicly that U.S. troops are engaged in active combat in Vietnam . . . Tendrils of smoke from Murrow’s cigarette curl around the network’s Cyclops eye, which seems to glare down at the revelers. Now we take you to our Washington correspondent—
“Say, Karmann, you lookin’ fine tonight.” Cooky, swaying in the smoke-hazy nimbus of colored lightbulbs, tall and skinny, like a tree topped with the black manicured canopy of an Afro big as a beach ball. Cooky, for the legendary amount of cookies he consumed daily, hundreds, a superhuman addiction to sugar, a side effect to his darker addiction, heroin. “You better snap me up ’fore I go off to that Vietnam War.” Chain-smoking a Lucky Strike.
“Cooky, you’re just a stick, bones made out of milk, anyway.” Karmann laughs. Is everyone stoned? Why is every fool here hitting on her? Felonius, Marcus, Cooky, just a little innocent flirting here, the wine’s getting to that headache of hers. “You’re not going to fight in any white man’s war, one look at you they going to say there’s a four-F.”
“That mean four fucks? What girl tol’ you about my man powers?” Cooky, grinning, takes a pull from a tequila bottle—that other sweet sister when he’s out of smack—he’s liberated from Monk’s liquor cabinet. “Well now, I’d fight if I was an American citizen but I ain’t because us niggers been denied our citizen rights,” exhaling smoke. “I can’t see the system because it can’t see the black man. Only draft this nigger’s gonna feel is if they open the window down at Willie’s Pool Hall.” Laughs, snorting, gulps another amber shot of tequila from the bottle, wiping his wet lips on a paisley-print sleeve. He holds the bottle up to her lips, an impenetrable light in his eye that makes her feel off balance as he exhales a perfect blue smoke ring that hovers between them.
“No, thanks.” Now they’re stealing Monk’s liquor. “Excuse me, Cooky, I have to serve up some chicken.” Karmann moves past more people, through thunderheads of marijuana smoke, which now masks the cigarette smoke in bands of thick gray strata that ring the containers. She drains her wine cup, migraine thumping, lights a Kent. The miasma of cigarette and pot smoke and sweat and booze and incense and fried chicken has for now cloaked the disconcerting, international fragrances of the shipping containers, scents that she’s acclimated herself to over the months but which can be, to the unprepared olfactory nerve, challenging in their exotic spectrum: traces still linger in each container, hinting of their past international ports of call—Alaska salmon, crude oil from Yemen, alkaloid residue from transistor shipments from Peking, bananas from Brazil, pineapples from Oahu, Goodyear rubber, chocolate, plastics, cured beef, fertilizers, Detroit engines, drums of animal fats, Colombian coffee, bales of green onions, Oregon timber, molasses . . . a melange of essences more powerful than any pharmaceutical, a fortune’s wheel of sensory assaults that alter those who pass through these chambers: states of despair, delirium, ecstasy, violence, eroticism, boredom, anxiety, metaphysical alienation, peace, and feelings she or even Monk can’t describe . . . then there are the few containers welded shut, rooms they cannot bear to revisit or are too afraid to even step foot inside . . .
At the kitchen table at last, she lights another cigarette, tops off her plastic cup of wine. Where the fuck is Monk anyway? Out in the city somewhere, in his own world, escaping from all this, from a girlfriend and the baby. Shit, there’s Maurice—Fallouja Awahli now that he’s a Muslim—approaching, shaking his shaved head disapprovingly: crisply pressed black suit and white starched shirt with black bow tie, gold lapel pin sparkling, engraved FOI, Fruit of Islam. “Dear Karmann—or should I call you Rosaline?”
“Who?” Karmann’s looking for a way to escape, hoping one of the girls will saunter over and take her arm.
“Rosaline, who waits in vain for her Romeo even as he falls in love with Juliet. Why do you poison yourself with alcohol and tobacco?”
“My spirit is weak, Maur—Fallouja.” Karmann sips wine, trying to exhale cigarette smoke away from his brown forehead.
“Your body is a temple, you should set an example for your black sisters. We must all set an example for our people.” A temple with an occupant, she smiles wearily. His voice is soft, learned, soothing, always a grin on his lips to counterbalance the preacher born in him.
“I know, I know,” Karmann sighing, “I’m living in sin, too.”
“Ah, yes. Monk should marry you. I hope one day Mohammad touches you and you are blessed with many babies, bringing glory and power to God and our people.” Karmann bites her lower lip and smiles. “This is the only way our people will rise from the ashes.”
“I didn’t know we were in the ashes,” desultorily flicking an ash, watching it float down toward the iron floor.
“Forgive me for speaking to you this way, but Karmann, you need a good, firm, godly man . . . a Muslim husband . . . you know I’ve known Monk since we were children and, well, you know, he’s always going off in a thousand directions . . . Monk has no direction in life.”
“He’s lost, all right, lookin’ for a sign.” She drains her wine: whenever she starts clipping off those final consonants in her speech she knows she’s getting drunk. He’s right, Monk did have some crazy notions: buying a barge and floating the containers out into international waters where he could declare the sovereign rights of a separate country, issue passports, turn Boxville into an offshore tax-free bank and floating casino. Her head swims, the migraine a relentless throb of electric pain. “Excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom.”
Behind her, Felonius angled, framed in a hatchway, talking on Karmann’s wall phone. “Come on, baby, come meet me . . . shit.” He drops the receiver and staggers away, the telephone swaying, bobbing against the metal wall like a pendulum. A tinny female voice drones from the receiver: If you want to make a call, please hang up and dial again . . . if you want to make a call, please . . .
She weaves down another tumble of crates and into a blue-painted WestCon container. A naked yellow bulb casts a faint gold light in the chamber. A cracked mirror on the wall reflects the navy-gray-painted toilet purloined from an old merchant ship. Nadine, a light-skinned girl in black hip-huggers, dabbles powder on her cheek before the mirror. “See you topside, honey.” She smiles, blows a kiss, high heels echo and click away. A stick of incense by the old iron sink tapers smoke. The water reservoir behind the toilet is lidless, no flushing here, gravity plummeting all waste down into the Pacific below: instead the tank is filled with fresh-cut wildflowers and strips of newspaper Monk has carefully cut for toilet paper. Karmann picks up a scrap of newsprint: Margaret Dumont dead, romantic foil in Marx Brothers movies. Featured in several of the comedy team’s movies, Dumont played aristocratic dowagers fending off the romantic orchestrations of the brothers, usually Groucho, as they played a series of bungling suitors competing for her attentions. An open portal reveals the brick facade of the Crescent Warehouse between daisy-print curtains. An oval hatchway is latched closed near the gray navy ordnance of the toilet, two deck chairs stenciled USND on either side. Karmann unscrews the lug bolts and flips the rusted rings, heaving open the iron door. Below, lapping, glinting in darkness, the Pacific. She collapses in a chair, lighting another Kent cigarette, staring down into the lens of the ocean, at the empty chair: where is he? Below, the waters lap and surge. A deep metallic groan shudders through the steel room, the currents pulling, pushing, grinding the pylons somewhere deep below the container’s welded mazes. She glowers at the empty chair, a queen waiting for the king’s return. Some king. Why is he always leaving her? Going off on his strange tours with his weird notebook and graffiti drawings: sometimes she feels so mad, so empty. Maybe this time he won’t come back . . . the baby, it’s all finally too much. Stop it now, stop doubting him. He’d better move his black ass. The whole world’s spinning like her head: all his so-called friends stealing his liquor, feasting and partying, even trying to steal his woman, offering her impromptu rings of promise. He’d better find his way home fast. Karmann drops the cigarette down into the glistening maw, a glowing red ember then a soft hiss as it disappears into the sea. She’ll wait and Monk’ll be back, a good man: if any man can read the signs and find his way home again it’ll be Monk. Yes, she’ll wait, not patiently knitting, she doesn’t have knitting needles, but she has a phonograph needle, and she will spin all their records, weaving song by song until his return.
Americo Monk stands on the corner and studies the traffic signal: recessed in their steel scalloped sockets, the bulbs follow their programmed progression, green, yellow, red, but something is wrong; the red light flickers with darkness, as if Edison, no longer able to regiment the ghetto’s grids, has installed these sputtering fourth signs through the city’s ’hoods. The signal turns to green. Now Monk can see a blackbird fluttering inside its nest webbed in the light’s cowl.
He crosses San Pedro Street, walking east down 112th Street. His worn red Keds seem blood-orange in the dying sunlight. Run-down, salmon-painted apartments and power poles flank one side of the street. Every door and window is open, surrendered to the sultry, stagnant heat. He passes a liquor store and a barbershop. Three men hunch on the curb, drinking beers from brown paper sacks. A little girl with no shoes pedals a tricycle past Monk, her reflection passing through his dark sunglasses like a sprite. A languid, suspended summer: Mother’s Day—the fifth of each month, when welfare checks arrive—has come and gone, and now the money’s drying up; soon it’ll be Fathers’ Day—parole days are on the first or last day of the month, and black men and long-gone fathers and husbands will return with empty pockets. He pauses, looking up at a billboard that shimmers through the smog behind the liquor store; a student of semiotics, he remembers the sign: a black man posed with a beautiful black woman as they toast a forty-ounce can of beer. Ole 88 Malt Liquor, in giant letters under their beaming faces, it’ll kick your ass . . . umptions . . . but some guerrilla urban artist’s attacked the billboard, pasting two giant white triangles—masks with black eyeholes—over the faces of the black models, transforming them into cartoonish Ku Klux Klan.
Rampant vandalism. Monk shakes his head, grins. He stops before graffiti sprayed in yellow on the brick facade of a padlocked storefront. Three numbers hyphenated like a birth date inside the drippy double loops of a capital B: 6-20-13. Monk opens his tattered blue notebook, a thick sheaf of papers, notes, diagrams, drawings of the city’s graffiti and street art: ink and pencil sketches of gang symbols, tagger signatures, homeboy art, margins filled with his crabbed, neat printing about locations, explanations, questions, affiliations, styles, leitmotifs, connections. He thumbs to an empty page and copies the graffito: numbers equal letter placement in the alphabet, 6 F, 20 T, 13 M, FTM, Fuck the Man, B for the Businessmen Gang, Watts area, 13 also marijuana, marking territory for drug selling. Monk copies the tagger’s autograph: a lowercase t with an arrow pointing up, Lil’ Tea from uptown.
Monk walks on. Sun’s setting, he better catch another RTD Freeway Flier bus back to the harbor. Karmann’s gonna be pissed off; the big rent party. He smiles: she’s a good woman, she’ll wait for him, like that Volkswagen convertible that shares her name, always free and open, not just her legs but her mind, heart, soul. Back home where the containers offer him some faint chance of containment, warrens and levels of iron shields that might stop the inundation of signs and input that he suspects will one day drown his sanity in infinite white noise and static; but Karmann, with maddeningly practical female radar, always laughed at him and said no, it wasn’t containment that he sought in the iron wrens of the harbor but compartments: his life was an endless series of compartmentalization, a vast accretion of disparate selves and moments, switching off with every closed iron hatchway and on again with every opened bulkhead. And now the baby coming . . . ready or not, boy, it’s not gonna wait for you to get your shit together. His T-shirt sticks to his sweaty copper skin. Summer in the city always seems endless, an unbroken chain of tinder-dry days and humid airless nights, the seasons, nature herself suspended in urban purgatory: his friends had a term for it, ghetto time, when minutes, hours, days, and nights fracture and blur and compress into a searing Now—as if the atmosphere itself teeters on the verge of sparking into flames—everyone senses this, a jittery, heat-exhausted edge in dripping faces and dark burning eyes, every soul waiting to be consumed.
On the corner of 113th Street, he stares down at the sidewalk: seven pennies in a row. Above the pennies a tiny Dixie cup filled with water. Below the copper line of coins, a chicken wishbone, a greasy black thread tied taut between the prongs of the bone. Gris-gris, a hoodoo sign, pointing east, watch yourself, Monk.
A car horn blares and he squints up through the dark filters of his glasses: a burgundy ’63 Buick Riviera rolls by slowly, windows down, four gangbangers in front and back seats. Two black men flanking passenger-side windows press their fists to the outside door panels. Monk’s thumb crooks inward toward his curved index finger as the Buick chugs along the curb. The fists pressed against the passing car doors curl, answering Monk’s sign with identical salutes: thumb and finger for G, the Gladiators, all brothers here, cool. The Riviera skulks behind a corner.
He explores this no-man’s-land with, if not immunity, then a kind of fragile grace. These tenement streets, abandoned alleys, shuttered brick-fronts, desiccated apartments, frame houses bunkered with grates and iron bars in every window. The gangs—Slausons, East Side LocoBoyz, 88 Trays, and the rest—suffer him free passage, a fleeting transit through their interstices, battle lines and war zones all but invisible except for the signposts sprayed on walls, which you ignore and fail to decipher at your own peril. A motorcycle cop sputters on his Harley-Davidson, faceless behind reflecting eggshell helmet—now the cop imperceptibly nods in Monk’s direction as he grinds gears east down 113th Street. Officer Reynolds. He knows almost all the cops, they too have sanctioned him safe routes, another gossamer passport through the city’s shadows. His clutched, bulging notebook is a badge, papers that usher him past subtle checkpoints and border crossings: the urban graphologist and graffiti semiotician has lately proven of interest to all the city’s fractious councils. The gangs and the police need Monk’s arcana to track enemies, gather intelligence about new gangs, outlaw splinters, incursions, ever-shifting balances and loyalties and territories. So he moves, a double agent, inviolate—for now—through the city, recorder, code master, pawn: but who is using whom?
At Avalon and 113th Street, two men argue in front of a pawnshop. “Motherfucker!” They walk down the sidewalk, shouting, hands gesticulating in the air like dark birds. Children laugh and splash around a broken hydrant, water cascading in the gutters, iridescent curtains raining down on soaked cotton shirts and torn pants. Where the pavement meets a low, crumbling wall skirting a weedy vacant lot, a graffito as if folded, half painted on the sidewalk then extending up the wall: two black spray-painted hands, palms outstretched, thumbs joined in the center like some kind of craning head, splayed with a fringe of fingers like ragged wings, a night demon taking flight. Monk sketches the figure out in his notebook, scribbling the location and the artist’s tag in the margins: smOG . . . Los Sombras. A legendary East L.A. gang from before the war, back in ’41 or ’42 . . . Are they coming back? Hard to tell; the Mexican gangs have an added veil of secrecy, their street Spanish. Monk’s seen a pattern in his notebook, the black gangs seem to be creating their own Negro, underground slang and symbols, learning from their Mexican rivals. He’d seen smOG’s (OG for “original gangster”) work only once before. Maybe some kind of splinter group or homage here, tagged on the sidewalk.
Pneumatic brakes hiss, Monk turns: a fire truck idles before the broken hydrant’s sparkling geyser. Firemen in soaked yellow ponchos cap off the valve, shooing kids sloshing across the huge street puddle, away from falling panes of water. An angry little boy skims a trash-can lid across the puddle, bouncing off a slick poncho.
Sunset smog glowers over rows of bleached tenement apartments like the spine of some prehistoric behemoth. Avalon and Imperial now, cars and trucks shimmering in the heat. A car horn bleats across the street. Piñatas and purple candy skulls festoon a tiny grocery store; a beauty parlor, Afros ensconced in hairdryers, undergoing secret transmutations; another liquor store, dingy bail-bonds office. Monk passes a shattered telephone booth reeking of urine. Fuck Bitches drips cursively on a plaster wall. Sometimes he wants to erase, blot out all these atavistic scrawls of division and hatred, but it’s impossible: all he can do is catalog it, try to glimpse the glittering, infinite cosmos of these urban signposts, or be lost, swallowed into the blinding noise of unparsed glyphs. This city is always changing, shedding its skin of underground signs and languages in paroxysms of destruction and rebirth, seething in a secret war between the dispossessed, who write its street histories, and the cops and power structures, who destroy unsanctioned communication through anti-graffiti paint crews and incarceration and intimidation: he will be their historian.
South toward 116th Street. In an alleyway behind a burned-out car hulk, two winos sharing a forty-ounce bottle of that Old 88. One bum leers at Monk: “Brother, can you paradigm?” What’d he say? Now the wino’s in the middle of what looks like a world-record swig when his companion yanks the bottle from his mouth, foaming beer down his greasy shirt: they tussle, the bottle smashes over someone’s head, beer dripping down a chin as they fall backward into clattering trash cans. A black ghetto rat, big as a cat, skitters from the rolling trash cans, glass eyes glittering at Monk as it wedges its rippling fat fur through a hole in the brick wall and disappears like some kind of plague night’s apparition: Jesus, is it his imagination or are those monsters getting bigger, gorging on who knows what kind of garbage here in soul town, trash cans full of ribs, grits, fried chicken, Old 88. Monk passes the alley, knowing that the city’s signs are sometimes more insubstantial than his spray-painted taxonomy: a fist blossoming into a probing gang sign, a stranger’s threats, a child’s angry missile, a car horn, a smashed bottle—the city’s usual progression of violence as day flees from the sway of night’s darker forces. Now, in the final, smoggy prisms of the sun, women return to these blanched apartments and besieged homes, retreating behind locked doors and barred windows and security grates: thousands of the city’s women returning from work, not men—the Negro men are gone, taken by the police, drugs, booze, the open road, games of chance, pimping, girlfriends, whores, pool halls, death—women returning to their families, to children who no longer ask about Daddy, to silences and empty spaces that deafen and blast their souls.
White concrete traffic barricades have been erected on 115th Street, channeling traffic, a detour toward Central Avenue. Already a Businessmen tag spills across a barricade, no virgin canvas of white immune from spray can and bandanna-masked face: even this graffiti has been answered, crossed out with a clashing, rebel-red swath of paint from the Slausons. Barriers Cal-Trans carefully entrenches in key sectors and corridors of the city, coordinating with LAPD not to facilitate flows of traffic but to siphon, control the grids of color: blacks and browns must stay within their quadrants of containment . . . (not yellows, Asian gangs are underground) . . . in secret command centers bunkered throughout the city, municipal controllers hunch over blinking traffic panels and monitors and cold black foam coffee cups, watching for any breaches, any vehicles that may slip beyond their vectors. Monk makes his way toward the Red Line bus stop. Better get back home: Karmann’s waiting. When it comes to women, there’s always some man waiting to take your place—better hold on to Karmann, his grounded, swollen-bellied goddess. Across the street, a derelict glares at him, silently rambling, lips sputtering, rants to himself—or is he speaking in some noiseless tongue to Monk? Candles and waxy glass jars encircle the sidewalk corner beyond the demolished stumps of the bus stop—votives left for the dead. Virgin of Guadalupe candles, glass bowls of wax painted with the crucified Christ, dried flowers, faded cards, a Popsicle-stick crucifix. But here there are darker powers mixed with the signs of light and redemption: a dirty string with three knots, seven pennies piled in a stack, an arc of white brick dust gleaming in tonight’s dusky shadows, portending a mixed warning to Monk, perhaps a path home more enigmatic and twofold than he’d like.
Monk turns right, trudging down Stanford Avenue. A brother, leaning against the sun-baked brick front of Ace Liquors, nods as Monk passes. Across the street, sunset glows and engulfs jagged rooftops and crooked antennas and looping telephone lines. The parked cars flanking him still radiate today’s pulsing heat.
Will cops and gangs let him pass? His notebook is a kind of spy’s black book for them, an intelligence coup for cops tracking the gangs’ ever-shifting territories and feared alliances, and a grail to the gangs, locked in constant war and turf incursions; so they wait, because the historian must write the history before it can be seized. He’s always been able to pass, neither black nor white, through these battle-scarred streets. In certain lights and times of day and angles of refraction he looks Caucasian, sometimes light Negro or copper. His hair is black, curled but not kinky, suspended in loops and ringlets: African, or, in other lights and to other people, disheveled or straightened; others see Mediterranean, white, Arabian—a walking Rorschach mirror that perhaps reflects more of the beholder than the subject; and the eyes forever hidden under those ebony teardrop sunglasses. His grimy red Keds step off the curb now, toward 114th Street. Monk clutches his sky-blue notebook to his sweaty chest like St. Paul with his Bible, his face, like the saint’s, wavering, darkening as he trudges into the dusk faintly smoldering with today’s last, fading light, deeper into profane pilgrimage.