Short New York fiction story written for A Tale of Four Cities, an online literary magazine

“The Graffiti Grammarian,”
A Tale of Four Cities

Writing Portfolioon November 11th, 2011Comments Off

James Pellingham III pulled a can of spray paint from his back pocket, glanced around the street and leaned forward, frowning slightly. If any of his teachers had happened to be this far uptown on a Monday afternoon, they’d recognize this signature look of concentration as James’ math-problem face. But James wasn’t doing math.

James uncapped the paint can and shook it gently, enjoying the familiar feel of cool metal between his fingers. He released a spray of paint onto the fence, leaving steady red lines and confident swirls over the rough wood, feeling his tension ease with each push of the nozzle. Within 15 minutes, the red slashes, swirls and words wove around the old graffiti, sometimes eclipsing it but always leaving enough for his message to be clear. James surveyed his work, then flicked his wrist and tagged the wall with his small identifying signature: “Gramz.”

He knelt down and shoved the can into his backpack, jerking upright as a security guard rounded the corner. The guard eyed James suspiciously, but after taking in the teenager’s prep-school uniform and neatly combed blond hair, he shrugged his shoulders and ambled past, whistling the final notes of a Lady Gaga song and reaching into his shirt pocket for a cigarette. James looked back at his wall and breathed deeply.

Later that night, after James had left the anonymity of Spanish Harlem for the monotony of his family’s Upper West Side condo, he found himself transfixed by the pale brown slime slowly congealing on his stir-fried vegetables. Every few moments, he looked up, blushed and looked down again. After 10 minutes, Anya, the waifish new au pair, nudged him gently.

“James,” she whispered in a way James liked to think was intimate. “Your parents won’t be happy if you don’t take these.” She placed four small pills on the corner of his plate. James blushed again.

He shoved the pills in his mouth, pretended to swallow and excused himself to his room, locking the door and blaring music that was sure to make the neighbors complain. The front door slammed as his parents came home, and James heard his father’s stumbling and his mother’s laughter. He turned his music two notches louder.

Much farther downtown, in an Avenue D studio apartment above an inexpensively delicious pizza parlor, 37-year-old Carl Brandon logged onto his Google Reader. Carl, a chemistry teacher by day and imagined rebel by night, regularly followed 472 blogs, mostly related to graffiti and hip-hop. He also maintained his own website under the handle — and his graffiti tag, the one time he attempted this feat — of Bi-83, in honor of his favorite element, Bismuth. (When he selected his handle, Carl didn’t realize that years later, it would still attract a certain kind of commenter who thought he was a bisexual girl born in 1983 instead of a middle-aged chemistry enthusiast. But it was too late now.)

Carl scrolled through a few street-art websites and was happy to discover that none of them had spotted his newest find. He opened his briefcase and managed to grab his digital camera only moments before Argon hopped inside. Carl laughed and let him stay, deciding that the effort to move the obese tomcat from his favorite perch was simply too great. Carl uploaded the photos to his computer, scrolling through image after image of steady red lines and confident swirls, and composed a quick blog post describing his find.

I wandered East Harlem today in search of Target and instead came across this gem: another tag by mysterious street legend Gramz, who is known throughout the city as the Graffiti Grammarian. Famous for both great artistic style and a quick wit, Gramz “corrects” other taggers’ offensive spelling errors with a flourish akin to Picasso wielding an editor’s red pen. Both beautiful and humorous, being “Gramzed” has become the highest form of compliment a street artist can earn. These photos, taken on 123rd Street, show the tag “Kill the Skank’s” covered by Gramz’s artistic corrections. If you look closely, the graffiti was definitely done by Gramz — not by one of his ubiquitous copycats — and uses his signature advanced strokes, shading and scribbling. Seeing a Gramz original is an exciting find, especially since I never located the damn Target. –Bi-83.

Carl Brandon looked at the cat. “You get 30 more seconds, fatty,” he said, scratching Argon behind his ears. He flipped his website to the analytics page, waiting to see how long it would take before someone saw his post. Yep, pure gold. Posting anything about Gramz, especially original content, boosted his site’s performance almost instantly. Within seconds, he’d gotten 24 views. By morning, he’d have thousands of hits. He lifted Argon, closed his briefcase and turned off his laptop, yawning as he carried the cat into the bedroom.


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