Tagger by Steve Studstrup


When Tagger gets back on the train to retake his position, he finds an apparently sleeping individual occupying his seat. Although the porkpie hat is obscuring his face, Tagger reckons from the white sideburns and deeply lined leathery neck that this is an old man of about 75 or 80 years, wearing a starched collared white shirt, cardigan sweater and hand tooled huaraches. He gently slides past the old man without waking him and takes the window seat. From behind he hears a voice.

{Voice 1}: Abuelito seems to be able to fall asleep at the drop of a hat these days. He can sleep through anything, too. Makes me wonder if gettin' old doesn't have some untold advantages.

{Voice 2}: Yeah man, you don't have to be so careful, like we saw you being with your piece outside there. I can tell you ain't no toy, Homes.

Tagger turns around to be confronted by two surly looking males, neither of which looked truly out of place, given the circumstances. The younger of the two, maybe in his early twenties, is wearing a hooded sweatshirt, not unlike his own, oversized dungarees and a pair of vintage Air Jordans. On his lap is a girl not more than four years old. Her frilly lavender and white party dress, white socks and blue Stride Rites do seem a bit over the top, but Tagger has two nieces who would not think so. She is furiously drawing in a sketchbook with Prisma Colors. Next to them on the aisle is an intense looking hombre with jet-black hair combed straight back, a green and yellow Pendleton buttoned to the top, designer jeans and sporting a pair of alligator Ropers. His eyes are hidden behind a pair of mirrored Ray Bans. He appears to be in the 55 to 60 range.

{Tagger}: You three from around here?

Without even opening his eyes at first, the old man next to Tagger takes the lead.

{Abuelito}: Permit me to introduce myself. My name is Armando Sifuentes.

As the old man comes to life, Tagger is looking directly into a pair of crystal clear dark brown eyes, the color of mahogany. His face is etched with the deep but gentle lines of a man who has not wasted his life sweating the small shit. Mr. Sifuentes extends a neatly manicured hand in greeting. Tagger accepts the gesture with a firm, standard handshake.

{Armando}: This is my son Robert, my grandson Jimi, and my busy granddaughter Gabriella. We are visiting Boston, Los Angeles is our home.

{Jimi}: My dad was into Hendrix.

{Robert}: Hora le, and my father was into Frost.

{Tagger}: They call me Tagger. My dad was into mobility, so I chose my own handle. Gabriella, that is a beautiful name.

The little girl is still drawing away with a focus that seems unusual for a kid that size.

{Gabriella}: Uh huh.

{Robert}: Mind your manners, mija! Mr. Tagger is probably going to feel like part of the family real soon, if I know your father and greatgrandfather.

Tagger shoots his hand over the back of the seat and in response is given one revolutionary drug bothers' passing of the dap and of course a fingertip hooking and quick release to finger snap and back to the bumping of the fists. He figures that he is amongst friends and relaxes his wolverine catch-everything-in-sight vigil just a notch or two. But not before noticing a fresh tag on the wall next to Jimi that suggests that someone was "getting up" rather recently.

{Armando}: May I explain our quest, sir? My family has come to Boston to engage my grandson's mentor in dialogue. We have come a long way so far, but it seems that our journey has taken on a circular pattern. It is our understanding that we need to transfer to the Blue Line that will take us out by the airport. Mr. Rodriguez is holding court in a warehouse near the Wood Island stop. We started out by Riverside, and were told to go downtown to transfer to the Blue. It just is not happening like my cousin said it would.

{Tagger}: Rodriguez? You are not talking about.

{Jimi}: Yeah man, Mare 139. You down?

{Tagger}: Would that explain the DCR next to you there?

{Jimi}: Disciples of Carlos Rodriguez, my crew back in Pico, man.

{Tagger}: Dude, I have spent beaucoup time in the South Bronx learning how to torment the Man by cruising the work of Mare 139. I caught up with him once or twice. Man, he told me that during the Russian Revolution, the good guys were painting entire trains, way back then.

{Jimi}: I don't know about any Russians, but I know about the Beast. Check this out.

From his back pocket, Jimi pulls out a long leather wallet chained to one of his back belt loops. He produces a worn piece of paper that shows the signs of repeated foldings. Jimi begins to read in an almost reverent tone.

there's a war raging within me
the likes of a subway battle I could not win
there is a dark tunnel within me
with tracks snaking endlessly into the dark
there before god I walk into destiny
some day here they'll find the rest of me
if only time was taken not taken away
they would understand the reasons I spray.
mare 139

{Robert}: Jimi's mother met her maker upon his arrival, but I know she would be touched seeing him share his inner self with you. Feel like part of la familia yet, esse?

Tagger begins to sense that there is a story here, and presses the old man for some history. He will soon get more than necessary for his next piece.

{Tagger}: Don Armando, I am beginning to see that your granddaughter's love of the Prisma Colors comes from somewhere other than Nickelodeon.

{Armando}: If I may bore you with insignificance of my own past, it may shed some light on the present. My father, Don Ramon de Sifuentes, was a dedicated worker in a small shop in Mexico City tirelessly producing the type of felt paintings you may still see in any bazaar on the border. However, he was more and more seduced and mesmerized by the work of one Diego Rivera, and eventually was ruined forever. He could not return to his day job, and spent the rest of his life trying to "stick it to the Man" as my son is apt to say.

{Robert}: What I am apt to say, viejo, is get on with your story. You have a captive audience. Mr. Tagger seems to be todos orejas.

{Armando}: Vamos aver, then to make a long story shorter, when my family came across, they brought with them a fire inside themselves that could not be extinguished by the dire circumstances laid upon them in Pico Rivera. I grew up an angry young pachuco and during my obligatory but brief stay in San Quentin, I learned the honorable art of ink. When I was released, my muse told me to set up shop. And today, you can know that my work is living, and not so living, on some of the toughest skin in California.

Tagger notices Robert warming to the moment, and his stoic countenance is beginning to melt. It seems that he wants in on the history lesson. His enthusiasm overtakes him as he blurts out:

{Robert}: Before I went to Nam, I too did an obligatory tour, in Soledad. My skin would show you the "14", Homes. Not the "13". La Nuestra Familia, Jack. Founding member. When I was released, Mr. RayGun gave me a choice between the halfway house and South East Asia. All I could think of was Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire.

{Armando}: My son does not need to stand next to it. His demons provide him with ample incendiary material.

{Robert}: I was in country for two weeks, when my fondness of the yesca earned me time in LBJ. The halfway house option began to look like the better of the two after 10 months in the Long Binh Jail. But the fire did not go out. When I got home, the blank walls of East L.A. became my therapist's couch.

Tagger imagines visiting L.A., and is pretty sure that he could identify Robert's work by a slightly surreal twist on the work of Rivera. The subterranean fires piece is one of his favorites.

{Jimi}: Do I have to bore you with how I chose trains as my couch?

{Tagger}: Bore away.

{Jimi}: Same old story. Local tagger sees local TV program of far off and exotic South Bronx tagger made good. Mare 139. Stars in my eyes. I had to go to New York. Dad said no, you are too young. Grandpa fronted me the dough, and off I went.

{Armando}: My son still tries to trouble me with his whining, but all I have to do is take him anywhere he chooses on the Metrolink, and he is pacified by his son's accomplishments. I can see his demons sit there and purr at the sight of Jimi's "sticking it to the man."

The scratchy overhead speaker was announcing the next stop. Tagger knew that the Sifuentes' and his path must part soon.

{Tagger}: May I see your drawing, Gabriella?

{Gabriella}: Uh huh.

The little girl hands him the sketchbook, and Tagger would have staggered were he standing. He immediately thought of the Russian matrushkas that his grandmother kept on her dresser. Across the double open pages is a somewhat hastily drawn, but nevertheless detailed account of a figure in a hooded sweatshirt, spray paint cans in both hands, just finishing a mural on the side of a railcar. He could even read "MBTA" on the top of the car and "Krylon" on the cans. This mural was a picture of another figure in another hooded sweatshirt painting a mural on a Metrolink car, most of which was a man painting a mural on a wall somewhere he could only imagine. This mural was mostly of an artist applying a full back tattoo on a woman, showing a man sitting at a small bench doing a felt painting.

{Jimi}: My daughter has been asking for the extended set of Prima Colors for her birthday. If grandpa would give her this, instead of a Greyhound ticket, maybe she wouldn't have to traipse off in search of her muse. At the age of four, that would not be safe.

The overhead croaked out "Park Street." Tagger knew this was it. He handed the sketchbook back to the little girl, with a big Thumbs Up. She went back to filling in some more of the color without a word.

{Tagger}: Ok, if you get off here, grab the Green Line, get off at Government center which is the very next stop, you can transfer to the Blue Line, and take it out to the Wood Island stop. The warehouse you are looking for is essentially right in back of the station. I would join you, but my piece is going to take me a while to finish.

As Tagger reaches to pick up his backpack, one of his cans of Krylon falls out of the pack and rolls under his seat. Jimi picks it up and as he tries to hand it back, Tagger just says:

{Tagger}: Just give it to Carlos and tell him that Tagger understands the reasons.

The train eases to a halt, the doors hiss open, and Tagger is out along the side of the car, cans in both hands, just a little bit more fired up, gettin' up with Gabriella's image.