I am Philly Dawg

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Before marrying Luddy, way back in what Luddy refers to disparagingly as Bobbi’s “interesting past,” Bobbi had been married, for not quite a year, to a boyish man named Charlton Diggins. This was back in Philly. Bobbi suspected from the beginning that Charlton was a guy of Jewish descent trying to pass himself off as a guy of Italian descent, and she’d liked that about him.

She’d suspected it was Charlton’s mother who was the X-factor, because Charlton was strangely evasive about both his mother and his mother’s side of the family. He said she was dead and Bobbi asked when, were you a child or already grown, because it might explain some things, but he’d seemed to need a few seconds to decide what was what before answering her. Or maybe it’s how your mind freezes when you’re talking to a Customs Official, but Bobbi wasn’t a Customs Official, she was Charlton Diggins’s newlywed bride, Roberta Gertrude Fortneaux Diggins, and he was obviously, touchingly, making it up, the line about his mother died in child birth. Charlton tried to pass off his three-second pause of invention as grief but Bobbi assumed it was shame and that Charlton’s mother was a Jewess maybe living right there in Philadelphia. He had that look about him, and Philadelphia was the kind of city in which you might lie about something like that in 1977.

The black roofs of the gray row-homes in Germantown are slick as rain hats in the fog at daybreak. Mornings in Philly can seem like classical mornings in a seaport and you do glimpse errant gulls sometimes, spiraling over rotted weathervanes and the witchy black fingers of Prussian spires. Bobbi loved the 19th century row-homes of Germantown with their bracketed cornices and flat roofs, built of Wissahickon schist. She tried sketching a block of these immaculately painted row-homes on a mostly black street from a corner bus stop one morning but found it was more pleasurable to look than draw. Three mornings in a row she tried and failed. The final morning of that little project she had an episode with some frisky black kids toting book bags shouting, “Draw me!” “Draw me!” “Hey lady, draw me!”

Three minutes felt like hours. They left Bobbi with a frozen grin and a racing heart when the SEPTA bus finally wheezed to a halt at the stop and took the little devils away. The blouse under her nylon windbreaker was soaking with sweat. Why did these kids scare her so? They were just kids.

Bobbi was 26 when she met her future first husband, 26 and feeling old and anxious to get married. No lines yet on her face, hair still dense and shiny, figure Huck-Finnish if tall. She wasn’t living at home with her parents, she was set up in a leafy little back-of-the-building apartment on Penn Street about a ten minute walk to the three storey house of her birth, on Queen Lane, where she was expected to stop by a few times a week, vulnerable to the pressure to do so by dint of being single and without a career.

Bobbi just didn’t have it in her to pretend to be too busy to visit her depressing parents. All of her school friends had 5-year-old sons and careers and Bobbi had a part time job and an easel. She rarely watched television. She was trying to be a painter, devouring winsome biographies of Picasso and Chagall and Modigliani over canned ravioli for dinner and then painting in stinkless, unserious acrylic well into the strangely suburban Philadelphia night by candle light, listening to the thick shiver of the breezed leaves of the Elms and the hourly clatter of the number 26 trolley up Wayne avenue and the lonely attenuated bark of a dog in another neighborhood. The dog became her mascot and her familiar. You bark and I paint. We are faithful to our given tasks while the lockstep world is sleeping.

Working in an art supply store, Bobbi was plugged into an endless source of children and old women with projects and hobbies but never had the serious art conversations with up and coming painters she’d dreamed of when applying for the job. Where were the up and coming painters of Philly buying their supplies? Were they all grinding their own pigments? She could well imagine that buying commercial tubes of paint was some kind of uncool capitulation in the eyes of artistic geniuses and that’s how she began to think of herself: the timid kind of amateur who not only used tubes of store-bought paint but had a part-time job in the store she bought them in.

The only thing Bobbi had going for herself artistically speaking was monomania. She knew that much about art, that monomanias are good. Versatility is show-offy and evolution is craftsmanlike but monomania bespeaks the psychological disturbances that average citizens and patrons of the art expect worthwhile artists to suffer. Over and over again she painted her hieroglyphic of the barking dog, mouth open and tail straight back. The dog was either barking or howling.

Eventually she worked with Krylon spray paint and a cardboard stencil for iconic mass-produced accuracy, but the fumes indoor were too much so she sprayed outside, in the back yard, with the canvases propped against the hurricane fence, which began looking geometrically diseased with partial rectangles of various colors. Bobbi got the bold inspiration one humid, meteorologically backed-up evening to just keep on going through the fence gate and down the alley with the spray can and the stencil and do it on a nearby office building. Just an unobtrusive and enigmatic silhouette in black metallic spray paint on the building’s cornerstone, right next to the A.D. MCMXXXVII, the execution of which produced in Bobbi’s skull the soft pop of an artistic breakthrough orgasm. A middle aged (in her mind) white (to all appearances) middle class (irrefutably) graffitist. One of those things where it suddenly hits you you’ve been heading this direction all along. Your whole life.

Spraying on public structures at 3am was an intensely sexual thrill for her…like a skin change operation she could undo every daybreak and re-do every night…it was like having Velcro’d genitals; a black set and a white set for night and day respectively. The black set of course male.The risk was distinct considering Frank Rizzo’s notorious graffiti-hating cops and here she was, suddenly engaging them on their territory, or at least trafficking in their milieu, while her old Main Line school friends with proper careers and lyrically named 5 year olds and nannies were only reading about the brutality and strife in the morning papers and tut-tut-tutting over their sectioned grapefruits. This city is becoming a multicultural trash basket. In a way her long lost school chums were all now hearing from Bobbi, picking up her vibrations in the ether as she added her note to the million-note chord of the streets that frightened them above and below the range of conscious human hearing.

Something about becoming some kind of measurable graffiti presence in Germantown, Philadelphia, triggered in Bobbi thoughts more serious and curious about black kids. They scared the hell out of her, no matter how much safely-distant concern or affection she managed to scrape up for them from her wholly other sphere. Why? Black kids scared the hell out of her and scared the hell out of others like her as well as others unlike her and even other black kids, too. Part of it was just the fearsomeness of kids, period; everyone in America is afraid of American kids because kids have a worldview and a budget and spending power which dictates much of the look of the modern world, certainly commercial spaces, arguably private space also, and that’s power enough to be afraid of. And beneath that the deranged impulsiveness, the famous cruelty, the avid gift in the art of wounding truths…

Which would seem to sum it up but if you come across two or three white youngsters in an urban setting it’s not an intrinsically frightening experience. It’s frightening if you call them juveniles but not if you call them youngsters. But if you refer to black kids as youngsters you’re not being wholly sincere: what you mean is juveniles. And that is a scary word.

Black kids were by no means the majority of the population in that integrated neighborhood called Germantown but they were the main unspoken topic of discussion. Condensed vectors of guilt and anarchy. Once you’ve made a serious mark or painted illicitly on public space you never again look at public space the same; you find yourself seeing lots of unmarked, unused, image-ready surfaces where before you saw banal or forbidding municipal order. Crossing that line is liberating but also feels like mess-making and the constant struggle to rein it in. The sense of “public” versus “private” vanishes completely after the first few times you cross that line and Bobbi realized that poor black kids with cans of shoplifted Krylon had become the psychological landlords of massive tracts of real estate simply by labeling it. Without bothering to write doctoral thesises on the topic they explored the limits of appropriation, grasping with a collective intuition that property law is the white man’s graffiti and by writing over the writing they have amended it. The white man’s graffiti is fine print. Imagine graffiti all over the White House. It wouldn’t be the White House any more.

Bobbi’s own self-esteem skyrocketed after she became a clandestine trademark on the blank spots of her neighborhood and as a side-effect acquired another valuable secret to add to her repertoire, becoming even less knowable to her mother and her friends and so much more knowable to herself. Not that she was as one with those juveniles with their gang code juvenilia, advertising in the glyph of the gonad. She was doing it in her own well-educated pretty white woman way with a neat little stencil and a smirk.

Her apotheosis as a graffitist in her neighborhood of Germantown, Philadelphia arrived the Tuesday afternoon she’d hired two kids, two twelve or thirteen year old black kids who lived in her building and should have been in school but weren’t…kids just sitting on the back steps right outside her bedroom window making, what, trucks or motorcycles or super-heroes-battling noises…she hired them for five dollars apiece to come in and haul her old sofa bed out to the curb. Just to shut them up. Even though what would she sleep on before she bought the next one?

They filed in through her screen door with sheepish grins and asymmetrical afros, weirdly embarrassed, she guessed, to be alone in an intimate space with an attractive young white woman; they were over-polite yet precociously sexual; and she offered them each a glass of powdered lemonade mix before delegating who would tackle which end of the sofa bed. Yes ma’am, thank you ma’am, they said, and Bobbi entered the kitchen, a move that took no more than a sidestep, and she heard the taller, thinner boy say to the stockier darker one, in a stage whisper, “Check it out, she rippin’ off Philly Dawg!”

Ripping off Philly Dawg. Bobbi peeped back into the living room, while the tap water ran, to see the boys stooped over the stack of her original barking dog canvases leaning against the radiator. She couldn’t believe it; her first acknowledgement; she did a little dance in the kitchen. Philly Dawg?

When Charlton Diggins came into Germantown Graphic Supply the next day, Bobbi was still so jazzed in the unrevealed guise of Philly Dawg that she parlayed the man’s shy query about piñata-making (he was a substitute teacher) into coffee and cheesecake at the Maplewood mall, her treat. There was something about this gangling Charlton, she thought. Trying to pass himself off as Italianate when in fact he was almost certainly a Jew. She liked how vulnerable and literary that made him seem. She liked how open-minded it made her feel. She imagined saying with a breezy Norman Lear sitcom inflection, “Honey, I don’t give a damn if you’re a Zarathustran as long as you don’t pick your nose or wear my panties,” in response to his tearful confession. All in good time, she counseled herself. All in good time.

Bobbi would stand in the autobiographies aisle of Paige Turner’s, the Chestnut Hill bookshop, one among a half dozen Madras-shirt-wearing graduate-school-age white women on the premises, thinking: I am Philly Dawg.

The day before inviting master Diggins over to her apartment for the first time ever, she’d hidden all the art paraphernalia, hidden or destroyed all the old paintings, because she had an absolute horror of seeing herself as some kind of pathetic would-be artist through her man-boy’s eyes. Better to present herself as unapologetically shop girlish. Defiantly boho shabby genteel. An espresso-drinking, highly literate, flat-broke style snob. The barking dog stencil and the three or four cans of Krylon she secreted in a big canvas purse with a curved bamboo handle and vivid threadbare bowls of fruit stitched on each side her mother had given her after a Golden Wedding Anniversary trip she took alone to Nassau, in the Bahamas. The stuffed canvas purse Bobbi kept in the basement.

After the wedding, Bobbi forgot all about her life as an irony-cloaked municipal art guerilla for all of six months, or until the honeymoon was irremediably over. It was definitively played out, the honeymoon, when the sex lost all of its unprecedentedness and entered the workaday schedule inked in for Monday evenings following CBS’s The Jeffersons. Once a week sex on a rigid schedule. At which point Philly Dawg soon found herself at it again, sneaking out at all hours of the night during her husband’s deeply effort-wracked postcoital sleep. Kicking and twitching. What inner-conflict was the poor wretch rehashing unresolved every night? At whose eidolon was he twitching and whimpering? Surely not Bobbi’s.

Sneaking out with an adulterer’s thrill, she claimed new buildings, new streets, and kelly-green awnings became attractive to her. Kelly-green, brick-red and royal blue. Hotels, pricier restaurants and funeral homes. She noticed that nobody had thought of doing the awnings yet and she did them so neatly that her work looked like discreet corporate logos on the projection flaps. In the beginning, she’d found faking orgasms with her newlywed husband to be an erotic experience but spraying projection flaps soon replaced that.

She got to the point that the end credits reprise of the sitcom’s theme song made her shoulders tense and her vagina very dry. Knowing that her husband would soon be reaching across to switch off that little lamp on the night table on her side of the double bed. Conjugal duty: the phrase started life as a chauvinism-lampooning joke between them and morphed into something more hideous every time it went unspoken. Six months: it flew by like a week that took an eternity and turned out to be the actual extent of their marriage. Trial period. Bobbi began rehearsing that phrase. Philly Dawg began targeting the 26 trolley. Taking therapeutic risks.

Therapeutic risks in the dead of night and Charlton’s interminable tales of Charlton Diggins, blue-eyed crusading substitute school teacher over dinner and The Jeffersons on Monday: that was her married life. This is what I got married for? She’d sit there nodding while he gestured emphatically. Relating in great anecdotal detail how dumb the kids could be while regularly gushing the liberal alibi of how smart they were. These kids are so smart, Bobbi. Running his hands through his curly ash-colored hair and then cupping his face in them. And that other liberal bromide that Bobbi takes exception to and wanted to correct Charlton over every time he uttered it: children are the future. No, children are not the future they are the past…the elderly are the future.

She found herself slipping more and more Yiddish into their dinner time conversations. She found herself placing a box of Matzoh on top of the refrigerator. A secondhand copy of the Bernard Malamud Reader on top of the toilet tank. She wanted that confession. She needed it soon.

Even the shock of the size of Charlton’s penis had devolved from delight to dread via a transitory phase of familial boredom, and her childhood gag reflex came back in spades. She reminisced fondly about tongue depressors. She’d get cold tears in her eyes and see stars. Performing it felt like a sorority hazing.

The only value at all Bobbi could find in Charlton’s favorite show The Jeffersons was in the marriage of Helen and Tom Willis, secondary characters, television’s first interracial couple. They were metaphysically privy, in a Jungian sense, to Bobbi’s racial secret and she nurtured the imaginary rapport, turning their straight lines into insights. Charlton would belly-laugh at George Jefferson’s zebra taunts and Bobbi would narrow her eyes.

Christmas Eve the year they married the sky was a low ceiling and the air was a loom of fluff, the flakes falling so densely they didn’t appear to be falling at all but rather stacked or even rising in air, muffling sound and holying the street and haloing the streetlights, and it was the scintillating spaces between the flakes themselves that seemed to be falling cold and invisible to earth. Bobbi put Charlton to bed early with goose and a handjob and bundled up and was out in it on the perfectly deserted streets in her Dostoevskian greatcoat, relishing the spectacle.

Just her alone on the blinded streets, the padded cell of the night, everything cold and swollen and soft…the only intense little burning pattern of color coming from the traffic lights changing from green to yellow to red with post-apocalyptic poignancy. The only sound was Bobbi’s frosted breath and Bobbi’s crunching boots. Even that distant neighborhood dog, the prototype of her graphic mission, her lone inspiration and spirit familiar, was silenced out there in the fused horizon, painted out under blankness. She thought of the word Leningrad as she set herself like an italic exclamation mark against the crumbling wind as it picked up, tickling and numbing her face. Up Penn to Wakefield, south on Wakefield for thirty minutes straight to Garfield, north on Garfield to Wister Woods Park. It’s a Christmas Eve blizzard and the only marks in the deep snow besides Bobbi’s gashing footprints are clover-shaped rabbit tracks printing the path leading into the park’s southern entrance like a whimsical invitation from the spirit of the park itself.

Entering the park from its north entrance is a tall, well-built 17 year old black boy in a brand new camouflage parka from the Army Surplus store on Chestnut Street, hood down, dark face vivid in the snowlight. The black boy outweighs Bobbi by a good thirty or forty pounds, as slender as he is (and as tall as she is), and if she were to find herself walking towards him on a dark street her dread of his approach would be incalculable and only properly described in physiological terms. But as it is she spies him from a comfortable vantage in a thicket on a hill, on her belly, laying up a snow dune in her greatcoat, bundled under the coat in itchy sweaters, peering over the top of the little hill. Watches him pick a fluff-upholstered bench under the white canopy of ancient oak and elm branches that half-shelter them both from the wind-shot snow. If she were a member of the Wehrmacht’s snow patrol and he were a Leningrad partisan she could lob a grenade over the thicket right into his lap.

The secret proximity to such a figure of terror is perversely delicious, even better than watching a panther in a zoo because here there are no bars and the panther doesn’t know he’s being watched. What’s he doing here? Sitting on a bench in a blizzard in Wister Woods Park. This big kid glowing black in the shadowed snowlight and the frozen trees making that occasional gun crack sound from the matrix of branches. He’s sitting there like Buddha in a snow globe.

He is thinking. Thinking back over the events of the evening. Just sitting and thinking all alone in the park while snow falls and kids all over Philly are dreaming in the aftermath of A Charlie Brown Christmas or The Grinch or Rudolph (Frosty the Snowman doesn’t rate a mention; Frosty is bullshit) or whichever cartoon perennial was on tonight. Innocent little kids who play stick ball in the summer and toboggan on flattened cardboard boxes down hills like the hills in the park here in winter and know not a thing about the pleasures and terrors of the real world. You think tobogganing down a steep hill on a flattened cardboard box is terrifying? You think it’s fun? Kid, you have no idea. Trust me. Sleeping furiously after the cartoons through the unbearable suspense of what did I get on Christmas morning. Only the cartoons as the years go by will definitely mean more to you than the toys you got the next morning; more than the train set, the GI Joe, everything.

His favorite will always be the Burl Ives-narrated stop-animation Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer… due mainly to the character Clarice, the sweet little big-eyed reindeer with the white girl voice who remains faithful to the outcast Rudolph despite his freakishness. Despite the deformation of his glowing nose. Even Rudolph’s parents are ashamed of him and treat him like shit.

High point of the show is when Clarice sings to Rudolph there’s always tomorrow for dreams to come true. He’s seen Clarice sing this song to Rudolph what…ten times? Once a year since he was seven or something. He missed it the year before last because he felt it appropriate at fifteen to have outgrown such frippery but sure enough the very next year his ass was on that corduroy sofa in front of the color television and he misted up a little, careful to hide the childish reaction, when it came time for Clarice to sing. Well this year he guesses he really was too old for Clarice’s song of hope because he missed the show not for psychological reasons but because he was too busy fucking his 54 year old aunt, and if that’s not too grownup for cartoons, what is? Knocking on the door to his room in her transparent nightie holding a candle and with no underwear on going Merry Christmas.

The young man has a lot to think about. Even the categories of the thoughts he must think are many, from humorous (the way she’d kept whispering, gasping, with fake mounting panic, what are you doing? What are you doing? And he’d had a thought to shout I’m cleaning the rain gutters, what does it look like I’m doing?), to the philosophical (did he fuck her or did she fuck him?), to the scientific (what possible purpose could evolution find in making a 17 year old boy want to copulate with a woman beyond childbearing age?), to the moral (should I be ashamed? Should she? Should both of us?), to the legal (what if somebody finds out and reports it?). He imagines himself writing a love poem to his 54 year old Aunt and it makes him sick to his stomach. Well that’s the worst aspect of this whole situation. Nobody to write a love poem for. Nobody from whom to receive one.

Bobbi thinks: what’s that sound? Is the big black boy sitting on that bench there in a blizzard in Wister Park with his shoulders heaving…is he sobbing?

When her father revealed their secret to her while sitting among soft shreds of his own semen in the bathtub, 17-year-old Bobbi absorbed the news with only the slightest lurch of disorientation. This is a girl who could light a cigarette in a hurricane, she was thinking. She didn’t become suddenly and extraordinarily invested in Black History; she didn’t even become a self-hating Negrophobe in a wounded psychotic sense. She calmly folded the information about her particle of blackness into a corner of her deepest self for future delectation. It gave her strength to know that she and her father both knew what her mother didn’t know…both knew that her mother didn’t know.

For giving her that, if for nothing else, Bobbi was grateful to him, pathetic as his need for sedative bathtub handjobs was. All daughters crave a secret with Daddy they can call their very own and some think it’s incest until it happens but in Bobbi’s case the incest wasn’t a secret, it was part of the culture of their nuclear family. The real secret was so much bigger than that.

The kid is definitely crying.

Being a veteran (she refused the word victim) of incest explained nothing about her. But being an octoroon explained the strange prettiness she couldn’t have inherited from any known member of either side of her family: her aptitude for perfect tans and her incongruously full lower lip and the rich thick wave of her buttery hair…it all made perfect sense now, solving a riddle she hadn’t even realized was driving her nuts. The mirror finally made sense to her. Her mirror finally fit. Bobbi, 27, would stand in line at the Whole Truth Co-Op with other Birkenstock-wearing white women buying lentils in three pound sacks, thinking, I am Philly Dawg.

Belly-down in her great coat on the snow dune that night in Wister Park like one of Rommel’s soldiers in North Africa, only with chattering teeth and no binoculars, up on that little hill spying down on the big sobbing black boy, Bobbi was thinking I am Philly Dawg. How many years since she has thought that?

Her first husband Charlton came stumbling up from the basement in a Eureka state one day while she was napping off lunch on the new sofa bed; he burst into the living room swinging the dusty old canvas purse from Nassau crying “You? It’s you? You’re Philly Dawg?”

He’d been in the basement looking for stuff for a Valentine’s Day project, and Bobbi was horrified at how cutesy-fied she suddenly felt; how patronized; how utterly destroyed the meaninglessly cool thing she’d been devoting herself to for months became in her incompatible husband’s fuckface knowledge of it. How small. He knelt by the sofa bed and cupped his face in his hands and said, “I have a confession to make, too.”

She divorced him soon after the revelation. Not, of course, because he’d confessed to being a Negro. But that was definitely her excuse.

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