28 Nov


The two women looked across a landscape of vacant lots filled with years of stratified deposits – the age of house garbage, the age of construction debris and vandalized car bodies, the age of moldering mobster parts. Weeds and trees grew amid the dumped objects. There were dog packs, sightings of hawks and owls. City workers came periodically to excavate the site and they stood warily by the great earth machines, the pumpkin-mudded backhoes and dozers, like infantry-men huddled near advancing tanks. But soon they left, they always left with holes half dug, pieces of equipment discarded, styrofoam cups, pepperoni pizzas. The nuns looked across all this. There were networks of vermin, craters chocked with plumbing fixtures and sheetrock. There were hillocks of slashed tires laced with thriving vine. Gunfire sang at sunset off the the low walls of demolished buildings. The nuns sat in the van and looked. At the far end was a lone standing structure, a derelict tenement with an exposed wall where another building had once abutted. This wall was where Ismael Muñoz and his crew of graffitti writers spray-painted a memorial angel every time a child died in the neighborhood. Angels in blue and pink covered roughly half the high slab. The child’s name and age were printed under each angel, sometimes with cause of death or personal comments by the famly, and as the van drew closer Edgar could see entries for TB, AIDS, beatings, drive-by shootings, measles, asthma, abandonment at birth – left in dumpster, forgot in car, left in Glad Bag stormy night.

This area was called the Wall, partly for the graffiti facade and partly the general sense of exclusion – it was a tuck of land cut adrift from the social order.

“I wish they’d stop already with the angels,” Gracie said. “It’s in totally bad taste. A fourteenth-century church, that’s where you go for angels. This wall publicizes all the things we’re working to change. Ismael should look for positive things to emphasize. The townhouses, the community gardens that people plant. Walk around the corner you see ordinary people going to work, going to school. Stores and churches.”

“Titanic Power Baptist Church.”

“What’s the difference – it’s a church. The area’s full of churches. Decent working people. Ismael wants to do a wall, these are the people he should celebrate. Be positive.”

Edgar laughed inside her skull. It was the drama of angels that made her feel she belonged here. It was the terrible death these angels represented. It was the danger the writers faced to produce their graffiti. There were no fire escapes or windows on the memorial wall and the writers had to rappel from the roof with belayed ropes or sway on makeshift scaffolds when they did an angel in the lower ranks. Ismael spoke of a companion wall for dead graffitists, flashing his wasted smile.

“And he does pink for girls and blue for boys. That really sets my teeth on edge,” Gracie said.

They had stopped at the friary to pick up groceries they would distribute to the needy. The friary was an old brick building wedged between boarded tenements. Three monks in gray cloaks and rope belts worked in an anteroom, getting the day’s shipment ready. Grace, Edgar and Brother Mike carried the plastic bags out to the van. Mike was an ex-fireman with a Brillo beard and a wispy ponytail. He looked like two different guys front and back. When the nuns first appeared he’d offered to serve as a guide, a protecting presence, but Edgar firmly declined. She believed her habit and veil were safety enough. Beyond these South Bronx streets people may look at her and think she is a quaintness of ages past. But inside the strew of rubble she was a natural sight, she and the robed monks. What figures could be so timely, costumed for rats and plague?

Don Delillo
Underworld, 1997


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