Adam Lloyd Baker:
New York Graphic
he Briony Secure Care Unit for violent and emotionally disturbed teenagers was Alcatraz with Disney stickers. White cells, barred windows and teddy bears. Virgil spent a year there. He was sixteen.
Briony was a four-storey brick building in Little Odessa. The slavic locals protested when they heard a half-way house for delinquents was to open in their district, but from the shitty state of the neighbourhood Virgil couldn't see it made a difference. Every building was crudely fortified and spattered in graffiti.
At breakfast a nurse with a clipboard made her rounds distributing medication. Some children had to be tranquillized because they were gleefully homicidal when straight. They made weekly visits to an observation room where they were filmed ripping dolls limb from limb.
At least half the population of the secure unit were perpetually stoned on sedatives. Thorazine for the psychos, sodium amytal for the manics and dilaudid for anyone considered subversive. Chemical intervention was the main therapy ike centre had to offer. Quick, cheap; a short lifetime's torment erased by flooding receptors in the brain with slow, dissolving rapture. Feral children doped to submission and economical productivity.
When the nurse gave a boy medication she would check his mouth with a pen-torch to make sure he hadn't retained the capsule ready to spit it out. The kids on medication were thin because they never finished breakfast. When the tranquillizers hit they would slump in their chairs and remain immobile for the rest of the meal.
Virgil spent the day dosed on Ritalin; a speed-based psychostimulant that gave him an obsessive attention span. He enjoyed the buzz, never tried to skip his daily dose and became so trusted the nurse let him help with her rounds. Virgil loved to speak the names on the pill bottles. The -dones, -dates and -drines. Hard consonants like German.
Virgil was sent to Briony because the head of the Roman Catholic orphanage in which he stayed liked to dose the boys on alcohol and diazepam and invite them to share a shower. One day the good reverend invited Virgil to his study, unbuttoned his cassock and ordered Virgil to 'suck for Jesus'. Virgil stabbed the priest's dick with a propelling pencil. The guy was self-evidently a paedophile, but none of the inspecting bodies chose to notice. Virgil was convicted of grievous assault.
When he first arrived at Briony he was on twenty-four-hour lock-down, but after a couple of months they let him out during the day to visit the boardwalk. It took him a while to adjust to the outside world. When he went to Wendy's for coffee he found himself opposite a sign which said: NO LOITERING. THIRTY-MINUTE TIME LIMIT TO CONSUME FOOD. It was the kind of stuff that made him want to pull a gun and demand some fucking respect.
His room wasn't bad. It was sunny and freshly painted. This confused him because in his orphan status he was supposed to feel deprived and victimized, but materially he was better off than a lot of kids with parents.
He never knew why he wasn't adopted. White babies are a seller's market, so he should have been an easy trade. But things never worked out. He was fostered by an English couple who couldn't have children, but the wife started IVF treatment and found she was carrying triplets, so Virgil was dumped back at the orphanage. All he got out of that was a cool accent.
Briony was run by a thin man called Mr Whipple. He welcomed Virgil in his office when he arrived and told him about the community programme.
'Nice to have you,' said Whipple, laying a hand on Virgil's shoulder. 'We have opportunities for kids who can be trusted. Plenty of companies on our books want to give you a second chance, so tell me what line of work interests you. You don't have to answer now. You can think about it.'
Virgil didn't know what job he wanted to do. Whipple said he had an opening for a night porter at a big hotel on Second. Virgil took the job because the alternatives were sweating in a restaurant kitchen or zapping bar codes at a supermarket till.
The anti-social rota suited him because he didn't like people. The job wasn't stimulating. He worked at the Mayflower Hotel or four months, and afterwards couldn't account for the hours. He had a vague recollection of the sights and smells of the hotel but otherwise it was more wasted time. He was counting down the days until he was out of the paternal hands of the New York State Division of Youth.
He enjoyed himself on two occasions. Firstly, when he found three hundred dollars a guest had hidden in a Gideon's Bible and forgotten. Secondly, when a lady caught fire in the bar. She had a surgical dressing on her nose following plastic surgery and lit her bandages while putting a match to a cigarette. Virgil extinguished her face with beer.
Larry was the barman. That's how they met.
Walking to and from the subway was his first chance to savour the downtown lights of Manhattan. Sometimes Virgil would walk all the way down Broadway and catch the train at Union Square, just so he could enjoy the street lights. He never had any hassle on the streets and came to believe the nocturnal city was his true home.
He expected the city at night to be a violent place but the first serious incident Virgil saw occurred at the hotel.
Pitkin was an armed robber out on parole. He was a big black guy and they had him waxing cars all day and evening. There would be a row of Jaguars, Ferraris and Rolls-Royces parked down a side street next to the hotel, and Pitkin had to polish each car with an aerosol of cleaning foam. He would lean over the hood of each car, write 'CUNT' in foam, and then vigorously rub the word in with a cloth. After a while they promoted him to night porter and he shared a staff room with Virgil. His hobby was stealing hotel stationery.
'Son,' he said to Virgil, 'there are two things you should never pay for in this life. Sex and office supplies.'
Pitkin had two main gripes. The first was his feud with Schneider, the security man who guarded the foyer at night. Schneider was a cop who got invalided out of the force. He resented a crook like Pitkin working for the hotel and gave him shit at every opportunity. His petty taunts had Pitkin spluttering curses through each shift like a Tourette's case.
Pitkin's second gripe was that he had to kick back half his take home to his immediate boss in order to keep his job. The moment the money stopped his boss would phone his parole officer and say Pitkin had been caught stealing. Blackmail. The man had him by the balls. Or so Pitkin said. The story may or
may not have been true. Pitkin always said he preferred an entertaining lie to a boring truth.
One night Pitkin was on duty but wouldn't talk to Virgil. He helped Virgil push a trolley of snacks up to a suite rented by Sting and his entourage, but didn't say a word. Sting's minder gave Virgil a big tip but Pitkin wasn't interested in splitting it. He didn't seem interested in anything. He stood in the middle of the corridor staring into space for a while, then said: 'I'm sorry, man. I've tried. Lord knows I've tried.' Then he hit the fire alarm. 'Could you leave your rooms, please,' he said, banging on each door. 'This is a genuine alarm. Could you please leave your rooms and make your way to the foyer.'
The bewildered and bleary guests crowded the corridor and stairways as they made their way down to the ground floor. They cleared out and Pitkin checked each room for valuables and filled a pillow case with jewellery and cash. When he was done he made his way to the elevator, sack of stolen goodies over his shoulder like Santa, and pressed Ground. As the elevator doors slid shut he tossed Virgil a camera. Not a shitty snap-shot like he already owned but an expensive, fully manual Leica. Virgil hid it under his jacket and made his way down the stairs to the foyer.
Virgil could have alerted management to Pitkin's theft but he didn't. This wasn't due to any great affection for Pitkin. It was simply that minimum wage plus tips wasn't enough to get him involved in police shit.
Pitkin was already dead when Virgil reached the check-in desk. He was lying face down on the carpet, a blood stain creeping from under his chest. Diamonds and dollars scattered around him. Pyjama-clad tourists kept a distance. The only guy who came close was Schneider. The guard had a smoking automatic in his hand. He kicked over the corpse and spat on Pitkin's face. The dead man's eyes were closed.
Virgil never forgot the way Schneider sweated and swayed with a look of post-coital bliss on his face. He hadn't believed people could be truly evil, just fucked from the get-go like the kids at Briony. But there was evil in that man. Something black and clear and cold. After that night Virgil avoided Schneider as much as he could.
It was the first dead body Virgil had seen. When he went home he kicked himself for not having the presence of mind to take a photograph of Pitkin's corpse. He heard about a guy who videoed a Mig crashing at an air show in Nebraska and earned a fortune. A wing clipped the ground on a low level fly-past and tbe plane cartwheeled into a hanger where a Lockheed P38 Lightening was being fuelled and prepped. The explosion was so cataclysmic it registered on seismographs in the next state. A network paid the guy fifty thousand dollars for twenty-four-hour use of the footage. After that he sold it for newspaper stills and to every station who wanted it. It was like the day the Challenger shuttle blew up. A slow-mo fireball on every channel. The guy made a mountain of cash.
Pitkin wouldn't have objected if Virgil took pictures. His favourite song was the Steve Miller tune Take the Money and Run. He sang it all the time.
The next day Virgil saw a roller-blade courier get knocked down at Madison Square. The courier was clipped by a taxi, tumbled across the sidewalk and broke his leg when he hit a light pole. A snapped femur protruded from the skin of his thigh. Virgil had his new camera with him and so took a picture.
Having got the shot he then had to arrange processing. Kodak outlets wouldn't develop anything involving blood or nudity, so he had to find an independent camera store with a liberal-minded owner. He got the pictures developed, but it cost him fifteen dollars. He vowed to shoot monochrome from then on and process his own pictures at a fraction of the cost. He bought a book on developing from Barnes and Noble.
The photograph of the injured roller-blader wasn't great. It was blurred and there was insufficient detail of the leg. You couldn't see the femur properly. Something yellow protruding from blood. The blood was very red. He would later learn this was because it was well-oxygenated arterial blood. He would also learn how messy it was when people get cut up. Lots of shit and half-digested food. Globules of subcutaneous fat oozing from the skin like margarine. But all that was for the future.
Of the friends he had at Briony four got killed in gang scenarios, one got busted for stealing cars and one died with a needle in his arm. Virgil swore he would get out, he would make good and do it by thirty. He wouldn't die in the street and he wouldn't live behind bars. An easy resolution to make, but he had a stolen camera to remind him he walked a narrow line.
Excerpted from New York Graphic by Adam Lloyd Baker. Copyright © 2000 by Adam Lloyd Baker. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Anchor, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Photo credit © Brian Tarr