A message appears on the sidewalks of a gentrifying Harlem neighborhood. It is done in white paint: “Angel Brooks Have AIDS.” It appears in a new spot every few weeks. I see white blotches where a message was belatedly blotted out by someone else.
The message is done with a paintbrush, in capital letters. The leters are messy. Dribs and drabs of paint are strung between letters showing where the brush was lifted. Someone keeps a can of white paint in their closet just for these messages. Somewhere there is a paintbrush gummed with old paint and encrusted with pebbles and sand, resting on a bit of newspaper. Who is the messenger behind this message?
Someone is attacking Angel Brooks. The white words next to Mama’s Fried Chicken are a rumor planted there. These words are a rumor immobilized on concrete. If a spoken rumor sweeps like wildfire, a fire that burns out and is then gone, this rumor is a locatable punch to the stomach. And the fist sticks in Angel’s stomach as long as the words are legible. Someone may think they are taking revenge. Presumably Angel is down, and is being kicked.
Or is the message a lie? A farmer kicks a troublesome lamb who went and got its leg broken. Maybe she does not have AIDS. Is it a punch forceful enough to create shock waves of gossip that shake peoples’ view of her? Such an action shows that there is a community of people who know her, which I am outside. Is it a hopeless attack? Is the messenger the one stricken? Perhaps the messenger in dying would like to take Angel Brooks down symbolically. This message is not meant for me. I don’t know who she is. I am an eavesdropper who cannot see either person, the painter or the target. And I only hear one side. From where I sit behind the wall of ignorance, Angel Brooks says nothing in return.
For this reason I do not think it is a lie. If it were true, Angel would be fighting back. There would be messages from her tooth and nail. Those messages would not stay there on the sidewalk for weeks on end, shouting into the air for all to see. They hang in the air, smoke from a mysterious and one-sided war.
In any case she is isolated. She is either in a hospital bed coughing, unable to blot out those brutal shouts from the sidewalk, or she is still around but shunned, with no allies to fight back in paint. I think of buying paint to shut out those visual shouts: cutting out a wild tongue let loose to lash her. I would go out at 3 am and daub the sidewalk. Passersby would still be able to make out what the message had been. But at least they would be spared the thought of someone attacked with impunity, on the sidewalk, boots in the stomach, alone at the end.
It is not my fight. That is what people say to stop someone from getting involved. I am ignorant. Who is she? Who is he? But it does not seem fair anyhow. I remember that girl getting attacked at the bus stop in California by other girls, her shirt torn. I grabbed an attacker, and tried to block another with her. I remember feeling suddenly very light: big arms from behind lifting me, swinging me through the air. A dollar fifty in change, bus fare, spattered shiny through the air out of my shirt pocket and clinked on the sidewalk. There was a warning: This aint your fight. Kids knelt and grabbed for my change. I tucked in my shirt. Everybody wanted this fight. The audience and promoter all had stakes.
I still don’t know who did what back there at the bus stop. But the whole joy in funding others’ humiliation sickened me more than the actual violence of the girls. There was the chanting: fight, fight, fight, fight. The funding was emotional. Those who invested in it, who promoted it as spectators and bouncers, did not know those girls either, beyond their names and their places in the pecking order. And yet they felt they owned the rights to the fight, like employers to employees who struggle to distinguish themselves. They owned a piece of the action. Anyone who threatened that little arrangement of proprietary authority was made an enemy of the group.
I don’t know what Angel did or was done to. But every other day I see that attack shouting from a sidewalk I feel I am being made a spectator again, against my will. I am being hit up for a contribution of silence to someone else’s humiliation. I would like to stop it: grab the painter around the waist at 3 am and swing him through the air, bucket of paint flailing all over our clothes, over the sidewalk. Only then would I see the messenger and tell him I don’t want to contribute, even passively. I would stamp dry my shoes and ask him for my change back.
Postscript: a year later, I saw one of the messages painted over and a counter message painted back: Fight AIDS, not people.