As a toddler, I appeared barefoot and blinking at his rat's nest and Shep tapped me for a more conspicuous routine. He said, "What can you do?" The rest of the road rats, witnessing my mute reaction, laughed uproariously. Shep reached out to see what was up. He could not believe his hands. I had screwed legs up behind shoulders, crossed ankles at the back of my neck, and left fabulous feet flapping above my head. "Holy cow!" said Shep, squeezing, "they're thick as tenderloins!" I can't remember where I learned that early trick, but my performance proves I already knew the props were show-worthy. My feet were, in fact, huge, but as an infant I was unashamed. They seemed separate, like shoes, although I knew they were not removable. They were two long dogs that followed me everywhere I went.
A true scavenger, Shep kept a mental index of everything he had ever picked out of the trash. He sent a veteran rat to go fetch an old pair of enormous sports shoes from his dumpster-dive archive. My eyes lit up. They were so oversized they might have belonged to a circus clown. Bright red fabric uppers extended all the way to laced high-tops. Red ankles bore emblems commemorating a long lost Century-20 legend whose legacy had likely been buried beneath a host of successors' in the annals of the Basketball Hall of Fame. Here at the apex of retro footwear the name remained conspicuously inscribed in stitched script: Chuck Taylor. It was a perfect fit. Shep showed me how to tie them and I took them for a spin, divulging my nearsightedness by bumping into the wall. Belying blindness, Shep had selected optometry for a hobby. He memorized charts and dispensed from his sidewalk stand of looted lenses by correlating chart readings with drawers organized by prescription. Shep set me up with a pair of thick, vintage frames. The glasses, together with the sneakers, made our Cinderella story complete.
From the start, we enjoyed a filial rapport, Shep with his tactile acuity and me with my phenomenal flexibility. Flipping bottle caps back and forth at our first rehearsal, we shared a natural rhythm, syncopated and contrapuntal. Shep sightless and threadbare; I, nearsighted and, by my infancy, effectively deaf and dumb: Together we had just the right chemistry for street theater.
Earlier that day, one of the rats had pilfered a case of ginseng juice. Shep counted the empties he had amassed, decided to call me Eddie for eight, and we began feeling our way through a rudimentary routine.
"Step right up!" Shep called on the Common. "It's Baby Eddie, preschool pretzel-boy!" I puttered around on the heels of my hands, grinning goofily at anyone whose attention strayed, sneaks flopping like crimson elephant ears.
"Deux grandes baguettes!"
"Zwei grösses Bröt!"
"Will you look at those tootsies!"
"Take a minute out for mini-magic!" Shep barked. We drew droves of dupes to our spot among the mandrakes by the stump of the old hanging tree, our only props a pair of miniature steel manacles, a shrunken straitjacket, and a mysterious box beneath a sheet. "It's the babe in bondage!" Shep invited a spectator to shackle me. No sweat—or rather, lots of it. When in duress, I perspired profusely, especially at my hands and gargantuan feet. In ten seconds I was twirling those cuffs on the tip of one finger.
"Time for a pint-sized parlor trick,” Shep bellowed. “Who'll loan Eddie a thousand-dollar bill?" People reached for G-spots. Nonchalantly, I tore the note in half—ouch!—and effected an instantaneous repair: ah! "See: same serial numbers!"
When the buzz told Shep he had assembled a good-sized gallery, he slapped them with the bondage routine. "Baby Eddie defies the confounding kiddy camisole!" Over my head went that cuffless canvas shirt, size: small/chico. I was fettered, crossed sleeves tied behind my back. Shep invited the volunteer to tighten the straps. Pointing blindly in my vicinity, Shep cried, "Eddie's been a bad boy—let's put him in the crib!" Off came the sheet at Shep's feet. What lay beneath was less like a cradle than a diver's cage, the kind that keeps out sharks. The crowd-in-the-round, built to the size that begins making cops nervous, shouted multilingual maledictions in sympathy with my organ-grinder melodrama.
"¡Es algo cruel!"
"Tas ir divas smirdigas desas!"
A rat had found the old lobster trap washed up beneath the dilapidated docks of Inner Harbor. I climbed in. Shep padlocked the top and draped the sheet back over the crate. Buckles clinking, bars rattling, the struggle began. "No way the wound-up wonder child can get out of this one!" A couple of rat assistants hauled the whole contraption over to the edge of the Frog Pond and heaved me in. Portentous bubbles rumbled up from turgid turquoise depths. The Frog Pond's only a few feet deep, but as Shep would say, forebodingly, "It only takes a teaspoon."
I would like to be able to say that my public went wild, but that was not the timbre of the times. I did not stupefy, but instead mesmerized the audience by my simple contortions, handcuff manipulation, and box tricks. It was stuff that had been around for centuries. In oglers' glazed expressions I detected the dim glimmer of recognition: The tip knew he had seen this sideshow before, or at least that it was common currency in the collective unconscious; but so too was it in his genetic programming to stop and gawk, jaw dropped, while I went through a routine, however amateurish, that I performed with devotion. Pedestrians sensed this and stayed. Most of these working stiffs were just trudging between two drudgeries: family and job, job and second job, ad nauseam. That they paused to soak up a show from a freak like me demonstrated they needed a little felicitous fallacy, anything to distract them from the daily drear that remained constant in the noisy bowels of the Beast (which was, incidentally, the only way Shep referred to the cruel metropolis), each rev and beep another sour note of the feast in which we were all mere morsels. The audience wanted illusion, and they aided me toward the end of effecting their deception. Executed with affection, a delicate diversion was welcome escape from the hard honesties of the day-to-day.
Perspiration, the universal lubricant, had allowed me to slip those shackles—which I had made sure were cinched far up on the thick parts of forearms—over wrists without a scrape. Cleaving the G had required only a concealed decoy and a canny mouth sound. Most of the straitjacket escape had been accomplished before the trap got tossed in the drink. I inflated my chest (even a kid can get a good pint of air in there) and tensed my arms the instant before the pigeon pulled the straps. When the getaway was underway, I relaxed, exhaled, and stole a good two inches of maneuvering room. Grasping is the child's legendary first reflex, but while my more fortunate contemporaries kept busy grabbing plastic baubles whenever daddy got rattled, I applied a child's prodigious grip to metal buckles and leather cuffs. Thus, concentrating pincer power through thick sailcloth, I freed one arm and then the other. As for the cage, some things are secrets of the trade. I, quicker than the quotidian eye and dripping wet, spirited out from under the soggy sheet and tossed off the rattling restraints, bowing to hollers and applause.
Shep narrated my entire routine, hawk, gawk, and pass-the-hat. It was never too hard to find suckers ready to throw a few coins for this kind of thing. Old-timers like Shep remembered the boom days when there were bills for everything down to the dollar and a C was considered a lot of dough, but before I was born there had been the Age of Deregulation, the Double-O Devaluation, the Great Privatization, and all the other market affectations that left the wealthy one percent mean and miserly and the rest of us pretty much impoverished. Now it was a self-serve world and anything less than a hundred was small change. A twenty meant a pleased patron. Tens were most common, token appreciation for a few minutes of street theater. Fives were almost an insult. A dull, dun-colored Sacagawea slug was something a self-respecting street performer might leave behind.
Shep kept everyone idling until it was time for me to scramble for the jingling metal confetti, detaining them with his trademark slogan, which lulled even the sharpest cynics with its matter-of-fact ingenuousness: "What have you got to lose?" The point was: plenty. While Shep and I supplied distraction, the other rats marked the pigeons in the pack. Every moment of the show was carefully orchestrated to provide the claque with statistics on the quarry. When Shep asked for a thousand, the rats watched not only the one who supplied the Clinton, but all those who felt for their purses or wallets. This told us who was holding enough to consider contributing a bill. With the pedestrians-turned-patrons pressing close in a circle, I amazed and astounded while my orphan siblings conspired to lighten the burden of select pockets. When the show was over and the crowd dispersed, our agents tailed their marks out from the axis along their trajectories across the hub.
Lucky for us rats was the widespread alienation among the plebitude stocking our pantries. It would have blown the lid off our operation entire if on any given weekday a handful of the picked pockets and grabbed bags of the Beast had gotten together and, after some small talk, discovered what they all had in common: Baby Eddie's spectacle shortly before the take.
Since the beginning, I had understood the practices surrounding my pediatric profession to be a little unorthodox, but I managed to convince myself that, however bastardized by my orphan brothers to promote the conditions of easy crime, my prestidigitation preserved its integrity. Besides, growing into it as I had from an impressionable age, the career appeared to me not just as the only possible job, but as a sort of calling.
The Beast was one big Chinatown that had sprawled into South Station, the financial district, and what had formerly been known as the North End. Sooty, sparking skyscrapers loomed above our barrel-bottom dominion in ominous, opulent decadence, but you can bet a road rat never stopped to notice their gothic majesty. It was not in our wiring to admire, much less look up. So little sunlight filtered down to the street that reds and yellows got subtracted from the spectrum. If a helicopter ran out of juice, missing all the pads on the way down, and let a rich man descend upon the Beast, the city might seem to him like some awesome Atlantis, the indigo hues that come along with plumbing the deepest troughs like sinking into an altogether-other medium.
We rats were kept busy running errands, picking pockets, and bringing Shep meals in exchange for nothing but room and board, an occasional keep-the-change, and frequent epistemological floggings, which were as close as we got to affection. Nevertheless, Shep provided for his orphan cadets in a cozy, condemned candy factory beside the channel at Fort Point. After an old sign on the roof that had lost a letter or two, rats called his flophouse the Nec—rhymes with "mess". Gone were the days when homelessness had been more or less an exception and the most destitute had had access to shelters, group homes, orphanages, and adoption programs. Health care had become something for the ultra-rich. For rats, medical attention meant fly-by-night storefronts operated by drunken quacks with expired licenses who were nevertheless enough in demand to require all-day waits. Prevention meant not letting oneself get run over or shot. Shep was pretty fair compared to the dozen or so alternatives available to boys in the Beast. (Although occasionally a pack master might arrange a back-alley mixer with a matron and her mice, there were no coed crews. Guardians for both genders agreed packs produced more income without the drama of that most distracting difference.) By enlisting with Shep, we knew we could depend on him to supply the basic necessities: a leaky roof, our daily grub, and a bed of old Globes. Pack masters were beholden to a big cheese in Jersey who managed operations throughout the entire Northeast. He called himself Apple Jack, and he made sure everyone on the street understood that words wouldn't rhyme and the sun wouldn't rise without AJ's say-so.
On weekends at the Nec there was school. In the Beast, Saturdays and Sundays were zero-volume days for road rats: worse, they could be liabilities. Not only did S-day operations fail to produce rat revenue, they increased the risk of even the best getting caged. There was a fraction of the scratch on the streets, but just as many badges soaking up overtime. Most other masters gave packs the weekend off, which was how fidgety kids got into trouble with drugs, violent rivalries, or extraneous operations, but on those two consecutive days with the pair of cherished names, while children of fortune spent outrageous allowances on expensive toys, Shep's rats recited Shakespeare and plotted algebraic operations. Other packs poked fun at our school days, but among those rats literacy was limited to a few street names and mathematics was capped at the fingers: ten for the boss, one for me.
After breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays, Shep would rattle his favorite prop, a tin cup blooming with a fresh bouquet of colored pencils, and call roll. Anyone absent was locked out that night. Attendance was invariably 100 percent, although I remember one time a new kid tried getting away with having his name called by a stoolie. The other pupils had not so much as snickered; still, the stooge went down with the truant. "Does Scotch Ronny sound that much like Papo the Bullet to you," Shep had said to the class, "or just because I'm blind you think I'm deaf and stupid, too?" Ten seconds of terrified silence. The brash newcomer, who would later become a magnificent critic of French existentialism, stepped out from the stairwell. He had perhaps been prepared for exposure, but certainly could not have foreseen the consequences. What would it be? Detention? Expulsion? No: Leaning on the easel, Shep told Papo to take his seat. The boss let a single tear drop damply from beneath his ebony shades. All the rats brooded silently through Shep's unusually subdued lecture. It took the entire morning for a great, avocado-sized pit of sadness to dissolve in my throat.
Shep started us on basic lessons of grammar and math and took off from there. As he saw it, long-term understanding of how white-collar investments would factor into our gray-collarless levies required trigonometry and calculus, and getting a leg up on rival packs' business plans involved not just the ability to read, but also powers of composition, rhetoric, and oratory. He turned the concentrated education of his charges into a personal obsession.
Shep bestowed enhanced responsibility on restless students. The new boy who couldn't sit still during drama class, for instance, would be selected to play Viola in Twelfth Night. We went twelve hours each day with an hour break mid-afternoon sometimes forfeited for a working lunch of barreling through a tricky proof or rehearsing a particularly piquant scene. There was plenty of play early in the school day to bring energies to equilibrium. "Sink time!" Shep would shout, and let us let off steam. After a little rabble rousing—some rooftop tag or a side–alley game of capture the flag—we would get back to our army-surplus e-books. As the pack fluctuated between twenty and thirty rats, the student/teacher ratio remained comparable to that of blue-blood private schools. Reasonable class sizes facilitated across-the-board participation. Weekday nights, advanced students were required to help prepare lessons. We signed up for Net time on an old term Shep had dug out of the basement—"No games or porn!" Before lights out, there were compulsory study hours that Shep monitored like a bat.
I sat at the front of the class in that ancient candy factory and soaked up Shep's lectures, frequently squeegeeing confectionery dust from my glasses. My favorite subject was civics. Back in the early Two Thousands, city, state, and federal courts got clogged with decades of backed-up litigation. Now it was up for grabs whether anyone submitting a new case—even a healthy, non-smoking female in her teens—would see the docket in her lifetime. Cynicism reigned and justice became something Americans learned to live without. Taxes that were supposed to be earmarked for social services never found their way to the street.
Transportation departments and divisions of motor vehicles had been dissolved and roads crumbled in gross disrepair everywhere but the upscale suburbs. Since the highways had been privatized, mechanics retooled chassis and suspensions to withstand the most punishing conditions. The whole region had come to function like a pock-marked Autobahn. Entrepreneurial garages beefed up tow patrols. Politicians proudly invoked a great tradition of New England's categorical cartographic indifference by reminding their constituencies that driving is a privilege and if you didn't already know how to get someplace—from beguiling Berkshires traffic circles to the snarl around Harvard Square—you probably didn't belong.
It might take a PhD from MIT to follow Mass Ave. and Mount Auburn across Cambridge, but of the motorist minority that remained, people who could afford gas at a hundred dollars a gallon, few complained. A capacity to cope automotively was twisted into the brahmins' inbred DNA. Ever since the days when an elevated highway had bisected the heart of downtown, drivers had become accustomed to cutthroat merges at inner city onramps, anti-gravity escape velocities at exits, and four-hour commutes from within a ten-mile radius. Another thing about auto apartheid: It kept us undesirables in our place. If you flew into the Beast, it was only to wet your beak. The rich preyed on the poor with the same controls as ever—ghetto rentals, extortionate retail, usurious utilities—but now they had honed the getaway. Long distances over ramshackle roadways kept the one-percenters safe in their suburban communities. Pavement conditions, at first harrowing, smoothed the further you got from the city. You took the high road out of the Beast because you had somewhere better to be. For us, the people of the streets, roads were nothing but rubble.
Back in late Century 20, the old chief plunderers had given shape to the most ambitious and expensive public work project in the 222 years since their domestic-levy alternative to mother England's taxation without representation. They could have at least had a little fun with it—the Pike Gets a Dike, Scrubba-Dub-Hub, the Boss Colostomy—but the hucksters who ran this part of the world at the time, juvenile goof balls of European ancestry, were satisfied with the most insipid of images rendered in primitive and faintly phallocentric nursery rhyme: the Big Dig. It was pretty typical that, 15 billion dollars later at its not-so-grand opening in 2004, the Central Artery/Tunnel trafficked nothing but trouble: loose joints, egregious leaks, all-out cave-ins. Those imaginative Massholes again adapted, turning service roads and bypasses into main express routes. Between South and North Ends, for instance, they took the Ted Williams (the first tunnel constructed in the Dig debacle and one of the few pieces of the outlandish plan that remained intact) into East Beast, and the Sumner/Callahan back. To get over the Charles on the cable-stayed bridge, they tore across town on Mass Ave., that no-man’s alley where the down-and-out patronized dangerous diversions like Commonwealth Drag Track, Christian Science Jet Ski, and Symphony Hall Paintball. The underground expressway had been exposed for its real public work: a grotto of graft. In the end, the taxpayer had gotten the shaft, and the substructure was ultimately condemned.
Now, shoe-shiners and sewer workers spoke of the displaced people who had gone down into the abandoned tunnels and carved out a new counterculture, calling the labyrinth in the Beast's knothole home. Their chief contractor was a mysterious misfit known only as Levis. A Harvard dropout who combined the art of Joseph Beuys, the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner, and the Zapatista doctrine of Subcomandante Marcos, Levis had modeled the hive on his C+ project from a seminar on emergency architecture. He blocked off all the abandoned shafts that Mass Highway had constructed in the 1990s and turned the network into an alternative empire. Along with his wife Jocy and her brother Cray, Levis had formed a subterranean colony fomenting secession. Hundreds of bottom feeders, indignant over being deprived a fair shake of change on the surface, went down under to join the orphaned race. Through sewer grates and exhaust vents, the low thrum of revolution could be heard coming up from beneath the streets. The expatriates called the rogue nation Dig City.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Arellano lives and writes in Cranston, Rhode Island and teaches hypertext fiction and Latino studies at Brown University. Fast Eddie, King of the Bees is his first novel in print. His online novel (and the Internet's first interactive novel), Sunshine '69, was published by Sonicnet in 1996. When touring and recording with indie rocker Bonnie Prince Billy, Arellano plays only Gibson guitars.