Fernando Yunqué Marcano rides a subway train with a camera. He is trying to take pictures of the graffiti tags he sees scrawled on the dark tunnel walls. He got on the train in the Bronx and is currently riding between two train cars, standing on the metal platform that moves this way and that as the train thunders around corners. He is technically on his way to work at his stepfather’s barbershop downtown, but what he’s really interested in is seeing who has been in the tunnels during the night. He wants to know who might have come and spray-painted their initials or their nickname or their gang name.
Right from the start, Fernando’s story seems wildly tangential, and it is difficult to discern how it fits into the larger narrative. Still, though, he provides yet another alternative look at the city, this time focusing on New York’s actively thrumming underground life. Narratively, we are taken from the very crest of the city to its lowest point, a reminder of the vast spectrum of life moving through all levels of New York.
Fernando’s interest in graffiti stems from wanting to be included by the other Puerto Rican kids he goes to school with, the ones who do the actual spray-painting. When he tried to hang out with them, though, they told him to get lost, so he went and got his camera and came back. He told them that he could take pictures of their work and make them famous. They only laughed at him, and one of the younger kids slapped him across the face.
Anybody can be lonely and isolated, even somebody like Fernando who lives in a city surrounded by millions of people every day. Fernando’s eagerness to join people from similar backgrounds doesn’t garner any approval, despite his own kindness.
Fernando was discouraged by the fact that he was excluded, but then one morning on his way to work he stepped between two subway cars and saw a magnificent tag, though it flashed by only briefly and then it was gone. On his way home that evening to the government housing projects in the Bronx, he rode between the cars and saw the tag more clearly, and he was amazed that whoever had spray-painted it had come this far into the tunnel to make something so intricate and time-consuming.
In contrast to the tightrope walker’s display of beauty, which is lifted up high for all to see, Fernando appreciates the work that is put into making something that so few people will be able to admire. This goes to show that, much like the varied lives running through the city, there are also myriad forms of art, many different ways to express beauty.
If he were ever to do a tag of his own, Fernando figures he would do something extraordinary with his color choice, something that would shock anybody who saw it. It makes him think of an idea he once had to project his father’s face onto the walls of his house so that his mother would be forced to confront the face of the man she kicked out and replaced with Fernando’s stepfather, Irwin, who Fernando dislikes.
Artistic expression is upheld as a natural impulse in this novel, especially when that expression takes unexpected and underappreciated forms. Fernando is an example of someone with the same kind of aspiration and drive that leads the tightrope walker to stage his wild attempt.
Fernando once tried to get one of his photographs published in The New York Times. It was a picture of a graffiti artist spray-painting the Van Wyck overpass. When he went to the offices to deliver it, though, the security guard told him to leave it at the front desk. Fernando pleaded with him to let him stay until the photo editor came down into the lobby. The security guard consented, and when the editor emerged, Fernando gave him the photograph. Unfortunately, he never heard from the editor again. After that, he submitted it to a much smaller publication in the Bronx, but they declined it.
Unlike the tightrope walker and graffiti artists, who simply do whatever they want in order to express beauty, Fernando finds himself held back by artistic and editorial gatekeepers. This ultimately emphasizes—by way of contrast—what is most impressive about what the tightrope walker does: not only is his task physically daunting, but he also must break the law in order to execute it. Against all odds, he makes art on his own terms.
Still between subway cars, Fernando makes his way into downtown Manhattan, where there is generally not very much graffiti in the tunnels. But then he spies something new, an unfamiliar looking tag. It is red and silver and large. Excitement shoots through him. He wants to move to the back of the train so that he can keep looking, but suddenly they are in the station at Wall Street. He hears police radios, and sees officers rushing up the platform. He thinks they’ve seen him and that they’re going to ticket him for riding between the cars, but then he sees them rush through the turnstiles, off to attend some other disaster. Invigorated by the commotion and by the new tag, Fernando steps out of the train, deciding that he will not go straight to work. He moves in the direction of the police officers, clutching his camera as he goes.
The Wall Street subway station is near the World Trade Center, so it is reasonable to assume that the crowd of police officers is rushing out of the station in order to respond to calls about the tightrope walker. Although Fernando is initially held back by his obligation to go to work, he finally decides to follow his artistic impulse by tailing the cops, camera in hand. Just like the tightrope walker and the graffiti artists he so admires, he no longer needs permission to do his art.