From the pages of
In 2008, the local news reported that Bambi Madden had been buying beer when she disappeared. An annual candlelight vigil began in front of the gas station Bambi never arrived at. Strange graffiti appeared across the front of the church facing the home of Bambi’s sister. The short message claimed Bambi died in police custody. Below the message was a phone number for Calvin Harris, an Owego automotive hustler who’s wife disappeared equally mysteriously on a certain day in September of 2011.
I’d been following a Binghamton graffiti artist I named “the Preacher.” He ran a circuit of the Triple Cities gluing crude religious slogans on walls and signs, declaring, “You steal rainbows from children when you sell drugs!” Talk of thugs, drugs, and bug spray arranged in bad rhyme and misspelled to the point of nearly unreadable. Some dabbled in a garbled pidgin Spanglish. It would have been the work of a harmless nut but for the latent racism in the lined paper torn from notebooks and traced numerous times in shades of highlighter.
Most assumed this was the work of an old man that hung around the Oakdale Mall. Bible verses were written on his hats and jackets in neon glow-paint. I didn’t believe it. That little old man used his jackets, hats, sweatshirts, and pants to silently evangelize rebellious teenagers. He was there the first day I could drive to the mall on my own with my windows down so Slayer could answer his challenge for me. The Preacher operated in the dark. Fog would still be on city streets when I bicycled through to find the glue still wet. The little old man at the Mall was so frail he needed help to use his walker. There was no way he and the plump woman in similarly decorated sweat suits were sneaking through abandoned and debris-strewn industrial zones in the middle of the night affixing posters to dumpsters.
I bicycled along the bus routes at dawn, camera bag flapping behind me. I’d stop at mailboxes, electrical poles, and store windows to snap a photo and move on. In winter I walked, but the Preacher covered a huge amount of territory, and he was prolific. After seeing the Bambi Madden graffiti in the newspaper, I swung through the North Side one morning to capture a message I’d seen from my car the day before.
The ice factory on Front Street has legends of its own. It’s the last bastion before civilization gives over to highway and the wilderness beneath it. The ice factory sits like a fortress atop the floodwall on the north bank of the Chenango River, it’s walls riddled by cannon fire when the city was sacked in 1987. Rumors of bodies in basements persist, but cannot be confirmed. The ice factory sits at the bottom of the Front Street exit, and became a billboard for the artist I named the Vampire, for the cartoon face that accompanied his messages. It had tiny eyes, a bristly scribbled moustache, and big bloody teeth.
I recognized the handwriting when I saw the messages on the news. It was nearly identical to an artist called Swayze. He was a punk kid that favored political rants. His most prominent piece was “This guy died for money,” scrawled across the back of the Skirmisher at Confluence Park. I believed him also to be “Geraldo Rivera,” a series of tags I’d first discovered on a boarded window at the corner of Liberty and Robinson, near the highway exit.
I knew Liberty St. from my pizza delivery days. The tenements on Liberty and Munsel have boarded windows and families huddle on carpets and mattresses around a single lamp jacked from the city power grid. Some have not seen the light of day in generations. Liberty was not a street to be walked lightly.
Geraldo Rivera moved downtown in black spray-painted scrawls, and like the Madden messages, was always followed by an 800 number. In the Boscov’s parking garage I’d discovered a list of numbers and a conspiracy message. The handwriting was a match to Swayze, who was a writer that went off the deep end with drugs. We were once friends, but I sport a broken tooth from a night he pulled a knife on a Rocky’s manager, who then alone chased Swayze and his friends down Court Street. I assumed Geraldo Rivera was the next step in Swayze’s paranoia, and it would not have been a surprise if he’d gone on to write these cryptic messages that implicated Police Chief Zikuski not only Madden’s murder, but perpetrating a grand cover up only Ronald Benjamin could unravel.
The Vampire loved the attention he received in print and on television, and his pleas for investigation appeared up and down Front Street from the ice factory to Main Street, and Downtown, picking spots that were high traffic in daylight but deserted at night. Some were in black spray paint, others in black Sharpie, no different than Swayze. Most were eradicated quickly, but would linger for months at the ice factory before the absentee landlords hired someone to paint over the messages in varying shades of gray and blue like Post-Modern art. Exactly like Geraldo Rivera a phone number followed all the Vampire messages, and the handwriting was the same for all three. However, when the Bambi Madden messages started, Swayze had been dead for more than two years.