Still, this is clearly Legend’s show. He’s attended by two faithful aides-de-camp: Science and a shy, gangly kid named Spider. A cheap cigar is hollowed out and filled with pot. I ask Legend about the Spartans. “There’s always been a caste system,” he says. “There’s always been the clerics, there’s always been the scholars, and there’s always been the warriors.” Legend talks in flowery, cryptic terms. “Just because you say the color gray doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” he says. “The same thing with the warriors. We’re the warriors of now.” The Spartans are run by the Triangle. “The Triangle is our leadership council,” Legend says. “Me, Spider, and Science are the Triangle.”
A few days later, I find Legend, Spider, and Science ducking out of the rain in what they call their Bat Cave, a small overhang adjacent to the Virgin Megastore across from Union Square. Legend grabs my arm. “C’mon, we’re going on a mission.” I trail the Triangle and Strawberry into the rain. The mission turns out to be just a quest for slightly better shelter, which we find on a 15th Street construction site across from the Park Bar. A joint is passed around, and the three men talk about how they met.
Legend says he grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, near the Gates housing projects. “They called it the ‘Death Gates’ because someone was getting murdered there every week,” he says. Legend’s father was a Navy SEAL. “When I was 3 or 4, he started tossing a heavy bag at me, and I had to dodge it. It was all soft, but it would knock me on my ass, so I had to learn how to move.” Legend claims his father taught him martial-arts moves and secret holds he’d learned in the Navy. As he got older, he says, his father would be gone for long stretches at a time. “You know, on secret missions or supervising projects.”
“The Spartans are the fighters,” says Science, “but Union Square is all of Sparta. It was like we had the idea in our heads, and the movie ‘300’ came out, and we were like, ‘Aha.’ ”
Legend is clever and could be inventing his myth as he goes along. Still, some of his story is demonstrably true. He says he joined the Crips at 12. “My whole neighborhood is Bloods, but I always do the opposite.” He shows me several scars on his arm, then places my hand on a small indentation on his forehead. “I went over to a friend’s house in Bed-Stuy one day to smoke weed and play video games,” he says. “I just opened the door, and two guys started beating me with a baseball bat with a nail on it. My friend just watched.” He says the attack was random.
Legend’s mother eventually gave up on raising him, he says. He was farmed out to group homes in the Bronx, where he attended Adlai E. Stevenson High School. “Nobody bothered me at Stevo, because I’d already grown into the face I have,” he says. Although Legend looks black, he insists he’s more than half Native American. “By the time I was 17, I realized I had the Native American stone face. It can be really intimidating.” He spent most of his high-school years cutting class and gang-banging, but talks dreamily about how much he loved learning about war and history, particularly warriors like Geronimo.
While he was working as a bouncer around town, he started visiting underground fight clubs, mostly in Chinatown. Legend says he would find himself in a basement surrounded by screaming drunks. Another fighter would enter the circle, and they would battle with no rules until one of them was unconscious. Legend says he’d leave the room with concussions, broken ribs, and maybe a couple of hundred dollars. “Those places, they only stop the fight if the crowd stops cheering or begins leaving,” he says. “They don’t really care if you live or die.”
Legend, who is 23 now, says he has an apartment in Sheepshead Bay, but he spends most of his time in Union Square and often sleeps there. He drinks some, but his self-medication of choice is pot. “Weed is what keeps me right,” he says. “The only time I get nervous and agitated is when I can’t get any weed.”
In fact, Legend has a volatile personality. At any given moment, he can toggle between wise and childlike, open and guarded, loving and menacing. Most of Legend’s friends are mostly girls, he says. “Guys are weird. I don’t get along with them. They seem threatened by me. I’ll be like, ‘Hey, I’m just chilling, doing my thing, you just do your thing.’ But they always seem to want to put out your light just because your light is stronger.”
While Legend is talking, Science is drawing medieval fighters in a sketchbook. He says he grew up on the Lower East Side and has twin sisters who just graduated from college. “My dad was just a sperm donor, I didn’t get along with my mom, and I was out of the house when I was 12,” he says.