"We were on food stamps and all that shit," Chris remembers. "My mom would be on the phone with him every week crying and telling him to send money. He just wouldn't do it."
His mother's situation was desperate. Chris' younger sister was only 6 months old when their dad left. His older brother had what would later be diagnosed as Asperger syndrome. "He was in fights every day," Chris remembers.
Chris saw his sibling suffering and vowed to fit in. For a while, the brothers delivered newspapers and scoured dumpsters for aluminum cans to help his mother, who had begun driving a cab. But Chris eventually began spending less time with his outcast brother and more time with older kids, most of whom were in gangs.
Chris fell in with a group called KAC, which originally stood for "Keith Angel's Children" after the gang's five-foot-tall and fully insane leader, but other times it meant "Kill All Cops" or "Killing and Chilling." Whatever its name, the gang provided a teenage Chris with protection and camaraderie.
"You were either down with a crew, or you were just nobody. You were a chump," he says.
Most kids were jumped into the gang. As a baby-faced 13-year-old, Chris somehow escaped the brutal initiation. But he was first in line to go bombing -- hanging by his hands from highway overpasses just to spray "KAC" and his own tag, "RM," on the concrete canvas. Long before he'd ever take the stage, his name was already up all over New York City.
"The girls see your name everywhere," Chris says. "It was just about getting pussy." Chris was tall, handsome, and charming, recalls childhood friend Jason Drucker. He met Chris at a junior high school dance. "You remember that dance move Kid 'n Play used to do where they'd hold their left foot with their right hand and jump over their own leg?" Drucker says. "He was the only white dude in his group of friends, and that's what he was doing."
Besides dancing and tagging, there was one other way to make a name for yourself in a tough neighborhood: bloodshed. Occasionally, one gang would catch another buffing its tags and a graffiti battle would turn into the real thing.
Worst of all was the random violence. You'd turn a corner and find kids sporting freshly sharpened machetes, Chris claims. As a precaution, he wore a baggy Starter jacket bulging with a small arsenal: pepper spray, a BB gun, a knife, and -- his personal favorite -- a pipe that unscrewed into nunchucks.
But on the afternoon of September 17, 1992, Chris was unarmed when he walked out of George J. Ryan Middle School and headed to the corner store. When he returned, a half-dozen kids he had never seen before were waiting for him.
Chris tried to run, but they caught him. He punched one kid, but several others knocked him to the ground. He had been here before -- on the wrong end of an ass-kicking -- and he waited for the wet thuds of fists to his face to end. Instead, he saw the flash of a machete, felt it thwack deep into his side. Then everything went numb.
Chris lay on the sidewalk in front of his school and watched his own blood slowly seep past him. He thought how strange it was to die this way, 15 years old, with his side carved open like a Christmas turkey and all of his friends standing over him.
(New Times wasn't able to obtain any New York police reports about the attack, but Topher's story is corroborated by Drucker and the huge scars Topher still bears.)
In the ER, doctors sewed his side back together with 130 stitches. But as they cut his blood-soaked clothes off, they noticed something else: a small hole in his back that was barely bleeding.
One of the kids had stabbed Chris with a knife or a screwdriver, severing his spinal cord. Doctors told the 15-year-old he would never walk again.
His mother took it worst. She sat beside him in the hospital for six months and then watched her son slip right back into the street life.
But things were different now. Chris couldn't tag overpasses or sling nunchucks. What he could do, however, was sell pot. An older gang member gave him some to start off. His family was broke, yeah, but this was about finding a place to belong.
"I wanted to have a reason to be at these parties with my friends," he says. "I'm in a wheelchair. I'm not dancing. What do I have to do? So I start selling."
When it came to dealing, the wheelchair was actually an advantage, Drucker says. Cops were loath to strip-search his handicapped friend, and Chris was instantly recognizable to clients. But he was also an easy target for nightclub bouncers and neighborhood muggers. And his family couldn't ignore his new hobby forever. Chris was only 15 but had grown men coming up to his room day and night "to borrow cassette tapes," he says.
His mother had enough after he was nearly expelled. She decided the family would move back to her hometown in rural Maryland. At the last moment, however, Chris decided he wasn't going. He promised his mother he'd quit selling pot. In fact, he already had a plan.
For years he had watched friends skip school and pile into cars headed into Manhattan. He heard how they made serious money selling stocks on Wall Street. Chris figured he already knew more about sales than anyone -- he just needed to switch merchandise.
He bought a beat-up Pontiac LeMans hatchback for $100. It was painted with primer, and the windshield read HELP in block letters. Inside, every square inch was covered in graffiti.
Chris drove the jalopy to Wall Street and began selling stocks when he was 17. It wasn't much different from slinging dope, except now his clients were all over the world. He'd stay until 2 a.m. to trade with clients in the Middle East. "His favorite thing to do was to be the last person there," remembers Drucker, who worked alongside his friend on Wall Street. "He said it was the most satisfying feeling: that he outworked everyone else."
Six months passed before his dad realized Chris was working across the street from him. By then, Chris was making six figures. He had a new Mercedes. He had survived a horrific assault. And he had escaped the streets.
But something was still missing.
In an industry where first impressions are everything, Chris Topher can't help but make an entrance. Tonight, he is hoisted -- beer in hand -- onto the stage of the Funky Buddha in Boca Raton. Aromas of hops and hookah smoke swirl around the small brewery on North Federal Highway. A few dozen college students clinging to the back wall pull tobacco vapor into their lungs only to cough it back out in alcohol-fueled fits of laughter.
"Some people think I'm creepy because I've been dating this 19-year-old alcoholic girl," Topher says midway through his set. "But it's cool. That's how we met. The first day I met this girl, we agreed that I'd be her sponsor.
"So anytime she gets the urge," he says, pausing, "I pay for her drinks."
Laughter ripples the room. "I feel like she's using me, though," Topher continues, "for the parking."