Though I deplore most forms of degradation of the commons, I actually see graffiti as a positive good. There’s a time and a place, of course, and most of it is fairly insipid, but once in a while, one comes across a bit of public scrawl worth mulling.
On a drive along the Kancamangus Highway in the White Mountains last summer, we stopped at an overlook and I perused the carvings and writings on the benches there while we snacked. Here’s a favorite:
These are the messages that stay with me, much like Clamydra with that unfortunate bench fornicator. More anonymous than even the anonymous internet, this person with a Sharpie is untraceable; there is no way to know when he or she came through this pass in the mountains, and whether this despair was genuine or not.
A couple weeks ago, the boys and I climbed up the Federal Hill fire tower here in New Hampshire with a small band of 4H club members. On the top platform, there were years worth of painted over carvings into the wood planks, some deep gouged enough to threaten their structural integrity. But on the metal rail, there was this blue writing with a flat lack of punctuation.
At first, it seemed like a plea to a feckless would-be suicide contemplating flinging himself off a tower that is high enough to kill, but not certain to. Then, as I looked around, at all the carved hearts and initials, profanities out of all context, homophobic slurs and poorly done drawings of penises and magic mushrooms, I saw the tower for what it is at night–the province of teenagers. Just far enough off the road not to interest adults, but with buildings and ladders that bring adolescents circling around them like moths, I began to picture instead a quiet kid, there as part of a herd of them, or only a trio, or maybe only a pair, feeling the whole weight of those social compacts coming down on her. Paralyzed by fear of ostracism, or embarrassment, she might manage to utter no words of refusal, but could scrawl them.
The next time the forest guys repaint the tower, the words will be wiped out, and that will be a loss. For far better than advice about STDs, this is a bit of advice that might serve many an adolescent gripping that rail, her back to the goings on, or the already happened, and her eyes out to the hills.